Larkin on The Poetry of Hardy

The Poetry of Hardy

I had always known Hardy as a novelist when I was young but I hadn't read his poems particularly. I'd always rather assumed with Lytton Strachey that 'the gloom was not relieved even by a little elegance of diction.' But when I was about twenty-five, I suppose, I was in some digs which faced east and the sun used to wake me very early in the morning-you know, about six. It seemed too early to get up, so I used to read, and it happened that I had Hardy's own selection of his poems, and I began to read them and was immediately struck by them. I was struck by their tunefulness and their feeling, and the sense that here was somebody writing about things I was beginning to feel myself. I don't think Hardy, as a poet, is a poet for young people. I know it sounds ridiculous to say I wasn't young at twenty-five or twenty-six, but at least I was beginning to find out what life was about, and that's precisely what I found in Hardy. In other words, I'm saying that what I like about him primarily is his temperament and the way he sees life. He's not a transcendental writer, he's not a Yeats, he's not an Eliot; his subjects are men, the life of men, time and the passing of time, love and the fading of love.

I think most poets who are well known today have loved Hardy's poems at one time or another. I think Auden has; I think Dylan Thomas did. Vernon Watkins told me that although Dylan Thomas thought Yeats was the greatest modern poet, Hardy was the one he loved. Betjeman clearly loves him; the Poet Laureate, Cecil Day Lewis, clearly does; and yet these are all very dissimilar poets. I rather think that they may have found what I found, that Hardy gave them confidence to feel in their own way. When I came to Hardy it was with the sense of relief that I didn't have to try and jack myself up to a concept of poetry that lay outside my own life-this is perhaps what I felt Yeats was trying to make me do. One could simply relapse back into one's own life and write from it. Hardy taught one to feel rather than to write-of course one has to use one's own language and one's own jargon and one's own situations-and he taught one as well to have confidence in what one felt. I have come, I think, to admire him even more than I did then. Curiously enough, what I like about Hardy is what most people dislike. I like him because he wrote so much. I love the great Collected Hardy which runs for something like 800 pages. One can read him for years and years and still be surprised, and I think that's a marvellous thing to find in any poet.

I can't imagine why people say Hardy had no ear. In almost every Hardy poem in the 800 pages, barring one or two about the death of Edward VII and that sort of thing, there is a little spinal cord of thought and each has a little tune of its own, and this is something you can say of very few poets. Immediately you begin a Hardy poem your own inner response begins to rock in time with the poem's rhythm and I think that this is quite inimitable. There are no successful imitators of Hardy. I think Hardy's diction is often quaint- one has to concede that. I don't think it's any quainter than a good many other poets', but often in Hardy I feel that the quaintness, if it is quaintness, is a kind of striving to be accurate. He might say, 'I lipped her', when he means, 'I kissed her', but after all, that brings in the question of lips and that is how kissing's done. When Hardy says that a bower is 'roof-wrecked', I don't know whether 'roof-wrecked' is thought to be quaint but it means precisely that the roof is wrecked. It's a kind of telescoping of a couple of images. I think people are a little unfair to Hardy on that. He can often be extremely direct. 'I should go with them in the gloom hoping it might be so. "Not a line of her writing have I, not a thread of her hair.' Donne couldn't be more direct than that.

Philip Larkin - 1968