Rain, wind and weather

My title puts me in mind of a Hardy poem I read in university, when I knew Hardy as a great nineteenth century novelist, one of those who pushed the envelope when it came to women and men and class and power etc. And sex. Before D. H. Lawrence he was the envelope-pusher as far as sex in literature in English went.

(For those who know about such things, I was in between high school and college when Polanski’s Tess came out, and for some reason Tess, Polanski, and Hardy were touched with the same concept of raciness. I never saw Tess, being at that time enrolled in a school that was located deep in a rural area, some several miles away from the nearest cinema, and for whatever reason I didn’t ride with the other students who made the trek into the city on a weekly basis to go see movies. Maybe it was that unlike them, I was sixteen (they were older) and such a movie would be rated R, and I didn’t want the hassle of being barred from it. They could pass as adults. I, who have always looked ten years younger than my actual age — at sixteen it was probably three or four — was carded for far longer than I ought to have been, in the end by people several years younger than me. Who knows?)

Three years later, I found myself in university (University of Toronto, for those who are interested in such things) and studying Hardy as part of a course in modern poetry. Now I’d had no idea he was a poet, and I’d become accustomed to seeing him as a Victorian novelist. When the professor introduced him as one of the first modern poets, advancing the theory that his poems, at least, didn’t fit with the Victorian model of poetry — all history and doubt and four-four rhythm and drama, were the advance guard of the modern poetry that so shook the twentieth century. Having been convinced of that then, it’s stuck with me since.

Anyway, the poem in question is this one:

During Wind and Rain

THEY sing their dearest songs–
He, she, all of them–yea,
Treble and tenor and bass.
And one to play;
With the candles mooning each face….
Ah, no; the years O!
How the sick leaves reel down in throngs!

They clear the creeping moss–
Elders and juniors–aye,
Making the pathways neat
And the garden gay;
And they build a shady seat….
Ah, no; the years, the years;
See, the white storm-birds wing across!

They are blithely breakfasting all–
Men and maidens–yea,
Under the summer tree,
With a glimpse of the bay,
While pet fowl come to the knee….
Ah, no; the years O!
And the rotten rose is ripped from the wall.

They change to a high new house,
He, she, all of them–aye,
Clocks and carpets and chairs
On the lawn all day,
And brightest things that are theirs….
Ah, no; the years, the years;
Down their carved names the raindrop plows.

So the point?

The point is this. Because of his classification as a late Victorian novelist, Hardy is firmly placed in set with writers like Thackeray, Swinburne, (George) Eliot, with an overlap with Dickens at the early end and James at the other. Hardy’s novels are great big rural sweeps, which take the sensibility of the Victorians about class and sex and love and duty and strip them to their ugly bones, exposing the cruelty and harshness at their core — but they’re certainly Victorian, grounded, realistic, linear more or less. His poems, though, are different. When his contemporaries Tennyson and Arnold — the late nineteenth century wasn’t a great time for great poets, with no one coming who could even begin to hold a candle to the Romantics — were grappling with ideas of evolution and the invention of God and fashioning poetic ways to do it, Hardy was treating themes that would come up later, in more fragmentary ways, in the work of Yeats and Pound and Eliot. Like Hopkins, he began with verse, breaking up the form of his poetry to suit its content, searching for ways to express himself that could dispense with the expected patterns. One of the things that fascinated me with his work was the way he used metre and rhyme. In “Wind and Rain” the stanzas are patterned one after the other, but he (following Keats’ truncation of the ballad in “La Belle Dame” perhaps?) writes lines that are metrically broken.

And then there are, of course, the ghosts.

I won’t go into that all now. But I have a theory, which I may post later, once I’ve got a coffee in me, about poetry and Time and so on.

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3 thoughts on “Rain, wind and weather

  1. Nastassja Kinski was so hot in that movie. But it was filmed in Normandy, because Polanski couldn’t go to Britain for fear of being arrested, and in a load of subtle ways it just doesn’t look like Dorset.

    Dividing literature up into periods is always going to leave a certain number of writers uneasily on the cusp. Hardy, Kipling, Housman, Conrad, Wilde, Frost, even Yeats.

    I sometimes wonder: as a thought experiment, if someone was just exposed to all the English language plays, poems and novels of the past 1000 years, with the dates they were written but no other context—without any knowledge of either history or the critical consensus—would they divide the writing up into the same periods that seem natural to us? To what extent are they self-evident, and to what extent do they seem obvious because we expect them? Does the very act of periodization lead us to over-emphasise the differences at the expense of the similarities?

    It’s an impossible experiment, of course. And very probably the same periods would be reinvented, more or less. It seems obvious that Romanticism and Modernism were real changes in the way people thought and wrote, for example. But then obviousness is not always trustworthy.

    In the case of the Victorian/modern dichotomy I htink it’s complicated by the fact that the victory of Modernism was never quite total. The radicalism of high modernism was always going to leave a gap for more orthodox literature, and if you set the really experimental writers (Joyce, Woolf, Sinclair) to one side, what’s left looks a lot like a continuous tradition. Particularly in the novel. Which isn’t to say that C20th novels are unchanged from C19th ones, but you could read it as a more gradual evolution through people like Hardy, Conrad, James, Forster, Lawrence, all of whom are somewhat modern without being, you know, dramatically modernist.

    It’s kind of appalling that my view of the canon is still automatically so British-centric. I only really become aware of it when I start writing something like this.

  2. Me too, right now. And work-avoidance mode too.

    Thanks for the comment, Harry. I started writing the theory post but your ideas have inspired me to push it in slightly different directions. Keep an eye out — here’s hoping that this week is not as crazy as I think it could be. I want some time to get inside my own head.

    Cheers.

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