Hardy's Vocabulary

By Rowse, A. L. | Contemporary Review, August 1994 | Go to article overview

Hardy's Vocabulary


Rowse, A. L., Contemporary Review


I have always loved Hardy, but not uncritically. He opens himself to criticism, positively invites it. Critics recognise the extraordinary alternations in his prose -- sublime passages of description followed by a paragraph of jargon, clumsy rhetoric or novelistic cliche. Did he never notice, or had he no critical sense? Was there no-one to tell him? (Certainly not Emma!) The case is more curious, but it can be summed up simply: he had genius, but no taste.

Anyone familiar with Hardy's life and surroundings can see it. The house he built for himself, Max Gate outside Dorchester, is hideous, a lower middle class villa; so too the interior furnishings, the garden, the trees he planted -- firs! In the Cornish church of St. Juliot, which he spoiled in restoring it (and afterwards repented), he put up a memorial tablet to Emma in ghastly white Carrara marble, with black-lead lettering! Such a contrast to John Betjeman's oval plaque to his father at St. Enodoc in beautiful grey Cornish slate with italic script.

Hardy's poetry takes us into the heart of the man. He thought of himself as a poet first and last, began and ended with poetry, and actually disconsidered his novels -- as he wrote to Quiller Couch. He wrote a vast amount of verse -- far too much of it, as professional poets do, or did. A proper critical selection would leave perhaps one-third as enough. Many poems could go, with advantage, and many are repetitive, uninspired and automatic, far too often ending in churchyard and grave.

All the same he is a strong poet, inspired at his best, with an idiosyncrasy and idiom of his own, of a most unusual character. Unlike the Victorians, unlike his contemporaries or most poets in our tradition, he was self-educated. He did not go to public school or university; he did not go through the classical treadmill. He learned Greek and Latin, but it was not the conventional grind; he knew the Greek tragedians, but he knew the Bible better, and in the Vulgate; he knew the early Christian Fathers. Oddly enough, he knew the Prayer Book by heart and the hymns of the church as he knew the traditional folksongs, catches, tunes and dances of the countryside.

On this basis the countryman reached up to attain something of metropolitan culture -- not altogether successfully. He had a sense of inferiority about it, as he once admitted to Desmond McCarthy, who consoled him with, `clever men are as common as blackberries, it is genius that is rare'. And Leavis, who had neither, was right that taste (which Bloomsbury had) was a secondary matter compared with genius.

A man's vocabulary is very revealing of him, and Hardy's takes us straight into the heart of the subject. It is strange and curious -- as he was. I often play a game -- instead of crossword puzzles, to which Eliot was addicted -- of replacing words in Hardy's poems, easily bettering them. Nothing immodest in doing so, for any average critic can see where the poems can be bettered. Often Hardy will spoil a poem by adding a stanza at the end, a general reflection which the poem is better without, an anti-climax ruining the effect. Hardy seems not to have noticed, or perhaps even known.

His odd vocabulary, his verbal usage, raises several questions. In one poem the stars wag; in another, fingers at an organ once wagged there. What a word to use! Why couldn't the stars gleam, or shine? If he wanted to suggest movement, he could say that they move; while the fingers at the organ moved or even played. Other musical instruments, viols or violins, are described as `of glossy, gluey make' -- polished would be better, and fit the line -- same scansion, one has to reckon with that. Of bells, `their sweetness swelled in tripping tings of glee.' `Tings' will not do -- it spoils the line, where `tongues', very close, would save it.

Often with his odd words Hardy is trying to express the thing precisely, say exactly what he heard or saw. …

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