Skip to main content

Hardy, Frost, and the Question of Modernist Poetry


ISSUE:  Winter 1982

Hardy and Frost are worth comparing because they occupy equivalent positions on the current poetic scene. They converge, first of all, because of their adversary relation to modernist poetry—the kind of poetry represented by Yeats, Pound, and Eliot; so that a taste for Hardy and Frost becomes for many readers a vote against modernism. Hardy and Frost also converge in that they are known as nature poets at a time when modernist poets have largely rejected nature as a subject for poetry. Yet Hardy and Frost write a new kind of nature poetry, which they define through its resistance to the pathetic fallacy—to the idea, as Wordsworth puts it, that mind and nature are admirably suited to each other so that the landscape can validly give back the meaning the poet projects into it.

As an example of the new nature poetry, let us look at one of Hardy’s best poems, “Neutral Tones,” which was written as early as 1867. Here is the first stanza:

We stood by a pond that winter day,
And the sun was white, as though chidden of God,
And a few leaves lay on the starving sod;
—They had fallen from an ash, and were gray.

It is clear from the very title that “Neutral Tones” makes its impact through resistance to the pathetic fallacy. The neutrality of Hardy’s landscape suggests that nature is indifferent and alien. Yet later in the poem nature comes to seem downright malevolent. The movement is from “And the sun was white, as though chidden of God”—where God’s intervention is clearly an illusory projection of the lovers’ desolation— to the poem’s last two lines where the association with the lover’s hated face causes the speaker to drop “as though” and speak simply of “the God-curst sun”: “Your face, and the God-curst sun, and a tree, / And a pond edged with grayish leaves.” Here and elsewhere Hardy achieves powerful ironies by invoking the pathetic fallacy, in order to suggest its inapplicability but also its inevitability—in order to suggest that under the pressure of emotion we inevitably conceive nature’s neutrality as malevolent. This oscillation between nature’s neutrality and malevolence runs through Hardy’s poems and novels. The oscillation or contradiction has given rise to the quip that Hardy could not forgive God for not existing.

Even indifference is too loaded a word to describe Frost’s depiction of nature, and malevolence would certainly not apply. For Frost nature is simply different from man; it has nothing to do with, and therefore cannot be judged by, human values and desires. Frost accepts this difference matter-of-factly, whereas Hardy is disappointed by it. “The world’s one globe,” Frost says in “Build Soil,”

            human society
Another softer globe that slightly flattened
Rests on the world, and clinging slowly rolls.
We have our own round shape to keep unbroken.
The world’s size has no more to do with us
Than has the universe’s.

The poem which makes clearest Frost’s resistance to the pathetic fallacy is “The Need of Being Versed in Country Things,” about a burnt-down farmhouse. By sheer chance the barn has been “left/ To bear forsaken the place’s name,” Without the barn, there would be no point of contrast with nature. The birds fly in and out of the barn’s broken windows, “Their murmur more like the sigh we sigh/ From too much dwelling on what has been.” But their sympathetic response is illusory:

Yet for them the lilac renewed its leaf,
. . .
For them there was really nothing sad.
But though they rejoiced in the nest they kept—

and we must here resist the temptation to equate the birds’ nest with the burnt-down human home, the source of human values—

One had to be versed in country things
Not to believe the phoebes wept—

not, in other words, to commit the pathetic fallacy. The miracle is that Frost can evoke the beauty of the birds’ song while depriving it of human value.

Both Frost and Hardy refrain from projecting themselves into nature in Wordsworth’s manner, as a way of giving meaning to nature. Instead of projection, Hardy often uses the preromantic, traditional devices of personification and allegory to make nature yield meaning. In “The Darkling Thrush,” dated Dec. 31, 1900, the landscape is “The [Nineteenth-] Century’s corpse outleant.” Here and elsewhere Hardy’s blatant anthropomorphism, as compared to Wordsworth’s gentle animation of nature, is used as the only way to make us understand how utterly nonanthropomorphic nature really is. Design of any kind, even malevolent design, says Hardy in “Hap”—and we are reminded here of Frost’s poem “Design”—would be a consolation. Instead there is only “Crass Casualty”—note the personification—which would as readily strew “blisses” in my path as the pains I encounter. Hardy’s bleakest statements about nature are often expressed as a dialogue of personified natural forces—as in “The Subalterns,” where the forces of Cold, Sickness, Death afflicting the narrator complain that they are as much victims of nature as he. Hardy presumably felt that realistic rendition of nature, especially of nature’s beauty, would inevitably bring back Wordsworthian feelings that nature might be alive with purpose and meaning.

