The central lesson of Auerbach’s Mimesis is that each renovation of “realism,” or the representation of what is “real,” is underwritten by a shift in historicity—by a renovation of how life is conceptualized, imagined, and felt as a historical phenomenon. Auerbach suggests that the crucial conditions for the judgments of style and form in a great work of literature are the understanding historical possibility and experience, as it extends beyond and encompasses a single life. His central achievement lies in articulating the relationship between judgments of form and style and their attendant historical consciousness.
Thomas Hardy is a worthwhile case-study for this idea, since an initial enthusiasm for his work, associated with Larkin and British poets of the 1950s, was in part owing to his seeming an alternative to Modernism—where that meant something deeper than formal fragmentation, but a consciousness of European Literature, apprehended as a whole at the instant when its unity was imperiled. For some of his admirers, Hardy’s poetry seemed a way out of so enormous a past, either because of its English horizons or else because of its foregrounding of personal, rather than national or cosmopolitan, history.
But Hardy’s poetry towers over the close of the nineteenth century as Wordsworth’s towered over its start; it is new in its attainment of a heroic grandeur and quality that is among the most difficult for poets to attain—namely, a style that is both plain and elevated: a lofty style that accommodates the cadences of spoken idiom. In terms of the critical standards of his day, Hardy writes lines that could be set among Arnold’s touchstones, all of which are defined by their mutually reinforcing plainness and elevation.
To acknowledge as much suggests also that it is wrong to think Hardy’s poetry closed to history or open primarily to provincial and personal experience. Like Wordsworth’s great poetry, most clearly his Immortality Ode, Hardy’s poetry registers and communicates a novel apprehension of time as humans experience it individually and collectively. The lyric purity for which Hardy’s poetry is sometimes celebrated (and which is usually an excuse for a discussion of intimacy or subjectivity, or something along those blurry lines) is a distraction from the real challenge it poses criticism: what apprehension of historicity is contained by its judgments of form and style?
Writing in the style that he does, Hardy is not inventing something entirely new; but by renovating that style, he is doing something new, in response to a new way of understanding (or else in service of a new way of understanding). The special difficulty posed by the severe style is that it resists many of the critical methods associated with modern criticism: ambiguity is not the best way in, and though cadence and meter are often integral to the effect of poems in the style, studies of prosody cannot close the gap between description and significance.
To make some attempt at getting at what Hardy’s poem grasp, I’ll look at one of the most famous later lyrics, “During Wind and Rain.” I was surprised once to see Tom Paulin praise it as among the greatest twentieth-century poems; though I suspect I’d still dissent from Paulin’s reasoning, I understand why he would prize it as he does. Something prevalent throughout Hardy’s verse is distilled there, and yet much of its beauty depends on the elusiveness of what that is, when the language is analyzed:
They sing their dearest songs—
He, she, all of them—yea,
Treble and tenor and bass,
And one to play;
With the candles mooning each face. . . .
Ah, no; the years O!
How the sick leaves reel down in throngs!
They clear the creeping moss—
Elders and juniors—aye,
Making the pathways neat
And the garden gay;
And they build a shady seat. . . .
Ah, no; the years, the years,
See, the white storm-birds wing across.
They are blithely breakfasting all—
Men and maidens—yea,
Under the summer tree,
With a glimpse of the bay,
While pet fowl come to the knee. . . .
Ah, no; the years O!
And the rotten rose is ript from the wall.
They change to a high new house,
He, she, all of them—aye,
Clocks and carpets and chairs
On the lawn all day,
And brightest things that are theirs. . . .
Ah, no; the years, the years;
Down their carved names the rain-drop ploughs.
Auerbach helps us to frame the approach to the poem, but when it comes to laboring on its parts, if such an attempt is to be made, the best line would be, despite the poem’s yielding few ambiguities, that suggested by Empson’s voice and mode: brusque, specific, and imaginative. There’s no knowing whether it will work.
“During Wind and Rain” because “during” suggests endurance and also hardening; the stone at the end of the poem, but also the hardened view taken upon a life that is not that of the poet. The absence of the first-person may make it seem that it is a cheat to number this among typical Hardy poems, but the perspective is so situated in the world of which the poem sings that it feels like the entire poem forms the shape of an “I,” as it nearly does on the page. “All of them” might also include “I,” and the phrase at any rate suggests not just a set of personal acquaintances, or a family of which the speaker is numbered, but a whole generation, a whole way of life.
