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  • Thomas Hardy and Thomas Gray: The Poet’s Currency
  • Dennis Taylor

Why did Hardy, a major novelist, call his novels “mere journeywork” and say that they “have been superseded . . . by the more important half of my work, the verse”? 1 Consistently, over a writing career of more than 70 years, Hardy maintained that his literary vocation was that of a poet, not a novelist. His novels were what he did for a living; his poetry—enabled by the success of his novels—was what he did for immortality. Where novels for Hardy somehow pander to the society, poems resist it and yet also command it by seeking higher ground. What accounts for the force of Hardy’s self-definition, given the artistic quality of his novels?

What we have not realized is a key influence on Hardy’s sense of his vocation. Thomas Gray is, of course, only one of a number of influences felt by Hardy in the 1860s, from the perennial influence of Shakespeare’s use of the Horatian “Exegi Monumentum” theme to the contemporary influence of Swinburne. But Gray, I would argue, is a key influence because of his unique combination of aestheticism and anxiety about the public culture.

Though Gray is little mentioned in Hardy studies, the Gray-Hardy relationship opens up a major topic: the ways poets see themselves in relation to an increasingly commercialized and invasive society. For Hardy and Gray, poetry has both a defining and antagonistic relation to the society which exalts it. In “The Bard,” Gray forecast Shelley’s great formulas that poets are “the authors of language” and “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” 2 But when Gray said that “‘the language of the age is never the language of poetry,” he was also trying to withdraw poetry from circulation and contamination. 3 If poetry creates language, it must also resist being co-opted and debased by the common currency of an established language. The paradox of all this, of course, is that Gray is among the most established of our writers. Gray gave Hardy the suggestion that a poet could be canonical without being compromised. It was from Gray, as confirmed by Shelley, that Hardy picked up the notion that poets purify the dialect of the tribe, while themselves remaining pure. [End Page 451]

Gray is famous for his statements rejecting the world of published books; he complained, for example, that the “Elegy”’s stanzas “had the Misfortune . . . to be made . . . publick, for w[hich] they certainly were never meant,” that “the public would have received it as well if it had been written in prose.” “The still small voice of Poetry was not made to be heard in a crowd.” 4 When Hardy claimed “I never did care much about publication, as is proved by my keeping some of the verses forty years in MS” (CL, 6:119) and that “he was not so keenly anxious to get into print as many young men are” (L, 51), his statements parallel Gray’s but are in fact inconsistent with Hardy’s vital interest in his audience and in publication of both prose and verse. Gray’s attitudes also lie behind Hardy’s various statements, that he “did not care much for a reputation as a novelist in lieu of being able to follow the pursuit of poetry” (L, 102), that he viewed the verse “as my essential writings, & my prose as my accidental” (CL, 5:94), that poetry is much more “quintessential” in expression than prose. 5 Hardy is nervous about the increasingly established entry of fine literature into the public marketplace, a development Gray witnessed and resisted at its early stages. The poignancy of Hardy’s admiration for Gray, who blinded Hardy to the importance of his novels, is that by Hardy’s time Gray’s battle for the cultural independence of literature was nearly lost. 6

The reason Gray has not assumed more prominence in Hardy studies is that he seems like the last writer one would compare with Hardy. Gray is the quintessential insider, elegant, urbane, living a leisured life, part of the establishment, a litterateur, a Cambridge man, a lifelong academic, devoted to scholarship and...

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