It is difficult enough to excel in any one literary genre. It is extremely rare to achieve greatness in more than one field. William Shakespeare, in addition to his plays, was a magnificent lyric poetbut then, he was Shakespeare. Edgar Allan Poe was noted as both poet and short-story writer. Thornton Wilder won Pulitzer Prizes in both fiction and drama, as did Robert Penn Warren in fiction and poetry. Given such a short list, the example of Thomas Hardy is all the more extraordinary: having published only volumes of fiction until well into his fifties, and thereby becoming the foremost British novelist of his age, he then renounced fiction to return to his "first love," poetry. Over the next thirty years, he published a series of volumes of verse that ultimately comprised a collected edition of a thousand pages, a body of work that is regarded as one of the central achievements of modern British poetry and that, in its quiet and unassertive way, has become a dominant influence on several generations of modern poets.
Thomas Hardy was born in the community of Higher Bockhampton, about two miles from the town of Dorchester, in Wessex, England, on June 2, 1840. He was the first of four children of Thomas and Jemina (Hand) Hardy, who had married six months before his birth. His father was a bricklayer, who also made cider and enjoyed playing the fiddle at local festivities. From his example, Hardy seems to have derived the love of music and the interest in the public and social life of the English countryside that are such significant elements of his work. His mother had been orphaned at an early age and had worked as a cook and a maid until her marriage. She passed on to her son her great love of reading, inherited from her mother, and had him reading Dryden and Johnson before he was ten. She also communicated to him her reserve and her awareness of "life's little ironies" (the title of one of his volumes of short stories) and larger tragedies. According to his second wife's biography of himwritten largely by himselfby the age of five he was convinced of his own uselessness and regretted that he would have to become an adult. It is claimed that the doctor attending Hardy's birth assumed that he was stillborn and that he was saved only by the intervention of a sharp-eyed midwife. He was in any event a delicate and sickly child who was kept at home until he was eight and whose well-being was cause for constant anxiety. In an age of extremely high infant mortality, all four of the Hardy children would survive to enjoy full lifespans, with Thomas himself living well into his eighty-eighth year.
At the age of eight, Thomas was sent to the local school in Higher Bockhampton, but he was transferred a year later to the Dorchester British School, which required him to walk several miles to and from school each day. Walking and exploring the local countryside would remain one of his chief pleasures for the rest of his life, as shown in such vivid passages in his fiction as the famous description of Egdon Heath that opens The Return of the Native. After attendance at several other schools, Hardy had received an excellent education, but not one that qualified him for university study, and when he was sixteen, his formal education came to an end. Largely through his mother's efforts and financial sacrifice, he was apprenticed to John Hicks, a local architect. Since both Hicks, a tolerant and good-natured man, and another of his apprentices were admirers of the classics, Hardy found this experience not only a useful course of professional training but also an opportunity, through stimulating intellectual conversation, to continue his broader education as well. According to his official biography, he would get up to readfor two years he read virtually nothing but poetrybetween five and eight a.m., before going off to work in the morning.
Having already steeped himself in the poetry of the Romantic period, he began in his late teens to write poetry himself. Not one line of it would see print until he was nearly sixty years of age, although in this period he did publish several short articles in local newspapers. It was also through his apprenticeship that Hardy made his first literary friendship, since the next-door neighbor of Hicks's office was William Barnes, a minister and teacher who was also an accomplished poet in the Dorset dialect. From Barnes, the developing young writer learned a great deal about the uses of local material in literature and about structure and sound values in poetry. At Barnes's death in 1886, at the age of eighty-five, Hardy would memorialize him with both an obituary essay and an affectionate poem. Hardy also became a close friend of another Dorchester minister, Horace Moule. Eight years older than Hardy, he was a writer and intellectual who introduced the younger man to scientific discoveries that cast doubt on the literal truth of the Bible. The two remained close thereafter, and Hardy would be deeply distressed by Moule's descent into alcoholism and his suicide, at forty-one, in May of 1873.
