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Poe and Hardy: The Soulmates

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Any literary critic or scholar who sets out to verify the relationship between the poetry of Edgar Allan Poe and the English novelist/poet Thomas Hardy cannot realistically begin without considering the questions posed by Cyril Clemens in the autumn of 1925 during an interview with Hardy at his home at Max Gate–“Do you like Poe, Mr. Hardy?” “Yes,” he replied, “I have always been fond of the American. I like especially “The House of Usher,” that cryptogram “The Gold Bug” and “Murders in the Rue Morgue” (26). Clemens, the nephew of American novelist/humorist Samuel Langhorne Clemens (a.k.a. Mark Twain), continued his questioning with “Did Poe influence your work?,” whereby Hardy answered “Yes, without hesitation I say that Poe has influenced my work” (27). Thus, with these assertions by Hardy firmly established, we can proceed to explore Poe’s influence in the poetry of Thomas Hardy, for both poets shared a common desire for “the rhythmical creation of Beauty” as defined by Poe in his “Poetic Principle” of 1848. D.H. Fussell, in his article “Do You Like Poe, Mr. Hardy?” concurs with this by admitting that Poe and Hardy share ” (an) underlying similarity of vision and of certain preoccupations which both writers hold in common” (214).

In order to simplify our search for the relationship between the poetry of Poe and Hardy, several key elements must first be discussed. In his 1938 work The Pleasures of Literature, John Cowper Powys verifies the Poe/Hardy connection with a personal reminiscence from a visit to Max Gate in the early 1890’s:

“But it was in my own youth. . . that none other than Thomas Hardy pointed out to me, with more passionate appreciation than I ever heard him display for any other author, the power and beauty of Poe’s Ulalume, that weird poem that represents the inmost essence of his genius” (528).

With this revelation in mind, consider Fussell’s statement regarding Poe’s poetic complexity: “Hardy saw in Poe a technician of some importance; in several cases he remarked upon Poe’s excellence in this respect” (213). According to Florence Hardy, the poet’s wife, Hardy had nothing but praise for Edgar Poe as shown in a letter to her in which he affirms “Poe. . . was the first to realize. . . the full possibilities of the English language in rhyme and alliteration” (343). As a poet, Hardy clearly exemplifies all of these traits usually assigned to Poe–power and beauty, technical mastery and an uncanny sense of rhyme and alliteration as will be demonstrated in the poems which follow.

In a second letter, Thomas Hardy considers whether or not Poe would have achieved even greater poetic mastery and power if he had stayed in England in 1815 as part of John Allan’s extended family:

“It is a matter for curious conjecture whether his achievements in verse would have been the same if the five years of childhood spent in England hasbeen extended to adult life. That `unmerciful disaster’ hindered those achievements from being carried further must be an endless regret to lovers of poetry” (Florence Hardy 343).

Since Hardy was obviously a “lover of poetry,” this declaration shows his concern for Poe’s plight in the literary cultural arena of America in the early 1830’s and 1840’s when Poe was forced into a life of literary servitude which barely sustained him financially and was cast aside by his editors and publishers who lacked the sagacity to see his potential as a great American poet and prose writer. For Hardy, Poe’s `unmerciful disaster’ (a line segment from “The Raven”) was the underlying cause for his inability to achieve poetic fame in America during his lifetime which fostered `endless regret’ for those in England who would have gladly accepted him as a fellow Englishman with the status of Lord Byron, Percy Shelley or Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

In January of 1909, the University of Virginia at Charlottesville, Edgar Poe’s alma mater in 1826, invited Thomas Hardy to attend the 100th anniversary of Poe’s birth (January 19, 1809), but Hardy declined the offer and wrote,

“The university. . . does well to commemorate the birthday of this poet. Now that lapse of time has reduced the petty details of his life to their true proportions beside the measure of his poetry, and softened the horror of the correct classes at his lack of respectability, that fantastic and romantic genius shows himself in all his rarity” (Florence Hardy 356).

Hardy’s grand approval of Poe, however, lacks in biography, for it is interesting to note that the American poet James Russell Lowell whom Hardy dined and corresponded with on a number of occasions had met Poe in New York City in 1845, prompting him to write a laudatory sketch of him in his Pioneer magazine. But due to Poe’s scathing attacks on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow as a plagiarist, Lowell’s enthusiasm cooled rapidly and later described Poe as “three-fifths genius. . . two-fifths sheer fudge,” a reference to Dicken’s Barnaby Rudge.

In regards to the poetical affiliation between Edgar Poe and Thomas Hardy, Robert Gittings provides this significant observation:

“In Hardy’s works, there are only two suggestions of Poe’s presence in the writer’s mind. The first is in the poem `The Dawn After the Dance’ which is in a meter so close to that of Poe’s `The Raven’ as to be more than coincidental. The second is in Jude the Obscure, where `The Raven’ is quoted” (145).

