Donald Davie

  • 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:

              And I,
can I accept your voyages
are done; that there is no tide
high enough to float you off
this mean shoal of plastic
and trash?

We have heard something like this before, in more reverberant metre:

But thrown upon this filthy modern tide
And by its formless spawning fury wrecked ...

But how is this? Are we to think that the good grey Reverend Mr Thomas is as much of an arrogant élitist as W.B. Yeats? Why yes, we are: the note is intermittent but consistent throughout Thomas’s poetry, and it does him credit. For the temptation for a Welshman is to blame the ‘plastic and trash’, or in another poem the ‘Corona and potato crisps’, upon the hateful English; and Thomas, though he has no special tenderness for the English, has consistently refused that easy way out – for him, the mindlessness of many Welshmen is not to be explained away by talk of colonialism. Perhaps some Welsh readers have bridled at this in Thomas: to my knowledge, his English admirers haven’t – perhaps out of relief at not being blamed, perhaps also because Thomas’s élitism doesn’t come in verse that reverberates. And yet precisely its not reverberating is what makes it telling: the point can be taken for granted, it ‘goes without saying’ – no need any longer for Yeats’s drumming pentameters to ram home the truth that social democracy is inescapably tasteless, memory-less and mindless. And no need either to pretend that putting the clock back, even in imagination, is any solace:

Always he looked aft
from the chair’s bridge, and his hearers
suffered the anachronism of his view.

Like Larkin, with his perfunctory condescension to ‘A cut-price crowd, urban yet simple’, Thomas, so casually and at times so randomly managing his verse-lines, evinces a far greater contempt for the common man than Yeats or Lawrence or Pound, who so vehemently castigated that man for not being other than he is.

Thomas, in a not very considered nor memorable quatrain, has declared himself concerning the English poet of this century who (quite wrongly, I think) has been declared the least élitist:

Then Hardy, for many a major
Poet, is for me just an old stager,
Shuffling about a bogus heath,
Cob-webbed with his Victorian breath.

The lines will provoke more indulgent chuckles now than in 1970, when Thomas published them. For inside twenty years, with astonishing velocity, Hardy has been lifted from ‘old stager’ status, briefly elevated as the great modern poet that independent witnesses like Yvor Winters and John Crowe Ransom had always considered him, and in many quarters is now being just as promptly and precipitately returned to the Victorian cobwebs. What has done most damage – and understandably, since it’s the verdict of a friend over many years, with no axe to grind – is Edward Clodd’s judgment: ‘he was a great author: he was not a great man; there was no largeness of soul.’ His words are cited more than once in the Thomas Hardy Annual, No 1 – inevitably, for they lay an explosive charge under the academic growth-industry that the Annual, like Newsletters about other authors (there’s a Hardy Newsletter too), seeks to batten on and to legitimise. It is hard to suppress a movement of unholy glee at the predicament of those whom one contributor to the Annual describes, without irony, as ‘workers in the Hardy industry’: no sooner had they decided to invest in the newly enhanced commodity (the Joyce industry and the Pound industry being overmanned, and working stony and difficult terrains in any case) than there appeared in 1978 The Older Hardy, the second volume of Robert Gittings’s biography, which had the effect of vindicating, exhaustively and unforgivingly, Edward Clodd’s epitaph. Ever since, the Trade Union has been on the defensive. The first move was to prefer to Gittings’s biography a later one by Michael Millgate, which is said to be (I haven’t read it) more temperate and more boring, at all events more compassionate. A second rearguard action is mounted by Peter J. Casagrande (he’s American, and thanks the General Research Fund of the University of Kansas), who shows at inordinate length in the Annual that Hardy from time to time knew he lacked magnanimity (‘largeness of soul’) and worried about it, in Return of the Native and elsewhere – which is all very fine and useful, but of course doesn’t disprove Clodd’s diagnosis, rather confirms it. A third line of defence, hardly manned as yet because it demands more sophistication and agility than most Hardy critics are capable of, would begin from the surely self-evident proposition that great poets don’t have to be good men; that Hardy may have been, as it seems he was, a lousy husband, but that he may have been a great poet all the same. For this defence to work, it has to be shown that Hardy’s lack of magnanimity, which did such harm in his life and the lives of those dependent on him, did no damage to his poems, or to his novels and stories. P.N. Furbank, that admirably just and low-voiced critic, may be thought to spike this enterprise before it starts when he demurely remarks, of one of the books he has to review for the Annual: ‘Here again are efforts to justify Hardy’s archaisms, but always – as it seems to me – they are doomed to partial failure ... often as Hardy uses an archaism with deliberate artistic purpose, just as often he does it just to tease, he does it out of mere bad habit.’ This is a technicality, we shall be told: for one thing that attracts second-class minds to Hardy is that with him, as with no other modern poet, ‘technique’ and ‘vision’ tend to be kept in separate compartments. But we may surely say for Furbank what he chooses not to say for himself: that the ‘ere’s’, ‘yea’s’ and ‘blents’ which sprinkle Hardy’s poems, if often they represent mere habit, represent also bad habit – the sort of habit that may disguise for instance, from the poet and from his readers, that poet’s meanness of soul.

Furbank, it must be said, seems to have strayed into the Annual out of some more urbane and sceptical gathering, as when he murmurs to himself: ‘What about the theme of rain in Hardy’s verse: an essay there too ...?’ No doubt of it; and as he remarks, ‘maybe someone has written it.’ If so, it will not escape the eagle-eye of Richard H. Taylor, of the University of London Institute of Education. Taylor, who each year from now on will provide a survey of recent Hardy studies, remarks happily: ‘Guidance into the rich pastures of Hardy scholarship becomes increasingly essential.’ The Hardy industry, now that so many people have invested in it, will sustain itself by its own momentum; and though it may for the moment be on the defensive before Robert Gittings, there is no call for panic. Institutes of Education have some say in choosing what books are set for schools and colleges; and who is going to care any longer if the cobwebbed texts set before the nation’s young rather signally fail to display ‘largeness of soul’?

One who will care is John Lucas, who thinks that ‘the 1960s witnessed a disaster for English education, one we are still living through and from which we may never entirely recover,’ and fulminates at those educators who thought that ‘the important thing was to get rid of élitist, out-moded views of art in favour of a cultural free-for-all of doing your own thing.’ These are élitist opinions, obviously. But John Lucas doesn’t think so, for if he were to admit that, he might find himself, declared socialist that he is, in the unthinkable position of finding some good to say for Ezra Pound. Like Tom Paulin, who is also in the Annual, Lucas thinks he can be élitist in education (what he’s professionally concerned with) while remaining ‘progressive’ and egalitarian in matters further outside his ken. I don’t have to declare my interest, for Lucas has declared it for me: his essay in the Annual is called ‘Hardy, Donald Davie, England and the English’ – a subject certainly more wide-ranging than ‘the theme of rain in Hardy’s verse’. What he takes issue with is my book of ten years ago, Thomas Hardy and British Poetry. He shouts at me a good deal: ‘Now this won’t at all do ...’, ‘the kindest way to treat that remark ...’, ‘I cannot take that seriously ...’ In fact he’s by and large right in what he infers about my attitude to England and the English, at the same time as he’s demonstrably wrong about my feelings for Hardy, which are a lot more ambivalent than he allows for.

Lucas finds it ‘difficult to imagine how Hardy could have influenced Scottish, Welsh or Irish poets’ – a remark that is either racist or incomprehensible. In my book I thought I came on Hardy’s tracks in the Scot MacDiarmid and the Irishman Austin Clarke. But we have seen that it’s no good looking for such tracks in the Welshman Thomas. So much the worse, I’d say. Largeness of soul, or something very like it, is what we’ve applauded in R.S. Thomas from the first: what was missing from the start, and has become ever more conspicuously absent, is one thing that everyone notices in Hardy’s poems – pattern, conspicuously symmetrical and often intricate metrical and stanzaic shapes. Sometimes Hardy achieves this at inordinate cost, forcing his material into rigidly predetermined moulds: but more often he contrives not to pay any such price. And such patterning gives a distinct pleasure or range of pleasures that we know poets of the past have provided, which Hardy alone provides among our prolific poets of the present century – for which we may and must be grateful. It is a pleasure that Thomas nearly always denies us. Some of his poems are printed as quatrains, but are not truly composed as such; and some are printed as sonnets (8 + 6) but observe neither sonnet-rhyme nor sonnet-metre. We must suppose this is deliberate, though it seems a rather cheap short-cut to the craggy bleakness that is Thomas’s trademark. At his best, however, neither ‘craggy’ nor ‘bleak’ will meet the case:

Abel looked at the wound
His brother had dealt him, and loved him
For it. Cain saw that look
And struck him again. The blood cried
On the ground; God listened to it.
He questioned Cain. But Cain answered:
Who made the blood? I offered you
Clean things: the blond hair
Of the corn; the knuckled vegetables; the
Flowers; things that did not publish
Their hurt, that bled
Silently. You would not accept them.

