Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

Thomas Hardy

Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

Thomas Hardy

Article excerpt

Once again, many people have written about Hardy's poems, which is certainly something to celebrate, even if it does make compiling this article a little more difficult. The themes of mourning and loss are particularly prominent this time around, and many of the pieces consider ghosts that speak and those that listen. As a result of these interests, the "Poems of 1912-13" feature quite heavily, with "Your Last Drive" a central poem in many of the responses. That said, there are some fascinating readings of a few of the more unusual poems, and other topics include animals, building on the work of Anna West and Seamus Perry from last year, and melodious explorations of music and metre.

Galia Benziman's Thomas Hardy's Elegiac Prose and Poetry: Codes of Bereavement (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018) explores how Hardy's poetry breaks from traditional conventions of mourning, arguing that "Hardy's complex stagings of remembrance are highly ambivalent. Keenly aware of the inconsistencies and paradoxes of mourning and the inherent contradictions in its poetic expression, Hardy revises traditional elegy" (pp. 1-2). That Hardy was concerned with death, bereavement, and memory will come as no surprise to anyone even passingly acquainted with his work, but it is through an interrogation of the inconsistency and unreliability of the latter that Benziman establishes Hardy's contribution to a modern form of elegy.

The nineteenth century has often been described as the "era of mourning" (p. 7), and the social practices are considered briefly in the introduction, but Benziman argues that there were changes afoot throughout the Victorian age. The growth of scientific thinking and the subsequent loss of faith are instrumental in those changes. Mill and Freud underpin much of the critical reading, as Benziman suggests that the Victorian need for such deep mourning is displaced by utilitarianism and psychoanalysis, making the practice redundant, pathological, and, therefore, unproductive. By the modern era, mourning becomes "personal and familial" rather than "national or social" (p. 10).

The book reads elegy as a mode rather than a form, and this allows for a chapter that considers Hardy's fiction. With regard to his poetry, the "Poems of 1912-13" are deliberately elided to allow for a wider and more original selection that moves away from a biographical reading and considers the importance of language. Drawing on Derrida, Benziman states, "The textual object of loss is subject to the control of language, which can rewrite, remember, dismember and obliterate the dead as part of the very effort to commemorate them" (p. 31).

Throughout the chapters, Hardy's work is read in the context of other elegists including Milton, Shelley, and Wordsworth, and there are many examples representing the breadth of his considerable output. As so often with Hardy, he is read here as a transitional figure, standing between the Victorian and modern conceptualization of mourning. "His contribution to twentieth-century elegy," argues Benziman, "can especially be seen in the ambiguity regarding the personal and poetic commitment towards grief and memory" (p. 22). It is perhaps in the use of the typically Hardyan qualities of "down-to-earth sentiment and irony" that the poet's contribution is particularly marked (p. 24).

Speaking with the dead and, indeed, listening to the dead speak are also central concerns in Elizabeth Helsinger's "Conversing in Verse" (ELH 84, no. 4 [2017]: 979-1003), as she explores what she refers to as "ballad talk," or conversation when used in traditional or modern popular song and verse, in both Hardy's and Christina Rossetti's poetry. "Conversation," Helsinger argues, "has an intimate verbal connection with verse," with both words deriving from the Latin versare, "to turn." The con combines with versare to produce a word that makes "patterns of turn-taking for two or more participants" (p. …

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