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A Neglected Poet

Rain as a Subaltern

Rain as a Subaltern

Thomas Hardy is not one of our most widely-read poets. If anything, people are far more familiar with his novels, such as Jude the Obscure, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, and Far from the Madding Crowd. Fortunately, after years of neglect, his poems are coming into their own. The other night, I was reading an essay on the 20th century Russian poet Joseph Brodsky in J. M. Coetzee’s Stranger Shores: Literary Essays 1986-1999, and I came across the following:

[Joseph] Brodsky’s system can best be illustrated from the essay on Thomas Hardy. Brodsky regards Hardy as a neglected major poet, “seldom taught, less read,” particularly in America, cast out by fashion-minded critics into the limbo of “premodernism” (On Grief, pp. 373, 315, 313)

It is certainly true that modern criticism has had little of interest to say about Hardy. Nevertheless, despite what Brodsky says, ordinary readers and (particularly) poets have never deserted him. John Crowe Ransom edited a selection of Hardy’s verse in 1960 [I have a copy]. Hardy dominates Philip Larkin’s widely read Oxford Book of Twentieth-Century English Verse (1973), with 27 pages as opposed to 19 for Yeats, 16 for Auden, a mere 9 for [T. S.] Eliot. Nor did the Modernist avant-garde dismiss Hardy en bloc. Ezra Pound, for instance, tirelessly recommended him to younger poets. “Nobody has taught me anything about writing since Thomas Hardy died,” he remarked in 1934.

Here is my favorite of Hardy’s poems. Picture a man struggling to walk through a rainstorm:

The Subalterns

I

“Poor wanderer,” said the leaden sky,
“I fain would lighten thee,
But there are laws in force on high
Which say it must not be.”

II

–“I would not freeze thee, shorn one,” cried
The North, “knew I but how
To warm my breath, to slack my stride;
But I am ruled as thou.”

III

—“To-morrow I attack thee, wight,”
Said Sickness. “Yet I swear
I bear thy little ark no spite,
But am bid enter there.”

IV

—“Come hither, Son,” I heard Death say;
“I did not will a grave
Should end thy pilgrimage to-day,
But I, too, am a slave!”

V

We smiled upon each other then,
And life to me had less
Of that fell look it wore ere when
They owned their passiveness.

Hardy can be at one and the same time incredibly simple and incredibly deep. At the same time, we have sickness and death acting with compassion against the poor traveler. Who can write such a poem today?