- Hardy’s Browning: Refashioning the Lyric
Ostensibly, Robert Browning (1812–1889) and Thomas Hardy (1840–1928) have little in common beyond their shared fascination with Percy Shelley’s poetry, an idiosyncratic poetic idiom, and mutual attendance at London gatherings of literati in the 1880s.1 Even though the elder poet’s reactions to Hardy and his writing remain unknown, Robert Browning had a measurable impact on his successor. Hardy may have expressed his extreme frustration in a letter to Edmund Gosse over Browning’s optimism and faith; yet he owned five editions of Browning’s poetry, including one given to him by Florence Henniker in 1894, which he annotated; he also possessed copies of privately-printed criticism by Browning, as well as Pen Browning’s catalogue of the sale of his father’s property; he even saved reviews of Browning’s various volumes. Indeed, he read and re-read Browning’s work for sixty years.2 Hardy transcribed lines from the poetry into his notebooks and commented on them; he copied excerpts from the Brownings’ letters to each other and, in an essay for The Academy, selected their published letters as one of two favorite books of the year 1899. In a marginal comment in the Browning section of his copy of The English Poets, now in the Dorset County Museum, he described Browning’s processes of thought as “often scientific in their precision” and remarked that Browning’s conclusions to his poems were “sudden.”3 Hardy also read G. K. Chesterton’s 1911 biography Robert Browning. Finally, forty years after its publication, Hardy inserted verses from Browning’s “By the Fire-Side” (1853) among the ghostly literary voices that Jude Fawley hears in Oxford.
Browning thus indubitably attracted Hardy, both personally and professionally. It is hardly surprising that Hardy’s favorite Browning poem should have been “The Statue and the Bust,” with its emphasis on the lost chances and postponed fulfillment that become ironically translated into inert, mutually regarding statues of lovers (Felkin, p. 206). That Shelleyan conjunction of desire and art spoke to Hardy so deeply that he repeatedly quoted it in his short stories and novels: “The Waiting Supper,” “An Indiscretion in the Life of an Heiress,” “A Changed Man,” Desperate Remedies, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, and Jude the Obscure. As readers of The Well-Beloved know, “The Statue and the Bust” directly informed Hardy’s final farewell to fictional romance and [End Page 583] English Romanticism. Hardy’s investment in Browning also led him to sites associated with both the Shelleys and the Brownings. On an Italian holiday with his first wife Emma in 1887, he not only visited the Piazza dell’ Annunziata where “The Statue and the Bust” was said to have been set, but also paid his respects at Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s grave (Millgate, p. 200).
Hardy sent a presentation copy of Wessex Tales to Browning for his birthday in 1888; decades later, when ill and confined to bed, the eighty-seven-year-old Hardy was still coming to terms with his predecessor. On the evening before he died, he asked his second wife, Florence, to read aloud Browning’s “Rabbi Ben Ezra.” The following evening near dusk, “he asked his wife to repeat to him a verse [the four-line stanza] from the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, beginning “Oh, Thou, who Man of baser Earth—,” a stanza that linked the two poems’ contrary responses to the Biblical potter image from Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Romans. Hardy died that day (Millgate, p. 480; see also Paulin, p. 70).
Hardy’s wish to hear these two excerpts could have been arbitrary, but the details suggest otherwise. His illness had become severe enough to make household members suspect he was dying. The verses in question went to the center of his life’s work. Hardy’s critics have pointed out that whereas Browning’s Rabbi constructs man as a pot perfected by God, Fitzgerald’s speaker constructs man as a pot molded and abandoned by an uncaring universe. Was Hardy giving each view a hearing? Was he rejecting or tenderly bidding farewell to Browning at last, or still...