Thomas Hardy, the son of a stonemason, was born in Dorset, England, on June 2, 1840. He trained as an architect and worked in London and Dorset for ten years. Hardy began his writing career as a novelist, publishing Desperate Remedies (Tinsley Brothers) in 1871, and was soon successful enough to leave the field of architecture for writing. His novels Tess of the D’Urbervilles (Osgood McIlvaine & Co., 1891) and Jude the Obscure (Osgood McIlvaine & Co., 1895), which are considered literary classics today, received negative reviews upon publication and Hardy was criticized for being too pessimistic and preoccupied with sex. He also wrote Far from the Madding Crowd (1874) and The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886). He left fiction writing for poetry, and published eight collections, including Poems of the Past and the Present (Harper & Bros., 1902) and Satires of Circumstance (Macmillan, 1914).
Hardy’s poetry explores a fatalist outlook against the dark, rugged landscape of his native Dorset. He rejected the Victorian belief in a benevolent God, and much of his poetry reads as a sardonic lament on the bleakness of the human condition. A traditionalist in technique, he nevertheless forged a highly original style, combining rough-hewn rhythms and colloquial diction with an extraordinary variety of meters and stanzaic forms. A significant influence on later poets (including Frost, Auden, Dylan Thomas, and Philip Larkin), his influence has increased during the course of the century, offering an alternative—more down-to-earth, less rhetorical—to the more mystical and aristocratic precedent of Yeats. Thomas Hardy died on January 11, 1928.
I was captivated by how much story there is between the lines in the little poem. What’s the background of the boy? For having no money, how does he possess such a wonderful instrument? Is the prisoner on his way to his death? What is his jailer thinking? And what did the little boy feel that made him want to play for this man? I love poems that make me want to weave my way into the words and see this scene for myself. This is one of them.
At the Railway Station, Upway
“There is not much that I can do,
For I’ve no money that’s quite my own!”
Spoke up the pitying child –
A little boy with a violin
At the station before the train came in, –
“But I can play my fiddle to you,
And a nice one ’tis, and good in tone!”
The man in the handcuffs smiled;
The constable looked, and he smiled, too,
As the fiddle began to twang;
And the man in the handcuffs suddenly sang
“This life so free
Is the thing for me!”
And the constable smiled, and said no word,
As if unconscious of what he heard;
And so they went on till the train came in –
The convict, and boy with the violin.
Picture Source: The British Library