The Improving Hand. The New Wessex edition of the Complete Poems
Hardy as a poet is still an area where people can differ, dispute, form quite individual likes and dislikes, find — a familiar miracle, this -superb poems, which, they would swear, have eluded for years their devoted reading. Above all, and perhaps blessedly, as a poet he too eludes much academic and pontifical generalisation. We all know by now what a gaffe T. S. Eliot made when he tried to patronise and damn with faint—very faint—praise Hardy’s achievements as a poet. Only Eliot’s countryman, Henry James, has outdone Eliot’s snobbish dismissal of Hardy’s work as the self-expression of a self hardly worth expressing. One is at once reminded of James writing to Stevenson about Tess: ‘Oh, yes, dear Louis … The pretence of sexuality is only equalled by the absence of it.’ If the test of a great poet is to make high-falutin’ critics angry, then ‘the good little Thomas Hardy’ (James’s phrase again) passes in the first class of poets. Gloomily anticipating such critics when he brought out his first book of verses, Hardy wrote to Gosse: ‘I do not expect a particularly gracious reception of them’, while faced with his own first American critic, Professor W. L. Phelps, a few years later, Hardy was ‘evidently pained’ at the latter’s somewhat casual dismissal of his poems, and took his revenge, it seems, by giving Phelps not the literary discussion he hoped, but an extensive lecture on the cats frequenting Max Gate.
KeywordsLiterary Discussion American Critic Neutral Tone Great Poet Railway Train
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