And God said: It was part of myself
He gave me. The lamb was torn
From my own side. The limp head,
The slow fall of red tears – they
Were like a mirror to me in which I beheld
My reflection. I anointed myself
In readiness for the journey
To the doomed tree you were at work upon.

Faced with something so uncompromising as this, we can accept that the poem has to be graceless if it is to be (as it is) sublime and ‘large-souled’, tragic and austere.

What no one denies is that after Gittings’s biography, there can be no going back to the comfortable image of Hardy devotedly cherished and promulgated over many years by Carl J. Weber. But this has not prevented Macmillan from reprinting in paperback Hardy’s Love Poems which, first published in 1963, perpetuates all Weber’s roseate delusions. This may well be thought cynical opportunism by the publisher, the deliberate digging of a pit for schoolchildren and students to fall into. Certainly it is no service to Carl Weber, who is made to look like a buffoon. But in publishing, the play tends to get rough when a classic author comes out of copyright, as Hardy did on 1 January 1979. This, says Richard M. Taylor in the Annual, ‘has generated a gallimaufry of new editions to exploit the lucrative Hardy market, among them some long-needed critical editions from Hardy’s old and new publishers’. ‘Gallimaufry,’ says my dictionary, is ‘any inconsistent or absurd medley’ – which seems harsh, but it is Taylor’s word, not mine. The Oxford Tess of the D’Urbervilles, edited by Simon Gatrell and the late Juliet Grindle, is in any case, we must suppose, one of those critical editions that Taylor declares to be ‘long-needed’. I will take his word for that: though, weighing its 600-plus pages in my hands, its 100 pages of General Introduction and Editorial Introduction, and its seven Appendices (including one of 70 pages listing ‘Punctuation and Styling Variants’), I have no difficulty in deciding that it hasn’t been long-needed by me. The other Oxford book is more curious. In 1979 appeared in one volume James Gibson’s Complete Poems of Thomas Hardy: A Variorum Edition. And this Richard Taylor calls ‘a major publishing event ... carried out with meticulous care and loving exactness ...’ That is putting it a bit steep, but the book is on my shelves, it is handsome and serviceable. How odd then, and yet perhaps not odd at all, that I’ve looked all through Oxford’s Volume I of The Complete Poetical Works (comprising Wessex Poems, Poems of the Past and Present and Time’s Laughingstocks), and found no mention by the editor Samuel Hynes of James Gibson’s traverse of just the same ground only three years before. The only difference I can find is that two private collectors, Frederick B. Adams and Richard Little Purdy, have extended to Hynes facilities they denied to Gibson, and that Hardy’s 32 charming and often witty drawings for Wessex Poems are now restored to the text. This makes this Oxford edition a very pretty book, if that’s what you’re looking for: otherwise, for obvious reasons, James Gibson is the better buy if he’s still available. The real scandal is that we now have two expensive books where it isn’t clear that we needed even one. For as we might expect of such a secretive man as Hardy, virtually nothing survives in the way of work-sheets or even early drafts: there is no question of our following through the process of composition, as we can in the wholly different case of Yeats. Only in a very few instances can we reconstruct from the printed variants anything more than accidents put right, or aimless tinkerings. The holographs that exist are, as once again we might expect of Hardy, virtually all ‘fair copies’. What this means is that we have, once over if not twice over, a case of bare-faced book-making. One sees what Taylor means by speaking of ‘the lucrative Hardy market’. And at the end of the depressing story, the best consolation we can find is that it isn’t a more magnanimous author who, sixty years after his death, is exploited thus shamelessly. The truth is that Hardy has become a hobby. There is a Thomas Hardy Society, which publishes its own Review. What passes for Hardy scholarship and Hardy criticism (honourable exceptions in the Annual are John Bayley, Arthur Pollard and Lennart A. Bjork) is the sedate riding of hobby-horses. Is this also ‘exploitation’? Not many people will think so.