Described by the acclaimed twentieth century poet and literary critic W.H. Auden as being 'modern without being too modern', Thomas Hardy is one of the most influential and important writers in English literary history. Today, nearly a century since his death, he is still widely read in schools and by the individual reader. His literary oeuvre is punctuated by recurrent themes and, perhaps above all, by a constant return to the English countryside; after all, he set all his novels in south and southwest England, in a region he termed 'Wessex'.
His poetry is particularly striking. Scholars believe that between 1898 and 1928, Hardy published some 900 poems. The number of poems he wrote is believed to be much higher. Debate has also raged amongst literary critics over the extent to which we can place Hardy in his poetry, as either a character alluded to or the narrator itself. Either way, we can learn much from his poetry not only about how he reacted to significant events in his own life, including the death of his first wife, but also about how he reacted to significant world events, including the Second Boer War sinking of the Titanic in 1912.
As the critic Pound writes, 'Hardy is a complex figure because of his personal experiences and because he lived through turbulent times'. Fin-de-siecle Victorian society was a melting pot of beliefs and peoples. Whilst taboo issues such as homosexuality and the perceived threat of miscegenation were beginning to be explored in the literature of Oscar Wilde and Bram Stoker ('The Picture of Dorian Gray' and 'Dracula', respectively), scientific beliefs, notably Darwinism, had begun to challenge the authority of the Church. Life on the ground was also changing rapidly, as pointed to in Hardy's 1924 poem 'Nobody Comes', where he writes of 'A car...with lamps full-glare' passing him by. Industrialization and the emergence of new technologies such as the car began to alter what had been a very rural way of life before; people started to relocate to the cities in search of paid employment, thus leaving the previously active countryside quiet. The issue of new technology is a theme that Hardy touches on in his poetry, and his views on it, and the role it could play in English society of the 1900s are quite clear for readers to see.
So, in reading Hardy's poetry, we must consider contextual societal events and developments that the Victorian reader would most certainly have been aware of. Aside from these larger developments which impacted the lives of a considerable number of people in the 1890s, we must also consider Hardy's own background, and the events he experienced in his life that we can trace in his literary output. The two major romantic relationships of his life crop up frequently in his work; his first marriage of 38 years to wife Emma Gifford (1874-1912) which ended when she died, and his second marriage of 14 years to Florence Dugdale, which ended upon his death in 1928. After her death in 1912, Hardy was consumed by grief and, in what we might consider peculiar behaviour, dedicated the remaining years of his life to writing poetry about special moments they shared; touching poems including 'The Going', 'Your Last Drive' and 'I Found Her Out There' provide us with an insight into the significance of the impact of Emma's death on Hardy's thoughts. In the final years of her life, Hardy had begun to see Florence in secret (though Emma knew about this), and it seems that significance of his infidelity only dawned on him after her death, leading him to dedicate poem after poem to her. The fact that he named a group of nearly thirty poems 'Poems of 1912-13' is testament to the importance of the immediate period after Emma's death for Hardy. Unsurprisingly, Florence, who moved in with the poet the year after Emma's death, felt somewhat isolated and ignored in her marriage, though there was a great deal of love and affection between the married couple, who remained together until Hardy's death in 1928.
As with all of his prose, Hardy's poetry has a distinctive English rurality to it. Set in the region he described as "Wessex", Hardy seems to yearn for a return to the past, to how things used to be. Though he is sceptical of the role that industrialization will have on England, this return to the past also encompasses a desire to relive those years he spent married to Emma, years that he, deep down, knows he will never be able to live again.
It would be wrong, however, to describe his poetry as being concerned only with personal issues. in 'Drummer Hodge', he tackles head on what he sees as a waste of young lives and resources, namely war. His clever juxtaposition of geographic features that belong in both southern England and South Africa highlights to the reader just how out of place Drummer Hodge is, alone, in some unknown corner of the planet. What is more, in his poem 'The Convergence of the Twain', he criticises what he perceives as mankind's attempts to outdo the power of the natural world with technological innovation; as Hardy puts it, 'the smart ship' is no match for 'the Shape of Ice', that leads to her sinking and the deaths of hundreds on-board.
Hardy's musings on the natural world don't focus solely on its power, but also its harsh and uncaring character. In 'Neutral Tones', the bleak and desolate setting (akin to that we read of in Eliot's 'The Waste Land') does nothing to comfort the narrator as an early romance comes to an end. Likewise, in 'I Look into My Glass', Hardy reflects on the passive and potent nature of Time, describing it as a malevolent agent that seeks to provoke bitterness in those who it affects.
In spite of the verse form, rhythm or rhyme scheme used, Hardy returns to some key themes in his poetic output: love, how it can be extinguished and how the loss of a loved one impacts on an individual; the incessant passing of Time and our inability to prevent that, and the importance of place and setting in our lives. Whether he be read as a pensive and regretful widower, an anti-war campaigner or a provincial Luddite, Thomas Hardy, as a poet, continues to make us think and that, above all else, is arguably why he is still so popular almost a century since he last put pen to paper.