Novelist poets…Superb at both

There are great poets, and there are great novelists. But it is rare to find writers who inhabit both skills with distinction. This column offers three — Thomas Hardy, Emily Brontë and D.H. Lawrence — who are most famed for their novels, but who all began their literary lives writing poetry.

Author’s Note: Those of you who watched the previous three columns, entitled “The Glorious Romantics (Byron, Keats and Shelley)”, were likely struck by the array of fine actors, mostly British, who appeared in the videos. I would like to salute the Casting Director who was also Co-Producer of those programs. She was a producer and co-writer for the entire “Anyone for Tennyson?” series on PBS. Her name is Jane Iredale, and I understand that in recent years she has been involved with cosmetics. Brava!

There are great poets, and there are great novelists. But it is rare to find writers who inhabit both skills with distinction. This column offers three who qualify for our laurels: Thomas Hardy, Emily Brontë and D.H. Lawrence. And while these three are most famed for their novels, they all began their literary lives writing poetry.
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Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) was born in the County of Dorset in South West England, a region he would later call “Wessex” in his novels, using an ancient Anglo-Saxon name. Because his family could not afford his going to university, he apprenticed as an architect for four years in London. But all the while he was writing poetry. Initially unable to interest a publisher, he turned to novels, and in 1874 had his first major success, “Far From the Madding Crowd,” followed by “The Return of the Native,” ”The Mayor of Casterbridge,” “Tess of the d’Urbervilles,” and “Jude the Obscure.”

Photo of Thomas Hardy about 1912
Thomas Hardy about 1912

As a successful writer, architecture was now well behind him, but Hardy recalled a trip to Cornwall to supervise the restoration of a church, and there he first met his wife-to-be.

When I set out for Lyonnesse
A hundred miles away,
The rime was on the spray;
And starlight lit my lonesomeness
When I set out for Lyonnesse
A hundred miles away.

What would bechance at Lyonnesse
While I should sojourn there,
No prophet durst declare;
Nor did the wisest wizard guess
What would bechance at Lyonnesse
While I should sojourn there.

When I returned from Lyonnesse
With magic in my eyes,
All marked with mute surmise
My radiance rare and fathomless,
When I returned from Lyonnesse
With magic in my eyes.

Hardy wrote about the approach of old age with uncommon tenderness. This sonnet is called “She, to Him.”

When you shall see me in the toils of Time,
My lauded beauties carried off from me,
My eyes no longer stars as in their prime,
My name forgot of Maiden Fair and Free;

When, in your being, heart concedes to mind,
And judgment, though you scarce its process know,
Recalls the excellencies I once enshrined,
And you are irked that they have withered so:

Remembering mine the loss is, not the blame,
That Sportsman Time but rears his brood to kill,
Knowing me in my soul the very same —
One who would die to spare you touch of ill! —
Will you not grant to old affection’s claim
The hand of friendship down Life’s sunless hill?

This Hardy song lyric is a favorite of mine, and in the throes of a pandemic of uncertain future, the air of melancholy has a special consonance.

If it’s ever spring again,
Spring again,
I shall go where went I when
Down the moor-cock splashed, and hen,
Seeing me not, amid their flounder,
Standing with my arm around her;
If it’s ever spring again,
Spring again,
I shall go where went I then.

Hardy published fourteen novels and eight volumes of poetry, the very model of a novelist poet.

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Emily Brontë (1818-1848) wrote only one novel, but such a novel! The windswept masterpiece, “Wuthering Heights,” is considered one of the greatest in the English language. To which we add her poetry of unquestioned brilliance.

A picture of Emily Bronte painted by her brother Bramwell
Emily Brontë from a group painting by her brother, Branwell.

Emily was brought up and spent her life, save for some outside schooling, in a parsonage in Haworth, England, on the edge of the Yorkshire moors. Her family included her brother, Branwell, and two sisters, Charlotte and Anne, both very talented (Charlotte wrote “Jane Eyre”). We will discuss the family in a future column, but for now, pride of place goes to Emily whose poetic genius was extraordinary. Here she is in pursuit of spiritual and intellectual liberty.

Riches I hold in light esteem
And Love I laugh to scorn
And lust of Fame was but a dream
That vanished with the morn–

And if I pray, the only prayer
That moves my lips for me
Is–’Leave the heart that now I bear
And give me liberty.’

Yes, as my swift days near their goal
‘Tis all that I implore
Through life and death, a chainless soul
With courage to endure!

Emily’s best-known poems are probably “Last Lines” (No coward soul is mine) and “Remembrance” (Cold in the earth – and the deep snow piled above thee). But of equal importance is her salute “To Imagination,” in which Imagination partners with Liberty to prevail over Reason, Nature and Truth. Solitude also plays a role, and Emily said, “I’m happiest when most away.”

When weary with the long day’s care,
And earthly change from pain to pain,
And lost, and ready to despair,
Thy kind voice calls me back again —
O my true friend, I am not lone
While thou canst speak with such a tone!

