- Later Poems by R.S. Thomas
Macmillan, 224 pp, £7.95, March 1983, ISBN 0 333 34560 6
- Thomas Hardy Annual, No 1 edited by Norman Page
Macmillan, 205 pp, £20.00, March 1983, ISBN 0 333 32022 0
- Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy, edited by Juliet Grindle and Simon Gatrell
Oxford, 636 pp, £50.00, March 1983, ISBN 0 19 812495 3
- Hardy’s Love Poems by Thomas Hardy, edited by Carl Weber
Macmillan, 253 pp, £3.95, February 1983, ISBN 0 333 34798 6
- The Complete Poetical Works of Thomas Hardy. Vol. I: Wessex Poems, Poems of the Past and the Present, Time’s Laughingstocks edited by Samuel Hynes
Oxford, 403 pp, £19.50, February 1983, ISBN 0 19 812708 1
At the end of a recent and refreshingly untypical poem R.S. Thomas, recalling his sea-captain father, addresses him where he lies in his grave:
Vol. 5 No. 10 · 2 June 1983
SIR: If I understand Donald Davie (LRB, 5 May), he wishes to challenge my claim that Hardy’s poetry is remarkable for its generosity of vision. He does this by quoting Edward Clodd’s remark that Hardy ‘was a great author: he was not a great man; there was no largeness of soul.’ Clodd’s ‘judgment’ or ‘diagnosis’ is, according to Davie, ‘the verdict of a friend over many years with no particular axe to grind’, and he adds that it is amply borne out by Robert Gittings’s biography. It is true that Gittings quotes Clodd’s remark, but he points out that it was made after Clodd and Hardy had quarrelled. I do not see that it can be taken on trust. On the other hand, it is quite true that Gittings is not much interested in challenging it. Why should he be? Like most biographers, he is more interested in cutting his subject down to size. Anything that can be made to show Hardy in a bad light is seized on. Reports that don’t fit his picture are ignored. Arnold Bennett has an entry in his Journals from which it is clear that he saw Hardy’s relationship with Florence as one of friendly affection. Gittings does not mention it. When Siegfried Sassoon first visited Hardy he noted in his diary that Hardy was ‘wise, for all his simplicity’. On a later visit, Hardy sang ballads ‘with tenderness, as though he were handling some relic of youth long-cherished and hallowed by memory. And he does these things with the same half-humorous seriousness and simplicity that pervade his poems. This quality is the keynote of his greatness. It is his strength and sweetness.’
Who am I to believe: Gittings or Bennett, Clodd or Sassoon? Obviously, Bennett and Sassoon. What they say makes better sense. It feels true. Yet this is not to deny that Gittings and Clodd may have some justice on their side. It is, however, to say that any biography which goes beyond the merely factual runs grave risks. (I leave aside the very few biographies that deal with a writer’s intellectual and cultural milieu, although, as Christopher Hill’s exemplary Milton makes plain, these are the ones we need.)
Henry James put his finger on the almost insoluble problem of writing the kind of biography which Gittings has attempted when he said, apropos of Froude’s Short Studies on Great Subjects, that ‘to judge [individuals] morally we are obliged to push our enquiry through a concatenation of causes and effects in which, from their delicate nature, enquiry very soon becomes impracticable, and thus we are reduced to talking sentiment. Nothing is more surprising than the alertness with which writers like Mr Froude are ready to pronounce upon the moral character of historical persons, and their readiness to make vague moral epithets stand in lieu of real psychological facts.’
Davie uses Gittings as a stick with which to beat the Hardy industry. I think that they probably deserve each other. Still, if the industry is to include editors, then there is something to be said for it: because the first requirement of any student of literature is decent texts, modestly priced. I stress the word ‘any’, because Davie claims that I hold élitist opinions about education. I do not. I do hold élitist opinions about art. As a socialist, I want everyone to have access to what Tawney called our common heritage, and I certainly do not want that heritage junked in favour of bus tickets or Crossroads. I have to say, however, that I think the heritage is as much endangered by the rancorous spirit of biographers as it is by those who think of themselves as socialists and yet who have no sense of the great socialist tradition of respect for art.
SIR: How can one take seriously Donald Davie’s fulminations against Hardy’s lack of magnanimity (LRB, 5 May) when he himself is so mean to Millgate’s major contribution to de-mythologising the Wizard of Wessex? And surely few contributors to the Hardy industry he deplores would be capable of the lack of self-awareness displayed in the astonishing proclamation re Millgate’s biography that it ‘is said to be (I haven’t read it) more temperate and more boring’ (than Gittings’s biography). Wow! Donald Davie, come home!
Donald Davie writes: Why is it mean of me to report that Michael Millgate is thought to be more temperate and more compassionate than Robert Gittings? If my informants found him also more boring, that may mean only that, like many of us, they enjoy a cruel book more than a kind one. I am touched by Alan Hurst’s plea to me to ‘come home’, and I hope he is right that this would sort out all my problems – for instance, my having fulminated when I thought I’d done nothing of the kind.