How then does Frost manage to convey the nullity of nature through realistic rendition of its beauty? He manages, I think, by resisting not only pathetic fallacy but also formulation. “All the fun,” he wrote in a letter to Louis Untermeyer (Jan. 1, 1917), is in “saying things that suggest formulae that won’t formulate—that almost but don’t quite formulate.” One important difference between Frost and Hardy is that Hardy’s poems are almost always controlled by an idea, whereas Frost’s successful poems never are. Where a Hardy poem ends with an irony or a pat remark, a successful Frost poem ends with an enigma. Even the summing-up statements so characteristic of Frost are enigmatic, pointing back to the concrete facts that defy formulation. Frost’s defiance of formulation keeps us from wondering whether there is a contradiction between nullity and beauty.

Frost’s most perfectly enigmatic poem is the famous “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” But even in “Mowing,” which we think we understand, the speaker is not sure what the scythe is whispering—anymore than Wordsworth understands the Gaelic words of the solitary reaper’s song. But Wordsworth goes on to transcendentalize the experience through far-fetched images—moving in his comparisons all the way from the nightingale’s chant “Among Arabian sands” to the cuckoo’s song: “Breaking the silence of the seas/ Among the farthest Hebrides.” Frost, instead, rejects transcendence. The scythe’s whisper, he says, was no romantic

      dream of the gift of idle hours,
Or easy gold at the hand of fay or elf:
Anything more than the truth would have seemed too
weak. . .
The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.

Frost makes the scythe cut down flowers and scare “a bright green snake,” in order to complicate with destructiveness its apparently beneficent whisper. The last line is enigmatic. Is the scythe romantic, after all, since for all the beauty of its whispering it does not quite finish the job? “My long scythe whispered and left the hay to make.”

Frost’s Hyla brook is not like brooks poets write about. The brook dries up in summer and exists only for him who can remember what it was like in winter. The remarkable final summing-up line—”We love the things we love for what they are”—points back to the enigma of “what they are,” of the concretion that resists formulation. The spring pools, in the poem of that title, are too transitory for formulation. Left behind by just melted snow only to be sucked up by spring foliage, these pools have hardly an existence substantial enough for formulation or judgment. Yet enchanted by their beauty, the poet berates the trees to

     think twice before they use their powers
To blot out and drink up and sweep away
These flowery waters. . . .

He commits the pathetic fallacy in order to show its inadequacy or the irrelevance of judging so necessary a transition. Even Hardy, commited as he was to ideas, would have trouble finding evidence here of a Darwinian struggle for existence.

The mindlessness and brutality implied by Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection and Survival of the Fittest dealt the final blow to the Wordsworthian religion of nature. It is mainly because of Darwin that the new nature poetry defines itself through resistance to the pathetic fallacy and to transcendence. Hardy was the most important executor of the change; for he was the first practitioner of what we might call the diminished nature poetry of the late 19th and early 20th centuries-—though there are already signs of the new nature poetry in the pre-Darwinian poems of Tennyson and Arnold. Many of Hardy’s poems can be read as Darwinian answers to Wordsworth. “In a Wood,” for example, gives us a speaker who, “City-opprest,” takes refuge in a wood, seeking in nature “a soft release/ From men’s unrest.” He finds, instead, a relentless struggle for existence, and returns to human society where “now and then,” at least, “are found/ Life-loyalties,” Hardy’s Darwinian view of nature and human life accounts for his innovatively flat, toneless style—in “Neutral Tones,” for example—as appropriate to diminished claims and as contrasting to Wordsworth’s Miltonic resonance. Nor does Hardy, in his poems (which in this respect differ from his novels), give much emphasis to the beauty of nature.

Here Frost is different. He, too, resisted Miltonic resonance in writing the post-Darwinian poetry of diminished claims. Yet he managed to make a new kind of music for such poetry, while showing nature to be as beautiful as it is in Wordsworth. Compare, for example, “Neutral Tones” with Frost’s “The Oven Bird,” poems which take similar views of nature. Compare the flat sound of Hardy’s opening lines: “We stood by a pond that winter day, / And the sun was white, as chidden of God”—with the music of Frost’s opening lines: “There is a singer everyone has heard, / Loud, a mid-summer and a mid-wood bird.” Although the oven bird sings of summer’s end and the coming desolation, and although “he frames in all but words” the question “what to make of a diminished thing,” the song and its implied description of nature are never anything but beautiful: “He says the early petal-fall is past/ When pear and cherry bloom went down in showers.” Compare this to Hardy’s: “And a few leaves lay on the starving sod;/ —They had fallen from an ash, and were gray.”

