Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

Thomas Hardy

Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

Thomas Hardy

Article excerpt

Despite its initial success in the first few decades of the twentieth-century "the greatest of English historical epics" (Nation 26 [1920}: 668-669) went into a decline as the century advanced, despite claims by eminent philosophers and critics that the work is a Miltonic world-drama much superior to any of the productions of Tennyson or Swinburne (See Frederick Harrison, Fortnightly Review 107 [1920]: 180-184) or, as Arnold Bennett argued, in like vein, vastly superior to Tolstoy's War and Peace (Deutsche Kunstwart 41 [1928]: 62-63).

The new millennium revival of interest in The Dynasts, to which Herbert Tucker contributed a significant surge of scholarly energy with his matchless Epic: Britain's Heroic Muse, 1790-1910 (2008), parallels, in true (coincident) Hardyan fashion, the chronological pattern of interest in the first two decades of the twentieth century, when John Macy and the Van Dorens expressed admiration and the epic was set to music for the Prince of Wales' visit to Dorchester in 1923. A decline quickly followed as John Bailey, Lascelles Abercrombie, and even Rene Lalou, who was somewhat less hostile, found Hardy's epic character unheroic in the face of a capricious and impersonal Will, and his verse, according to Lalou, "bland and monotonous." Soon The Dynasts was no longer widely feted. As the New Statesman (1928) disclaimed, "The Dynasts may not last, but Tess of the d'Urbervilles will remain."

The 1960s saw a brief revival primarily stirred by Harold Orel's seminal work, Thomas Hardy's Epic-Drama: A Study of The Dynasts (1963), his "Hardy and the Epic Tradition" (ELT: 1966); and more recently his much-lauded essay, "The Dynasts: Hardy's Contribution to the Epic Tradition" (The Ashgate Research Companion to Thomas Hardy: 2010). Then there was Marguerite Roberts' Hardy's Poetic Drama and the Theatre (1965) which addresses the early theatrical productions of the poem, complemented by Jean R. Brooks' emphasis upon the Brechtian aspects of epic-drama (Thomas Hardy: The Poetic Structure: 1971). Later, as the millennium years approach Dennis Taylor's erudite Hardy's Metres and Victorian Prosody (1988), heralded a long-overdue resurgence. In Tucker's view, Taylor remains "our best guide to Hardy's epic metric, as to his prosody at large" (593).

The way the natural rhythms of language take shape, become fixed, and ossify into a ghostly music of the past.., an archaic crystallization of prose. The poem seems to recapitulate the historical process by which the fresh speech rhythms of the people become the metrical rhythms of the poet.., formalizing the obsolescence latent in speech. (Taylor, p. 114)

For some critics who regard The Dynasts as characteristic of literary Modernism "overdue" may simply mean that, like his Jude, Hardy's epic-drama was born before its time. For many others The Dynasts provides insight not only into his novels and poetry but also into his world-view and philosophy. Several critics, in advance of the many film adaptations and transcriptions of Hardy's novels, have long since detected cinematic qualities in The Dynasts 0ohn Wain, 1965; Chester A. Garrison, 1973; Joan Grundy, 1979), and, rather more idiosyncratically, and on a different tack, G. Glen Wickens' Thomas Hardy, Monism, and the Carnival Tradition: The One and the Many (2002) argues, somewhat hide-bound by Bakhtin, that The Dynasts represents a new kind of novel rather than an epic-poem. For the majority, the millennium world of vast, international, mechanized warfare, with its dread fear of weapons of mass destruction, reactivates the relevance of Hardy's weltanschauung in this magnificent work, his magnum opus.

Perhaps the increasing interest in The Dynasts is best illustrated by its current life online where, for example, in A Poem a Day lines were recently selected from The Dynasts, citing the verse beginning, "Yea, the coneys are scared by the thud of hoofs" (http://wonderingminstrels. …

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