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Thomas Hardy Biography

(1840–1928), The Poor Man and the Lady, Desperate Remedies, Under the Greenwood Tree

British novelist and poet, born at Higher Bockhampton, near Dorchester, Dorset, educated at the school in Dorchester run by the British and Foreign School Society. From 1856 to 1861 he was articled to a Dorchester ecclesiastical architect whose office was next door to the school run by William Barnes (180186), the Dorset dialect poet; with Barnes as his mentor, Hardy began writing verse at the age of 17. He worked for an architectural practice in London from 1862 to 1867, when he returned to his former position in Dorchester. Although he had formerly considered taking Holy Orders, at this time he became an agnostic. He completed The Poor Man and the Lady, his first novel, in 1868; the publishers Chapman and Hall showed interest, but their reader, George Meredith (18281909), advised against publication; the manuscript was eventually lost. Desperate Remedies (1871), his first novel to be published, was followed by Under the Greenwood Tree (1872) and A Pair of Blue Eyes (1873). Far from the Madding Crowd (1874), a work of great dramatic power and imaginative scope which deals with the destructive effects of sexual obsession, made clear his stature as a novelist. Its success enabled him to give up architecture for writing and to marry Emma Gifford, whom he had met on an architectural assignment at St Juliot, Cornwall, in 1874. Considerable strains eventually developed in the marriage; Emma's psychological instability, to which veiled allusions are thought to be made in the poem ‘The Interloper’, was among the causes. They took up residence in Max Gate, an imposing house near Dorchester built to Hardy's own design, in 1887. During its construction he worked on The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886), which marked an advance in his artistry in the authenticity of its social and economic dimensions and the deeply compelling characterization of its tragic hero Michael Henchard. The compassionate presentation of Tess as a victim of conventional Victorian morality in Tess of the D'Urbervilles (1891), often regarded as his finest novel, gave rise to the controversy with which the book was received; for some reviewers it established Hardy as the greatest novelist of the day, while others denigrated it as unhealthily pessimistic and immoral. Such hostility intensified with the publication of his uncompromising treatment of ‘the modern vice of unrest’ in Jude the Obscure (1895), in which the hero's unfulfilled desire for educational advancement is seen in the context of the decaying traditions of rural society. He later described the reception of Jude the Obscure as an ‘experience completely curing me of further interest in novel-writing’; there are, however, grounds for concluding that he felt he had completed his work as a novelist and wished to devote himself to poetry, which he had continued to write throughout his career.

He defended the bleak vision of suffering and injustice in much of his writing with a line from the second poem of the ‘In Tenebris’ sequence, ‘If way to the Better there be, it exacts a full look at the Worst’, and based hope for gradual change on his belief in ‘evolutionary meliorism’. Central to many of the novels, to the epic drama in verse and prose The Dynasts (three volumes, 1904, 1906, 1908), and to much of his verse is the theme of man's subjection to the implacable and insentient ‘Immanent Will that stirs and urges everything’, as it is termed in the poem ‘The Convergence of the Twain’. His first two collections of verse, Wessex Poems (1898) and Poems of the Past and Present (1902), contained a high proportion of early work, and each of his subsequent volumes included poems composed long before publication. After completion of The Dynasts, Time's Laughingstocks appeared in 1909.

In 1912 Emma died suddenly; Hardy revisited St Juliot and made a journey to her birthplace in Plymouth, brooding on their past in the landscapes of their courtship. ‘Poems of 191213’ resulted, the most concentratedly personal body of his poetry, which contains a number of his most memorable works, among them ‘After a Journey’, ‘The Going’, and ‘The Voice’. In all, Hardy, for whom memory was an essential imaginative resource, produced over 100 poems concerning Emma and himself in the decades after her death. ‘Poems of 191213’ appeared in Satires of Circumstance in 1914, the year of Hardy's marriage to Florence Emily Dugdale, whose two-volume biography of Hardy (1928, 1930) was substantially of his own authorship. His subsequent collections were Moments of Vision (1917), Late Lyrics and Earlier (1922), and Human Shows (1925). Winter Words was published posthumously in 1928; The Queen of Cornwall, his only other verse-drama, appeared in 1923. The Complete Poetical Works of Thomas Hardy (three volumes, 1982, 1984, 1985) was edited by Samuel Hynes. The great individuality of his poetry is rooted in his native familiarity with the regional traditions of Dorset, which matured into a literary consciousness through his contact with William Barnes. Although Hardy did not continue to write dialect verse after his early experiments, the diction of his work remained fundamentally that of common spoken English. He thus anticipated Modernism in breaking with the conventions of literary usage which increasingly constrained Victorian poetry. He was similarly independent in his attitudes to prosody, eschewing metres of mellifluous regularity in pursuit of his stated preference for ‘poetic texture rather than poetic veneer’. His poetry's fidelity to ordinary patterns of speech is matched by the realism and accessibility with which he treats a remarkable range of subjects; he may be approached as a nature poet, a topographical poet (see topographical poetry), a poet of London, of rural custom, of love, and of grief. His achievement as a poet was not fully recognized until after his death.

Hardy may be said to occupy the unique position of being among the foremost novelists of the nineteenth century while occupying a position of the first importance as a poet of the twentieth century. In addition to his novels, poems, and dramas, he wrote many short stories which were collected in Wessex Tales (1888), A Group of Noble Dames (1891), Life's Little Ironies (1894), and A Changed Man (1913); although his short stories exhibit considerable stylistic and thematic variety, they have never been as highly regarded as his other works. He was awarded the Order of Merit in 1910.

Hardy devised the following classification for his novels and stories:

Novels of Character and Environment: Under the Greenwood Tree; Far from the Madding Crowd; The Return of the Native (1878); The Mayor of Casterbridge; The Woodlanders (1887); Wessex Tales; Tess of the D' Urbervilles; Life's Little Ironies; Jude the Obscure.

Romances and Fantasies: A Pair of Blue Eyes; The Trumpet Major (1880); Two on a Tower (1882); A Group of Noble Dames; The Well-Beloved (published serially 1892; revised edition 1897).

Novels of Ingenuity: Desperate Remedies; The Hand of Ethelberta (1876); A Laodicean (1881).

The Collected Letters of Thomas Hardy, edited by R. L. Purdy and M. Millgate, appeared in seven volumes between 1978 and 1988. Robert Gittings's Young Thomas Hardy (1975) and The Older Hardy (1980) remain highly regarded among numerous biographical studies, including Millgate's Thomas Hardy: A Biography (1982) and Martin Seymour-Smith's Hardy (1994).

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Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionEncyclopedia of Literature: Bernard Gutteridge Biography to Hartshill Warwickshire