Jun. 2, 2006

A Private Man on Public Men

by Thomas Hardy

FRIDAY, 2 JUNE, 2006
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Poem: "A Private Man on Public Men" by Thomas Hardy from The Complete Poems. © Macmillan Publishing Company. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

A Private Man on Public Men

When my contemporaries were driving
Their coach through Life with strain and striving,
And raking riches into heaps,
And ably pleading in the Courts
With smart rejoinders and retorts,
Or where the Senate nightly keeps
Its vigils, till their fames were fanned
By rumour's tongue throughout the land,
I lived in quiet, screened, unknown,
Pondering upon some stick or stone,
Or news of some rare book or bird
Latterly bought, or seen, or heard,
Not wishing ever to set eyes on
The surging crowd beyond the horizon,
Tasting years of moderate gladness
Mellowed by sundry days of sadness,
Shut from the noise of the world without,
Hearing but dimly its rush and rout,
Unenvying those amid its roar,
Little endowed, not wanting more.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of columnist Frank Rich, born in Washington, D.C. (1949). He served as the drama critic for The New York Times for thirteen years before switching to feature and opinion articles.

It's the birthday of the Marquis de Sade, (books by this author), born in Paris (1740), from whom we get the term "Sadism."

It's the birthday of novelist Barbara Pym, (books by this author), born in Shropshire, England (1913). She published five novels in the '50s and '60s, but then her work fell out of fashion and she didn't publish another novel for the next sixteen years. Then, in 1977, in an article in the Times Literary Supplement, the writers Lord David Cecil and Philip Larkin both named her as one of the great neglected authors of the twentieth century. She suddenly became one of the most popular novelists in both England and America. She published three more novels, including Quartet in Autumn (1977), and all of her earlier novels were reissued.

It's the birthday of novelist and poet Thomas Hardy, (books by this author), born in Higher Bockhampton, Dorset, England (1840). Dorset was a poor, rural county where life hadn't changed very much for hundreds of years and older people spoke a local dialect similar to German. Hardy would stay up late reading poetry and magazines, and listening to his grandmother tell stories about the time of Napoleon. His father was a mason and a building contractor, and when Hardy was sixteen he left school and became an apprentice to a well-known architect.

He was more interested in poetry than architecture, though, and he would get up early every morning to study Latin and Greek. When he was twenty-two he moved to London, where he began writing his own poetry. He wasn't able to publish it, and so he tried writing novels instead. His first novel, Desperate Remedies, was published anonymously in 1871. His first big success was Far from the Madding Crowd, published in 1874. He went on to write The Return of the Native (1878), Tess of the D'Urbervilles (1891), and Jude the Obscure (1895), and he became one of the most popular novelists of his time.

Most of his novels were first published serially in popular magazines, and Hardy made sure not to write anything that might be considered too offensive to his readers. But when he published Tess of the D'Urbervilles in book form, he included several chapters that were cut from the magazine version.

Tess of the D'Urbervilles is about a young woman who has an illegitimate child and eventually goes on to murder the child's father, but Hardy portrayed the woman sympathetically and critics called the book shameless and immoral. His next novel, Jude the Obscure (1895), created an even bigger scandal.

Hardy had always thought of writing novels as no more than a way to make a living, and by this point he was so fed up with the criticism that he announced he would never write fiction again. He had been writing poetry for over thirty years, and now that he had become a famous novelist he was able to publish much of what he had written. His first collection, Wessex Poems, was published in 1898, and he would publish nothing but poetry for the last thirty years of his life. His Collected Poems came out in 1930.

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