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Hardy lecture – aspects of narrative:
The chance to talk about a man who would take his place on my desert island is welcome. It is a bit of a running joke in the English department that I revere Hardy and this is my first teaching point today: You should, as students of literature, be aware of alternative views and critical positions and with Hardy this is vital.
To me he is a genius, worthy of the highest respect as a technician in his poetry and able to move me deeply by his portrayal of often ordinary people and ordinary events made special by the manner of his telling. To others , his technical ability is never in doubt, but they see a cantankerous, self-obsessed old man – a voyeur undoubtedly, but one whose often depressed personality has led him to be a bit too quick to wring out the self pity from many an event.
This dichotomy is at the heart of the Aspects of Narrative course. You need to look not simply at what is being said, but at how the writer presents it. Consideration must be given to SLAP – structure/setting, language, action, people. In setting I include both physical setting and time of day/time passing. Action relates to what actually happens in the poem/novel and people to characterisation. Language should be self-explanatory. We will consider three of the poems in the anthology in detail later, but before that, some discussion of an autobiographical nature:
Necessarily brief here, we should be aware of Hardy in context. He was born in 1840 and died in 1928. This long life makes him a contemporary of both Dickens and T.S.Eliot, for example – a man who was born in the agricultural world of rural Dorset and who lived to see his Wessex transformed by “planes, trains and automobiles”. This was a world where, as a schoolboy, the whole world was found in the three mile walk from Stinsford to Dorchester and where, as an adult, cross_Atlantic travel was taken as a matter of course.
His parents were working class but he had a mother who was ambitious for her son. He was educated and moved out of his social circle to study architecture in London before returning to Dorset and settling – eventually.
It is vital when we read Hardy that we give full weight both to his social status and the area of his birth. Hardy was put through school by his determined and somewhat fearsome mother, despite the fact that as a stonemason’s son, this path was not socially open to him in many ways. Though he did live in London briefly as a student and apprentice, he was at home in Dorset. We should try to imagine just how behind the times Dorset was in 1840, and indeed in 1900. This is relevant when we consider a man whose intellectual aspirations to join the Victorian intellectual elite were often thwarted. Critics and fellow writers alike would feel little compunction in mocking “little Thomas Hardy” and there is a sense of injustice in much of his writing – Jude or Return being the best examples.
The lack of acceptance on an intellectual level is important. Hardy has a very personal philosophy. His faith was lost in his early twenties and replaced with a personal version of Christian frameworks. He will, however, not write of an after life – a heaven or hell – yet obviously believes that we are all possessed of some form of immortal spirit (if not soul) which can live on after our death. Also, in a manner reminiscent of a Wordsworthian Romanticism, Nature becomes a teacher and guide, an in the poems is joined by other abstracts, invariably capitalised, such as Time, Life and so on. God has been replaced by a series of ideas, all of which are often linked to the idea of “hap” or fate.
His marriage to Emma Lavinia Gifford in 1874 heralded a period of nomadic life before returning to Dorchester and settling. His marriage was a disaster and is the material for another lecture, but we need to be aware of just how bitterly he felt the pain of this ill-matched pairing. If you have any doubt, read Jude the Obscure. Emma’s death released some of the finest poetry in the English language, however, and we need to be open to this and to the story of grief which it unfolds to us.
Indeed love and its pains are a common thread in the poems. Hardy married late and wished for children. He was to be disappointed. His many Platonic friendships throughout his life need to be read alongside the many poems which cry out at his frustration with missed opportunities in love. Indeed a poem like “I LOOK INTO MY GLASS” with its focus on the passions still felt by an old man read as heartbreaking raging against nature and “HAP”.
His second marriage, to Florence Dugdale, is not the focus for this lecture.
I want to look at several of the poems in the anthology in some detail to explore the narrative style evident in them.
