AN ADDRESS BY PROFESSOR PELHAM EDGAR, PH.D. ETC.
9th February, 1928.
PROFESSOR EDGAR was introduced by PRESIDENT FENNELL, and spoke as follows: When hardly more than a week removed from the ranks of the living our supreme soldier and our supreme artist, it is fitting that this club should commemorate the event so rich in significance for all those who cherish the high traditions of our race. You who have fought with General Haig know his value; it ill befits a laggard behind the lines to estimate his achievements; nor would I venture to appraise the relative greatness of two men whose activity lay in such widely sundered fields. It may be that our great statesmen and our great soldiers dazzle more than our poets the admiration of the living, but the quieter demurer reputations are secure of a more lasting renown. It may be so, I repeat, but the blind Fury with the abhorred shears waits on them alike, and all that we can confidently predict of the future is that it will cherish longest those reputations which do not' rest on mere talent, alone, but on insight which derives its nourishment from human sympathy, from simplicity, and from sincerity. (Applause). That, gentlemen, is why the names of Haig and Hardy will live. (Applause.)
My concern today is with the writer, and with your consent, and for my own satisfaction, I do not propose to pitch my words in too high a key. I am not preaching a funeral sermon, where only values are pronounced and deficiencies ignored. I wish rather to give you an estimate, imperfect as all personal estimates must be, of Hardy's reach of power and of his limitations. And I wish you to note at the outset that my statement of his limitations may have more value that I subscribe to the view of those judges whose opinions I most esteem, who assign to Hardy the unchallenged supremacy among the writers of the last generation. We have had an Age of Shakespeare, and an Age of Milton, an Age of Dryden, and an Age of Pope, an Age of Johnson, an Age of Wordsworth, and an Age of Tennyson. There is no declination of virtue, I affirm, to assert that we have had an Age of Hardy. And his death now leaves us without a recognized leader. Let us now confront some of the facts and problems of his career.
Those of you whose literary memory extends back to the '90s of the last century will remember with what tragic pleasure you read the superb story of Tess, and with what tragic amazement, and yet, I trust, with what profound admiration you read the sombre narrative of Jude the Obscure. That book appeared in 1895, and the antagonistic clamor that it aroused definitely closed Hardy's career as a novelist, and closed, as we all mistakenly believed, his career as a writer. We did not realize then that Hardy felt himself released to pursue the dearest ambition of his life, and to devote himself for what he must have considered the brief remainder of his days to the writing of poetry. We probably did not take very seriously a man who commenced poetry at fifty-five. But when The Wessex Poems appeared in 1898 we were surprised to discover, as we discovered from some of the appended dates, that Hardy had been writing poetry for many years before launching on the less congenial work of fiction. And I repeat, we probably did not take his work too seriously. It seemed to us very unmellifluous, very like a blunt finger strumming on an unfamiliar instrument, uncouth as it appeared to us in form, and no less crude in its cruel frankness. Evidently everything was not for the best in the best of possible worlds, and if God was in His heaven, which was very doubtful, all was evidently not right with the world. It was the time when the all too clever Chesterton coined his phrase of the village atheist blaspheming to the village deity, and,--God help us--we probably believed him. Well, Westminster Abbey holds his as he now, and Millstock Churchyard his heart, so it would appear that men, at least, have forgiven him.
Hardy's career, as I have said, suffered a check with Jude. And poetry seemed to offer no renewal of power. Our adjusted perspective permits us to realize that these queer poems, written some of them in the mid-tide of the Tennysonian and Swinburnian tradition, and reproduced in all their energy and vigor in the verses of his extreme old age, that these queer poems had a value for the younger generation which must compel recognition in every future history of our literary development. It would be foolish to affirm that the poems are all alike good. There are amazing inequalities in Hardy, but the verses are all genuine and sincere and stimulating to an extraordinary degree, and they rest for the most part on a basis of either actual or imagined experience; they are not fantastic and remote, they come home to the hearts and minds of men. I propose to read two or three of the verses before proceeding to the consideration of his work in the novel.
Here is a grim little piece called "The Subalterns." It is rather a characteristic Hardy poem because he is perpetually imagining colloquies between himself and some representative of the heavenly powers. It is a queer sort of churchyard poem for a man who really does not believe in immortality. (Reads "The Subalterns".) There is nothing very heartening or amusing about that poem.
Here is a poem, and one of the very few in Hardy, where a glimmer and gleam of hope shines through the gloom. It is a poem that has a very wonderfully painted winter landscape. (Reads "The Darkling Thrush".) (Applause.)
