Thomas Hardy, (2 June 1840 – 11 January 1928) was an English author of the naturalist movement, though he regarded himself primarily as a poet and composed novels mainly for financial gain. The bulk of his work, set mainly in the semi-fictional land of Wessex, delineates characters struggling against their passions and circumstances. Hardy's poetry, first published in his 50s, has come to be as well regarded as his novels, especially after The Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. The term "cliffhanger" is considered to have originated with Thomas Hardy's serial novel A Pair of Blue Eyes in 1873. In the previously mentioned novel Hardy chose to leave one of his protagonists, Knight, literally hanging off a cliff staring into the stony eyes of a trilobite embedded in the rock that has been dead for millions of years. This became the archetypal — and literal — cliff-hanger of Victorian prose.
Although he wrote a great deal of poetry, mostly unpublished until after 1898, Hardy is best remembered for the series of novels and short stories he wrote between 1871 and 1895. His novels are set in the imaginary world of Wessex, a large area of south and south-west England, using the name of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom that covered the area. Hardy was part of two worlds. He had a deep emotional bond with the rural way of life which he had known as a child, but he was also aware of the changes which were under way and the current social problems, from the innovations in agriculture—he captured the epoch just before the Industrial Revolution changed the English countryside—to the unfairness and hypocrisy of Victorian sexual behaviour.
Hardy critiques certain social constraints that hindered the lives of those living in the 19th century. Considered a Victorian Realist writer, Hardy examines the social constraints that are part of the Victorian status quo, suggesting these rules hinder the lives of all involved and ultimately lead to unhappiness. In Two on a Tower, Hardy seeks to take a stand against these rules and sets up a story against the backdrop of social structure by creating a story of love that crosses the boundaries of class. The reader is forced to consider disposing of the conventions set up for love. Nineteenth-century society enforces these conventions, and societal pressure ensures conformity. Swithin St Cleeve's idealism pits him against contemporary social constraints. He is a self-willed individual set up against the coercive strictures of social rules and mores.
In a novel structured around contrasts, the main opposition is between Swithin St Cleeve and Lady Viviette Constantine, who are presented as binary figures in a series of ways: aristocratic and lower class, youthful and mature, single and married, fair and dark, religious and agnostic…she [Lady Viviette Constantine] is also deeply conventional, absurdly wishing to conceal their marriage until Swithin has achieved social status through his scientific work, which gives rise to uncontrolled ironies and tragic-comic misunderstandings.
Hardy’s stories take into consideration the events of life and their effects. Fate plays a significant role as the thematic basis for many of his novels. Characters are constantly encountering crossroads, which are symbolic of a point of opportunity and transition. Far From the Madding Crowd tells a tale of lives that are constructed by chance. “Had Bathsheba not sent the valentine, had Fanny not missed her wedding, for example, the story would have taken an entirely different path.” Once things have been put into motion, they will play out. Hardy's characters are in the grips of an overwhelming fate.
Hardy paints a vivid picture of rural life in the 19th century, with all its joys and suffering, as a fatalistic world full of superstition and injustice. His heroes and heroines are often alienated from society and are rarely readmitted. He tends to emphasise the impersonal and, generally, negative powers of fate over the mainly working class people he represents in his novels. Hardy exhibits in his books elemental passion, deep instinct, and the human will struggling against fatal and ill-comprehended laws, a victim also of unforeseeable change. Tess of the d'Urbervilles, for example, ends with:
In particular, Hardy's novel Jude the Obscure is full of the sense of crisis of the later Victorian period (as witnessed in Matthew Arnold's 'Dover Beach'). It describes the tragedy of two new social types, Jude Fawley, a working man who attempts to educate himself, and his lover and cousin, Sue Bridehead, who represents the 'new woman' of the 1890s.
His mastery, as both an author and poet, lies in the creation of natural surroundings making discoveries through close observation and acute sensitiveness. He notices the smallest and most delicate details, yet he can also paint vast landscapes of his own Wessex in melancholy or noble moods. (His eye for poignant detail - such as the spreading bloodstain on the ceiling at the end of Tess of the d'Urbervilles and little Jude's suicide note - often came from clippings from newspaper reports of real events).
In 1898 Hardy published his first volume of poetry, Wessex Poems, a collection of poems written over 30 years. Hardy claimed poetry as his first love, and published collections until his death in 1928. Although not as well received by his contemporaries as his novels, Hardy's poetry has been applauded considerably in recent years, in part because of the influence on Philip Larkin. However, critically it is still not regarded as highly as his prose.
Most of his poems deal with themes of disappointment in love and life, and mankind's long struggle against indifference to human suffering. Some, like "The Darkling Thrush" and "An August Midnight," appear as poems about writing poetry, because the nature mentioned in them gives Hardy the inspiration to write those. A vein of regret tinges his often seemingly banal themes. His compositions range in style from the three-volume epic closet drama The Dynasts to smaller, and often hopeful or even cheerful ballads of the moment such as the little-known "The Children and Sir Nameless," a comic poem inspired by the tombs of the Martyns, builders of Athelhampton.
A few of Hardy's poems, such as "The Blinded Bird" (a melancholy polemic against the sport of vinkenzetting), display his love of the natural world and his firm stance against animal cruelty, exhibited in his antivivisectionist views and his membership in the RSPCA.
Composers who have set Hardy's text to music include Gerald Finzi, who produced six song-cycles for poems by Hardy, Benjamin Britten, who based his song-cycle "Winter Words" on Hardy's poetry, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst. Holst also based one of his last orchestral works, Egdon Heath, on Hardy's work. Composer Lee Hoiby's setting of "The Darkling Thrush" became the basis of the multimedia opera Darkling and Timothy Takach, a graduate of St. Olaf, has also put "The Darkling Thrush" into arrangement for a 4-part mixed choir.