Tuesday, 28 June 2016

The TemporaryThe All, by Thomas Hardy

“The Temporary The All” was the first poem to appear in Thomas Hardy’s (1840-1928) first collection of poems, “Wessex Poems”, which was published in 1898. This collection included some of Hardy’s earliest poems, written while he was working as an assistant architect in the 1860s and having no success at getting his poems into print. However, although “The Temporary The All” is undated there is no reason to believe that it is one of those very early efforts, despite its position at the front of the volume.

When one reads this poem for the first time one wonders why Hardy chose to introduce himself to the literary world as a poet in this way. By 1898 he had a string of highly successful (and some less so) novels to his name, but had published his last (“Jude the Obscure”) in 1895. “Wessex Poems” marked his intention to concentrate on poetry for the rest of his life.

However, the diction, metre and choice of words do not make this an easy poem to read or appreciate. In his later “Collected Poems” Hardy supplied the word “Sapphics” in brackets after the title, to offer a clue to what he was trying to do here. A “Sapphic” is a verse form that is associated with the ancient Greek poet Sappho, and it comprises a four-line stanza with the first three lines having five metrical feet and the fourth having two feet. The strict Sapphic form requires feet of certain kinds (to be technical: dactyls, spondees and trochees) in a specified order.

Hardy’s attempt to use this verse form, the stresses of which inevitably produce a somewhat jerky effect, prompted him to use words that do not appear in any dictionary, in order to produce stressed and unstressed syllables in the right places. One can detect the influence of his fellow Dorset poet William Barnes here, because Barnes typically created new words by building on familiar root elements. Hardy therefore includes words such as “chancefulness” and “breath-while”.

Readers might also be reminded of the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-89), given his use of unusual rhythms and words cobbled together from shorter roots. However, this would imply that Hardy had knowledge of Hopkins’s work, which was not published until 1918.  This is not impossible, and the thought is a fascinating one.

The poem

Change and chancefulness in my flowering youthtime,
Set me sun by sun near to one unchosen;
Wrought us fellowly, and despite divergence,
Friends interblent us.

"Cherish him can I while the true one forthcome--
Come the rich fulfiller of my prevision;
Life is roomy yet, and the odds unbounded."
So self-communed I.

Thwart my wistful way did a damsel saunter,
Fair not fairest, good not best of her feather;
"Maiden meet," held I, "till arise my forefelt
Wonder of women."

Long a visioned hermitage deep desiring,
Tenements uncouth I was fain to house in;
"Let such lodging be for a breath-while," thought I,
"Soon a more seemly.

"Then, high handiwork will I make my life-deed,
Truth and Light outshow; but the ripe time pending,
Intermissive aim at the thing sufficeth."
Thus I ... But lo, me!

Mistress, friend, place, aims to be bettered straightway,
Bettered not has Fate or my hand's achieving;
Sole the showance those of my onward earth-track--
Never transcended!


But what of the poem itself? “The Temporary The All” has six stanzas, as described above, which are unrhymed. The first says, although not in any straightforward manner, that the poet had a friend when he was younger (possibly Henry Bastow, who was a fellow trainee architect who encouraged Hardy to read the classics, including Sappho). However, one feels that the urge to be clever has rather overtaken Hardy, so this is expressed as: “Change and chancefulness in my flowering youthtime / Set me sun by sun near to one unchosen”. It reads almost like an exercise in poetic diction, as if the task had been to compose two lines in sapphic metre that incorporate as much assonance and alliteration as possible. The result is that the language sounds far from natural and is oppressively “poetic”.

Things do not get any better as the poem proceeds, such as in the third stanza when the news that Hardy has met a girl (there are several likely candidates) is given as: “Thwart my wistful way did a damsel saunter, / Fair, albeit unformed to be all-eclipsing”. Likewise, in the fourth stanza there is a mention of Hardy’s ambition at one time to become a Church of England vicar or, as the poem has it: “Long a visioned hermitage deep desiring”.

This shrouding of meaning in verbosity is just what creative writing students are taught to avoid and, to be fair to Hardy, is untypical of what he was to write later in his career. It is therefore ironic that the fifth stanza begins: “Then high handiwork will I make my life-deed, / Truth and Light outshow”. Surely this hardly counts as “high handiwork”!

The final stanza brings together the three themes of “mistress, friend, place” (the last of these being the “Tenements uncouth I was fain to house in”) and, apparently, justifies the title by stating that these temporary elements of his life, namely the people and places that come and go, should not be dismissed so lightly if they represent the “all” of his total experience. If no better friends or situations have replaced them, then they need to be treasured and properly appreciated because future hopes often fail to materialise. At least, that is the meaning that this reviewer is able to glean from: “Sole the showance those of my onward earth-track -- / Never transcended!” No doubt other interpretations are possible!

One’s overall impression of “The Temporary The All” is that it tries too hard to be a poem in a particular mould. It is full of poetic clichés and, as mentioned earlier, it conceals meaning rather than revealing it. If there is an echo of the style of Gerard Manley Hopkins it is almost as though Hardy was attempting to parody Hopkins rather than emulate him, although it must also be stressed that the resemblance of styles could be purely coincidental. Whatever the connection, if any, one feels that Hopkins would have tackled this theme much better than Hardy does here.

Hardy’s first venture into poetry publishing had a mixed reception, with some critics being of the opinion that Hardy might indeed be a great writer of fiction but he did not match that achievement as a poet. By putting “The Temporary The All” on the first page of his first collection, Hardy was inviting his readers to judge his poetic credentials from this poem, and, for those who chose to read no further, that judgement was likely to be an adverse one. There are many finer poems than this among the fifty or so “Wessex Poems”, and it is a shame that Hardy did not choose one of them (“Neutral Tones”, for example) as his lead-in poem.

© John Welford