This poem is a very brief one, called "Wagtail and Baby." It may seem a trifle ironic, to the point of cynicism; I think it is only intensely humanitarian. One of Hardy's characteristics is his intense sympathy for the animal creation. (Reads "Wagtail and the Baby".) (Applause.)
And the last poem that I shall give you is elegiac in tone. Hardy is imagining his own death and he is telling us the way he would like to be remembered. He does not know when he is going to die, but he assumes different forecasts; sometimes it is in the summer months, and sometimes in the winter. It is very simple and sincere and beautiful. (Reads "Afterwards") (Applause.)
It is obvious that on an occasion like this, appropriate though the occasion might otherwise be, it is impossible to make anything more than the most passing reference to Hardy's "Dynasts" which appeared in 1904 and 1908 and which I take to be his signal performance, and one of the great imaginative works of the last hundred years. It is a stupendous achievement, and I think Hardy's supreme powers were for the first time recognized when people recognized the vastness of that particular achievement.
Now I turn back to a consideration of the novels for the brief remainder of my time, and I desire to make mention only of a few particular novels which I consider outstanding. He began to write fiction about 1870. He submitted a novel to George Meredith who refused it, but saw Hardy and said that he thought very highly of it in a way, but would advise him to do something rather different. Hardy took his advice and wrote rather a poorer book called "Desperate Remedies." It was a complicated sort of book with a foolishly contrived plot. In 1872 he published another book, which is hardly to be called a novel, called "Under the Greenwood Tree." It is very idyllic and pastoral and humorous. The peasants in that book are among Hardy's most successful peasants, and that is saying a very great deal. But what I want to say about this book is that the editor of "The Cornhill" at that time was a man called Greenwood, and he looked at the title of this book with his name in it, "Under the Greenwood Tree." So he took the book home from the shelves of the store to his own house, read it and thought it extremely good and communicated with the author and said "I want you to write a novel for me for the Cornhill." So Hardy wrote a novel which is the first great novel of his career, called "Par from the Madding Crowd." That appeared in 1874 in "The Cornhill". I won't relate the incidents of the story, but one curious fact attaches to it. There was a lawsuit with Pinero on the basis of plagiarism; I do not know whether Hardy brought the suit or Pinero. Pinero's play was called "The Squire" and that and the novel were the same plot and everybody recognized it. The truth of the matter was that one woman had sold each of these authors the same plot. (Laughter.)
Now the novels that I consider to be the supremely successful novels of Hardy's career are "Par from the Madding Crowd," "The Return of the Native," "The Mayor of Casterbridge," "The Woodlanders," and "Jude the Obscure."
"The Return of the Native" I do not propose to discuss; I may in general terms indicate that it is generally held, by competent critics and judges, one of the most perfectly fashioned novels in English. I subscribe to that view, except for the final book, which was wrested from Hardy by the existence of the serial readers, except for the final book the story is exquisitely consistent with itself. It is dramatically contrived with a degree of skill that Hardy has never surpassed, I think not even attained. I will not say that throughout his career his novels are significant for the fineness and firmness of their structure, but it is a model of how a novel should be fashioned, and it is intensely moving and powerful in its intellectual qualities.
"The Mayor of Casterbridge" is a fine but faulty book, dominated by the expressive vigor of the Mayor of Casterbridge. It lacks the passing humors of the earlier stories, and nature is thrust into the background. Therefore it has none of the charm and poetry which relieve the gloom of the typical Hardy book. It exemplifies more clearly than the other novels some of the charges levelled against Hardy, his extreme regard for a highly articulated old-fashioned plot, his plethora of incident, his abuse of the element of chance, and his manipulation of coincidence to effect the disasters which he too often imputes to the blind workings of a heedless First Cause.
"The Woodlanders," I turn to now, briefly, because I wish to quote one or two short passages from it. "The Woodlanders" is a book that is redolent with poetry and natural charm. "The nature background of `The Woodlanders' is exquisitely conceived and presented on the whole, though not one of the most admirable of Hardy's books, from the standpoint of its general conception and style, one of the most charming and poetic. He has attempted there to represent a woman of some pretensions to refinement, Mrs. Charman, but I do not think Mrs Charman is so well turned out as she ought to be. The triumph of the book is Marta, and I wish to read you two or three closing pages which give us her lament for Winterburne whom she had loved and lost because Winterburne had fallen in love with FitzPeers. Some of the people are returning from a search that is in progress for Dr. FitzPeers, and this brought them by way of the church, and passing the graveyard--Charles Winterburne had died some eight months before--they observe a motionless figure standing by the gate. "I think it was Marta--(reading)--For you was a good man and did good things."
