He had the wild, inspired look of a savage. He again could neither read nor write, though he must have been at school within the last ten or twelve years; but, as I think I have said elsewhere, it is not uncommon for boys to go through the school course and fail to pass the standards. There are here two families in particular, admirable workmen, who for two generations have left school without having acquired either writing or reading. One wonders deeply what kind of processes go on in the minds of these fine young men, steady workmen, as they are, good husbands, kind fathers, useful citizens oftener than not. What is their conception of God, of human destiny? How does Religion get at them? Or does it? Shall we ever know? Not if Mr. Hardy cannot tell us. No other poet of peasant origin has done so—neither Clare, nor Blomfield, nor even Burns. Mr. Hardy has told us something, and might have told us a good deal more if by the time he had learned his craft, he had not learned to be chiefly interested in himself. That is the way of poets.
Then there’s The Shropshire Lad, a fake perhaps, since its author was not a peasant, but a divine little book. The Shropshire Lad is morbid, unless lads are so in Shropshire—in which case they, too, are morbid; but it is a golden book of whose beauty and felicity I never tire. Technically it is by far the most considerable thing since In Memoriam: “Loveliest of trees, the Cherry,” makes me cry for sheer pleasure. But it is haunted by the fear of death and old age; it is afraid of love; it is sometimes cynical—none of which things are true of youth in Salop or Salonika. The young peasant is a fatalist to the core; but fatalists are not afraid of death. Youth is ephemeral and so is the young peasant. He is always happy when the sun is out.
As for love, it is truly the hot-and-cold disease with him. He is himself his “own fever and pain,” like the rest of us; but I think love is a physical passion, until marriage. After marriage it may grow into something very beautiful indeed, and the more beautiful for being incapable of bodily utterance. I have a pair often under my eye down here who are, I know, all in all to each other; yet their conversation is that of two old gossips. But at fortunate moments I may induce one of them to tell of the other, and then you find out. My Village Wife was no imagination of mine. She lives and suffers not so many miles from where I write. Indeed, you may say of our peasantry very much what French people will tell you of their marriage custom, that love at its best follows that ceremony. It is not bred by romance, but by intimacy. The romantic attachment flames up, and satiety quenches it. The other kind glows red-hot but rarely breaks into a flame. You may have which you choose: you are lucky indeed if you get both.