Thomas Hardy & American Poetry

By Yezzi, David | New Criterion, December 1999 | Go to article overview
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Thomas Hardy & American Poetry

Yezzi, David, New Criterion

Heir both to Hardy and--no less--to Pound, At which address now are you to be found?

--Dick Davis, on Donald Davie

He does not think that I haunt here nightly: How shall I let him know

That whither his fancy sets him wandering I, too, alertly go?--

--Thomas Hardy, "The Haunter"

A few months after Thomas Hardy's death in 1928, and only weeks before his own, Sir Edmund Gosse recorded on two gramophone discs a memorial for his nearly lifelong friend. While Hardy lived, Gosse declared, "if an Englishman of culture was asked: `Who is the present head of your literature?," instinctively, without fear of discussion he would be answered: `Why, of course, Thomas Hardy?" Gosse pronounced the top spot vacant, with no clear successor, though he knew enough of fame to add that any void Hardy left would be quickly filled.

Hardy's final collection of lyrics, Winter Words in Various Moods and Metres, appearing posthumously that year, delayed the decline of his poetic portfolio, but not for long. Certainly, enough "discussion" of his importance had arisen by the early 1970S to prompt the English poet and critic Donald Davie's compensatory claim that "in British poetry of the last fifty years (as not in American) the most far-reaching influence, for good and ill, has not been Yeats, still less Eliot or Pound, not Lawrence, but Hardy." Davie's assertion must have raised some eyebrows, particularly with those who saw (as many still see) Hardy as primarily a novelist. Even Davie himself, whose fealty was finally to Pound as much as to Hardy, qualified his statement with that deflationary "for good and ill." In the end, Davie's taste for modernist experimentalism led him to fault Hardy for the excessive modesty and "diminished expectations" of twentieth-century British poetry, what A. Alvarez in his introduction to The New Poetry (1962) denounced as "the gentility principle."

Davie's other telling qualifier, "As not in American [poetry]," suggests that, while the influence of Hardy was, like a river gas, permeating if not wholly salubrious in modern British poetry, it dissipated on its way across the Atlantic. But this fails to take in the entire scene, as Davie, who lived for years in the U.S., was in a position to know. What about Frost and Edwin Arlington Robinson, not to mention John Crowe Ransom, whose edition of Hardy's poems was a bellwether of increasing American interest? Don't they bear Hardy's imprint as fully as Larkin and Auden? Even Davie's beloved Pound lavishly praised Hardy on several occasions, acknowledging his debt in Guide to Kulchur (1938): "when we, if we live long enough, come to estimate the `poetry of the period' against Hardy's 600 pages we will put what? ... No thoughtful writer can read this book of Hardy's without throwing his own work (in imagination) into the test-tube and hunting it for fustian, for the foolish word, the word upholstered." This unlikely comment astonishes even more when one considers that the period Pound refers to extended well into the postwar years of high modernism. In 1934, Pound wrote in a letter from Italy that "nobody has taught me anything about writing since Thomas Hardy died."

Davie's assertion of Hardy's influence in England served as the opening gambit of his landmark Thomas Hardy and British Poetry (1972), recently reissued, with supplemental essays on Hardy and others.(1) Davie wrote the book in California during his ten-year stint at Stanford University, and his take on U.S. poetry tended to emphasize its break with British practice: "American poetry came to splendid maturity in the present century when American poets, if they needed to look outside America for guidance, at least looked elsewhere than to London" e.g., to the symbolism and surrealism of Paris or to Freud's Vienna.

On the whole Davie's is a slippery book, and a number of the best essays in the new volume--"Hardy's Virgilian Purples" (1972) and "Hardy and the Avant-Garde" (1961)--were not part of the original edition.

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