Even if Frost shows here and there his unhappiness over the implications of Darwinism, there is no question that he sees Darwin’s view of nature as inescapably true. This is clear enough in a subtle poem like “On a Bird Singing in Its Sleep,” where a bird half awakens at midnight to sing its useless, risky “little inborn tune.” But since “it sang ventriloquist,” sang the song of its species, it also inherited the instinct “to desist/ Almost before the prick of hostile ears.” The bird’s species “could not have come down to us so far,” could not have survived the Darwinian Struggle for Life, “If singing out of sleep and dream that way/ Had made it much more easily a prey.” In “Acceptance” and “A Drumlin Woodchuck,” the individual animal insures the survival of his species by attending to the needs of the moment without looking into the future. Frost shows more confidence than Hardy in the ability of animals and men to survive in the Struggle for Life. The wisdom Frost respects is the wisdom of survival.

The Darwinian origin of Frost’s great poem “Design” would be less obvious were we not alerted by Richard Poirier, in his recent book on Frost, to the poem’s derivation from the following passage in William James’ Pragmatism, a book Frost was reading when he composed the poem’s first draft. James writes that Darwin demolished the old notion of design in nature by showing

the power of chance-happenings to bring forth “fit” results if only they have time to add themselves together. . . . He also emphasized the number of adaptations which, if designed, would argue an evil rather than a good designer. Here, all depends upon the point of view. To the grub under the bark the exquisite fitness of the woodpecker’s organism to extract him would certainly argue a diabolical designer.

But such an argument would be illusory. That is where Frost’s poem takes off. What, the poem asks, brought together all those whitenesses—the white spider on the white flower, “holding up a moth/ Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth.” “What,” the last lines ask, “but design of darkness to appall?—/ If design govern in a thing so small.” What, in other words, but diabolical design—if there is such a thing as design? My reading is supported by the first draft, called “In White,” which ends: “Design, design! Do I use the word aright?” Frost’s revision makes the last line more enigmatic. His last lines, when he is at his best, always deepen the enigma.

The theme of whiteness recalls the poems in which Frost— like Wallace Stevens in “The Snow Man”—uses snow as the extreme expression of his resistance to the pathetic fallacy, the expression of the nonhuman nullity of nature. The best known example, of course, is “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” where the woods filling up with snow on “The darkest evening of the year” become an alluring nonhuman realm—whether it be death, or oblivion, or some extrahuman beauty—from which the speaker must save himself to go back to the business of living. “The Onset,” another poem about snow in the same volume, throws light on “Stopping by Woods.” The “gathered snow,” letting “down as white/ As may be in dark woods,” makes the speaker feel like “one who overtaken by the end/ Gives up his errand, and lets death descend.” But the speaker saves himself by remembering “that winter death has never tried/ The earth but it has failed”—that spring will come. In both poems, the speakers are competent to survive. “Stopping by Woods” is better, because more enigmatic.

The grimmest snow poem is “Desert Places.”

Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast
. . .
The woods around it have it—it is theirs.
. . .
The loneliness includes me unawares.

And lonely as it is that loneliness
Will be more lonely ere it will be less—
A blanker whiteness of benighted snow
With no expression, nothing to express

In the last stanza, the loneliness is extended to the “empty [interstellar] spaces”—which cannot, says the speaker, “scare me.”

I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.

The verb “scare” and its reflexive use in the last line—”scare myself”—trivialize a great poem. Even in this, the darkest of his nature poems, Frost cannot quite let his speaker lose control of the situation: he chooses to scare himself, as though he were playing a game of spooks, Frost’s inveterate vitality seems slightly vulgar to sophisticated modernist critics.

Here Hardy is different. In “The Darkling Thrush,” the turn-of-the-century landscape is a wasteland, inhabited by worn-out people:

The ancient pulse of germ and birth
  Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
  Seemed fervourless as I.

Hardy’s people have lost the will to survive because of modern conditions. But Frost does not believe in the distinctiveness of modern conditions. He believes that troubles are perennial, as is the biological vitality that enables us to overcome them.

This leads to the point in the comparison of Frost and Hardy that raises crucial issues of evaluation because of their adversary relation to modernism. Donald Davie begins his book Thomas Hardy and British Poetry (1972) by declaring that “in British poetry of the last fifty years (as not in American) the most far-reaching influence for good and ill, has been not Yeats, still less Eliot or Pound, not Lawrence, but Hardy.” In speaking of Philip Larkin’s significant “conversion . . .from Yeats to Hardy,” Davie makes clear that the movement of post-World War II British poetry has been away from modernism. Similarly in America, the critics committed to modernism have consistently downplayed Frost in the interests of Eliot and recently Wallace Stevens. Hardy and Frost have themselves attacked the modernist poets (Hardy lived long enough into the 20th century to do so) for their obscurity and free verse. Readers who prefer Hardy and Frost to the modernists prefer them for their lucidity and because they do not—like Yeats with his occultism and Eliot with his Anglo-Catholicism—ask us to believe what we do not really believe. Hardy and Frost make poetry out of our scientific, common-sense view of the world.

