Thomas Hardy / Elizabeth Barrett Browning Considered Essay

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Thomas Hardy / Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Considered purely as a poet, Thomas Hardy has earned the status of a Modernist, or at the very least an honorary Modernist. Claire Tomalin's recent biography of Hardy would have us believe that, in essence, Hardy had a full career as a late Victorian novelist, then retired, then was suddenly reborn as a craggy and philosophical Modernist poet, a latter-day Robert Browning for the age of the sinking of the Titanic and onset of the Great War. Tomalin assesses Hardy's "short, harsh poems" quite favorably -- noting that the undervaluing of Hardy's poetry began when his 1914 volume "Satires of Circumstance could not have appeared at a more unpropitious time, in the first winter of the [Great] War."[footnoteRef:0] Tomalin is not alone in thinking Hardy's poetry has been underrated, and that Hardy's reputation deserves to be higher than it is, ironic because those English poets who came after him and who palpably felt his influence -- like Auden or Larkin -- all named him as the greatest twentieth century poet (presumably in contrast to the windy mysticism of Yeats or the hermetic experimentalism of Eliot, probably Hardy's two biggest rivals to such title within his own lifetime). Harold Bloom has listed Auden, for example, as a mere "ephebe" of Hardy, an "agon" which Bloom thinks that Hardy wins, as the better or "stronger" poet, while, the English "Movement" poets such as Philip Larkin -- who was mainly reacting against the widespread popularity of Dylan Thomas, and trying to distance himself from Thomas's lush verbal style -- cited Thomas Hardy's poetry as their most solid discernible influence from the Modernist period.[footnoteRef:1] I hope to illustrate Hardy's own Modernism by contrasting rhetorical strategies in narrative poetry as written by him and by one of the more noteworthy female poets of the Victorian period, Elizabeth Barrett Browning. I have described Hardy's philosophical concerns (and baggy but nonetheless formal constructions) in his poetry as being not unlike a latter-day Robert Browning, but in narrative technique Hardy surpasses Browning and his wife. For Hardy did have a full career as a novelist (Victorian or otherwise) before taking up the composition of poetry -- for which purposes I am considering him as a Modernist, which I think the testimony of both Claire Tomalin and Harold Bloom suffices to establish, despite the oddity of his temporal position -- and I think it shows in his narrative poetry. To see Hardy's narrative poetry for the Modernist construction that it is, I intend to compare a classic of Victorian narrative poetry, Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Lady Geraldine's Courtship, with a Modernist poetic sequence by Hardy, "Satires of Circumstance," with some additional glances at the other poetic pieces (including Hardy's well-known formal elegy for the sinking of the Titanic, "The Convergence of the Twain") included in Hardy's 1914 collection Satires of Circumstance, with Miscellaneous Pieces. [0: Claire Tomalin, Thomas Hardy. (New York: Penguin, 2007). 320.] [1: Harold Bloom, "Introduction." In Thomas Hardy, ed. Harold Bloom. (New York: Chelsea House, 1987). 9.]

