Thomas Hardy and the poetry of war

Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) is best known as the Victorian writer behind much-loved novels that include Far from the Madding Crowd (1874), the Mayor of Casterbridge (1886) and Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891). 

But as he grew older his focus turned to poetry, which had been his first love, and was influenced by his imagined county of Wessex, where he set most of his books, the death of his estranged wife, and war. 

Hardy was of a generation that remembered the threat and destruction of the Napoleonic Wars and he thought it was impossible that Europe could ever go back through that same upheaval. So he was appalled when the First World War began, on 28 July in 1914, and savaged the statesmen who had allowed ‘the world, having like a spider climbed to a certain height, seems slipping back to what it was long ago’.

One of Hardy's most famous poems is ‘In Time of “The Breaking of Nations”’ (1915), where he expressed his deepest feelings about war by contrasting the horrors of war with the simplicity of life for ordinary people. 

Only a man harrowing clods
In a slow silent walk
With an old horse that stumbles and nods
Half asleep as they stalk.

Only thin smoke without flame
From the heaps of couch-grass;
Yet this will go onward the same
Though Dynasties pass.

Yonder a maid and her wight
Come whispering by:
War’s annals will cloud into night
Ere their story die.

This was a theme he would return to time and again, writing about the death of innocent men who saw no glory in war and wondering whether the death, destruction and suffering could have been avoided. 

Hardy's life is celebrated in a major exhibition taking place across four Wessex museums in 2022. The event takes place at the Dorset Museum, Poole Museum, The Salisbury Museum and Wiltshire Museum and boasts the largest collection of Hardy memorabilia ever displayed at one time.

His story will be retold in exciting new ways and each exhibition explores a different Hardy theme. The Dorset Museum tackles Hardy's anger towards social tensions and inequalities of the day, both towards the rights of the everyday man and cruelty to animals. At Poole, the exhibition examines his fascination with the coast, where he found love but which he also associated with the threat of war and invasion. 

If you would like to find out more about the life of one of Britain's most influential writers, you can join our fantastic small-group tour of Wessex and visit the Hardy exhibition in the company of its curator, Harriet Still, to find out more about his life and inspirations, novels and poems. 

Harriet's passion for Hardy is infectious, and she'll help you link together the amazing array of items that tell the story of his incredible life.