Dr Oliver Tearle selects some of the best Thomas Hardy poems
Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) is acclaimed worldwide as one of the best Victorian novelists, but his poetry is often eclipsed by his achievement in the realm of fiction. Still, of the hundreds of poems that comprise Hardy’s Collected Poems, there are a few favourites that are much-loved and widely anthologised. Here’s our pick of the ten best Thomas Hardy poems – often a difficult list to draw up. But if you haven’t read much of Hardy’s poetry before, we hope this selection offers a nice way in to the weighty tome that is his Complete Poems. The poems are not arranged in any preferential order, as choosing one ‘best poem’ proved too difficult. Are you a fan of Hardy’s poetry, and which would you name as his best poem(s)?
So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew,
And I was unaware.
So concludes this great winter poem, first published in late December 1900. Poised on the cusp of a new year (and even, as the poem makes clear, a new century), Hardy reflects on the events of the nineteenth century, his own feelings about the future, and his attitude to nature. Click on the link provided above to read the poem, along with our analysis of it.
‘Neutral Tones‘. ‘
We stood by a pond that winter day,
And the sun was white, as though chidden of God,
And a few leaves lay on the starving sod;
—They had fallen from an ash, and were gray.
Your eyes on me were as eyes that rove
Over tedious riddles of years ago;
And some words played between us to and fro
On which lost the more by our love …
Neutral Tones’ was written when Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) was a young man (in 1867) but not published until 1898, when his first volume of poetry, Wessex Poems, appeared. It’s a quintessential Hardy poem, a bleak take on love and a relationship gone sour, yet – as the title makes clear – the poem tries to depict the scene in a neutral way, describing things as they were. This neutrality is actually bitterly sardonic: the smile on the woman’s mouth is dead (‘the deadest thing’) yet alive (‘Alive enough’) but only, it seems, in order for it to die (‘to have strength to die’); the woman’s ‘smile’ is also a ‘grin of bitterness’, more a rictus or snarl than a smile of joy.
‘The Voice‘. This is one of the most celebrated of Hardy’s ‘Poems of 1912-13’ which Hardy wrote following the death of his first, estranged wife Emma. Emma’s death caused Hardy to revisit their life together, especially the early years of their marriage in the 1870s:
Can it be you that I hear? Let me view you, then,
Standing as when I drew near to the town
Where you would wait for me: yes, as I knew you then,
Even to the original air-blue gown!
This poem sees Hardy recalling Emma’s voice, wistfully wishing to see her again as she was when they first knew each other.
‘The Ruined Maid‘. This poem can be read a number of ways. Is it an ironic look at the status of the ‘fallen woman’ in Victorian society, the woman who has been seduced by a man she is not married to, or is it calling for a change in Victorian moral values? It takes the form of a dialogue between the ‘ruined maid’ of the title and her friend, whom she meets in town. The Ruined Maid then tells her friend about how great her life is since she allowed herself to be ‘ruined’.
Not a line of her writing have I,
Not a thread of her hair,
No mark of her late time as dame in her dwelling, whereby
I may picture her there;
And in vain do I urge my unsight
To conceive my lost prize
At her close, whom I knew when her dreams were upbrimming with light
And with laughter her eyes …
One of a number of great Hardy poems written in response to the death of a woman, ‘Thoughts of Phena’ was written much earlier than the Poems of 1912-13 (see below), in 1890. Hardy’s distant cousin – and possible lover – Tryphena Sparks (‘Phena’) had been one of Hardy’s close companions earlier in his life. Nothing seems to have inspired Hardy to write great poetry so much as the death of a woman he was once close to but had grown estranged from. This poem makes a virtue of an apparent regret: that he does not have any physical memento by which to remember Phena now that she has died. Unusually consolatory, at least by the standards of a Hardy poem!
‘The Oxen‘. Written in 1915 during WWI, this poem shows a yearning for childhood beliefs which the adult speaker can no longer hold. In other words, it highlights the yearn to believe, even – or perhaps especially – when we know that we cannot bring ourselves to entertain such beliefs. (Hardy had lost his religious faith early in life.) A fine analysis of the poem can be found here. We included ‘The Oxen’ in our pick of the best Christmas poems.
‘Drummer Hodge‘. This poem is an elegy for a young soldier killed in South Africa during the Second Boer War (1899-1902). Hardy wrote it shortly after the war broke out. The poem focuses on the burial of Hodge, a drummer in the British army fighting in the Boer War. Hodge doesn’t have a conventional burial, such as he might have expected if he’d died at home: there is no coffin, and instead of a tombstone to act as ‘landmark’, he has just a mound of earth or a little hill (a ‘kopje’ is a small hill in South Africa). To underscore the fact that Drummer Hodge has died far from home, Hardy mentions that the stars that move west every night in the sky are ‘foreign constellations’: not the Plough or North Star and the other familiar stars in the British night sky, but constellations found in the Southern Hemisphere.
‘A Spellbound Palace‘. This is not quite so famous as some of the other poems on this list, and it’s possibly a bit of a wild card here. But Hardy’s evocation of the gardens at Hampton Court Palace, and his suggestion of the momentous events surrounding its past (notably, the English Reformation of the 1530s, when Henry VIII lived there), make this a fine overlooked gem among Hardy’s poems:
And there swaggers the Shade of a straddling King, plumed, sworded, with sensual face,
And lo, too, that of his Minister, at a bold self-centred pace:
Sheer in the sun they pass; and thereupon all is still,
Save the mindless fountain tinkling on with thin enfeebled will.
‘Wessex Heights‘. This poem shows more clearly than most why Hardy has been seen as a ‘belated Romantic’: there is something of Wordsworth and Coleridge in ‘Wessex Heights’, a classic poem about the English countryside which sees Hardy standing from this high vantage point and surveying the area of Dorset he branded ‘Wessex’ in his novels and poetry. He muses upon lost loves, upon his own life and development, and many other things.
‘Beeny Cliff‘. This poem is a masterful use of the three-line stanza and the sense of anti-climax or stopping-up-short that it can be used to evoke. Another ‘poem of 1912-13’, written about Hardy’s first wife Emma, ‘Beeny Cliff’ is another fine poem of love and loss. The phrase ‘chasmal beauty’ shows just how linguistically unusual and inventive Hardy can be, especially in his poetry.
Continue your Victorian poetry odyssey with these 10 poems by Tennyson everyone should read, and our pick of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s best poems. To go in search of more of Hardy’s poetry, we recommend The Collected Poems of Thomas Hardy (Wordsworth Poetry Library), which is excellent value for money and contains nearly 1,000 pages of Hardy’s poems. For other Hardy, see our pick of Thomas Hardy’s novels.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.