The Impact of Industrialism: Thomas Hardy and D.G. Rossetti

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Thomas Hardy does not belong to the Pre-Raphaelite Poets. But both Hardy and Rossetti experienced the poignant sufferings of the people after the Industrial Revolution in England. D. G. Rossetti who in the poem ‘Jenny’, mostly written during 1858-69, gives the portrait of a fallen woman who had left behind her happy life in the country only to fall a prey to the ‘broil and bale’ of the city. Both Hardy and Rossetti experienced the same kind of profound shock, which the industrialisation of England had produced. Here’s a comparative study of these two poets, an erudite analysis by Basudeb, in the weekly column, exclusively for .

Thomas Hardy is a historian of his time. The landowners who were once affluent became severely hit by the overall agricultural disaster that overtook England during the time of industrialisation. The former glory of England was missing. The cold touch of economic depression hit not only the landless pauper but also rich persons Professor F. J. White comments on the authenticity of Hardy’s portrayal of the condition of rural England in his novels: “The fact is that when Hardy wrote of the world he knew, the world he had lived in, the English countryside in the half-century between the repeal of the Corn Laws and the tragedy of Tess, a Wessex which was ‘slipping out of his fingers, changing shape beyond what he remembered from his youth, receding into history’, he was putting on record a history, which he had lived on his pulses, and, for that very reason, it was a history more real than anything he could turn out to a ‘ novel’ properly so called.” As an observer of life and situation in the Wessex region, Hardy was by no means didactic in tone. But one strongly feels, while reading his novels that the novelist probably cherished the memory of something old and bygone; and with the departure of the age-old society and the decline of ‘organic community’ in his social surroundings. Hardy was completely at a loss. The cry of his agonising soul is often heard when we read his novels.

Let us refer to one of Hardy’s poems in this context. The following poem is an evidence of Hardy’s observation on the future of rural women after their arrival in industrial cities with the expectation of a decent and secure life. Some of the migrant women had to choose the profession of prostitutes for the sake of survival when all the avenues of income were closed to them. What Hardy wants to imply through this poem is that it was the curse of the Industrial Revolution that resulted in the rural exodus, which bred social parasites like prostitutes. The poem, ‘The Ruined Maid’, is as follows:

O’, Melia, my dear, this does everything crown!
Who could have supposed I should meet you in Town?
And whence such fair garments, such prosperity?’
‘O’, didn’t you know I’d been ruined?’ said she.

– ‘You left us in tatters, without shoes or sock,
Tired of digging , and spudding up docks;
And now you’ve gay bracelets and feathers three!’
‘Yes: That’s how we dress when we’are ruined’ said she.

– ‘At home in the barton you ‘thee’ and ‘thou’
And ‘thikoon’ and ‘theasoon’ and‘t’ other’; but now
Your talking quite fits ‘ee for high company’.
‘Some polish is gained with one’s ruin’, said she.

-‘Your hands were like paws then, you face blue and bleak
But now I’m bewitched by your delicate cheek,
And your little gloves fit as on any !’
‘We never do work when we’re ruined’, said she.

-‘You used to call home-life a hag-ridden dream,
And you’d sigh, and you’d sock; but at present you seem
To know not of megrim or melancholy’
‘True. One’s pretty lively when ruined’, said she.

– ‘I wish I had feathers, a fine sweeping gown,
And a delicate face, and could strut about Town’.
‘My dear – a raw country girl, such as you be,
Cannot quite expect that. You ain’t ruined,’ said she.

This poem reveals Hardy’s profound shock at the migration of village-folk as a consequence of industrialisation. The countrywomen suffered wretchedly when they left their villages for industrial cities. The pure and innocent village women were ruined as a result of the rural exodus in the wake of the industrialisation of England.

While the major Victorian poets were troubled with the spiritual and moral problems created by the conflict of their times, a group of poets who were known as the Pre-Raphaelite Poets were a group of young painters. D.G. Rossetti was one of the leading members of this group. Rossetti bowed from life to art with explicit and obviously formulated ideas. Even the modern readers of Rossetti’s poems ignore that Rossetti also wrote some poems that underscore the painful realities arising out of Victorian period.

Thomas Hardy does not belong to the Pre-Raphaelite Poets. But both Hardy and Rossetti experienced the poignant sufferings of the people after the Industrial Revolution in England. D. G. Rossetti who in the poem ‘Jenny’, mostly written during 1858-69, gives the portrait of a fallen woman who had left behind her happy life in the country only to fall a prey to the ‘broil and bale’ of the city. The following lines, from “Jenny”, substantiate that both Hardy and Rossetti experienced the same kind of profound shock, which the industrialisation of England had produced:

When she would lie in fields and look
Along the ground through the blown grass,
And wonder where the city was,
Far out of sight, whose broil and bale
They told her then for a child’s tale.

Jenny, you know the city now …
Poor Jenny, all your pride and woe;
Have seen your lifted silken skirt
Advertise dainties though the dirt;
Have seen your coach-wheels splash rebuke
On Virtue; …1

The migration of country-laborers to cities also created numerous problems in  life. It did not escape the notice of the painter-poet D.G.Rossetti. Both Hardy and Rossetti were the historians of their time. The symbolism we find in this poem has an intense appeal like that of Dante. The very accuracy of workmanship gives us an object of transcendental value that helps us sense the thoughts that lie beyond the confines of a Pre-Raphaelite picture of this poem. Unfortunately, Robert Buchanan2 dubbed Rossetti as one of the leaders of ‘The fleshly school of Poetry’. The critics of Rossetti perhaps fail to notice that almost every poem Rossetti has written is the introduction to some deeper understanding of the never-ending human values. His poems are symbolical and aggravate thoughts that justify Keats’s bold announcement that ‘we think because we feel’. No healthier case in point of this can be had than the poem Jenny, whose concerted sensuousness is as thought-provoking as a poem written by Robert Browning.

Notes and References

1) D. G Rossetti, The Complete Works of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ed. William M. Rossetti, Vol-1 (London: Ellis and Elvey, 1890, pp86-87.

2) According to Robert Buchanan (1841-1901) the Pre-Raphaelite art, painting, and poetry were all sensual in nature. He believed that Pre-Raphaelite poetry emphasised more on the body than the soul. Buchanan thought that Pre-Raphaelite poetry was a source of sexual corruption. He wrote an article on this subject and the article was published in The Contemporary Review sometime in 1871. This article was edited in the form of a pamphlet. Rossetti revolted against it. And in subsequently Buchanan’s pamphlet was withdrawn.

©Basudeb Chakraborti

Photo from the internet.

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Basudeb Chakraborti

Basudeb Chakraborti

Basudeb Chakraborti is a retired professor of English and Faculty Dean, University of Kalyani. He founded the Department of English in Sikkim Central University (2013). He taught in the USA and India. He wrote more than 100 articles in different literary journals in India and abroad. Among his books, Thomas Hardy's View of Happiness, Some Problems of : A Study of Tagore's Red Oleanders, Indian Partition Fiction in English and in English , etc.
Basudeb Chakraborti