Having completed his apprenticeship in 1860, Hardy stayed with Hicks for another two years as a paid employee, and then, on April 17, 1862, six weeks short of his twenty-second birthday, he went, like many another young countryman before and since, to find his fortune in London. He found a position with Arthur Blomfield, who, although only thirty-three years old, was already well-known for his work in the design and restoration of churches. In the great city, he was also able to indulge his artistic interests through frequent visits to galleries and attendance at concerts and operas. He also continued to write: in 1863 an essay of his won a silver medal from the Royal Institute of British Architects, and in 1865 he achieved the (anonymous) magazine publication of a humorous piece called "How I Built Myself a House." He continued to write poems and to submit them to editors, who uniformly returned them; decades later, with some revisions, he would publish many of these poems in his volumes of verse.
Deciding that his best opportunity to support himself as a writer would be through the writing of fiction, in 1867 he began to write a novel, a social satire called The Poor Man and the Lady. It was rejected in turn by Alexander Macmillan, of his family's firm, and by George Meredith, the distinguished novelist, who was a reader for Chapman and Hall; both were nonetheless encouraging of Hardy's talent. He abandoned the book, but not his hopes for literary success. Meanwhile, John Hicks died in 1868, and his successor asked Hardy to assist him in the restoration of several churches. On the night of March 7, 1870, Hardy arrived in Cornwall to complete the last of these assignments. There he was met by Emma Gifford, who was living with her sister and her sister's husband, the rector of the church. The two were drawn to one another from the start, and after Hardy had begun to achieve some success as a writer, they were married on September 17, 1874.
On financial terms quite disadvantageous to himself, Hardy persuaded the publisher William Tinsley to issue his novel Desperate Remedies in 1871. Published anonymously, this rather melodramatic work received a harsh review in The Spectator, which essentially destroyed any chance of its being taken up by the circulating libraries which were then the key to a novel's success. Under the Greenwood Tree, the first of his novels to draw upon the scenes, characters, and folkways of his Wessex youth, appeared, also anonymously, the following year, to a more welcoming reception. With A Pair of Blue Eyes (1873), published under his name, Hardy achieved not only the three-volume format favored by the circulating libraries but also something perhaps even more important for the widespread circulation and financial success of his work, serialization of the novel in a leading magazine prior to publication in book form.
With the success in 1874 of Far from the Madding Crowd, the first of his novels that can fairly be described as great, Hardy felt securely enough established in his writing career to abandon architecture and to marry Emma. Over the next twenty-three years, he published another ten novels. Many of them contain memorable characters and striking descriptive passages, and three of them are acknowledged to be among the masterpieces of English fiction: The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886), perhaps his finest novel, which describes in shatteringly tragic terms the rise and ruin of a strong but fatally impulsive man; Tess of the d'Urbervilles (1891), whose frank presentation of a trusting young woman's ruination by the men in her life caused the serial publication to be "mutilated," in Hardy's term, and drew outcries from reviewers for its presumed immorality and the unrelenting bleakness of its vision; and Jude the Obscure (1896), a dark and pessimistic novel that is his most controversial work, through whose tormented protagonist Hardy explores issues of idealism and human weakness, and questions the strictures of traditional morality. Painful to read, it is impossible to forget.
It is sometimes claimed that it was Hardy's disgust over the hostile reception of this novel that led him to abandon fiction once and for all, but the reality appears to be somewhat more complex. There is no doubt that he was offended by the attacks upon him, but, despite his refusal to pander to the market and his use of the novel form for profound and often troubling meditations on the human condition, he had always regarded novel-writing essentially as a profession, one which, like any other occupation, could be confining as well as fulfilling. He had always been remarkably, at times astonishingly, amenable to suggestions from his publishers, and it was a strain to have to submit his work to the evaluations of limited and ignorant reviewers and to the shallow and fickle tastes of the reading public, both of which groups seemed, at the end of the nineteenth century, resolutely determined to avoid any presentation of life that was not sweet, sentimental, and simplistically optimistic. Thus, in the opinion of many, the adverse reaction to Jude was essentially an impetus, if not a pretext, for a decision that Hardy was secure enough financially and more than ready psychologically to make. After living in various places in England during the first decade of their marriage, Hardy and his wife had in 1885 moved into Max Gate, a home they had built for themselves in Dorchester. In his mid-fifties, he had completed successful careers as an architect and a novelist (one final novel was published in book form in 1897, but it had already appeared as a serial five years earlier). He was settled in his personal circumstances and liberated from the pressures of earning a living, and could turn his full attention to what had been his first and was still his greatest enthusiasm, poetry.
