Thomas Hardy was a successful writer of novels, short stories and poetry. While each of these areas could be used to analyze his writing style, the area of choice is his poetry. This is based on two reasons. Firstly, poetry is an area of writing that comes closest to representing the writer's style because of its personal nature. Secondly, it is known that Hardy had to revise many of his short stories to make them acceptable for publication. The short stories then, do not only represent Hardy's own style, they also represents what publications wanted to see. Hardy's poetry is thought to be the best example of Hardy's own individual style, and for this reason the poetry will be considered as a means of investigating his style.
This overall style has been described saying, "His style is rugged, his tone often melancholic, and his humor grim, but his choice of words is magical and his meaning is always clear" (Kamm 201). This summary of this style includes reference to three areas of Hardy's style: tone, humor and word choice. A final consideration is the common themes of Hardy's poetry. To consider Hardy's style further, each of these aspects will be discussed in turn.
The tone of Hardy's poems can best be described as melancholic, a tone that is created by a combination of reflection and sadness. Hardy's poems commonly reflect on some aspect of his life or his past and do so with a sadness in them, this sadness bordering on depressive. An example is in the poem "In Tenebris," which begins with the verse:
But my bereavement-pain
It cannot bring again:
Twice no one dies" (Hurford 504).
This beginning immediately creates the melancholic tone. Another example is the poem "The Oxen" which has been described as a poem where, "The poet looks back regretfully to his boyhood days when he believed in miracles" (Firor 150). This poem also has a tone of regret, longing and sadness, with this emphasized in the last verse of the poem where the poet described what he would do if asked to see the oxen:
In the lonely barron by the yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,' should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so" (Hurford 492).
This captures both the longing for the past and the sadness that is characteristic of Hardy's melancholic tone.
The humor in Hardy's poems is not an obvious humor but a dry humor that tends to evoke a sense of sadness in the reader, rather than a sense of laughter. An example is in the poem "Afterwards," the third verse capturing Hardy's approach to humor:
If I pass during some nocturnal blackness, mothy and warm,
When the hedgehog travels furtively over the lawn,
One may say, 'He strove that such innocent creatures should come to no harm,
But he could do little for them; and now he is gone" (Hurford 330).
This second line describing the hedgehog travelling furtively over the lawn is a humorous image and in some context may make the reader laugh. However, Hardy's first lines with the 'nocturnal blackness' creates a sense of darkness that takes away from the humor. The final two lines expressing his inability to do anything for the creatures and his death, make the verse a sad one. Any humor that Hardy created then adds to a sense of sadness. This creates an impact where the reader experiences the humor in a negative way. They see the humor for a moment and then continuing reading, the humor dies and the reader feels sorry that they saw humor at all. This quality adds to the meaning of the poem. Hardy is looking back on his life at the momentary good things but with an overall sadness. The same effect is created in the reader, with the humor there for a moment and then becoming sadness. This is an effective tool that Hardy uses in many poems, where the humor actually adds to the sadness in the poem.
Overall, Hardy uses slight humor but in such a way that rather than be humorous it actually adds to the sadness of the poem, while also evoking emotions in the reader.
Hardy's word choice can be described as archaic, with Hardy often using unusual words that suggest a link to the past.
In "The Oxen" Hardy includes the line "In the lonely barron by the yonder coomb" (Hurford 492). The words 'barron,' 'yonder' and 'coomb' are all unusual choice and create the impression that they may be ancient words unused in modern times. This gives the verse a quality that suggests the meaning and significance of it. This also matches with Hardy's tone of longing for the past. In sound, this line is quite distinctive and beautiful. This creates a sense of longing in the reader as well for these past times when everything was simpler and more beautiful.
Another poem that illustrates word choice is "In Tenebris." This poem ends with the verse:
Black is night's cope;
But death will not appal
One who, past doubtings all,
Waits in unhope" (Hurford 504).
This also uses unusual word's like 'appal,' 'doubtings' and 'unhope.' 'Unhope' is also a good example of how Hardy invented words to express himself. In this case, the word is the most significant one in the verse, being the final word and the one that emphasizes the poet's feelings. This invented word 'unhope' captures the feeling of being completely devoid of hope, a sadness in this that no other word could quite match. Hardy could have used various other words to express himself, such as 'distress' or 'despair,' but none of these would have quite captured the same thing. The invented word has the ability to express something greater, to capture attention and to ensure Hardy's poems are not seen as contrived. These invented words are common in Hardy's poetry.
Hardy's theme commonly show a longing for the past and a sense of despair at life. As one book describes, Hardy's poems are alike in their "strange, dignified and lyrical descriptions of humankind and our tortured relationships with other forms of life and the environment" (Moore & Moore 182).
This quality of longing for the past was noted in "The Oxen" which described the poet reflecting on seeing the oxen on Christmas Eve and ending with their thoughts that if they were ever asked to see the oxen again, they would not be there. This poem has the themes of how everything changes and the past is lost forever, while also having the sad longing for the past. This poem has been described saying it represents the loss of joy, which is replaced by a "disillusioned maturity, of the doubt and despair of the Victorian age" (Houghton & Stange 783). This links to Hardy's own reflections on his life and his world, with the poem not just describing a longing for an event in his past, but a longing for the entire world of his past, a time when everything was simpler and more joyful.
This same tortured description of humankind is the theme of the poem "Afterwards" where Hardy reflects on the meaningless of his life and the fact that he will die, pondering what people will say after his death. Also in this poem, there is the sad realization that nothing he does will matter.
Another poem that expresses one particular sadness inherent in the human condition is "The Going." In this poem Hardy describes the loss of love: