Hardly Speaking

January 11: Thomas Hardy died on this day in 1928, aged eighty-seven. In her diary, Virginia Woolf tells the amusing story of going to see Hardy eighteen months before his death. She had just finished a draft of To the Lighthouse, one of those novels that would speak for modernism as much as Hardy's "Wessex" novels spoke for the past. She took The Mayor of Casterbridge with her on the train, found she could not put it down, and told Hardy so, "beset with desire to hear him say something about his books." He was cheerful, welcoming, and animated, but "delivered of all his work [and] not interested much in his novels or in anybody's novels." Especially ones written by those who had given up on the old ways:

"They've changed everything now," he said. "We used to think there was a beginning and a middle and an end. We believed in the Aristotelian theory. Now one of those stories came to an end with a woman going out of the room." He chuckled.

Though less than the torch-passing it might have been, their visit did not go unmarked. As a parting gift, Hardy presented a copy of his story collection, Life's Little Ironies, inscribed to "Virginia Wolff."

 

In The Later Years of Thomas Hardy, Florence says that her husband kept writing until the end, though he increasingly gave up on talking. She offers this anecdote as example:

Florence: It's twelve days since you spoke to anyone outside the house.

Hardy: I have spoken to someone.

Florence: Who was it?

Hardy: The man who drove the manure cart.

Florence: What did you say?

Hardy: "Good Morning."

As much is said in "He Resolves to Say No More," the last poem in Winter Words, the last collection of verse which Hardy published:

O my soul, keep the rest unknown!

It is too like a sound of moan

            When the charnel-eyed

            Pale Horse has nighed:

Yea, none shall gather what I hide!

 

Why load men's minds with more to bear

That bear already ails to spare?

            From now always

            Till my last day

What I discern I will not say….


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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