In all the books preceding Tess, Hardy had contrived to show humanity enmeshed in the coil of circumstance, but he had kept his personal exasperation within measurable bounds. In Tess and Jude his wrath boils over, and his fierce marginal notes are a perpetual gloss upon the story. When the black flag hoisted on the staff signals the pitiful defeat of Tess's struggle for happiness, Hardy interjects the sinister suggestion, "justice was done and the President of the Immortals--in Aesculean phrasehad ended his sport with Tess."
In "The Dynasts" he took the view that the immanent will from which the universal life proceeds, operates from no conscious malevolence to the human race. I do not quarrel with Hardy that he has no firm consistency in his cosmic theories, but it is less satisfactory that in Tess, where for the first time his theme concerns itself with the institutions of organized society, he should so confidently refer disaster to the blindness of the malign First Cause. Human explanations would have sufficed for his purpose, but though these are not emphasized, the book throbs with human feeling, and it will survive as a superb example of Hardy's sympathy and power.
Hardy's imperfections are casual and negligible, for like every important writer he must have the defects of his qualities. He is not, I grant you, heartening and cheering, and despite his consistently tragic view of human destiny he was sensitive to simple delights, and these are a sunray in the prevailing gloom. If I may intrude a philosophical explanation for his predominant sombreness of tone, we must find it in his fixed belief that the scheme of creation went wrong with the development of human intelligence. The stars and the winds and the waves and the mountains seem to get on very well and uncomplainingly, and the immanent soul works without impediment through the vegetable and the lower animal kingdoms. Developed consciousness is the resistant medium. His peasants are placid enough and if they may suffer they do not vocally resist their fate. As we rise in the human scale the sense of tragedy deepens, and we may be thankful that in Hardy there are few examples of strongly developed intelligence. Tess had a dawning mind, and she suffers correspondingly, as her peasant mother and sottish father were incapable of doing. It was the conflict of the animal nature, and Jude with his aspiring faculties that wrote his downfall more definitely than the superciliousness of his social superiors. Even in this latest book of Hardy's it is the elemental conditions of life, rather than the merely human social arrangements that are the supreme concern.
The general effect and impression of Hardy is one of massive power and grandeur. There is a gloomy outlook always, but I would like to emphasize what I consider to be the right and proper attitude to take with reference to Hardy. There is nothing in him, absolutely nothing in him which pertains to cynicism. There is here and there irony, the irony of circumstance, yes, because he has rather a feeling that men are playing a losing game. He thinks that the general universal life has been, either malignly or unwisely, blind--he won't make up his mind--but life for him is in a certain sense a sorry thing, but it is a very noble thing, and the miserable plight of many human beings is never in evidence alone. Hardy is persistently insisting on all the noble attributes that humanity has developed. We are perhaps crushed by circumstance, but there is a noble element of resistance, and a fine sense of aspiration, which may be cheated and defeated, but the sense of aspiration is there. There are infinite elements of humanity which ennoble it and dignify it, and Hardy is not unaware of these. He is not unaware of the poetry of life; he is not unaware of the humor of life. I think Hardy of all our novelists since Dickens is infinitely the most humorous, humorous of course particularly when he is dealing with the peasants of his novels. His humor does not extend to the characters above the peasant stage, but I do not think since Shakespeare you will find peasants studied with such extreme success as Hardy's peasants. They are there for a philosophic reason as well, if I had time to develop that idea, because they represent the placid norm of life, before intelligence has inflicted itself.
Of all the writers of the past, Hardy is the most significantly and characteristically English. He has given us a picture of the Wessex country, which is Dorsetshire and Wiltshire and one or two of the adjoining portions, like Oxfordshire on occasion. He has given us a picture of these counties which is intimate in its exact detail, and infinitely poetic and infinitely true, and he has not only given you the impression of contemporary England. His vision of England is a stratified vision. You see layers and layers of time. He has a historic imagination and in The Mayor of Casterbridge you find a historic pr mitiveness an element of power in the book. If you read his descriptions of Egdon Heath you have a cosmic imagination in his outlook. Egdon Heath represents the vast implacable force of nature, and it is amazing the way the human figures play against that background. He is a poet throughout his fiction, and his poetry itself, rough though it may be, is extraordinarily worth reading. (Applause.)
The thanks of the Club were expressed to the speaker by Mr. Hugh Fayrs.