Anxious Pleasures

James Wood

  • Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man by Claire Tomalin
    Viking, 486 pp, £25.00, October 2006, ISBN 0 670 91512 2

What is this? ‘Two miles behind it a jet of white steam was travelling from the left to the right of the picture.’ It is a train, viewed across a valley, in Jude the Obscure (1895), and it is the only sentence offered there about this train. Flaubert is always described as the great cinematic novelist, the great novelist of detail, and indeed Flaubert has his own described train-steam too – similarly seen, in L’Education sentimentale, across fields, but ‘stretched out in a horizontal line, like a gigantic ostrich feather whose tip kept blowing away’. But where Flaubert turns his train-steam into writing, flourishing his fine literary simile, Hardy, flirting with the pictorially gnomic, seems to want to resist that conversion; Hardy would like to preserve the visuality of the detail.

Hardy was supremely a man ‘who used to notice such things’ as he describes himself in his poem ‘Afterwards’. Most of his readers thrill to the precision with which he captures the world: the ‘scarlet handful of fire’ in the grate of Gabriel Oak’s hut in Far from the Madding Crowd (1874), or Bathsheba, in the same book, watching her horses drinking, ‘the water dribbling from their lips in silver threads’. In The Return of the Native (1878), the opening of a door during a rainstorm, at night, is described like this: ‘Thomasin … began to discern through the rain a faint blotted radiance, which presently assumed the oblong form of an open door’.

But Hardy is at his best when he both sees and feels, when he uses his almost eerie tactility, an animistic ability to enter other things and animals and humans and live their lives. In his literary notebook, he copied out sentences from G.K. Chesterton’s book about Robert Browning, published in 1903. Chesterton had written about ‘the terrible importance of detail’ that apparently possessed Browning in an almost demonic way:

Any room that he was sitting in glared at him with innumerable eyes & mouths gaping with a story … If he looked at a porcelain vase, or an old hat, a cabbage, or a puppy at play, each began to be bewitched … the vase to send up a smoke of thoughts & shapes; the hat to produce souls as a conjuror’s hat produces rabbits.

Hardy comments: ‘this is true of all poets – not especially of Browning,’ and double-underlines his last four words. The Hardy also possessed by ‘the terrible importance of detail’ is the writer who is not embarrassed to write the scene in which the yearning Jude Fawley lifts his face to the winds, calculates how fast they have travelled from desirable Christminster, speaks to them, ‘You … were in Christminster,’ and then hears the bells of that city, which seem to call ‘We are happy here!’ This is the poet who likens the silence and speed of a hawk flying at twilight to ‘an eyelid’s soundless blink’, who writes a poem to his father’s violin and sees ‘Ten worm-wounds in your neck’, who imagines himself a sundial in ‘The Sundial on a Wet Day’ (‘I drip, drip here/In Atlantic rain’), and who uses a felled log to remember his dead sister in ‘Logs on the Hearth’:

The fire advances along the log

Of the tree we felled,

Which bloomed and bore striped apples by

the peck

Till its last hour of bearing knelled.

Proust accused Flaubert of not creating even one great metaphor, which is palpably unfair, but Hardy’s work has scores of them, a flowing stipend of brilliance. Yet while one is always aware of Flaubert aesthetically shaping his details, squeezing out the chilly gel of their chosenness, Hardy seems to treat simile and metaphor as a mode of quick warmth, a way to bring an alternative life onto the page, without too much thinking about it. Of course, much thought has gone into this impression of less thought: Ezra Pound commented on Hardy’s way of keeping his mind on his subject-matter, and ‘how little he cared about manner, which does not in the least mean that he did not care about it or had not a definite aim’.

So frosty grass rustles ‘like paper-shavings’ underfoot in The Woodlanders (1887), and in the same novel stinging rain is described like this: ‘The morning had been windy, and little showers had sowed themselves like grain against the walls and window-panes of the Hintock cottages.’ Yes, we think, hard stabs of rain could be just like grain; but the second metaphor, ‘sowed’, is extraordinary, and goes beyond what most of us could imagine, since like most original metaphor it forces together incompatible media, and is, technically, mixed (you can sow grain but not water). Again, in Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891), Angel and Tess journey on a cart, with the ‘clucking of the milk in the tall cans behind them’: it might seem here as if the writer is going to the wrong part of the farmyard for his likeness, until we try to hear the slopping cluck of milk against a hard pail. Has anyone described the way light changes during the morning better than Hardy does, in his poem ‘The Going’: ‘while I/Saw morning harden upon the wall.’ One can see, with the help of these lines, the light becoming more solid, more densely itself; and of course our mornings harden in a different way, too: our days tend to begin loose with possibility, and then harden around us as the lost hours progress and we feel their unfreedom accrete.

Henry James was snooty about Hardy, but I wonder how James would have done, if given as a kind of literary test a cow’s udder to describe? Admirably, no doubt, with his usual lyrical paradox of oddly precise euphemism, but certainly without the solidity of Hardy’s sentence in Tess: ‘Their large-veined udders hung ponderous as sandbags, the teats sticking out like the legs of a gipsy’s crock.’ Again, that likeness to a sandbag is good but ordinary enough; but the teats like the legs of a common stool is absolutely alive. A lot of rather condescending nonsense used to be written about ‘the good little Thomas Hardy’ (James’s phrase, alas) and his modest social origins, those origins somehow explaining both the qualities and the lapses of his writing. Nevertheless, it is hard to escape the conclusion that some of the power of his writing flows from his rural childhood, with its long country walks and immersion in both the natural world and the particular poetry of dialect speech. Again and again Hardy’s images dip into the rural near-at-hand: paper-shavings, grain, ‘clucking’ milk, an eyelid’s blink, the legs of a stool.

That is why we find in his writing a tendency visible in Dickens, Chekhov, Lawrence, and Henry Green’s Loving: his own metaphors get very close, in style, to the speech of his least lettered characters, who in turn often use images that Hardy himself might have polished up a bit and used in his descriptive prose: ‘I were as dry as a lime basket,’ says Master Coggan in Far from the Madding Crowd. ‘They read that sort of thing as fast as a night-hawk will whir,’ a traveller says of the busy dons of Christminster. Tess’s mother describes her father’s unhealthy heart as ‘clogged like a dripping-pan’, while ’Liza-Lu more simply – but even more vividly – says that it is ‘growed in’. The character’s dripping-pan is not far from the author’s gypsy’s crock, and we see these two styles merge, as it were, in a moment in The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886), when Hardy writes about twilight: ‘It being now what the people call the “pinking in” of the day, that is, the quarter-hour just before dusk.’ How Hardy must have relished hearing people talk of the ‘pinking in’. He told Robert Graves that some critic had upbraided him for writing: ‘his shape smalled in the distance.’ But how else, Hardy said, laughing, could he have written it? (Lawrence, who took so much from Hardy, has ‘the dawn is wanly blueing’ in Sea and Sardinia.)

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