Robert Langbaum, Thomas Hardy in Our Time

(London and New York: Macmillans Press, 1995), pp xii + 173. =A335.

Robert Langbaum has been a well regarded critic of Victorian literature since the publication nearly forty years ago of The Poetry of Experience, a ground-breaking study of the dramatic monologue. His present book is a collection of five largely self-contained essays, though they often return to issues raised in the first chapter, and as their titles suggest, the two chapters on 'Versions of Pastoral' and 'Diversions from Pastoral' are closely connected. As is the way with such books, a good deal of what appears here has been published before, in easily accessible sources, in particular the first chapter (included in the Thomas Hardy Annual , No. 3), and part of the last chapter, on the treatment of sexuality in The Mayor of Casterbridge (in the Thomas Hardy Journal, VIII, in February, 1992).

Langbaum begins with a lucid and energetic discussion of Lawrence's Study of Thomas Hardy. This is the most useful chapter in the book. Langbaum convincingly argues that Lawrence and Hardy are linked by their position as post-Darwinians. Both writers were engaged in an exploration of the way human identity is divided between conscious, individual purpose , and the unconscious biological purpose which flows through us. We persuade ourselves that we inhabit the kind of world implicit in, say, John Stuart Mill's essay On Liberty (published, like Darwin's Origin of Species, in 1859, and a key text in Hardy's intellectual development), with its underlying assumption that human beings are to be seen as free and essentially autonomous individuals capable of choosing their actions and even, to some extent, their characters. Experience, however, especially our sexual experience, forces us to recognise that we also belong to that darker world which for Lawrence is symbolised by Egdon Heath, a world which is fecund, amoral, incomprehensible. The guiding principle of Egdon is not liberty and morality, still less fidelity to social rules and conventions, but the drive within all organic forms to come into being, or to what Lawrence calls 'the full achievement of [the] self'. This reading of Hardy's universe is well supported when Langbaum comes to examine Clym Yeobright's refusal to acknowledge this drive, preferring instead the role of a teacher on Egdon. This, for Langbaum as for Lawrence, represents a failure, an inner weakness revealed in Clym's Oedipal attachment to his mother, his ensuing blindness and what both writers see as his mindless regression to the womb-like heath. Clym, in this reading, never emerges into selfhood: 'His mother, with whom he associates the heath, blocks all his emotions' (p. 108). This is a challenging account of the novel (and many readers will wish to challenge it), and the pages in which Langbaum deals with The Return of the Native (pp. 102-111) offer the liveliest close readings in the book.

There are good local observations scattered throughout. To take another example from the discussion of The Return, Langbaum notes that Eustacia's reasons for not, finally, accepting Wildeve 's offer-- 'He's not great enough for me to give myself to' -- are 'aesthetic' rather than 'moral', deriving from her need for a sense of dignity in her actions, in ways which mark Hardy's tragedy out from its Greek and Shakespearean models, where grandeur is not a concern (though one may wonder if there is not something of this in the anxiety of some of Shakespeare's heroes -- Brutus, Othello, Hamlet -- about the name they will leave after their deaths). Similarly, Langbaum is acute in remarking the manner in which sexual repression prompts Grace and Giles to the 'perverse eroticism whereby sickness and a love-death substitute for consummation' (p.123). But while there are enough such passages to justify the words on the dust jacket from Norman Page and Hillis Miller -- 'refreshing focus', 'fresh insights' -- there are other parts of the book which seem to this reader at least rather mechanical. The discussion of Hardy's poetry in the second chapter (parts of which appeared in Victorian Poetry in 1992) returns to what has been a key issue since Donald Davie's Thomas Hardy and British Poetry (1972), that is, the nature of Hardy's greatness as a poet, a greatness which somehow has to be squared with the sense many readers have had that unlike, say, Wordsworth or Keats before him or Eliot and Yeats among his near contemporaries, Hardy seems to set out his stall so modestly. This modesty is the quality that Auden and Larkin among others have valued, but it leaves open the question of whether it is true that, as Davie puts it, 'Hardy is not a great poet because, except in The Dynasts, he does not choose to be.' Davie's argument is, as Langbaum shows, awkward and inconsistent -- Hardy is simultaneously applauded for his realism, and criticised for refusing to transform reality -- but Langbaum's argument that Hardy is a great poet of minor poems is not so very different from Davie's position, and it is made to depend on too many oddly unsatisfying assertions. Langbaum claims, for example, that great poetry is marked by asymmetry, a kind of faultline revealing an intensity of feeling which cannot be held within the pattern of the verse. Hardy's poems are criticised for being too often symmetrical, their formal patterns too securely maintained. But it's not clear how Keats' 'Ode to a Nightingale' is asymmetrical, though it's clearly a great poem, nor is it self-evident that the asymmetry of 'The Voice' makes it a better poem than the (presumably) more regular 'After a Journey'.

Langbaum considers that Hardy's best poetry is to be found in the novels, but there is little attention to what 'poetry' means in this context. Something more, surely, than the passages of fine descriptive writing? I would propose something like this astonishing sentence, from the end of 'The Woman Pays' in Tess: 'A piece of blood-stained paper, caught up from some meat-buyer's dustheap, beat up and down the road without the gate, too flimsy to rest, too heavy to fly away; and a few straws kept it company.' This has an iconic force which we might associate with Imagist poetry (though there is little in Imagism to match it for intensity, and nothing in the poetry of the 1890s begins to compare with it). But Langbaum does not pursue the argument. Elsewhere the concern with categorisation is more insistent, and leads to some bland writing (the discussion of Bathsheba, with the summarising 'On the whole Hardy is not a feminist . . .' is a somewhat dispiriting example [p.83]). Yet Langbaum is too good a critic not to turn even the more laboured of his arguments to good purpose; I remain unpersuaded by the discussion of Oak as hero of romance, reality and pastoral, but Langbaum patiently makes a case that has to be answered. And this is, as it has always been, Langbaum's great strength as a critic: an unfailing lucidity, a teacher's desire to communicate, and an enthusiast's determination to keep digging away at the questions that remain unresolved. The reader who comes to this book looking for a study of Hardy 'in our time' will, I think, be disappointed ('our time' might be any time in the past twenty-five years), but the reader who wants to be encouraged to brood again over the actions, and inactions, of Hardy's characters will find much here of value.

Phillip Mallett

University of St Andrews

Back to the main Page.