Poe’s “The Raven,” first published in the Evening Mirror of New York City in 1845, has come under various interpretations through the years, but one aspect of this poem is undeniable, for beneath its Gothic undercurrent lies the distinct sense of horror generated by the most recognizable refrain in American poetry, the recurrent “Nevermore.” In simple terms, “The Raven” depicts the loss of a loved one in the form of Lenore, the “rare and radiant maiden” whom the narrator, as an elocuting hero, imagines to be wandering aimlessly “on the Night’s Plutonian shore” as the bird sits placidly “on the bust of Pallas” above his chamber door, a contrast in black and white which reinforces a repetitive theme in the poetry of Thomas Hardy.

Hardy’s “The Dawn of the Dance,” which imitates the meter of “The Raven,” also contains similarities in rhyme and the use of alliteration as shown by these lines:

I would be candid willingly, but dawn draws on

So chillingly,

As to render further cheerlessness intolerable


So I will not stand endeavoring to declare a day

For severing,

But will clasp you just as always–just the olden

Love avow. (Gibson 230–lines 5-8).

Now listen to “The Raven”:

Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December,

And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon

The floor.

Eagerly I wished the morrow–vainly I had sought to borrow

From my books surcease of sorrow–sorrow for the lost

Lenore. (Mabbott 365–lines 9-12).

In 1896, John Cowper Powys paid another visit to Max Gate and spoke to Hardy about Poe’s influence in his poetry:

“He called my attention to Edgar Allan Poe’s `Ulalume’ as a powerful and extraordinary poem. In those days, I had never read this sinister masterpiece, but following up Hardy’s hint I soon drew from it a formidable influence in the direction of the romantically bizarre” (Fussell 216).

From the observations of Powys, one might assume that “The Raven” and “Ulalume” were significant influences on Hardy’s poetry with their Gothic trappings of bleakness and melancholia. In Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush,” written in 1900, these trappings become even more obvious, for like his predecessor, Hardy often relied upon the contrasts between dawn and dusk and the changing of the seasons as backdrops for their poetry, colored and flattened towards a common shade of gray or what Samuel Hynes describes as “neutral-tinted” (113). Consider the first octet from “The Darkling Thrush”:

I leant upon a coppice gate

When Frost was spectre-gray,

And Winter’s dregs made desolate

The weakening eye of day.

The tangled bine-stems scored the sky

Like strings of broken lyres,

And all mankind that haunted nigh

Had sought their household fires.(Gibson 150–lines 1-8).

As a comparative piece, here are the first eight lines from “Ulalume,” first printed in the American Review for December, 1847:

The skies they were ashen and sober;

The leaves they were crisped and sere–

The leaves they were withering and sere:

It was night, in the lonesome October

Of my most immemorial year:

It was hard by the dim lake of Auber

In the misty mid-region of Weir–

In the ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir. (Mabbott 415-16)

The images contained in these poems are presented as silhouettes of black against gray; even the frost is “spectre-gray” amid winter’s desolation. Blackness, symbolized by the “weakening eye of day” in “The Darkling Thrush,” serves as a canvas upon which light and dark pigments are applied to designate lighted interiors and the solitude outside the “coppice gate” and down by the “dim lake of Auber.”

“Neutral Tones,” written two years before “The Dawn of the Dance,” also displays this scenario of contrasts which “creates a mood which is appropriate to a dismal winter day” (Hynes 136):

We stood by the pond that winter day,

And the sun was white, as though chidden of God,

And a few leaves lay on the starving sod;

They had fallen from an ash, and were gray. (Gibson 12–lines 1-4).

This poem serves as an excellent example of Hardy’s semi-dark poetic style drawn from his earliest productive period, yet when contrasted against `Ulalume,’ it expresses an even gloomier tone:

Poe: Thus I pacified Psyche and kissed her,

And tempted her out of her gloom–

And conquered her scruples and gloom.

Hardy: Your eyes on me were as eyes that rove

Over tedious riddles of years ago;

And some words played between us to and fro

On which lost the more by our love.

The central question posed by Cyril Clemens in 1925 at Max Gate regarding Hardy’s appreciation of Edgar Poe seems to be in the affirmative, due to the shadow of Poe revealed in “The Dawn of the Dance,” “The Darkling Thrush” and “Neutral Tones.” However, when we take into consideration our enamored Englishman’s poetic principle, Poe’s influence becomes quite unmistakable–“to make sense of reality. . . by embodying images, ideas and feelings, intimate gestures by which the creative mind reveals itself” (Hynes 109).

Sources Cited

Clemens, Cyril. My Chat with Thomas Hardy. Webster Groves, MO: The International Mark Twain Society, 1944.

Fussell, D.H. “Do You Like Poe, Mr. Hardy?” Modern Fiction Studies. Vol. 27 no. 2 (Summer 1981): 211-24.

Gibson, James, Ed. The Complete Poems of Thomas Hardy. NY: Macmillan Publishing, 1976.

Gittings, Robert. Young Thomas Hardy. London: Heinemann Press, 1975.

Hardy, Florence Emily. The Life of Thomas Hardy: 1840-1928. NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1962.

Hynes, Samuel. The Pattern of Hardy’s Poetry. Chapel Hill: U of South Carolina P, 1961.

Mabbott, Thomas Ollive, Ed. Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe. Vol. 1 (Poems). Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1969.

Powys, John Cowper. The Pleasures of Literature. London: Cassell, 1938.

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