Kevin Saving on
Thomas Hardy - Selected Poems
Selected and Edited by Tim Armstrong
This annotated selection from Hardy's poetry (183 of his gnarled lyrics, out of a possible near-thousand) represents a compelling feat of scholarship from its editor - a professor of Modern English and American Literature at the University of London. Whereas there have been a host of previous editions and 'selections' (the 1994 Works published by Wordsworth still the most comprehensive and accessible for my money), prof. Armstrong's affords the closest, most intimate scrutiny
yet into each separate poem. Accompanying the text - reproduced in full - a series of notes takes us through its publishing history, allusions, manuscript amendments, variants, rhyme-scheme and possible source(s) of 'inspiration'. If all of this sounds like a tortuous form of academic 'over-kill', my own view would be that we have now, probably, reached a stage with Hardy where so much of his oeuvre has been anthologised - entered a kind of collective, literary consciousness -
that any gentle enquiry into its 'provenance' is entirely to be welcomed.
If we examine one celebrated example, 'Drummer Hodge', many people might already be aware that the poem was occasioned by the Boer War. Few, however, would recognise that 'Hodge' (the word doesn't occur in Partridge's Dictionary of Historical Slang) was a nick-name for an agricultural worker - a detail of which Hardy would undoubtedly have known, as he had previously attacked the use of such disparaging terms in an (1883) essay, The Dorsetshire Labourer. Others might be startled by the knowledge that the poet had likely been 'stimulated' by an earlier verse published in the Daily Chronicle
(by one Herbert Cadett). Hardy had preserved a cutting of Cadett's opus in which a 'private Smith of the Royals' is left to die of a 'Mauser bullet' in the lung, and with 'a prayer-half-curse [...] pink froth and a half-choked cry'.
Another well-known (though 'lesser') Hardy poem, 'The Convergence of the Twain', was written, we learn, nine days after the Titanic's encounter with an iceberg. Many of its readers might previously have been able to adduce an 'approximate' date to it (mid-April, 1912). But is it 'of interest' to discover that the poem's first public outing was one month later: printed in the souvenir programme of the Dramatic and Operatic Matinee (held at Covent Garden in aid of the Titanic Disaster Fund)? Or to be informed that Hardy had personally known a number of the casualties from the ship's passenger-list? I believe it is.
Armstrong's selections are reproduced here in the chronological order of their publication - not necessarily that of composition. There is an introduction to each of Hardy's eight main collections, commencing with Wessex Poems and other verses (1898, when the author was 58), through to his last, posthumous outing, Winter Words in various moods and metres (1928). Included also are (brief) selections from Hardy's two 'disguised' autobiographies (which can now be quite difficult for the general reader to obtain).
Prof. Armstrong's Introduction to his annotated Hardy draws on his own wide reading in order to discuss matters such as his subject's attitudes towards 'Art', religion, 'Free Will', posterity and 'Prosody' (although whenever an academic holds forth upon the latter I have, invariably, to suppress a shudder). If Armstrong's prose style is guilty, on occasion, of 'clunkiness', well - so was Hardy's. This is a 'learned' book (in the truest and best sense of the word). It unfailingly enhances our understanding of a major poet, probably the last English writer of whom the adjective 'Great' can be used without embarrassment.
Kevin Saving © 2009