“I WRITE POEMS because I cannot help it.” Hardy was 87 when he wrote this vividly evocative statement to an academic in Vienna. This (perhaps) final collection of Hardy’s correspondence is, as the editors point out, heavily weighted towards the last years of his life, and, as the volume approaches its end, this simple statement is thrown into sharp relief by the growing number of references to his frailty, his poor sight, his tendency to illness. The image of the shrunken, shrivelled driven old poet sitting at his desk at Max Gate is irresistible, his body yearning for rest, but his mind alertly at work on an idea, an image, a metaphor, his pen waiting. That almost naïve claim in the midst of so much apology for the effects of age forces the reader to see clearly how impossible it was that Hardy should ever cease writing, how improbable that themes and images should ever fail to offer themselves to his creative intellect, or that his delight should wane in shaping words to embody them fitly—until his death, which occurred exactly three months later.
Though to reach this illumination at the end of nearly 300 pages is wonderful, there is in the nature of things not very much else in the volume that stimulates such a powerful response, and it might be thought on a casual glance that its contents, brought together twenty-five years after the collection was held to be concluded, represent the sweepings off the floor of Hardy’s correspondence. In one sense this is the case, for a considerable proportion of the material included here is fragmentary: either extracts from letters transcribed in auction or booksellers’ catalogues, or drafts now at the Dorset County Museum that Hardy made to be transcribed and often filled out by his second wife Florence or his part-time secretary May O’Rourke, drafts not thought significant enough for inclusion in previous volumes. However, even though the catalogues may possibly mistranscribe the letters, and a few of the drafts may seem trivial, it is absolutely right that they should be made [End Page 265] available to us, for these once-excluded scraps (sometimes more than scraps) can prove fascinating.
It was clear, for instance, from the previous two or three volumes of the Letters that in his later years Hardy had to deal with enquiries from American academics much more frequently than he would have liked, and the inclusion of brief, fragmentary drafts in this volume prompts a number of thoughts on the issue. Hardy sometimes was able to repel such enquiries by providing through a secretary obvious information that any serious student of his work would already have, and occasionally the editors recognise that to follow such a note a step further would be illuminating, and they quote part of the academic’s reply. In one such instance a young M.A. student’s nettled response was that it would be “more courteous, in my opinion, to tell persons like me at once that Mr Hardy cannot be bothered with them, rather than to supply elementary instruction in source material.” In the preface to this volume the editors suggest that Hardy was “remarkable for the promptness and almost unfailing politeness with which he dealt” with his burden of mail, and it is certain in this instance that he was both prompt and polite. The interesting question, though, is how far he deliberately designed his politeness in such a situation to produce such a reaction.
An enquiry in 1922 from a young American who had just become a member of the university department from which this review proceeds is also worth following a little further. John Wade was a relatively unknown instigator of the Southern literary renaissance (and also founder of the well-respected Georgia Review); his first publication (also his Columbia University doctoral dissertation) was a biography of the Georgia writer Augustus Longstreet (1924). Wade had the nerve to write (twice) to...