The general line of modernist critics has been that Hardy and Frost are excellent minor poets. And indeed, the way to reconcile a taste for Hardy and Frost, on the one hand, and the modernists, on the other, is to put them in different niches—to say, as I have elsewhere, that Yeats and Eliot are major and that Hardy, at any rate, is minor. Frost’s position is questionable. But Hardy seems me to be an important influence on younger poets just because minor poets are less oppressive as influences than are major poets. In order to find their own voices, the younger British poets have had to save themselves from Yeats and Eliot just as Keats had to save himself from Milton (“Life to him,” wrote Keats, “would be death to me”). Hardy’s function has been to adapt and revise the major innovations of the great 19th-century poets— especially Wordsworth and Browning, his principal influences. Hardy hands on to 20th-century poets what is still usable in 19th-century poetry.

The same cannot be said of Frost’s influence on younger American poets. Although Frost develops the implications of Wordsworth’s seminal statement that there is no “essential difference between the language of prose and metrical composition,” the younger American poets have taken the Words-worthian line in diction not from Frost but from William Carlos Williams. The reason, I think, is that Williams seems even more prosaic than Frost because he writes free verse. Frost’s virtuosity with rhyme and meter, his insistence on poetry as what Richard Poirier calls “performance,” puts off younger poets. They prefer sincerity to performance, and the extemporaneous quality of free verse strikes them as sincere.

Frost’s technical virtuosity may make him seem minor; but it shouldn’t, because his virtuosity differs from Hardy’s. Hardy’s symmetries of technique and thought are often too obvious, “His Immortality,” for example, traces with parallel instances a man’s declining immortality through his friends’ declining memory of him. The poem begins:

I saw a dead man’s finer part
  Shining within each faithful heart
Of those bereft. Then said I: “This must be
     His immortality.”

The poem proceeds with stanzas whose symmetry seems mechnical because of their obvious metrics—the obvious shortening of the last line, for example, resulting in heavy repetition of the rhyme. The last stanza completes the irony and thought:

   Lastly I ask—now old and chill—
If aught of him remain unperished still;
And find, in me alone, a feeble spark,
    Dying amid the dark.

Frost’s symmetries are never so simple. Hardy’s poems are, with a few splendid exceptions (such as “Transformations” and “The Self-Unseeing”), successes in a distinctly minor way because they make their points completely, as in “His Immortality”; whereas major poetry gives the impression of unfathomed depths, leaving us with the desire to reread as soon as we have read. Even in “The Darkling Thrush,” which moves for three stanzas like major poetry through intensification of the imagery and irony, even here Hardy retreats in the end to minor poetry by shrugging off the impasse he has created—with a pat remark. “So little cause for carolings,” he reflects, “That I could think there trembled through” the bird’s

  happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
  And I was unaware.

The thrush’s song is so distinctly unrelated to the landscape or the poet’s feelings that the poet—whatever he might wishfully fancy the bird to be saying—knows there is no Hope. Here as elsewhere Hardy chooses to write a minor poem in order to avoid the pathetic fallacy—the transforming vision of significance in the bird’s song. It can also be said of the British poets who follow Hardy—Larkin is a prime example—that they have chosen to be minor poets in order to be true to quotidian reality.

Frost’s poems often have the completeness of minor poetry. Discursive poems, like “A Drumlin Woodchuck” and “Departmental,” are summed up by their final lines; and we have seen how Frost to some degree shrugs off the impasse he has created in “Desert Places.” Yet his best poems are, as I have shown, enigmatic—even when they employ final summing-up lines. “The Oven Bird” is apparently summed up by its final inconclusive lines: “The question that he frames in all but words/ Is what to make of a diminished thing.” Yet we are left with a haunting sense of mystery in diminished things, a sense that they may contain the key to human life. Nevertheless, Frost falls short by romantic and modernist criteria of major poetry in lacking the historical sense—the sense of uniqueness in the modern situation. This Hardy has abundantly.

In balance I am inclined to think that Hardy is on the whole a minor poet for the reasons given above, and that Frost may be a major poet for the following reasons. His best poems are enigmatic, repaying endless rereadings. He has managed to make a new music out of the modern flatness of voice cultivated by Hardy; and this is a prosodic feat equal to Eliot’s in Prufrock and The Waste Land. Frost is simply our best nature poet since Wordsworth; and that is a major achievement, especially since he manages without using Wordsworth’s trick of transforming and transcending quotidian reality. But whether major or minor, Hardy and Frost matter at this point in the 20th century when the mighty modernist movement seems to have run its course and young poets are looking for another direction. Hardy and Frost are important just now, because they show how to be modern without being modernist.

0 Comments

By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.

Recommended Reading