Sunday, July 19, 2015

What was Thomas Hardy like? Two post-WWI sketches

The poet Robert Graves introduced T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) to Thomas Hardy. From a nearby Tank Corps camp, Lawrence visited Hardy several times in Dorcester during the summer of 1923. He wrote Graves: “T.H. is an experience that a man must keep to himself.”

Thomas Hardy portrait, 1923
Fortunately neither Graves nor Hardy followed this dictum. Both left portraits of the venerable Hardy, who was 80 when Graves met him and 83 when Lawrence wrote his letter.

During World War I Graves survived a wound so severe that his commander confidently wrote his parents that he had died in transit to the hospital. The war office confirmed his death in a telegram. Graves also suffered from shell-shock (post-traumatic stress disorder) but was kept out of further fighting because his wound had damaged a lung. He attended Oxford after the war and lived nearby with his wife, Nancy Nicholson, and their two small children.

In 1920 the couple took a bicycle trip. They packed up a few things and pedaled across Salisbury Plain by moonlight. As Graves wrote later from notes he made at the time, they saw Stonehenge and a more recent, if less durable, landmark: deserted wartime army camps vast enough to quarter a million men.

When they realized they were near Dorcester, they veered off to visit Hardy. The old poet lived with his second wife, Florence, at Max Gate. Hardy was the son of a stonemason and had been an architect early in life. He had designed the house and written several novels and much of his poetry there.

Max Gate, Thomas Hardy's home on the outskirts of Dorcester.
Graves knew many poets of his own generation. He had saved Siegfried Sassoon, a fellow officer, from the consequences of an antiwar manifesto Saasoon wrote and allowed to be published in 1917. He had met and corresponded with Wilfred Owen. Near Oxford he shared a neighborhood with Edmund Blunden, John Masefield and others.

When Hardy came to Oxford to receive an honorary degree in 1920, Graves found him confused in speech and thought. Now, at Max Gate, Hardy was welcoming, engaging and charming.

“We took tea in the drawing-room, which, like the rest of the house, was cluttered with furniture and ornaments,” he wrote in his 1929 memoir, Goodbye to All That. “Hardy had an affection for accumulated possessions, and Mrs Hardy loved him too well to suggest that anything should be removed.”

Robert Graves, an officer and a poet
In the garden after tea, Hardy asked to see some of Graves’s poems. When Graves showed him one, Hardy suggested he remove the cliché “the scent of thyme.” Graves declined, saying Hardy and his generation of poets had so thoroughly banished the cliché from their work that it was no longer a cliché.

Hardy inquired about Graves’s writing habits. Graves replied that the poem he had given him was in its sixth draft and would be finished in two more, Hardy replied: “Why! I have never in my life taken more than three, perhaps four, drafts for a poem. I am afraid it would lose its freshness.”

Hardy told Graves he could write novels methodically but preferred poetry because it “always came by accident.” He had enjoyed writing certain chapters of his novels but in general disliked them.

Once, while pruning a tree, Hardy had conceived a novel in his head but had nothing to write the idea down on. When he finally went in, the idea had vanished. He advised Graves always to carry pencil and paper and added: “Even if I remembered that story now, I couldn’t write it. I’m past novel-writing. But I often wonder what it can have been.”

When Hardy complained about “autograph fiends,” Graves told him: “A mythical secretary should reply offering his autograph at one or two guineas, the amount to be sent to a hospital – ‘Swanage Children’s Hospital,’ he put in – which would forward a receipt.” Hardy liked the idea.

Graves could not help him with his other complaint. “He regarded professional critics as parasites, no less noxious than autograph hunters, wished the world rid of them, and also regretted having listened to them as a young man,” Graves wrote. At the critics’ behest Hardy had stopped using dialect that lacked good English equivalents in his early poems, but the critics had not let up. When he wrote, “he smalled in the distance,” a critic complained about it. What else could he have written? Hardy asked Graves.

To avoid the stigma of coining words, he had taken to looking them up in the dictionary, but even that could be problematic. He had lived long enough that sometimes he would find that an odd usage was sanctioned but on reading further discover that the “sole authority” for it was his own use of it in a long-ago novel.

Three years later, D.E. Lawrence wrote Graves a letter about his visits with Hardy, contrasting the sage of Max Gate with the raucous life in the Tank Corps camp where Lawrence then served as an officer.

T.E. Lawrence, a/k/a Lawrence of Arabia, 1918.
“Hardy is so pale, so quiet, so refined into an essence: and camp is such a hurly-burly. When I come back I feel as if I’d woken up from a sleep: not an exciting sleep, but a restful one. There is an unbelievable dignity and ripeness about Hardy: he is waiting so tranquilly for death, without a desire or ambition left in his spirit, as far as I can feel it: and yet he entertains so many illusions, and hopes for the world, things which I, in my disillusioned middle-age, feel to be illusory. They used to call this man a pessimist. While really he is full of fancy expectations.

“Then he is so far-away. Napoleon is a real man to him, and the country of Dorsetshire echoes the name everywhere in Hardy’s ears. He lives in his period, and thinks of it as the great war: whereas to me that nightmare through the fringe of which I passed has dwarfed all memories of other wars, so that they seem trivial, half-amusing incidents. . . .

“And the standards of the man! He feels interest in everyone, and veneration for no-one. I've not found in him any bowing-down, moral or material or spiritual. . . .

“He takes me as soberly as he would take John Milton (how sober that name is), considers me as carefully, is as interested in me: for to him every person starts scratch in the life-race, and Hardy has no preferences: and I think no dislikes, except for the people who betray his confidence and publish him to the world.

“Perhaps that’s partly the secret of that strange house hidden behind its thicket of trees. It’s because there are no strangers there. Anyone who does pierce through is accepted by Hardy and Mrs. Hardy as one whom they have known always and from whom nothing need be hid.

“For the ticket which gained me access to T.H. I’m grateful to you – probably will be grateful always. Max Gate is a place apart: and I feel it all the more poignantly for the contrast of life in this squalid camp. It is strange to pass from the noise and thoughtlessness of sergeants’ company into a peace so secure that in it not even Mrs. Hardy’s tea-cups rattle on the tray: and from a barrack of hollow senseless bustle to the cheerful calm of T.H. thinking aloud about life to two or three of us. If I were in his place I would never wish to die: or even to wish other men dead. The peace which passeth all understanding: but it can be felt, and is nearly unbearable. How envious such an old age is.”

Sources: Graves: Goodbye to All That; Lawrence: letters online at T.E. Lawrence studies

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