NEUTRAL TONES (1867):
From the title one expects blandness and a lack of colour. One is not prepared for the depth of emotion and negativity one finds. And Hardy was only 28 when he wrote this. The poem has a definite locus –outdoors in winter by the side of a pond. This pond is important to the tale – “we stood by a pond…and a pond edged with grayish leaves”. We see Hardy using the pond to frame the poem and thus ensuring that we focus on it. It is, presumably, a specific pond from his memory, but we can take this further – a pond might well symbolise a lake of tears or some unfathomable depth of grief. Indeed Hardy’s pathetic fallacy, so often a part of his writing leaves little room for doubt here: “the sun was white, leaves lay on the starving sod (focus on starving rhythmically), fallen from an ash and were gray”. In the first stanza alone we are presented with a monochrome world, bleached of any emotion let alone happiness and turned to dust/ash.
Within this setting, the characters emerge – two people entwined in sadness and the end of a relationship. “WE” is the opening word of the poem putting focus onto the pair, yet the poem is told through the eyes of one person who is interpreting the actions/appearance of the other. The mood is signalled as I outlined above, and it is hard to avoid the sense of a story being told by an aggrieved lover. The regular use of “and” as a connective is interesting and increases the sense of a narrative being told on the spur of the moment as new memories slide into place.
In the second stanza we again get the idea of a narrator who can not see positively in any way. The memory is of “tedious riddles” and the discussion wholly nihilistic – “which lost the more by our love”. The inability of the pair to communicate is heightened by the personification of the “words” of their conversation which can only “play” between them. Thus Hardy creates character in this poem as surely as in one of his great novels.
This sense of character is continued in the next stanza with the spectacular metaphor of the smile – “deadest thing alive to have the strength to die”. This almost reads as an oxymoron, but it is not. Rather it hints at the struggle implied in smiling at all, such being the depth of pain felt. To have died would have ended the struggle, this smile implies that the pain is still present and is masked by a socially required smile. The masking is not effective however since the smile becomes a “grin”. A “grin of bitterness”. Both characters are now revealed – the sensitive depressed and the bitter lover who may be enjoying (grin) the pain caused.
In the last stanza, Hardy uses a technique with which we will become familiar in this course, that of the sudden focus shift and move into the present. We discover that the whole is a flashback seen clearly by a narrator who becomes identified with Hardy. From his vantage point in the present he comment s on the past and draws his conclusions which take on the mood of sententiae as he applies them to his life. We see a beautifully balanced alliterative pair in “wrings with wrong” before another list, using “and” as the narrator finishes his story, piling up the details before closing with the pond as mentioned earlier. The leaves are now grayish – can we read any hope here? It seems to me that the tone is hardly positive, but one of the key strengths of Hardy as a poet is in finding positives in the worst situations. This may be one of the first examples of this. It would tie in with the idea of the voice of experience (at 27!) revealed in the final stanza if he were to find perspective a this stage.
THE DARKLING THRUSH
Finding a positive in negatives is well shown here in a poem written at New Year 1899 as Hardy faced a new Millennium. Here he couches his philosophy in a carefully constructed narrative. It is worth noting the reasons for pessimism: He and Emma had separated in their own home; he had stopped writing novels after the traumatic birth of Jude; England seemed to be permanently at war, and living in a garrison town, Hardy could not but be aware of this.
This poem reflects the depression which Hardy views the coming new millennium and puts it into a perfect little narrative. The locus is clear – “spectre-gray” is one of Hardy’s typical compound adjectives and creates an immediate sense not only of sparseness, but also of ill-omen. The landscape is harsh and the “bine-stems” stand starkly against the sky. Here, however, Hardy develops the character of the narrator as he develops his descriptive simile of the “broken lyre strings”. This not only makes a link with the poet as artist, but conjures up a specific figure from Classical mythology –Orpheus. The link is strengthened by the use of “haunted” to describe the figures which are absent from the landscape. We also notice that the setting is at dusk – a time between time when nothing is quite clear or quite as it seems.
This use of time is a typical feature of Hardy’s writing and you will need to look out for it in all that you read.
The narrative then moves from the setting to a carefully constructed metaphor where the landscape takes on the appearance of the “Century’s corpse”. This is an image which works strongly –personification? Pathetic Fallacy? And the alliteration of the C sounds is maintained in the next line building the sense of the “sharp features” of the landscape which is directly linked with Hardy himself in the final line.
