What to Read this Week: Thomas Hardy and the Titanic

Let’s play the word association game with Thomas Hardy! If anything comes springing to mind, it is most likely his classic novel, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, his most widely known work. Tess of the D’Urbervilles is certainly an excellent novel- in fact, I adore this novel and will probably write a review of it at some point in the future. Yet, interestingly, Hardy’s primary passion was not for the novelistic form but for poetry. Indeed, Hardy desired to be a poet and saw himself as a poet first and foremost. He set about writing novels to support himself financially, and then focused on poetry when he was better off.

Today Thomas Hardy is mainly remembered for his novels. This recognition is well-deserved, since, as I mentioned above, Hardy is a master craftsman when it comes to the novel. However, he is also a master poet, one of the best of the Victorian era, and it is his poetry that I want to recommend in this post, specifically the poem, “The Convergence of the Twain.” This poem, which you can read here, is about the ill-fated Titanic.

Hardy has such a command over language, rhythm and sound. He uses rich, sensuous language and employs rhyme in a way that guides the flow and pace of the poem. Most of his poems are short, lyrical and heavily steeped in nostalgia. Often he reminisces on earlier days, and many of his poems take as their subject his estranged first wife, whose death made a huge impression on Hardy and rekindled for him the light of their former love.

In his poem on the Titanic, Hardy departs from this very personal style to talk about a much more storied event, yet he still does so in his own way. What is interesting about this poem is the contrast between the beauty and glamour of the Titanic, its inhabitants and possessions, and the obscurity and “poverty” of the world below sea, where fame, fortune and vanity are no longer of any importance. Paired with the “mirrors meant / To glass the opulent” is the “sea-worm,” who is “grotesque, slimed, dumb, indifferent.” Then there is my favourite stanza, which also illustrates this same contrast:

“Dim moon-eyed fishes near
Gaze at the gilded gear
And query, “What does this vaingloriousness down here?”

The poem is tightly structured and continually builds momentum and suspense (despite our prior knowledge of what befell the Titanic), probing the depths of fate and slowly bringing together the Titanic and the iceberg until their calamitous meeting becomes inevitable.

If you enjoyed reading this excellent Hardy poem, there are many more of excellence to be read. From my own reading experience, I would recommend this slim and nicely designed volume of his poems: “Poems of Thomas Hardy,” selected and introduced by Claire Tomalin.