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Sunday, March 04, 2007

Essay on He Never Expected Much

In 1895 the novelist Thomas Hardy, infuriated by the response of Victorian critics and the public to his novel Jude the Obscure, gave up writing novels and instead reverted to his first love, poetry. From that date until his death in 1928 Hardy produced a body of poetic work that is impressive both in quantity and quality. “He Never Expected Much” is one of Hardy’s last poems, as well as one of his most straightforward.

As with his fiction, much of Hardy’ s poetry is characterized by cynicism and the specific view that the world is a brutal, unfair and unforgiving place. This is certainly reflected in “He Never Expected Much”; while far from as shockingly grim as Jude the Obscure (in which a little boy hangs himself and his family) it presents a picture of the world that is far from flattering. If it is to be taken entirely at face value (and it is a poem that deliberately keeps its meaning direct), the poem is evidence that Hardy’s cynicism was a trait of his right from infancy. When he writes:

“Since as a child I used to lie
Upon the leaze and watch the sky,
Never, I own, expected I
That life would all be fair”,

it tells us that Hardy was an unusual child indeed. While the poem revels in rejecting the view that the world is perfect or even good, it provides an interesting twist by emphasizing that rather than suffering from a case of lost illusions, Hardy has never had his dreams shattered since those dreams were rather modest in the first place.

In terms of its structure, the poem fits well within the larger body of Hardy’s work. While written after the First World War (a war that had quite a profound effect in accelerating the revolution of modernism in poetry) it is tightly and traditionally structured, with the use of both rhyme and a regular rhythm. As with much of Hardy’s work (both fiction and poetry) it is both in its language and its setting firmly rooted in an almost pre-industrial rural England. Thus Hardy writes of lying “upon the leaze”, of clouds and hills, and uses traditional and rural words such as “haps”. Although the poem is itself written in the first person, the title is interestingly a third-person reference.

Hardy’s conclusion is that as “he never expected much”, taking the world’s warning that life was both unfair and often unpleasant, life’ s tumultuous course never truly shocked or rattled him, and he could “stem such strain and ache/ As each year might assign”. Yet to anyone who has read even a small portion of Hardy’s work, this is a dubious claim at best. The impersonal grief of Hardy’s novels and in particular the personal anguish of his most famous book of poetry, Poems 1912-13 (written after the death of his wife with whom he had had an uncomfortable and bitter relationship) are proof indeed that life’s “strains and aches” often caused huge outpourings of emotion from Hardy. Poems such as “The Going” and “The Voice”, while expressing the sentiment that Hardy did not expect to be so destroyed by his wife’s death, also express the extent of his sadness. And this profound sadness is evidence contrary to the claim he makes in “He Never Expected Much”, leaving his honesty to himself up for question.

It is also worthy of note that Hardy the poet, both in his use of traditional forms and in his Antiromanticism and cynicism was a great influence on the postwar Movement poets of the 1950s and 1960s of which Philip Larkin and D.J. Enright were leading figures. Larkin in particular was influenced by Hardy and was almost singularly responsible for reviving Hardy’s poetry as a major subject of study in modern literary criticism- Hardy had hitherto been regarded primarily as a novelist. Both Hardy and Larkin are prime influences on several modern poets, such as Vikram Seth.


Blogger a.v.koshy said...

keshava - thanks for posting the essays - the others will benefit i suppose but they dont want to share i guess...

4:05 AM  

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