Thomas Hardy's Poetics of Touch

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Thomas Hardy was a man who hated to be touched. Life records this fact through an observation of a childhood playmate, and continues: "This peculiarity never left him, and to the end of his life he disliked even the most friendly hand being laid on his arm or his shoulder." (1) To offer a poetics of touch through which to read Hardy's work, then, may seem contrary. Yet, it may be that his dislike of actual physical contact in some sense prompted the form of phenomenological encounter that can be found in his poetry. To read his poetry in this way is to read against the grain, but to do so in a way which this deceptively simple poetry encourages.

In a recent issue of The Review of English Studies, Tim Dolin wrote that "although a constitutionally backward-looking man, Hardy's mood was so intensely introspective in 1915 that the idea of publishing his own memoirs must have seemed a trivial distraction." (2) Hardy is still defined through these concepts of introspection and retrospection, and it has become a critical truism that "so often with Hardy, solipsism is not far away." (3) It is not surprising then that he is considered a quintessentially "modern" lyric poet, in spite of (and maybe because of) his "backward-looking" stance. His solitary voice seems to signal a skepticism that is more palatable to many twenty-first century critics than the colorful and effusive excesses of some of his later-nineteenth-century contemporaries. Yet it is the undeniably outward-reaching erotics of his verse (as well as his positive engagement, poetically, with modernity) that preoccupies me in this essay. To read Hardy's work in this way is not to deny the nostalgia or the interiority of his writing, but to argue that these qualities are energized by an internal tension with their opposites. Reading Hardy phenomenologically, I suggest, will enable a re-characterization of the poetry, seeing it as part of a broader trajectory of responses to the threat of solipsism inherent within modernity.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, the characteristic Victorian debate about "things" was moving instead towards an internal landscape of sensory "impressions of things." Walter Pater's meditation on subjectivity in The Renaissance demonstrated that bodily sensations had become the primary aesthetic mode of experience, and it is through this skepticism that external "things" threaten to disappear. One obvious way to talk about this cultural and philosophical shift, as it is manifested in poetry, is through the concept of Impressionism. But although this term developed a specifically literary as well as artistic meaning, it still privileges a visual response to the world in a way that leaves out other, essentially poetic, responses to the problems of modern skepticism. Moreover, Impressionism and a Paterian aesthetics suggest a separation of the mind from the things it perceives; in both cases the mind has to decode or translate signals it receives to engage with the world:

   Experience, already reduced to a group of impressions, is ringed
   round for each one of us by that thick wall of personality through
   which no real voice has every pierced on its way to us, or from us
   to that which we can only conjecture to be without. Every one of
   those impressions is the impression of the individual in his
   isolation, each mind keeping as a solitary prisoner its own dream
   of a world. (4)

Yet this does not necessarily wholly reflect the lived experience of those wishing to make sense of the new skepticism. This essay will suggest that lyric poetry engages profoundly with the worries about our access to the material world that characterized fin-de-siecle aesthetics, but found other, more specifically poetic, strategies able to represent a more immediate felt connection with the world. What I explore here is a poetry that enacts what it is like to experience the world physically and immediately, rather than to decode it intellectually through the windows of the eyes. …