“Let each man exercise the art he knows.”
— Aristophanes, Wasps
My second semester of graduate school has come and gone. It was a good one. Lively, even. One class was “Writers and Their Milieu: Thomas Hardy”. Here are the books we had to read in order from early Hardy to later Hardy. (All editions are Penguin Classics.)
|Selected Poems||Under The Greenwood Tree|
|The Return of the Native||The Woodlanders|
|Tess of The D’Urbervilles||Jude The Obscure|
If you have to read Hardy for a class, make sure you get the teacher-recommended edition because Hardy made a lot of revisions to his novels between printings.
|Far From The Madding Crowd|
My favorite thing out of the whole course was Hardy’s poetry. He makes it look so easy, but you just know that means he was extra careful about every word. It looks so, I want to say “comfortable”, in the sense that it seems to be what he preferred writing. The poems are witty, snide, sarcastic. Their construction is so distinctive and even musical. The themes were many of the same that you might find in the novels. People with bad luck and and even worse relationships. If you have to do Hardy, start with the poems. They, at least, are genuinely enjoyable.
Novels were not his favorite thing. He felt pressured personally and professionally to write them because they are easier to market, among other reasons. Also, he wanted to prove to himself that he could master the art. Even his weakest novel (according to many in the critic biz) Under The Greenwood Tree is quite palatable. We didn’t do Mayor of Casterbridge. That would have been too obvious. Instead, we went with Woodlanders, which I liked a lot. I liked it better than Tess and Jude. I don’t need to be mowed down by the four horsemen of the literary apocalypse – death, depression, despair, and destitution to figure out what life is all about, that Divine Providence masquerades as bad luck, and self-determination only works if no one gets in your way. I can figure that out by reading way, WAY more entertaining writers like Juvenal or Aristophanes or S. J. Perelman. But, it was the done thing, and he did it well.
I really loved the way Hardy described the scenery. He didn’t just describe how things looked, but what the land meant to the people who have to live there. How light and seasons affect the mood of the place. If you’re ever looking for pictures painted with words, this is it! His descriptions, more common in the early novels than in the later ones, are like looking at paintings of the English or German Romantic School – specifically, the Pre-Raphaelites or Caspar David Friedrich. I’m sure there were critics out there who liked that sort of thing, but all you read about in the Forewords and Introductions is the bitching and moaning about scandals and how Hardy hated writing novels and how misogynistic he is towards women in his novels. So typically academic. There’s very little of praise about his considerable writing artistry. It’s usually an afterthought after the academicians get through tearing him a new one for victimizing women and being so depressing.
If you like English literature or writers who are not afraid to show the uncomfortable truths of their time, and have a healthy attention span, Hardy is really good. Don’t let the four horsemen of the literary apocalypse trample your appreciation of Hardy’s writing.