At twenty-one, Hardy went up to London to advance his architectural career, and it was around this time that he began the incredible labor--with no training, no encouragement, and no guide--of willing himself into existence as a poet. He worked from six to midnight every evening. He bought copies of Milton, Thomson, and Coleridge, an Introduction to English Literature, a Standard Pronouncing Dictionary (which says a lot about where he came from and how he felt about it), and a Rhyming Dictionary. He bought notebooks and filled them with vocabulary-building exercises, imitations, coinages, memoranda about specific literary effects, and pages and pages of quotations. He started jotting down notes about what he was seeing, reading, feeling, overhearing--ideas and images and phrases on which he would draw throughout his life. He also started writing poems such as this one, which gives a fair sample not only of his presumptive feelings at the time, but of the sardonic wit that would characterize much of his later verse:
A senseless school, where we must give
Our lives that we may learn to live!
A dolt is he who memorizes
Lessons that leave no time for prizes.
What he was not doing was publishing any of those poems, and by the time Hardy turned twenty-six he had given up on his dream of a university education followed by a lifetime of idle hours in the rectory--the recognition that probably precipitated the foregoing epigram. The next year he took ill, and when his old Dorchester boss wrote to offer him a job, he came back from London, after five years, with his tail between his legs. He had few prospects, little money, and virtually no connections in the literary world. But he did have one thing: the beginnings of a novel.
The New Republic, February 19, 2007