Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Thomas Hardy's 'Private Tragedy'

Click here to watch 'Griff Rhys Jones on the private tragedy that caused [Thomas] Hardy to stop writing novels and devote the latter half of his life to poetry.' It is a video clip supporting Hardy's nomination as 'The Nation's Favourite Poet'. He is one of 30 on the shortlist. The only soldier-poet is Wilfred Owen.

I came across the clip because I was asked by BBC Radio Wales to give an interview about the poll, and they kindly provided me with this link. Some of the films work very well. The Hardy film, however, is an anomaly, based on chronological muddle. The death of his wife is presented as the 'private tragedy' in question, and it is this event which is credited with transforming Hardy into a poet. In fact, Hardy had been writing poetry all his adult life, and by the time his all-but-estranged wife died in 1912, he had already published three collections of poetry and all three volumes of his 'diorama' of the Napoleonic Wars, The Dynasts.

Contrary to what the film suggests, Hardy was not in his fifties when his wife died; he was 72. And he did not become a poet as the consequence of any 'private tragedy', but because (depending on which biographer you believe): he had taken the novel as far as he could; he was sick of negative reviews; he couldn't face more arguments with his wife, who, as a Christian, strongly objected to the novels' worldview; he had always wanted to return to his 'first love' of poetry and had finally earned enough money to be able to do so; he fancied a new challenge.

Who would get your vote: the broken-hearted novelist who abandoned the form in order to write deeply personal love poems to his dead wife; or the famous poet who agonised over his feelings of guilt, anger and long-past love, who soon married the woman with whom he had been carrying on an affair for some years before his wife died, and whose elegies constantly contrasted the beautiful young woman of his youthful courtship and the embittered old wife she became?

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