Unlike the social sciences, the study of English Literature in India seems likely to dimi¬nish gradually into a waste¬land. While we produce an increasing number of eminent sociologists, historians and economists, our literary critics—with a few notable but little noticed exceptions—are mostly a demoralized or desic¬cated lot. One reason for the withering of our literary criti¬cal landscape is the difficulty of finding a use for literary studies in a predominantly utilitarian ethos which allows little room for something as ‘useless’ as literature; a second may be the Leavisite refusal to study literary texts as aspects of cultural history rather than as autonomous moral bodies and timeless verbal icons; a third is perhaps a growing recognition of the relative alienness of English literature; a fourth is undoubtedly the abysmal condition of our libraries which makes access to source materials, and in Eng. Lit. Crit. even to secondary material, an im¬possible or at least a Her¬culean business. Given this mind killing context, the writing of a book on Hardy, which the local branch of the novelist-poet’s own publisher has thought worth bringing out, deserves a little credit by itself. However, although the author’s genuine and deep involvement in his subject is manifest in this book, it is his ardour and sincerity of purpose rather than his critical achieve¬ment that, in my view, merit a measure of praise.
Das tells us that his book is a revised Allahabad disserta¬tion which originally grew out of his disagreements with the views of Leavis, Blackmur, Tate and others on Hardy’s poetry. The latter group, while commending isolated poems, generally failed to recognize that Hardy’s sensibility was rooted in a specific peasant tradition which made the poet affirm the value of life despite his seeming immersion in weltschmerz and cosmic philo¬sophic gloom. Das argues for the existence in Hardy’s poetry of a Wordsworthian sense of wholeness because the later poet’s grasp of the particular conceals a more general reac¬tion to the universe. The suffering and pain of particular individuals depicted in Hardy’s poetry is not peculiar to those individuals but is seen by the poet to go beyond them and link them to a general human suffering. And while Hardy is exceptionally sensitive to life’s tragic possibilities—to the ease with which circumstances can cause happiness to be overtaken by mental anguish—there is also abundant evi¬dence in his work of positive and life affirming values such as gaiety, compassion, com¬radeship, love and loyalty. And finally, being rooted in a rural folk tradition, Hardy relies on it for appropriate metrical and verse forms which are usually in perfect harmony with the subject of his poems. This is the essential substance of the three chapters which comprise Das’s book. In a general sense the argument is unexceptionable, even if limited in its scope—The Dynasts, which is never mentioned, is surely crucial to any understanding of Hardy’s poetic sensibility—and, as the multitude of Das’s quotations from secondary sources shows, not entirely original.
Das’s book, it seems to me, tries much less successfully to do roughly what Noorul Hasan’s book (Thomas Hardy: The Sociological Imagination) does with Hardy’s fiction, namely, reveal an imaginative faculty so inherently rooted in its own soil that it enabled Hardy to see beyond the parti¬cular suffering destinies of individuals to the human bonds which linked these destinies into the encompass¬ing knot of a traditional peasant community. ‘Peasant’ and ‘tradition’ are in fact the keywords which haunt this book like ghosts and, in re¬maining elusively undefined, represent its central failing. If it was a ‘peasant tradition’ and a ‘folk sensibility’ which saved Hardy from the sentimentality and feelings of alienation common among other Victorian poets like Tennyson and Arnold, surely some attempt must be made to de¬fine these in historical, socio¬logical and biographical terms. Yet, except for one brief moment on p. 122, Das is con¬tent with the formalist metho¬dology of New Criticism and seems unaware of the existence of Raymond Williams, E.P. Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm and every other cultural his¬torian of note. It seems to me ; that it is not enough to say that Hardy imbibed a tradition subconsciously—as T.S. Eliot did consciously (Das makes this perceptive comparison), for it is also necessary, if any critical endeavour of this type is to be valuable and complex, to delve a little deeper into Hardy’s subconscious derivation from a specific rural tradition. The crux of Das’s argument is that unlike Arnold, Browning and Tennyson, Hardy is not a sentimental and alienated Victorian. The former three, faced with a godless and un¬structured universe, wrote anguished personal verse full of unconvincing affirmations of human worth, whereas Hardy’s starker, unsenti¬mental certitudes, acquired from Dorset or ‘Wessex’, were firmer.
One waits in vain for a subse¬quent analysis to reveal why or how Hardy got his superior Dorset certitudes: we are only assured that Hardy possessed these saving virtues and that they ensured his distinction as a poet. Most averagely sensi¬tive and intelligent readers are aware, without being told, that Hardy’s work derives from peasant communal wisdom, and look to critics to define this hazy category.
Even when Das approaches something that begins to look like an attempt at a definition, one is led to ask questions that j implicitly refute his remarks. When he says that Hardy knew their [the peasants’] sensitivity, and that it was covered under their reticence…. They were much too matured by the tragic experiences of their simple lives to protest or to ask questions,
one immediately doubts the existence of a rural England made up entirely of innocent, unprotesting rustics. Hardy did not feel as all peasants did mainly because all peasants did not feel like one another, nor like Hardy. The poet’s latest biographer Michael Miligate points out that in the village society of that period … there was a sharp and sometimes cruel divi¬sion between those who worked for themselves and those who worked for others, and it was precisely on the mobility of indivi¬duals across that line, in either an upward or a down¬ward direction, that so much of the action of the Wessex novels was later to turn…. Such discriminations mattered at the time—they have not, in England, ceased to matter even now —and it was a desire for accuracy rather than a sense of snob¬bery which led Hardy to insist, in his later years, upon distinctions….
