Rupert Brooke, who had long been dissatisfied with the Nelson Battalion, has been trying to pull strings (his friend and de facto agent Eddie Marsh is Churchill’s private secretary) to follow several friends (including Oc Asquith) into a different battalion of the Royal Naval Division. He got his wish, and today arrived at the camp of the Hood Battalion, near Blandford, Dorset. The change will make Brooke marginally happier. But it is still cold and muddy, and tiresome to go on alert at every unlikely rumor of a German raid of invasion.
Charles Sorley wrote to his parents today from camp. Strangely, he is not interested in cajoling socks or chocolate (although these requests could have been edited out of his generally weighty letters–always a possibility). No: he is interested in discussing the latest work of Thomas Hardy.
Shorncliffe, 30 November 1914
Thanks very much indeed for the letter and Lit. Sups.[Times Literary Supplements], and especially for Satires of Circumstance. I had not got it or ordered it but had often been thinking of doing so. So it came most welcomely.
Needless to say, I do not agree with your criticisms of T. H.’s later work. The actual “Satires of Circumstance” which come in the middle of the book I thought bad poetry. But I think you are too hard on the rest. Hardy explains in the preface to one of his former books of poems that they are expressions of moods and are not to be taken as a whole reading of life, but “the road to a true philosophy of life seems to be in humbly recording divers aspects of its phenomena as they are forced upon us by chance and change.” And I don’t think he writes these poems [for the reason] you suggest, but with a view to helping people on that “road to a true philosophy of life.” Curiously enough, I think that “Men who march away” is the most arid poem in the book, besides being untrue of the sentiments of the ranksman going to war: “Victory crowns the just” is the worst line he ever wrote–filched from a leading article in The Morning Post, and unworthy of him who had always previously disdained to insult Justice by offering it a material crown like Victory.
To the Satires in a moment. This criticism of “Men Who March Away” is oft-cited (even here) and, indeed, very apt. It was a misstep by Hardy, a muddled and middling response to the appeal to the country’s most established writers to begin producing informal propaganda.
But the new volume of Hardy’s poetry shows that he can still write.
I think in looking through it you must have missed a verse like:Yes, I companion him to placesOnly dreamers know,Where the shy hares print long paces,Where the night rooks go;Into old aisles where the past is all to him,Close as his shade can do,Always lacking the power to call to him,Near as I reach thereto!
Well, yes: take that, Mom and Dad. Hardy may be older than you, and hardly infallible, but the Satires are proof that he is an uncompromising poet. Stanzas like this are why Hardy was a living bridge between the real ancient heart of England (as opposed to the idealized, pre-Raphaelite, proto-Hobbiton’d medieval England of the imagination) and the brutal modern world. With just the daintiest of piers touching down in the High Victorian era itself, during which he was writing tragic and uncompromising novels.
The poem could be Victorian–it’s called “The Haunter,” and the speaker is a ghost. Or it could be 18th century: there is the hare, the rook, the stately idiom. But it’s modern, too, as modern as Woolf and Forster’s 1910, or Hardy’s 1913. Perhaps it’s even only a few war years’ worth of brutalization away from Jarrell’s more graphic haunting of 1945–the speaker is near, is close, is almost to the person he wants to reach. But (only) he can’t connect.
Thus the situational irony that Fussell found throughout Satires of Circumstance and has taught us to see as the poetic mise-en-scène for the writing of the actual war: we hear his words and, in the poem’s other stanzas, see the one the speaker haunts. We–the readers–are urged to make the connection that the dead and the living cannot:
Yes, but we can’t, can we? We’re only readers. It’s eery, it’s chilling, it’s impossible. So many poets have already set their pens to speak for the glorious dead, to put words in their mouthless skulls, and what has Hardy done? Unwittingly–or gripped, perhaps, by the persona of the poetic sage which others will soon begin to ascribe to him–he has already written a poem that shows the impossibility of this sort of wishful, blind memorializing.
The poem isn’t about the war–it was written well before it. So were the rest of the Satires of Circumstance. It’s certainly true that they are not Hardy’s greatest poetic work: they are relentlessly grim–which, as Sorley will point out, below, is to say they come from the heart–and relentlessly on message.
Paul Fussell makes much of a similar poem in which there is a speaker and a grave. It might be a conventional war poem until we realize that the unbridgeable gap is between a dog and its dead master. The master appreciates the fidelity, the remembrance–and the dog, vacantly, apologizes: it had forgotten the grave, and was merely looking for a buried bone. This establishes “a terrible irony as the appropriate interpretive means”–for the bitter struggle and constant, disastrous failure of communications which, Hardy believes, is the true nature of life.
I’ll agree! You may not, but that’s not the point: we have embarked now on a bitter struggle characterized by constant, disastrous failures of communications, and to read about the war from a distance–of time as well as space–is to read ironically: we know, they don’t, and we can’t communicate.
And Charles Sorely, by the way, is a diligent and streaky reader. When he reads an author he reads both intensively and extensively, seeking mastery of the material. So on to the Dynasts, that huge verse drama of a century back’s century back, which, coincidentally, had just had its premiere as a stage piece.
I have been lately reading a great deal in The Dynasts, which I bought three weeks ago. His poetry there is at its very best, especially in the choruses and battle-songs, perhaps because the comprehensiveness of the task did not allow him to introduce himself and his own bitternesses, as he can in his lyrics. It has a realism and true ring which “Men who march away” lacks. I cannot help thinking that Hardy is the greatest artist of the English character since Shakespeare: and much of The Dynasts (except its historical fidelity) might be Shakespeare. But I value his lyrics as presenting himself (the self he does not obtrude into the comprehensiveness of his novels and The Dynasts) as truly, and with faults as well as strength visible in it, as any character in his novels. His lyrics have not the spontaneity of Shakespeare’s or Shelley’s: they are rough-hewn and jagged: but I like them, and they stick..
Hardy was not always all gloom and doom, and I like to think that he would appreciate the gentler irony of a seventy-four-year-old literary giant receiving such high and well-aimed praise from a nineteen-year-old subaltern. Yes: Hardy worked with the real old building blocks of language. Rough-hewn indeed. They stick, and they’ll last.
References and Footnotes
- Hassall, Rupert Brooke, 473. ↩
- To be clear, Thomas Hardy was not five hundred years old, and could not really speak for pre-modern England, let alone for a timeless English past that never existed per se. But he does remember--and write about--a time when the railroads didn't go everywhere, and one walked the long rural miles from town to town; he remembers the dialects of the little preterite nooks and hamlets of southwestern England; and he saw himself as speaking not just for the pre-Victorian past of the living memory of his youth but for the outlook and way of life of those untouched by industry or urbanization. Hardy had trained as a mason, repairing with hand-tools England's medieval churches, and he knew the ways of pre-mechanical husbandry and agriculture. ↩
- The Great War and Modern Memory, 3-4. ↩
- The Letters of Charles Sorley, 246-7 ↩