When we, as strangers, sought
Their catering care,
Veiled smiles bespoke their thought
Of what we were.
They warmed as they opined
Us more than friends—
That we had all resigned
For love’s dear ends.
“Catering care” is an appalling phrase.
I do not wish to over-emphasize the significance of flaws of this kind. But, at a time when all the world is eager to do honour to Mr. Hardy’s poems, it is surely well to refrain from doing equal honour to his faults. We shall not appreciate the splendid interpretation of earth in The Return of the Native more highly for persuading ourselves that:—
Intermissive aim at the thing sufficeth,
is a line of good poetry. Similarly the critic, if he is to enjoy the best of Mr. Hardy, must also be resolute not to shut his eyes to the worst in such a verse as that with which A Broken Appointment begins:—
You did not come,
And marching time drew on, and wore me numb,—
Yet less for loss of your dear presence there
Than that I thus found lacking in your make
That high compassion which can overbear
Reluctance for pure loving kindness’ sake
Grieved I, when, as the hope-hour stroked its sum,
You did not come.
There are hints of the grand style of lyric poetry in these lines, but phrases like “in your make” and “as the hope-hour stroked its sum” are discords that bring it tumbling to the levels of Victorian commonplace.
What one does bless Mr. Hardy for, however, both in his verse and in his prose, is his bleak sincerity. He writes out of the reality of his experience. He has a temperament sensitive beyond that of all but a few recent writers to the pain and passion of human beings. Especially is he sensitive to the pain and passion of frustrated lovers. At least half his poems, I fancy, are poems of frustration. And they, hold us under the spell of reality like a tragedy in a neighbour’s house, even when they leave us most mournful over the emptiness of the world. One can see how very mournful Mr. Hardy’s genius is if one compares it with that of Browning, his master in the art of the dramatic lyric. Browning is also a poet of frustrated lovers. One can remember poem after poem of his with a theme that might easily have served for Mr. Hardy—Too Late, Cristina, The Lost Mistress, The Last Ride Together, The Statue and the Bust, to name a few. But what a sense of triumph there is in Browning’s tragedies! Even when he writes of the feeble-hearted, as in The Statue and the Bust, he leaves us with the feeling that we are in the presence of weakness in a world in which courage prevails. His world is a place of opulence, not of poverty. Compare The Last Ride Together with Mr. Hardy’s The Phantom Horsewoman, and you will see a vast energy and beauty issuing from loss in the one, while in the other there is little but a sad shadow. To have loved even for an hour is with Browning to live for ever after in the inheritance of a mighty achievement. To have loved for an hour is, in Mr. Hardy’s imagination, to have deepened the sadness even more than the beauty of one’s memories.