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This item is taken from PN Review 132, Volume 26 Number 4, March - April 2000.

Letters from John Lucas
Thomas Hardy and Free Verse


In his essay on 'Thomas Hardy and American Poetry' (PNR 131) David Yezzi claims that 'Hardy put little faith in the power of free verse, predicting in a letter to Robert Graves that it would never catch on in England (the Immanent Will seems to have had the last laugh on this point.)' Wrong. The remark Hardy is supposed to have made (the reason for those italics will become apparent later) came in the course of conversations with Graves, conversations which Graves recorded in Goodbye To All That (1929). And as it has been so often quoted against Hardy, or used to dress him in the robes of curmudgeonly little-Englander (which was how Alvarez presented him in The New Poetry), I think we ought to note precisely what Graves records Hardy as having said. The key passage in the six pages Graves devotes to the visit he and his wife made to Max Gate occurs on p. 377 (I am using the first edition), where Graves reports that in '[Hardy's] opinion vers libre could come to nothing in England. "All we can do is to try to write on the old themes in the old styles, but try to do a little better than those who went before us."'

Earlier, on p. 372, Graves remarks that 'I wrote out a record of the conversation we had with him,' and the inference we are surely to draw from this is that the 'record' was committed to paper some time after the couple had left the Hardys, in August 1920. Many years later, Graves told his biographer, Martin Seymour-Smith, that the account of his visit, 'made at the time and written up in a hurry ... was inaccurate, careless and managed to sound patronising...'. This admission is to be found in Seymour-Smith's 1982 biography, p. 87. But it, too, is inaccurate, because, as we have seen, in Goodbye To All That itself Graves says the account wasn't in fact made at the time. Not an important discrepancy, I grant, but not untypical either. Some few years after his biography appeared I happened to meet Seymour-Smith at the BBC, where we were both due to appear in what turned out to be a fatuous discussion on Hardy, and I took the opportunity to probe him about Graves' accounts of his visit to Max Gate. In the light of his admission that what he'd had to say in Goodbye To All That was inaccurate and careless - as though he was seeking forgiveness for misrepresenting Hardy - mightn't it be possible, even likely, that Graves had attributed to Hardy remarks he hadn't in fact made? 'Very likely,' was Seymour-Smith's brisk reply.

I put the question not so much because I had already begun to doubt Graves's veracity in this as in many other matters, but because, having read Hardy's journals and letters, I was becoming convinced that his apparent rejection of vers libre from English poetry simply didn't ring true. Which is not to say that in 1920 he'd have unreservedly welcomed it, but it is to wonder whether he'd have been so ready to dismiss it out of hand, especially as by then he'd sent a kind note to Pound about 'Homage to Sextus Propertius', had copied out in his Notebook for 1917 the closing lines of 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock', by which he was very evidently intrigued, and, earlier than either of these moments and therefore without prompting from them, had in 1912 noted that 'A style grows to perfection. Nothing more can be done in it. And no mere device for change, no irreverence or impatience, but a necessity of artistic development pushes poets & artists into new channels of expressions, new forms.' This doesn't sound much like the poet who reputedly said, 'All we can do is write on the old themes in the old styles.'

Well, poets change their minds. Not Graves, however. From first to last he was implacably opposed to those elements of modernism he associated with free verse and, most pre-eminently, therefore, Eliot and Pound. In 1922 he met Pound and took an instant dislike to him. He later told Eliot, 'I could never regard [Pound] as a poet'; and in his Clark Lecture for 1954, 'These Be Your Gods O Israel', he makes his notorious attack on the 'sprawling, ignorant, indecent, unmelodious, seldom metrical Cantos...' No wonder, he concludes, that 'Imagism never caught on here. It seemed both precious and metrically undisciplined.' Vers libre could come to nothing. Imagism never caught on. Impossible not to hear the same brusquely dismissive way of phrasing the matter.

It was a matter with which Graves had from the earliest been preoccupied. Hence, I suspect, his wanting Hardy to give ex cathedra utterance to his own position. Writing in Goodbye To All That of the bicycling holiday he and Nancy took in August 1920, he remarks that 'We found ourselves near Dorchester, so we turned in there to visit Thomas Hardy.' What could be more natural than that? The young poet, discovering himself by chance in that particular place, decides to risk a visit to the greatest living English poet, is well received, and then, to cap it all, Hardy says just the right thing about vers libre.

Except that the visit didn't come about by chance. We know this to be so, because on 5 August 1920, Thomas Hardy wrote to his friend, Florence Henniker, to tell her that 'A poet & his wife - two quite young people - are going to descend upon us on bicycles this month, & stay the night - so they tell us' (The Collected Letters of Thomas Hardy, Clarendon Press, p. 241). Two years later, in 1922, the year when the meeting with Pound took place and when The Waste Land was published, Graves wrote his essay 'Of English Poetry'. Three years after that, he amplified and developed the argument in a Hogarth pamphlet-essay, Contemporary Techniques of Poetry where, as Seymour-Smith says, he dissociates himself from all his contemporaries 'except Hardy and Frost'. He doesn't, however, say anything about Hardy's dismissal of vers libre. That has to wait until 1929 and Goodbye To All That .

It's on the record that among those to whom Graves said goodbye were a number who rightly complained of gross misrepresentations and inaccuracies. They included Siegfried Sassoon, who was both exasperated and deeply upset by his close friend's inventiveness. As Hardy had died in 1928 he wasn't in a position to suggest that Graves's record of their talk served the younger poet's cause by attributing to the other words which I feel pretty sure he never uttered. But it's high time that Hardy was spared the finger-wagging of later commentators who have incautiously accepted Graves's words at face value.


This item is taken from PN Review 132, Volume 26 Number 4, March - April 2000.

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