Thomas Hardy is one of the most famous and prolific British writers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Most people recognize Hardy as an author of novels, but he preferred to write poetry. Both his novels and his poetry give a pessimistic view of the world. Subjects for his poetry include nature, love, and war. Most of his poems on war have tragic themes and present humans as having little control over their destinies. A major theme of Thomas Hardy’s tragic poems is the hopelessness, loneliness, and brutality of war.
Thomas Hardy described himself as a poet, although his fame and financial success resulted primarily from writing novels. Dennis Taylor says Hardy’s career as a poet spanned over sixty years, resulting in over one thousand poems (201). Harold Orel points out that Hardy spent more years of his life writing poetry than he did writing prose fiction (2). He preferred to be judged as a poet, not a novelist (Orel 2). In her book on Hardy, Molly Lefebure uses his quote, “I wanted to write poetry in the beginning; now I can … my stories are written” to show his preference for poetry (131). His novels served financial purposes while his poetry was for pleasure. Lefebure says, “The novels had served their purpose: had brought him his freedom; the novels were the ransom fee of the poet” (131). Thomas Hardy showed his feelings for his poetry in his statement to a critic
to “treat my verse … as my essential writings and my prose as my accidental” (Taylor 202). Hardy used similar themes in his novels and his poetry. His poetry, like his novels, deals with tragic and pessimistic themes like war.
Hardy’s war poems describe experiences and feelings of the Napoleonic War, the Boer War, and World War I. His interest in the Napoleonic War is seen in his epic drama The Dynasts, which covers the period from Napoleon’s threatened invasion of Great Britain to his downfall at Waterloo (Taylor 200). Hardy uses “all of his poetic resources” in the drama which is written mostly in blank verse (Taylor 200). Robert Schweik says Hardy presents his idea of “some unconscious and impersonal ‘urging force’ that is immanent in the universe” in The Dynasts (68). According to Hardy, “man’s individual will is subservient to Immanent Will” ( Schweik 68). The idea of man not having free will or the ability to control his fate brings out the theme of hopelessness that is common in Hardy’s war poems. In the epic, the Chorus of the Pities describes this force saying, “Ever unconscious! / An automatic sense / Unweeting why or whence?” (Fore Scene, 8-10). The Semichorus II also refers to this force in, “The Immanent, that urgeth all, / Rules what may or may not befall!” (II, v, 113-115). The Ironic Spirits reinforce this idea of man having no control over his fate when they say, “O Innocents, can ye forget / That things to be [are] shaped and set / Ere mortals and this planet [meet]?” (VI, iii, 63-65). The Encyclopedia Brittanica says that the epic expresses Hardy’s “central vision of a universe governed by the purposeless movements of a blind, unconscious force that he [calls] Immanent Will” (5). The theme of hopelessness is also seen in the soldiers in the drama. One of the soldiers says, “You may shoot, us, captain, or the French may shoot
us or the devil may take us, we don’t care which!” (III, I, 64-65). The soldiers feel helpless and hopeless. Hardy also shows the brutality of war in the lines, “Death in a thousand motley forms; / Charred corpses hooking each other’s arms / In sleep that defies all war’s alarms!” (I, x, 70-72). A fatal injury of a soldier is described in “The wound is more than serious […] / His blood throbs forth so fast, that I have dark fears / He’ll drain to death ere anything can be done” (III, iii, 82). Finally, The Dynasts shows the loneliness of war with soldier’s dying alone and deserting just to survive. Even...