Miserable Creatures

C.H. Sisson

  • The Collected Letters of Thomas Hardy. Vol. IV: 1909-1913 edited by Richard Little Purdy and Michael Millgate
    Oxford, 337 pp, £21.00, March 1984, ISBN 0 19 812621 2
  • The Letters and Prose Writings of William Cowper. Vol. IV: 1792-1799 edited by James King and Charles Ryskamp
    Oxford, 498 pp, £48.00, March 1984, ISBN 0 19 812681 6
  • The Land and Literature of England: A Historical Account by Robert M. Adams
    Norton, 555 pp, £21.00, March 1984, ISBN 0 393 01704 4
  • The Complete Poetical Works of Thomas Hardy. Vol. II edited by Samuel Hynes
    Oxford, 543 pp, £35.00, June 1984, ISBN 0 19 812783 9

The fourth volume of the Collected Letters of Thomas Hardy opens with a recommendation for Mr Harry Pouncy, ‘Lecturer and Entertainer’, of Dorchester, apparently with a view to his extending his fascinations to a wider public. There follows a note to Desmond MacCarthy suggesting – surely with the firm touch of a provincial or a Victorian survivor – that it would be better if the New Quarterly were called instead the Quarterly Herald or Quarterly Clarion, ‘or some such’. The first of these letters occupies five lines of print, the second three. Hardy was not the man to give away copy unnecessarily. In January 1909, at the age of 68, he had his last novel, Jude the Obscure, 12 years behind him and his first volume of verse, Wessex Poems, no more than ten years. He had just finished The Dynasts and was preparing Time’s Laughing-Stocks for the press. He was not only a well-known novelist but an incipient Great Figure; in 1910 he was awarded the OM. He was a clubman and at this stage still took a flat in London for a few weeks at the right time of year; one has the impression that all this was to advance his career rather than for any pleasure such things might give him. At home in Dorchester he was as guarded as ever: ‘Although I can influence a London public to a slight extent by press letters, I can influence nobody down here.’ He even seems to take a certain satisfaction in telling people what he is not willing or able to do. He is a curmudgeonly old man and no mistake, and as a correspondent he acts on the best security principles, telling no one more than he or she needs to know for the business in hand. Such a habit of mind can hardly make the most gracious of letter-writers, and Hardy is not one of those whose communications one reads for their own sakes, as one does the letters of Madame de Sevigné, Madame du Deffand, Edward Fitzgerald – or indeed of William Cowper, the new edition of whose Letters and Prose Writings has just reached its fourth volume. Yet Hardy’s letters are admirable in their way, laconic and to the point, written with his eye on the spirit-level, as becomes the son of a small builder.

Even without what we know of Hardy’s bonfires and of the extraordinary lengths he went to to deceive posterity or at least to keep it at bay, the very style of his letters could be taken as an injunction to the reader to mind his own business as he, T.H., was certainly engaged all the time in minding his, with relentless attention. ‘Some boys have at last been caught by our servants stealing apples on these premises,’ he writes to the Superintendent of the Dorchester police. ‘I am reluctantly compelled to ask you to inquire into the matter, & at least caution the boys, or get the Mayor to caution them from the bench.’ There must have been smiles at police headquarters and they seem to have settled for a constable speaking to the boys. Domestic – more or less – notes include arrangements for little trips with Miss Dugdale, that friend of liberty Edward Clodd appropriately providing a meeting-place where ‘the air, material & spiritual, was wonderful.’ Emma gets vital messages from the Athenaeum: ‘I did not bring my ordinary walking great coat – only that long water-proof: so I have to walk about in it, having nothing else.’ Then, on 27 November 1912, to Charles Gifford: ‘You will be grieved and shocked to hear Emma died this morning shortly after nine o’clock.’ There follow, besides the usual replies to condolences, a glimpse or two of the squalor of domestic unhappiness: ‘I am getting through E.’s papers ... It was, of course, sheer hallucination in her, poor thing, and not wilfulness ... If once I get you here again’ – he is addressing Florence Dugdale – ‘won’t I clutch you tight?’ Six weeks later he told her, from Boscastle:

the visit to this neighbourhood has been a very painful one to me, & I have said a dozen times I wish I had not come. What possessed me to do it! I went to St Juliot yesterday alone ... Looking back it has seemed such a cruel thing altogether that events which began so auspiciously should have turned out as they did. And now suppose something shd happen to you, physically, as it did to her mentally!

Decidedly one does not like Hardy any better for reading his letters; they would be sobering for anyone foolish enough to think that the charm of a poet’s work must extend to his life. Hardy’s own wish to dissociate the writer from his work went further than even his ordinary habits of caution could require: ‘Like you,’ he wrote to Gosse in 1909, ‘I cannot see how details of one’s personal history, when certain books were read, &c, can be required for any legitimate literary criticism.’