It is at this point that the thrush is introduced to develop the sense of hope-against-the –odds. At first the singer is a mystery – “a voice arose”, again personification serving to build the anticipation for what is to follow. Compounds appear again – “blast-beruffled” and “full-hearted” before we focus on another list, this time accentuating the frailty of the bird and it is this frailty which is thrown into strong contrast by the use of the word “fling” to describe the act of singing. It is this contrast which makes the poem – if the thrush can behave like this, surely mankind can do the same?
The Emma poems, written immediately after her death in 1912 and continuing in the collection on and off until Hardy’s death, provide some of the most moving poems in the canon. It is possible to read here a psychological study of grief as Hardy seems to move from anger or frustration, through grief towards some form of acceptance of Emma’s death. I want to use At CASTLE BOTEREL here to look at the techniques which Hardy uses to carry his narrative. Hardy has made the journey which he suggested in the poem The Going, and although he has not been blessed with “bright spring weather”, he is visiting the places which saw the birth of his relationship with Emma. He is 72 – quite an undertaking.
Once again, great care is taken to establish locus. A clear description is given of Hardy driving at a specific location in Boscastle with care taken to establish the weather as a form of pathetic fallacy. Even the diminutive “wagonette” sometimes criticised as a forced rhyme with “wet”, suggests the care for detail in the narrative here. At this point, Hardy muddies his careful structure with enjambment which carries the narrative forward as the vision becomes clear in his mind.
Now he has entered the analepsis or flashback, Hardy continues to use the present tense to tell his story. He shows us a pair “benighted” an archaism to reflect the flashback implying being stranded as night falls. Again the narrative occupies a time between times allowing mystery and less than precise clarity in memory. The vocabulary matches the tiredness of the pony (sighed and slowed) and small details are clearly presented to add veracity.
Hardy draws focus to his philosophy of life by using time once again. He stresses the brevity of the moment and asks us to consider how important it was –“was there ever a time of such quality, before or after?” he asks as his memory focuses on he and Emma some forty years previously. The narrative takes second place to philosophy here as Hardy links his memory to primaeval rocks and the idea that nature can retain memory within itself, communicated across aeons, which can be “read” by those who are sensitive enough (“to one mind never…”) and certainly, therefore, by Hardy himself. The information is separated from the stanza by a dash in a typically Hardy-like use of punctuation as he reveals his slightly bathetic information –“we two passed”.
Hardy now writes in the present as he seeks to analyse his vision – despite “Time’s unflinching rigour” ( note Time as the ruler – a God like presence), the memory and the image are still strong. He gives the reader a clear image of Emma’s ghostly form with the repetition and rhyme of the last stanza, refocuses on the idea of time with the metaphorical “my sand is sinking”, before closing with a self reflective comment – “and I shall traverse old love’s domains/ Never again. A delay before revealing the negative tone of this statement, throwing “Never” to a strong position opening the last line and ensuring that Hardy–as-narrator is seen as coming to terms with his isolation and removal from love. It is an irony that he was remarried within two years!
Hardy creates little narrative masterpieces in his poetry. There is a clear and carefully constructed sense of locus and a use of images –often pathetic fallacy- to help to establish the inner workings of characters. Her plays with time in the manner of modern novelists, eschewing the linear here for something altogether more complicated. This is not always the case. You should read the ballads such as the Sunday Morning Tragedy to see the linear story telling which is based on dialogue and a willingness to spin a tale as long as possible, using heavy foreshadowing to build the sense of tension which the irony of the story requires if it is to be successful.
There are key devices which you should be looking for. Here is a quick checklist – by no means complete:
• Shift of narrative perspective in final stanzas.
• Use of pathetic fallacy to create mood and suggest character
• Use of time between time as a setting
• Compound nouns and adjectives
• Voyeuristic narrative voice and tiny details carrying significance
• Autobiographical writing both in the sense of telling his own story and, in the case of Convergence of the twain, positing a personal philosophy.
• Finding hope in the bleakest outlook.
• Using the ordinary and making it extraordinary.
Enough. Are there any questions?