The language is so plain, so flat at times and so very much like a song that is crucially other than the song the people are singing in the first line, that it might be thought perverse to suggest there is elevation here at all. But the last lines of each verse, the modified refrain, rises up, and with chastened and resigned pessimism, takes the rest of the poem with it.
Feste’s song in Twelfth Night and the Fool’s song in Lear, about the wind and the rain, rumble in the depths of the poem; and like both of those songs, this song courts the charge of frivolity in order to draw attention to how lightly fragile and ephemeral all of the solid things of the world are, which is in part why it accounts for, and dwells on, the clutter of things, garden seats, carpets, clocks.
The poem is most a song where it is also, I think, most distinct in the lofty voice it achieves: in those small words “aye” and “ah,no” and “O” (recalling Feste’s “hey ho”) and “yea” and even the refrain of “the years, the years.” Of Hardy’s predecessors, maybe only Burns is able to take the cadence of natural exclamation and to set it at a pitch that aims so high, but in Burns there is often a sense that the dialect is inherently drawing on a tradition of wisdom, as in “a man’s a man for a’ that,” where “a’” and “a” play against one another to the eye, and oppose one another in the ear, and span between them a single individual and the rest of the world, which he faces in hearty courageous fortitude. T.S. Eliot draws attention to a similar effect in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, when he says that Cleopatra’s “ah” is what sets off the brilliance of her line.
Analysis of such small exclamations, not quite words, cannot proceed by engagement with semantics. One might claim that Hardy is stripping language bare of meaning where it ought to mean most, and that his doing so is both a measure of the ploughing erosion of time itself, as well as a gesture of dissent and self-assertion in the face of such erosion, which is made to feel both entirely human and entirely without consequence. There is nothing to mean because nothing means anything: intimations of absurdity. At the same time, the words are there; they are, in Hardy’s favored figure of poem-as-building, often key-stones in the construction, holding rhymes and cadence and meter. Even if they mean nothing, they do a great deal, and what they do is maintain the poem’s unity, a whole that, despite the elisions and dashes, sets itself up against the years.
To say that these moments coincide with, or facilitate, the poem’s severe elevation is to suggest that they take to the heights to look out over history; they represent, that is, the perch from which the poet surveys the world. As such, they despair, sigh, and groan, but they also play; freed from meaning, they nonetheless hold the possibility for new meanings; permitting the rhyme and swing of the verse, they promise more songs; the severity of the poem is not entirely tragic—despite first impressions.
In Hardy’s poem, the small sighs and exclamations are part of the contingent accrual of matter and experience that the poem surveys, and the poem is itself a song, or an echo of a song, perhaps even the song from the opening lines, which is itself another trivial item of inheritance; it is among the collected and hoarded materials and memories that it audits. Hardy has learned from Browning, whose dramatic monologues embrace haphazard stuff that builds up around a life; but in Hardy’s poem, it builds up within the voice and language also. They are not quite fragments shored against his ruin, but the words are fragments, as is the poem, of what was once thought to be complete, though only as an illusion.
A realization that the world passes away and changes is hardly new, but for a poem to achieve perspective on the ephemeral through the ephemera of sounds that, when transcribed, cannot be remain incomplete to the imagination, is.
The mystery of just how to hear or read the lines is likewise to the point; the distance it establishes works in counterpoint to the intimacy and informality of the voice, and it is a distance through history as well as a distance from history. That is, we cannot hear the poet’s “O” or “ah, no” both because we were not there, could not be there, in the uttering of them, and because we cannot quite survey the fullness of a life as he can. Those words are reminders of the unattainable altitude of his perspective over time, something for which we are quite unprepared given how mundane, how seemingly lacking in historical grandeur the objects and recollections of the first five lines in each stanza are. Rather than ask that we interpret them as allegories, symbols, or even exemplars, Hardy is content to leave them from what they are, and to take flight suddenly to a realm of isolation from which the futility of life is apparent. We might feel cheated by the flight, but the humility of the small words, and their feeling so common despite their irresolvable pitch, keeps him within sight, human and frail; we feel for him, as well as with him.