Friday, 11 December 2009

Meat and butter

Here's a fascinating comparison of Hardy and Eliot by Dan Jacobson. The author praises Hardy highly but admits he was a late convert:
Hardy — inasmuch as I knew his verse — struck me as something of a simpleton, a bumpkin, a striker-off of jingles, of tortuous rhymes and phrases, an eager deliverer of solemn queries masquerading as deep thought...

But he comes around:
What I did not notice in Hardy's poetry then, or dismissed glibly because it seemed to me so deliberately "unsmart", was how much steel there is in it. Nor did I pick up on its tenderness. Or its proud and close attention to detail. Or the poet's singular capacity, almost as if he were working in filigree, to create a sense of surprise and elevation by way of both his most elaborate and his most humble-seeming rhymes and rhythms; as he did also with the patterns constantly being drawn and redrawn on the page by the varying lengths of his lines. Yes, there are failures and absurdities in the poems — how could anyone deny it? — but they are more than balanced by utterances that fuse the speaker, the reader and the people figured in the poems into a unity from which none of them can escape. And from which they would not wish to escape, if only they knew themselves better.

I agree  - the poems of 1912-13 are surely some of the greatest in the language. However, I would also make a case for some of the more humble country verses, that some may well see as 'absurdities'.

The article sent me back to re-read some of the ones I'd liked as a young bumpkin and which I hadn't looked at for more than a couple of decades. On first reading them again my immediate response was that they could probably be best enjoyed as you would a naive painting of a rural scene: their charm is to be found in their innocent rusticity. But if you keep reading you begin to appreciate their clever internal rhymes, pattering rhythms and sheer freshness of expression. Then the seeming innocence in theme turns into something more insinuating. A show of innocence with ulterior motives, rather like the disarming simplicity affected by a negotiating farmer. Almost unawares you're left wondering, uneasy or reflective, despite the everyday subject matter.

I think it was John Wain who compared Hardy's poems to horses from a carousel, old-fashioned and ornate but capable of taking wing. Or am I reading too much into these unfashionable verses? Here are a couple:


ONCE, at the Agricultural Show,
We tasted--all so yellow--
Those butter-pats, cool and mellow!
Each taste I still remember, though
It was so long ago.

This spoke of the grass of Netherhay,
And this of Kingcomb Hill,
And this of Coker Rill:
Which was the prime I could not say
Of all those tried that day,

Till she, the fair and wicked-eyed,
Held out a pat to me:
Then felt I all Yeo-Lea
Was by her sample sheer outvied;
And, "This is the best," I cried.


"HERE's a fine bag of meat,"
Says the master-auctioneer.
As the timid, quivering steer,
Starting a couple of feet
At the prod of a drover's stick,
And trotting lightly and quick,
A ticket stuck on his rump,
Enters with a bewildered jump.

"Where he's lived lately, friends,
I'd live till lifetime ends:
They've a whole life everyday
Down there in the Vale, have they!


worm said...

Im by no means very knowledgable about Hardy (or anything else for that matter!) but the one thing that I've always thought was that he was an excellent wordsmith in search of a plot. These poems, like the books of his that I've waded though, seem somewhat 'undeveloped', although I suppose its rather jejune of me to need a plot or a denoument to things

Brit said...

They can only be enjoyed in 2009 if you imagine a vaguely sinister undertone, otherwise they're awful.

Which was the prime I could not say
Of all those tried that day,
is almost McGonagall, otherwise.

Gaw said...

Worm: I think his novels have quite a bit of plot. Not that I enjoy them. But then I don't read nineteenth century English novels. Can't get on with them for some reason.

Brit: I think the clunkiness, the absolute lack of slickness is appealing. The very subject matter is a bit rural Pooter: a butter-tasting competition! But I enjoy adapting one's sensibility to enjoy this. We're so urban and so attuned to the smart and the ironic it's refreshing to see the world differently.

Dave Lull said...

An interesting recent comment on Dan Jacobson's Eliot versus Hardy:

[. . .]

Mark Richardson
November 19th, 2010
2:11 AM
Very well done. Hardy's body of work as a poet from about 1912 through 1928 is the best of the period, I believe, and more thoroughly "modern" in its thinking (as against its style) than any other poet besides, perhaps, Frost. Eliot, take him all in all, pales by comparison. He was never modern in his thinking, and though the stylistic innovations are interesting & "modern-ist," well, there's a certain psychosexual pathology to the early poems ("female smells in shuttered rooms," etc.), a marked note of misogyny, and then the problems of such things as "After Strange Gods." One small point I'd add to the following remark: "This little poem is simply yet mysteriously called "Waiting Both".... The mystery clears a bit when we acknowledge what "change" means, here, and that Hardy is borrowing the essential phrase in the poem from the book of Job (14:14): "If a man die, shall he live again? all the days of my appointed time will I wait, till my change come." Cf.: Mark Richardson

Gaw said...

Thanks Dave. That is a good comment. Wonderful to see Hardy referencing the King James Bible whilst expressing such a modern sentiment. And a reminder that the language of its Book of Job is simply staggering.