Yet the letters do add a dimension to our reading of Hardy. He comes out so plainly as the tenacious, self-interested Dorset man of modest station, more or less self-educated, determined to keep his end up, intellectually and socially, though neither his ideas nor his social graces were exactly distinguished. What distinguished him was that he was at once the embodiment and the voice of generations of shrewd practical people. The element of magazine romanticism in the novels never masks the voice for long and in the poems it is heard continuously. ‘If I had been able to follow my instincts,’ Hardy said, ‘[I] would probably never have written a line of prose.’ Maybe, but whether the verse would have been the better for that is more doubtful. There is a more radical point in the remark to Henry Newbolt that ‘no man ever wrote himself out if he goes on living as he lived when he first began to write. It is the other thing, the social consequence of his first works, that does the mischief, – if he lets it.’ One could put many glosses on that, but the essential point is that, behind all his social progresses and defences, Hardy was instinctively protecting that inner forum in which the Muse had put in her first appearance, no doubt unasked. It is this involuntary vatic voice, speaking through the boy from Bockhampton, which matters to us now rather than the incidents of personal history.

Cowper was a different sort of letter-writer altogether. He was a different sort of man, far less capable of looking after himself, far less interested in doing so. He was born over a hundred years earlier and – much more important – into a completely different class of society. If Hardy had to make his own way in the world, Cowper was a fugitive from it; having started where such genteel employments as the clerkship in the House of Lords lay open to him, he was driven by invincible nervous depression to carpentry and pet hares in a rural seclusion. ‘I cannot indeed say that I have ever been actually deprived of understanding,’ he writes to Hayley in April 1792, ‘but near thirty years ago I had a disorder of mind that unfitted me for all society, and was in fact during many months sequester’d from it.’ But an immense civility was part of Cowper’s nature as it is of his writing, and the man who wrote in 1792 that he had ‘not journey’d 20 miles from home these 20 years’ was in agonies at the prospect of going into society because he feared he might not behave as he should. ‘I would have given the world to have been excused, sensible that I was unfit for company, and fearing lest I should unavoidably discover that unfitness by a countenance too faithful to my feelings.’ On this occasion he was able to add: ‘I went, however, and carried my point against myself, assuming a cheerful aspect and behaving cheerfully, with a heart riven asunder.’ The very tone of the prose as it were seconds this heroic rationality and self-abnegation, which does not abandon Cowper even in the most awkward corners of religious mania. His mania indeed spoke a theological language, but in other times might well have spoken differently. He was convinced that he should have committed suicide years before. God, he wrote to Samuel Teedon in 1794, ‘considers me as a traytor, and acts towards me as he does, for that reason’. ‘I can hope nothing – believe nothing – I am and have long been the most miserable of the human race, and he knows it. Knows how ardently I wish that I had never existed, yet continually adds more and more to my burthen. How is this reconcileable with any idea that he has mercy for me?’ In the ‘spiritual diary’ of 1795, which is included in this volume, he wrote: ‘Such was not the mercy I expected from Thee ... Farewell to the remembrance of Thee forever. I must now suffer thy wrath, but forget that I ever heard thy name.’ Cowper is passing into a world in which horror is speechless and theology is meaningless. The immediate occasion of these terrors was the prospect of a journey into Norfolk.

In outward circumstances, the microcosms presented in both the Hardy and the Cowper correspondence are nothing but the ordinary miserable world of old age, of which not less depressing versions are to be found everywhere. The Hardy volume takes its author from the age of 68 to 73; the Cowper volume is the last, and takes him to his death. The Cowper story includes the distresses of Mrs Unwin – a series of strokes, somewhat more sympathetically recorded, to put it no more strongly, than the distresses of Emma Hardy. It is not that what happens to writers is more remarkable than what happens to the rest of mankind, merely that through them we may see ordinary events more vividly because we have glimpses of how they appeared to minds exceptionally lucid or devious, and can measure how little separates such minds from our own, when it comes to the ordinary business of living. The historical periods of familiar letter-writing are limited and for a large part of literature the clues the practice offers us are missing. In the end letter-writing is valuable less for its clues to the supposed personality of the author than as a form of literature in itself, subject to the same tests: Does it please us? Is it elegant? Does it appear to enlighten us as to a world beyond itself? – questions which I dare say are not allowed those who credit theories, political and otherwise, as to exactly how ‘texts’ should be read. The more fumbling reader would no more think of having theories about how to read books than about how to understand his friends.