So hopeless is the world without,
The world within I doubly prize;
Thy world where guile and hate and doubt
And cold suspicion never rise;
Where thou and I and Liberty
Have undisputed sovereignty.

What matters it that all around
Danger and grief and darkness lie,
If but within our bosom’s bound
We hold a bright unsullied sky,
Warm with ten thousand mingled rays
Of suns that know no winter days?

Reason indeed may oft complain
For Nature’s sad reality,
And tell the suffering heart how vain
Its cherished dreams must always be;
And Truth may rudely trample down
The flowers of Fancy newly blown.

But thou art ever there to bring
The hovering visions back and breathe
New glories o’er the blighted spring
And call a lovelier life from death,
And whisper with a voice divine
Of real worlds as bright as thine.

I trust not to thy phantom bliss,
Yet still in evening’s quiet hour
With never-failing thankfulness
I welcome thee, benignant power,
Sure solacer of human cares
And brighter hope when hope despairs.

Emily wrote more than 200 poems. At the age of thirty she died of tuberculosis, as had John Keats and as would our next poet, D. H. Lawrence.

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David Herbert Lawrence, commonly known as D.H. Lawrence (1885-1930), was born in a small mining town in Nottinghamshire, England. After obtaining a teaching certificate, he moved to London, teaching in the suburb of Croydon and writing poetry. In 1913 he published a volume of Love Poems, and later that year came his first masterpiece novel, “Sons and Lovers,” to be followed by “The Rainbow,” “Women in Love” and the scandalous and therefore popular “Lady Chatterley’s Lover.” Overall, he wrote twelve novels and some 800 poems.

D. H. Lawrence
D. H. Lawrence

A restless spirit, Lawrence lived for a while in Cornwall, and then spent time in Germany, Italy, Australia, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Mexico and the South of France. But the only home he actually owned and settled into was a ranch in Taos, New Mexico, now a museum and his gravesite.
One of Lawrence’s concerns involved modern man’s distance from nature. His best-known poem, “Snake,” depicts a confrontation at a water-trough. (Excerpt) The use of free verse reminds one of Walt Whitman.

A snake came to my water-trough
On a hot, hot day, and I in pyjamas for the heat,
To drink there.

In the deep, strange-scented shade of the great dark carob-tree
I came down the steps with my pitcher
And must wait, must stand and wait, for there he was at the trough
before me.

He reached down from a fissure in the earth-wall in the gloom
And trailed his yellow-brown slackness soft-bellied down, over
the edge of the stone trough
And rested his throat upon the stone bottom,
And where the water had dripped from the tap, in a small clearness,
He sipped with his straight mouth,
Softly drank through his straight gums, into his slack long body,

He drank enough
And lifted his head, dreamily, as one who has drunken,
And flickered his tongue like a forked night on the air, so black;

Seeming to lick his lips,
And looked around like a god, unseeing, into the air,
And slowly turned his head,
And slowly, very slowly, as if thrice adream,
Proceeded to draw his slow length curving round
And climb again the broken bank of my wall-face.

I looked round, I put down my pitcher,
I picked up a clumsy log
And threw it at the water-trough with a clatter.

I think it did not hit him,
But suddenly that part of him that was left behind convulsed
in undignified haste,
Writhed like lightning, and was gone
Into the black hole, the earth-lipped fissure in the wall front,
At which, in the intense still noon, I stared with fascination.

And immediately I regretted it.
I thought how paltry, how vulgar, what a mean act!
I despised myself and the voices of my accursed human education.

And I thought of the albatross,
And I wished he would come back, my snake.

For he seemed to me again like a king,
Like a king in exile, uncrowned in the underworld,
Now due to be crowned again.

And so, I missed my chance with one of the lords
Of life.
And I have something to expiate:
A pettiness.

Even strong-willed poets can have a soft side. This Lawrence reminiscence has a special meaning for me as I recall my earliest days of falling in love with the piano.

Softly, in the dusk, a woman is singing to me;
Taking me back down the vista of years, till I see
A child sitting under the piano, in the boom of the tingling strings
And pressing the small, poised feet of a mother who smiles as she sings.

In spite of myself, the insidious mastery of song
Betrays me back, till the heart of me weeps to belong
To the old Sunday evenings at home, with winter outside
And hymns in the cosy parlour, the tinkling piano our guide.

So now it is vain for the singer to burst into clamour
With the great black piano appassionato. The glamour
Of childish days is upon me, my manhood is cast
Down in the flood of remembrance, I weep like a child for the past.

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Because of the strong connections these poets had with their homes and surrounding countryside, we shot our Thomas Hardy video in what he called Wessex (now the county of Dorset), Emily Brontë in Haworth, West Yorkshire and D.H. Lawrence in Taos, New Mexico.
The video contains three thoughtful and beautifully-structured poems. First, Roger Hammond presents “Afterwards” by Thomas Hardy. Then Jill Tanner offers “Mild the Mist Upon the Hill” by Emily Brontë, introduced by lines from “Wuthering Heights.” Finally, Robert Culp performs “Autumn in Taos” by D.H. Lawrence.