"Poems of the Past and Present"

Poems of the Past and Present by Thomas Hardy

I've enjoyed reading Hardy's novels since I was first introduced to them in high-school, but this is my first look at his poetry. I confess I have no idea how to review a book of poetry so I guess I'll just write what I was thinking as I read.

The overall mood of the book is sad disillusionment, the same feeling that comes through his novels, only more focused because in poetry so much is said in so few words. I expected his poems to be melancholy but this is more than that I think. This is despair, and it never ends. It seeps into every verse, every line. In "I Said To Love" he says:

"We now know more of thee than then;
 We were but weak in judgement when,
 With hearts abrim,
 We clamored thee that thou woulds't please
 Inflict on us thine agonies."

It's clear that he has been hurt. You can't read his novels without seeing how disillusioned he is about love but this verse sounds almost bitter. When I was younger I used to think that life must have treated him very harshly, but now I don't expect his life was harder than other people's, I just think that as a poet he is more free, and better able, to express his emotions.

There's a poem in this collection called "A Commonplace Day" that I like a lot. He writes about the day passing without having accomplished anything, an experience common to us all but most of us could never put it into words with so much feeling. I find myself drawn into his disappointment when he says:

                     "Nothing of tiniest worth, Have I wrought, pondered , planned".

In another poem titled simply "To Life" Hardy sounds so tired of the suffering and darkness of life that he asks why life can't, just for one day, pretend that it's good and happy. Where most of us might sigh with a moment's passing regret, he picks up a pen and turns his regret into art

                                                 "But cans't thou not array
                                                  Thyself in rare disguise,
                                                  And feign like truth, for one mad day
                                                  That Earth is paradise?

Some (most) of these poems are heart-wrenching to read, full of pain, but honest, his heart laid open for all the world to see. There's one called "God Forgotten" and another "The Bedridden Peasant to An Unknowing God" in which he questions if God ever hears him or if He's forgotten about Thomas Hardy, and, indeed, the whole human race. He believes in God's existence and that He is good, but he feels abandoned. Who can't relate to that from time to time?

There is also, though, a certain amount of cautious hope in what he writes. In "To An Unknown Pauper Child" he advises the baby to stop breathing and not be born into such a mournful life, but at the end he faces the fact that neither he nor the child can do anything to change what will be and he says;

                                                   "I can hope 
                                                    Health, love, friends, scope 
                                                    In full for thee; dream thou'll find 
                                                    Joys seldom yet attained by humankind.".

The last one I'll mention is called "The Superseded". I love this one because it touches a sore spot in all of us. He writes about how people drop into the background of life as they age, making room for younger, fresher lives in the forefront. We all understand this process is a normal, healthy part of aging and we have no trouble accepting it for others, but each one of us is a little hurt and surprised when it actually happens to "me".

                                                    "Tis not that we have unforetold 
                                                     The drop behind;
                                                     We feel the new must 
                                                     Oust the old
                                                     In every kind;

                                                     But yet we think
                                                     Must we, must we
                                                     Too drop behind?"
I think these poems might be a bit too melancholy for some, but I enjoyed most of them. I don't mind their sadness because they speak of real life, and real life is sad. I love the simplicity, the honesty, the beauty of his words and after my first attempt at reading his poetry I remain a staunch Hardy fan.


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