Elizabeth Barrett Browning's work is indefeasibly Victorian: that is one of the reasons why it has fallen into relative neglect, only to be partially revived by feminist scholarship. But even the feminist scholarship which has attempted to recommend Elizabeth Barrett Browning on her own merits is still uneasily aware that the feminist strain in the Modernist movement had little time for her, if the treatment that Elizabeth Barrett Browning received at the hands of Virginia Woolf in Woolf's 1933 work "Flush," which depicted the Victorian poet as seen by her pet cocker spaniel. It is clear that Elizabeth Barrett Browning -- whose own career was overshadowed by her husband's, and whose lifelong invalidism seems to have established a lot of pernicious cliches about the female writer and intellectual as a sort of sickly presence -- was not the role model which Woolf herself would have chosen for the woman writer, yet the fact remains that Elizabeth Barrett Browning still enjoys a certain measure of genuine -- as opposed to critical -- popularity. The best known of her Sonnets from the Portuguese ("How do I love thee? Let me count the ways") remains one of the few lines of poetry that many people can quote, especially those who don't know poetry. And the story of her elopement with Robert Browning was made into a Hollywood love story in The Barretts of Wimpole Street in 1934, just a year after Woolf had published her own strange book on Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Yet one of the strongest Victorian elements in Browning's work is its insistence on narrative poetry as a means of approaching the subjects she wishes to treat: rather than the dramatic monologue technique favored by her husband and by Tennyson particularly in the Victorian period, Barrett Browning leans on an older form, where John Keats is the most recent example, of telling a sort of story in verse. Keatsian examples include such poems as "The Eve of Saint Agnes" and "Lamia" -- "Lady Geraldine's Courtship" may be taken as a fair example of Barrett Browning writing in this now-defunct poetic genre. "Lady Geraldine's Courtship" is written in the same somewhat jaunty trochaic octameter in which Edgar Allan Poe composed "The Raven," yet Barrett Browning's reason for adopting the meter is very different from Poe's purposes. Poe has taken up the meter to make his story, which is as slight as one of Keats's, seem as poetical as Keats's, but it is clear that Barrett Browning has taken up this particular meter because there is a conversational looseness to it, which will permit her to engage in poetic effects while also being able to reproduce naturalistic effects in the dialogue. As an example we might take the offhand lines towards the beginning of the poem, in which the haughty Lady Geraldine first invites the penniless but passionate poet Bertram (and Elizabeth Barrett Browning's chosen narrator for this first-person narrative) to come and stay at her estate:


"Ne'ertheless, you see, I seek it -- not because I am a woman,"

(Here her smile sprang like a fountain and, so, overflowed her mouth)

"But because my woods in Sussex have some purple shades at gloaming

Which are worthy of a king in state, or poet in his youth.[footnoteRef:2] [2: Elizabeth Barrett Browning, "Lady Geraldine's Courtship." In The Poetical Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Champaign, Ill: Project Gutenberg. Retrieved December 19, 2010, from:]

It is hard to think of that conversational "you see" -- which operates essentially as a metrical filler, to give the feel of a real conversation -- popping up in the frenentic ravings of Poe's narrator addressing the raven. Browning is attempting to approach the rhythms of natural speech here, in order to give the poem a novelistic looseness: and it is odd to realize (amid the poems references to "peasants" and great halls and titled aristocrats) that this is not the world of chivalry but actually a world of Victorian drawing-room realism, in which the poetical effects rather heighten (and lend the cast of chivalry) to what otherwise might be a scene from Jane Austen or George Eliot, save for the fact that the tempestuous high-born title character is far from Austen's or Eliot's matter-of-fact heroines, and the poetical narrator is far more Romantic a figure than either the poet in Austen's Persuasion or even Eliot's more exotic heroes like Daniel Deronda. In other words, there seems to be a vast difference between the stylization of characterization and language (despite the attempts at informal conversational style when depicting dialogue) which pits the haunted poet Bertram against the glamorous and aristocratic Geraldine.

Barrett Browning's Geraldine and Bertram are fundamentally less realistic than the creations of the Victorian novelists (female or otherwise) to whom we might compare the narrative style. And it was realism taken to an extreme which marked Hardy's own career as a Victorian novelist -- although it is interesting to note that, if the larger looming portentousness of the story's wilder moments seems to drag "Lady Geraldine's Courtship" out of the realm of drawing-room marriage proposals and into something more Keatsianly romantic, it is nothing compared to the looming portentousness of the wilder moments of a realistic novel like Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbevilles, which includes a scene in which the heroine is raped upon Stonehenge (and which pretty much defines the looming portentous tendency in Victorian fiction all by itself). Yet the poet Thomas Hardy is (as Tomalin suggests) a very different -- if in his own way equally astringent -- writer: more of a Modernist than a Victorian. After all, the novels of Thomas Hardy remind us that the poetry of Thomas Hardy was a late career choice, almost a secondary job taken up in retirement: Hardy did not begin to publish his poetry until 1898, after publishing all the major works of prose fiction for which he is still justly famous. But Hardy continued to live for another two decades,…[continue]

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