‘He Never Expected Much’ and other poems by Thomas Hardy
Selected by Anthony Astbury
Greville Press Pamphlets
ISBN 978 0 9573929 91

What Didn't Happen in Hardy

When you read a selection from a Big poet, like Hardy, who wrote so much (and most of us already have our favourites) what fascinates is the other person’s choice. I saw something in Anthony Astbury’s selection that I might not have seen in my own —though now I will look for it.

And it was this: the number of poems about something that didn’t happen. Missed opportunities. Almost events. ‘Nearly’ poems. There is something very Hardyish about this: he is famously permeated with ironies, both funny and sad.

The opening poem here is ‘A Broken Appointment’, and its first line (or half-line, in fact) is ‘You did not come’. An ordinary poet might have focussed on feelings of pain and betrayal. Hardy has these, but he dismisses them briskly: ‘You love not me, / And love alone can lend you loyalty; / — I know it and knew it.’ But then he can’t resist creating the almost event, the ‘if only’ — and that’s where he ends:

Was it not worth a little hour or more,
To add yet this: Once you, a woman, came
To soothe a time-torn man; even though it be
            You love not me?

But she didn’t come.

Again, in ‘A Thunderstorm in Town’, the speaker is ‘trapped’ for a few minutes inside a horse-drawn cab during a heavy rainstorm in 1893. Closeness is about to lead to something . . . but the rain stops: ‘I should have kissed her if the rain / Had lasted a minute more.’ How strange it is, to preserve so neatly and sweetly a memory of what didn’t happen in a rainstorm in 1893, and yet have the reader relate to this, and to all the nearlies of life.

Out of this selection of 23 Thomas Hardy poems, I counted 8 nearlies. Just over a quarter of the poems here feature things that didn’t happen. Fascinating, and perhaps one for the Nearlyology Project.