Dr. oliver tearle selects some of thomas hardy’s best poems
Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) is acclaimed around the world as one of the greatest Victorian novelists, but his poetry is often overshadowed by his achievements in the realm of fiction. Still, of the hundreds of poems that make up Hardy’s Poem Collection, there are some favorites that are much loved and widely anthologized. Here is our selection of the ten best poems by Thomas Hardy, often a difficult list to come up with. But if you haven’t read much of Hardy’s poetry before, we hope this selection offers a good way to access the heavy tome that is his complete poems. the poems are not arranged in any preferential order, as choosing a “best poem” proved too difficult. Are you a fan of Hardy’s poetry? Which would you name as his/her best poem(s) from him?
‘the dark thrush’.
so little reason to sing Christmas carols of such ecstatic sound was written about distant or near terrestrial things, that he could think that some blessed hope trembled in his happy good-night air, of which he knew, and I was ignorant.
thus concludes this great winter poem, first published in late december 1900. 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 towards nature. follow 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 if god had rebuked it, and a few leaves lay on the hungry grass; —had fallen from an ash, and were gray.
Your eyes on me were like eyes that wander over tedious riddles of years ago; and some words played between us from one side to another that we lost more for our love…
neutral tones” was written when thomas hardy (1840-1928) was a young man (in 1867) but was not published until 1898, when his first volume of poetry, wessex poems, appeared. It is a quintessential enduring poem, a bleak view of love and a relationship gone sour, yet as the title makes clear, the poem attempts to portray 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’) but alive (‘alive enough’) but only, it seems, to die (‘have strength to die’). ‘). ); the woman’s ‘smile’ is also a ‘sour smile’, more of a grimace or grunt than a smile of joy.
‘The Voice’. This is one of Hardy’s most famous ‘1912-13 poems’ which Hardy wrote after the death of his first wife, Emma, from whom he was estranged. Emma’s death caused Hardy to review their life together, especially the early years of their marriage in the 1870s:
Can you be the one I’m listening to? Let me look at you, then, standing as when I approached the town where you would wait for me: yes, as I knew you then, even the original air blue dress!
This poem sees Hardy remembering Emma’s voice, longing to see her again as she was when they first met.
‘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’.
‘phena’s thoughts on the news of his death.’
I have not a line of her handwriting, not a thread of her hair, not a trace of her last time as a lady in her dwelling, so I can imagine her there; and in vain I urge my blindness to conceive my prize lost with her, whom I met when her dreams were brimming with light and laughter from her her eyes from her…
One of several great poems by Hardy written in response to the death of a woman, ‘Thoughts of Fena’ was written long before the 1912-13 poems (see below), in 1890. Hardy’s distant cousin – and possible lover: Tryphena Sparks (‘phena’) had been one of Hardy’s close companions early in her life. Nothing seems to have inspired Hardy more to write great poetry than the death of a woman he was once close to but had distanced himself from. This poem turns an apparent regret into a virtue: that he has no physical memory to remind of Phena now that she is dead. unusually comforting, at least by the standards of a resilient poem!
‘the oxen‘. written in 1915 during World War I, this poem shows a longing for childhood beliefs that the adult speaker can no longer hold. in other words, it highlights the yearning to believe, even, or perhaps especially, when we know that we cannot afford to entertain such beliefs. (Hardy had lost his religious faith at an early age). A good analysis of the poem can be found here. we include ‘the oxen’ in our selection of the best Christmas poems.
‘drummer hodge‘. this poem is an elegy to 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 centers on the burial of Hodge, a drummer in the British Army fighting in the Boer War. Hodge does not have a conventional burial, as he might have expected if he had died at home: there is no coffin, and instead of a headstone to act as a ‘landmark’, he has just an earthen mound or small hill (a ‘ kopje’ is a small hill in south africa). to underline 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 plow or the north star and the other familiar stars in the British night sky, but constellations found in the southern hemisphere.
‘a haunted palace’. this is not as famous as some of the other poems on this list, and is 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 (particularly the English Reformation of the 1530s, when Henry VIII lived there), make this a overlooked gem among hardy poems:
and there struts the shadow of a king who sits astride, feathered, with a sword, with a sultry face, and lo, his minister’s, too, with a bold, self-centered stride: they pass pure under Sun; and then all is silent, except for the meaningless fountain that tinkles with a weak and weakened 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 anticlimax or short stop that can be used to evoke. Another “1912-13 Poem”, written about Hardy’s first wife Emma, ”Beeny Cliff” is another excellent poem of love and loss. The phrase “abysmal beauty” shows just how linguistically unusual and inventive Hardy can be, especially in her poetry.
continue your victorian poetry odyssey with these 10 tennyson poems everyone should read and our selection of the best gerard manley hopkins poems. For more Hardy poetry, we recommend Thomas Hardy’s Collected Poems (Wordsworth Poetry Library), which is excellent value for money and contains almost 1,000 pages of Hardy’s poems. for other hardys, see our selection of thomas hardy novels.
The author of this article, dr. oliver tearle is a literary critic and professor of english at loughborough university. He is the author, among others, of The Secret Library: A Book Lover’s Journey Through the Curiosities of History and the Great War, The Wasteland, and the Modernist Long Poem.
image (top): thomas hardy by william strang, 1893, public domain. image (below): thomas hardy, wikimedia commons, public domain.