Thomas Hardy’s father was a stonemason, though he himself had a early career as an architect; he had no university education. He started to write fiction and made a breakthrough with A Pair of Blue Eyes in 1872; he continued to write novels until the reception of Jude the Obscure in 1895 made him decide to concentrate on poetry. He spent much of his later life at his house of Max Gate, designed by himself, near Dorchester, the Dorset town he fictionalised as Casterbridge.
Despite his early success with novels, it seems Hardy always valued poetry and wrote it all his adult life, even though his first volume (Wessex Poems) was not published until he was fifty-eight. He was extremely prolific; the last poem of the edition I have finishes on page eight hundred and sixty four, and the poems are printed continuously, not one per page.
The imaginative world of the poetry is strongly linked to the Wessex scenery made famous from the novels, but the nature of poetry extends it in all directions, inwards and outwards. One of the most fascinating things about it is the continuity of it all: it seems impossible to insert even a sheet of writing paper between the Hardy that surveys the landscape of south west England and the Hardy that looks back on his own life and out at the modern world. Partly this is down to the language. At a time when Europe is boiling with literary movements of all kind, Hardy seems, in the matter of style, to be completely unmoved. It’s therefore easy to read a poem at random and dismiss it as old-fashioned, or, even for those of us who don’t use a calendar to decide whether a poet is doing the Right Thing, to think Hardy is a bit out in a world of his own that we can’t get at. Hardy is out in a world of his own, but that is true of all great poets. There is a huge resonance between language, setting, character, mood, that a single poem on its own can’t illustrate—it sometimes feels as if a lot of the poems are hidden episodes in an unwritten novel, concentrating on the parts no other novelist would have the insight to see as part of the narrative.
The following selection are just a few of the most well-known. together with some that happen to have struck me for one reason or another.