The most complete edition of Hardy's poetry contains 947 lyrics composed over two thirds of a century, a body of work that demonstrates an amazing consistency of tone and technique, coupled with an even more amazing variety of metrical and stanzaic patterns. As has been observed, it seems as if he is at pains to give every poem its own individual shape and form. The subtlety and range of his metrical experiments, added to his deliberate plainspokenness and refusal of large rhetorical gestures, have often led to the erroneous assumption that Hardy was a clumsy craftsman, when he was in fact a master technician who had honed his art through decades of patient practice. There is in his work, as there would almost have to be in so vast a collection, a considerable range of moods and subjects, including the humorous dialogue of "The Ruined Maid," the philosophical musing of the sonnet "Hap," the affectionate but somewhat rueful recollection of "The Oxen," and the austere comment on the sinking of the Titanic in "The Convergence of the Twain." Nonetheless, there is a distinct sensibility at work in his verse: most typically, his poems seek to capture moments that are seemingly small in event but large in their undercurrent of powerful feeling, which is often a sense of loss, whether of lost loves, missed opportunities, or recollections of the dead. Calm and quaint-seeming on the surface, Hardy's poetrya poetry of brief, straightforward treatments of isolated facets of experienceseems intent upon avoiding greatness, as greatness is commonly measured in poetic terms. As such, it constitutes a body of work as radical as anything that would be attempted by his modernist successors.
In his final decades, the controversies surrounding his work receded, and Hardy quietly accumulated honors and established himself as a grand old man of English letters. His marriage had for many years been difficult: Emma was, as he was frequently made to understand, his social superior, and his philosophical investigations and agnostic, if not atheistic, leanings grated upon her conservative religious sensibility. Their relationship was further strained by his forming of strong emotional bonds with several other women, including a cousin, Tryphena Sparks, who had refused his proposal of marriage because of their blood connection, but whom Hardy continued to love both before and after her death in 1890, three days before her thirty-ninth birthday. Emma's death on November 27, 1912, brought about a surge of powerful feelings in Hardy that led to a number of passionate and regretful poems, some of which are among his finest. In February 1914, when he was seventy-three, Hardy married thirty-five-year-old Florence Dugdale. Despite the disparity in their ages, and Florence's jealousy of Hardy's feelings for Emma, their relationship seems to have been overall a happy one. Hardy spent a good portion of his last years dictating (or ghost-writing) large parts of her two-volume biography of him, and was preparing his final collection of poems for publication when he died on January 11, 1928.
Hardy has few equals in his combination of seriousness and skill, and has long been recognized as one of the very greatest of British novelists, for his detailed depiction of a now-vanished way of life, his extraordinary delineation of the subtleties of human personality, and the overwhelming power of his presentation of tragic destinies. Recent decades have seen the growth of his reputation as a poet, to the point where he is esteemed equally highly in both genres. Writing in 1972, Donald Davie asserted, with considerable justice, that Hardy had been the dominant influence on British poets for the previous fifty years. And a quarter of a century later, James Gibson concluded: "Although Hardy has always been better-known as a novelist it should not be overlooked that his first wish was to be a poet, that he took up novel-writing only because he could not earn a living as a poet, that he returned to writing poetry as soon as he had an assured income from his novels, that in later life he more than once pointed out that he had spent more years in writing poetry than in writing novels, and that he frequently said that it was as a poet that he wished to be remembered. Nothing would have pleased him more than to know how widely read his poetry is today, so many years after his death."