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:
THE PAT OF BUTTER
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.
BAGS OF MEAT
"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!