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to explain themselves, to reduce all their existence to a bare three lines. And then, what three lines shall one choose? How—granted that one is until now unknown—how does one wish to be known?
Suppose the contributor is a professor of English in a middle-western college. What has the perfunctory correcting of themes to do with his life as a poet? Has he published a book of verse? Yes—and hopes that it may be forgotten; at least until he is a very old, old man. Or perhaps he is the sub-editor of a magazine with whose policies he is not altogether in sympathy. Should this connection be advertised, or concealed 2 How will the admission affect his literary career? How does he wish to go down to posterity?
Ah, what glowing accounts of oneself one could write if one but dared give way to the methods of the press-agent heralding a new authorl The kind that appears on the slipcover, so remarkable in itself that one almost forbears reading the work enclosed. (Indeed, it is rumored that nowadays the authors themselves often write these notices; but the youthful contributor is probably ignorant of this fact.)
Editors little know the amount of trepidation, selfanalysis, doubt, alternate pride and discouragement, occasioned by the receipt of one of these seemingly innocent requests. I myself had one sent to me the other day, and it took me three days to answer it. And this, after consuming much foolscap and wasting much midnight oil, is what I finally wrote:
“John Smith, contributor of verse and prose to all the leading magazines.” It has a ringing sound, and furnishes a complete alibi. A. C. H.
Moments of Vision, by Thomas Hardy. Macmillan Co.
If one were to pick out at random a hundred readers of English poetry, and ask them the question: “Who is the greatest English poet to-day?” about ninety-eight would instantly reply, “Kipling.” The remainder might be indecisive, or might cast their votes for Masefield, or for Yeats, forgetting that the latter is an Irishman. Nobody, probably, would remark, “Thomas Hardy.” And yet there is no doubt that Mr. Hardy is the greatest English poet now living. No one among his contemporaries has been able to turn aside from verse-writing for twenty years, and to return to it with the selfsame powerful grip and mastery. No one has been able to construct a poem of the dynamic energy and epic calibre of The Dynasts, but he. No one, finally, but he, is able, at the patriarchal age of seventy-seven, to produce poems marked with the same poignant sincerity of accent that he displayed at thirty.
If we leave Mr. Hardy out of the account, as a poet, the whole picture not only of English literature but of English thought and feeling in the past twenty years is likely to become distorted. For it has been, as he himself might say, now twenty years since he turned back to his early love, the muse, from the production of novels. And during that long and dreary time, when English imaginative literature seemed crushed and lost, he has been the one figure with strength and dignity, and a new message to speak, a message nevertheless intimately linked with England's past. After the giants of mid-Victorianism—Tennyson, Browning, and Swinburne—had written the works by which they are now remembered and had either passed to their reward or lapsed into the condition of echoes, after this period the stage was set for smaller men. Two spirits only remained with vitality and power enough to pronounce a new message. These were Meredith and Hardy. And Meredith, it is increasingly evident, was to Hardy what a sentimental invalid of a woman is to a firm well-knitted man. Meredith softened as he went on, softened and decayed. Thomas Hardy has shown no need either to soften or to harden. He was granite from the beginning. What then is the reason for Mr. Hardy's unpopularity as a poet? It has been suggested that it is because he uses a language deliberately unpoetical, deliberately gray in tone. But we are all of us weary of the old poetic diction, which is utterly inapplicable to modern conditions and ideas. And that Hardy eschews rhetoric is perhaps the greatest thing to his credit. The secret of the obscure dislike of his work is found in the fact that Hardy is by temperament and mind a fatalist, a determinist, a pessimist. This sort of writer always makes us uncomfortable when he appears amongst us. We do not mind reading Job or Ecclesiastes because, after all, they lived a long time ago. But when a man of our own day arises and informs us that in his deliberate opinion our present-day world, with all its thought and activities, is just so much dust and ashes, we wish to stone the fellow. We cannot bear to have our illusions about ourselves so ruthlessly destroyed. And yet no one has asked the question, whether Thomas Hardy has not some reason, some tremendous, vital, quite impersonal reason, for his pessimism. Hardy represents an England which is older than the Saxons, older perhaps than Julius Caesar. He stands for the England that from time immemorial has been an island, separated from the traffic and commerce of a busy world by treacherous seas and climates, and lapped and swathed in endless folds of agrarian conservatism. He hails, as the whole world knows, from Dorset, from that part of England which has been least disturbed by foreign currents, which has never been industrialized, which has preserved most intact the old country life of the past, with all its narrowness and parochialism. He is the one English writer of our day who has never felt the necessity or desirability of emigrating to London. Even the technique of his poetry betrays over and over again the strong atavistic tendency in Hardy's soul. He is obsessed by ballad refrains, by folk songs, psalm-tunes. Nothing is more striking in him than the contrast between the jingling fall of the rhymes and the gloomy, tragic matter they contain. For example, this, taken at random, from his latest volume:
They sing their dearest songs—
Could anyone write like that, whose brain was not packed with the lilt of half-forgotten ballads?
But the thing that sets apart Hardy from his fellows, is that while most of these still maintain the respectable and preposterous fiction that England is just as much of an island as ever (vide Kipling, for instance, in his later works) Hardy knows better. He knows that since the discovery of steam, the consequent industrialisation, and, to crown all, the adoption by England of free trade, England has effectually ceased to be able to maintain an isolated and independent position in the world, and is now even more dependent on foreign commerce than many nations whose literary and artistic development has been more elastic, more alive to modern currents of thought and feeling, than hers. So Hardy has set himself the task of putting on record the shrivelling, the decay of the old insular England; and in this sense, as I have already said, he is the one great living link between nineteenth- and twentieth-century England. He is also the one English poet who has written soberly and beautifully of Trafalgar and of Waterloo, because he knew at the time, what we now all see to be the truth, that Trafalgar and Waterloo were not going to be repeated, and are as remote in fact from the conceptions of an industrialized democracy as the Pyramids. 3 *