It is possible to argue against this notion of a segmented and differentiated peasantry, as Noorul Hasan has done, and show that in Hardy’s work there is evidence of certain traditional perceptions and values which undercut or invalidate this differentiation. But whereas Hasan’s convinc¬ing textual analysis shows how Hardy’s fictional characters reinforce and affirm traditional ties, Das comes to grips with his keywords neither in socio-historical terms nor even adequately in textual analysis. We are repeatedly told after each poem has been con¬scientiously paraphrased that, since there is neither senti¬mentality nor alienation in the poetry, Hardy had obviously found salvation in peasant roots. One of the limitations of this slighter version of the ‘well-wrought urn’ approach is discussed when a pains¬takingly ferreted out conclu¬sion turns out to be no more than a well expressed truism. This may be because it is more difficult to be a good formalist critic than to be a good historical/cultural critic, since formalism relies less on contextual information than on the critic’s own imaginative and perceptive insights to ‘reveal’ meaning. Formalism is often ingenious in creating or discovering meanings that scarcely exist in the work under scrutiny—as in the criticism of Empson, Brooks and Rupin Desai. But when the formalist is less inventive and imaginative than these, he easily lapses into paraphrase. Many of Das’s ideas are unexceptionable, but very seldom developed beyond intelligent paraphrase.
However, the search for posi¬tive features in the book does not go unrewarded. Das’s unmistakeable enthusiasm for Hardy apart, interesting in¬sights do punctuate the ana¬lyses of individual poems. One such insight is the diffe¬rence between what Das calls ‘tragic’ time and chronological time:
Tragic time is different from time in mystic and alien poetries (sic). The mystic poets of the East froze time, looking at the flow of moments from the point of view of the absolute where all flow ceases…. Unlike the alien, the tragic writer does not suffer in a well of lone¬liness which negates hap¬piness and companionship … when the tragic writer affirms, he goes beyond the chronological time in which an individual’s happiness and pain alternate, and enters that frozen dimension of human time where the pain of tragedy is healed in the sense of tragedy….
Das is similarly sensitive on Hardy’s frequent use of lilting and incantatory metres:
The controlling of emotion through a ritualizing of the poem’s form with refrains, repetitions and intricate rhyme schemes is again characteristic of folk poetry. In folk poetry when the heart breaks with grief, the lines go a-dancing.
This is much less a truism than something one is struck by the truth of. Dance rhythms, Das suggests, often give some of the sad stories of Hardy’s poetry ‘the dignity of ritualistic restraint’.
It is a pity that the book’s manifold weaknesses stifle its virtues. Das’s prose is often unattractive and betrays in him an elegiac and senti¬mental strain which causes his criticism to lapse into rapturous looseness. At other times he seems to believe that the case for Hardy will be better made out if Tennyson, Browning and Arnold are shown to disadvantage against Hardy’s artistry, again suggest¬ing that his attitude to Hardy is genuflectory rather than detachedly sympathetic. The book is strewn with careless lines. On p. 8 Das says that
The poet who has received his tradition from books has not had the experience of sharing and, therefore, his poetry remains elitist and esoteric. He can speak to the few, but not to both, the few as well as the multitude.
This is an unthought generali¬zation. Most of Spenser’s poetry, much Elizabethan son¬neteering, a lot of Romantic writing and a considerable variety of modern verse, in¬cluding Yeats and Eliot, is inspired less by life than by literary traditions and pro¬bably inspires no fewer people than the ‘living’ verse of Hardy or Frost. Commenting on one of Hardy’s poems, ‘If it’s ever spring again’, Das writes, ‘The poem sings, as poems written in times when the English language was a fresh and unexhausted medium for poetry, sang.’ Presumably the language is now exhausted! It does need to be pointed out that Kipling, Auden, Charles Causley, Philip Larkin, Robert Frost and numerous other poets have written poetry as ‘living’, as close to the ‘folk’ and as like ‘song’, as Hardy.
Das’s work is not helped by his extensive and occasionally gratuitously polemical use of secondary sources. His quarrel with Richard Benvenuto’s remarks on Hardy seems un¬necessary because these are harmless enough not to require a vigorous critical rejoinder. There is little sense in mowing corn with a hatchet. Nor is the quality of the book helped by the Macmillan editorial and production department’s work. There is broken and inverted type on p. 112, and typogra¬phical errors passim. The book has been handset in metal sorts which probably pre-date Hardy: this makes it consider¬ably less expensive and consi¬derably less aesthetically desirable than it might have been. Of course, in the unlikely event that the uneven typography is meant as an ironic affirmation of the author’s argument for the evenness of Hardy’s sensi¬bility, the publisher may be complimented for such an astute resolution of the form-content dichotomy.
Rukun Advani is Editor, Oxford University Press, New Delhi.