The Foreword to Robert M. Adams’s The Land and Literature of England gives some indication that this merely humane view of literature is now felt to be under threat. His bland intention is ‘to set forth the outlines of English history so that they may serve as background for the study of English literature’. He denies that the task is impossible, though such a work can hardly equip the reader with what he will feel he needs to know about this or that period in order to understand what a particular author is talking about, for there is no limit to the distances or directions in which our inquiries may send us. Adams admits that if his book ‘undertook to pronounce some sort of final, definitive word on anything’, it could not be other than a failure. He has in mind only ‘background material for a one-year introduction to English literature’ – in itself a mind-boggling notion to the laity. Whether what he has provided is more or less the right thing must depend on where the student sets out from, but in principle it is certainly right that some knowledge of a nation’s history is an indispensable part of reading any of its literature. The literature itself is part of the history; there might even be a sense in which the history – in any wide view of it – is part of the literature. That people should become suspicious of history, in view of the corrupt and polemical uses made of it, is understandable, and the most widely-shared legends are not among the least suspect. But a literature cannot exist without a legend, most powerful no doubt when it is not thought of as that. The Aeneid could not have come into existence without the fact of Rome and her conquests, and it has not since been possible to think of Rome – with whatever qualifications – without taking up in some measure the drift of Virgil’s poem. These are the ineluctable games the human mind plays with itself and – wriggle how we will – we should certainly become less human if by some miracle we could stop playing them.

The agonies and uncertainties which attend the reading of history in our time – the reflection of our fear of catastrophic instabilities in our superficially so plausible world – must make the task of writing an introductory history one to be approached with caution. ‘There are constitutional, political, social, economic, military, diplomatic and cultural histories,’ says Robert Adams, perhaps without mentioning specifically what is most in his mind; ‘most general histories are a medley of all these varieties.’ What sort of history is required for the student who is to be introduced to English literature? Adams produces as from a hat the answer that ‘since like most of the world’s literatures, the literature of England has mostly been written for and by the educated, who commonly are the leisured and relatively wealthy classes’, history ‘as it affects them’ is what is wanted. It is an ingenious answer, but no one but an ex post facto theorist ever thought that books were written for classes, still less that poems were. They are not even written for ‘the educated’ or for any other abstraction, and the moment we insist on so regarding them we are out of the world of literature into that of sociology. It is as a voice addressing us across time or from our own time that literature comes to us, and the surest voices are those we hear loud and clear from the depths of societies quite unlike our own. And what is this history which affects the educated, or even the leisured and wealthy classes, and not the rest of the world? The Saxon invasions? The Norman Conquest? The Reformation? The Civil War? The Great War of 1914-18? All these events entered the lives of all sorts and conditions of men, ultimately of everybody in this island, and it is these common experiences which have bound us together and which make up our own barely admitted legend.

Robert Adams is certainly right to insist that something of this historic muddle must be known to people who are to know anything of our literature. It is really no more than to say that literature is not just a series of ‘texts’ but is about something and has reference to the world beyond itself. A certain chaos has to be preserved in literary studies and any attempt to prescribe what kinds of reference – economic or social or ideological – are legitimate, to the exclusion of others, is an attack on intellectual liberty for which – whatever there is to be said for other forms of education – a free-ranging exploration of humane literature remains an indispensable form of training.

A history such as Robert Adams’s can, of course, do no more than suggest to the more intelligent student in what directions he may have to look for further enlightenment. If one tries out the book’s utility in relation to particular authors one will find such generalities as that Hardy’s books are ‘rich in feeling for the old pastoral countryside’, and the dubious comment that ‘there is nothing soft or nostalgic about them’; or that Cowper’s hymns among others ‘did a good deal to relieve the spiritual desiccation of the 18th-century Anglican establishment’ – mere questionable hints of what lifelong inquiries the reader of the seemingly most inoffensive literature has before him, if he reads to understand. The itch for generalities is inevitably strong in anyone working on this scale, but the few particulars Adams is able to give about Cowper’s life are certainly more to the point than such assertions as that it was ‘the high-pressure, tightly ordered world’ of his day that ‘drove Cowper mad’.

The second volume of the Oxford edition of The Complete Poetical Works of Thomas Hardy contains Satires of Circumstance, Moments of Vision and Late Lyrics and Earlier – that is to say, roughly the middle four hundred pages of Macmillan’s one-volume New Wessex edition of the Complete Poems, of which there is also a Variorum Edition rather unpleasantly set out with numbered lines, presumably for the benefit of textual acrobats rather than of readers. The Oxford edition contains the variant readings, with such minute differences of presentation, as compared with James Gibson’s Variorum, as only the aficionado will wish to pore over. The printing, paper and production are in the best style of the Press; the Explanatory Notes are on a discreet scale. It cannot be said that Hardy’s works are of a kind which benefits greatly from scholarly labours, and no ordinary reader will be much the worse off for not possessing one of the grander editions. But it is not for admirers of Hardy to murmur when their poet enters Elysium.