For many educated readers, all that is held in mind of Thomas Hardy's long life (1840-1928) is that he wrote The Return of the Native and Tess of the d'Urbervilles and, when old, a handful of magnificent lyrics. The man himself is remembered from accounts of how he looked and acted in his extreme old age, a late-Victorian sage who had lingered past his century, the master of an ugly and pretentious villa called Max Gate, loaded down with honors and deference pleasurably accepted, the Grand Old Man of letters, the last English writer to be accorded that lonely and faintly ridiculous eminence.

But poets and critics have come to think of Hardy as one of the greatest of English poets. And a poet of an extraordinarily personal kind, whose poems were generated in precise ways from the circumstances of his life or from his intense involvement in the rural culture of his native Dorset. The biographical situation, however, has until recently been a most curious one. It has now been repaired by the splendid works of two scholars--Robert Gitting's Young Thomas Hardy (1975) and Thomas Hardy's Later Years (1978) and now Michael Millgate's Thomas Hardy: A Biography. Fully to appreciate our debt to them, the curious situation must be explained.

The standard Life was that published in 1928 and 1930 by Florence Hardy, the second wife whom he married in his final years. It is still credited to her by its publishers. In fact, however, Hardy himself was its author, the manner of composition being elaborate. Hardy wrote it out in installments, Florence typed them, and then, after the completion of each portion, his manuscript was destroyed, together with the diaries and letters on which it had been based. The life thus presented was carefully pruned and tailored into the version of himself which was all that he wished to be known of himself.

That much was being concealed was sensed long before the facts of authorship were known. In 1930, two years after Hardy's death was mourned in Westminster Abbey by prime ministers present and future and the full social and literary establishment, Somerset Maugham published his novel, Cakes and Ale. In it, he imagines that the second wife of an eminent novelist based upon Hardy is arranging for a biography which will conceal a first marriage with a blowsy, cheerful, promiscuous slut. Nothing (alas for Hardy!) could have been farther from the case. Emma Gifford Hardy was a mountain of middle-class respectability (in her corpulent maturity, almost literally so), a religious zealot, and a woman maddened by seeing her husband soar to social heights far beyond both her dreams and her competence.

But the gates of speculation remained open. Thus, in 1966 a book called Providence and Mr. Hardy argued that at the time of his courtship of Emma, Hardy had a child by a Dorset girl named Tryphena Sparks, presumably his cousin but there alleged to be his niece. Gittings and Millgate, each in his own way, demolish this baseless and absurd near-fiction which has continued to float in the background of Hardy studies. But it was only one of many legends, rumors, speculations. Gittings, and now Millgate, happen both to be humane and sensitive biographers, but the circumstances compelled them to be detectives as well. Thus, they demonstrate that behind the evasions of the Life lay motives as simple as those of social embarrassment.

Hardy, as he always insisted with pride, was the son of a skilled artisan, a master stone-mason with his own business. But he was also closely related to laborers, house servants, cobblers, bricklayers. Between these two classes lay a gulf as deep as that which separated both of them from the middle class and the gentry. By training himself as an architect, by marrying a woman with some pretensions to gentility, and then by establishing himself as a novelist, he had made the difficult and hazardous Victorian passage from one class to another. Far from renouncing his past, he made of it the very substance of his art, but when it came to autobiography, he responded, not with lies or even distortions, but rather with silences, evasions, and with an occasional innocent fancifulness.

The actual facts of Hardy's life, so far as we shall ever know them, have now been set before us, and it is one of the wonders and pleasures of Professor Millgate's book --but also of Gittings'--that we have now, at last, the life actually lived. And, in its actuality, it is as rich and complex as all the flimsy rumors and speculations, But I doubt, and for reasons that I think they would accept, that it will dispel the sense that it was a life of mysteries. They are mysteries which pertain not to matters of fact, but rather to the character of Hardy's nature and his imagination.

Life at Max Gate was a kind of dreadful comedy, which Gittings captures rather more vividly than does Millgate. Hardy, when in his thirties but still, it would seem, inexperienced in both the sexual and the worldly senses, married a woman above him socially and seeming to share his literary and spiritual enthusiasms. The marriage was a disaster. Max Gate contrived a tranquil facade, the great writer and his attentive consort. Behind it, the Hardys seldom spoke to each other, and then often with acrimony. He worked, steadily and often marvellously, at his poetry. She busied herself with harmles, untidy eccentricities. And yet her death released within him, almost at once, energies of re membered love which issued into the great "Poems of 1912-13": A ghost-girl rider. And though, toil-tried, He withers daily, But still she rides gaily In his rapt thought On that shagged and shaly Atlantic spot, And as when first eyed Draws rein and sings to the swing of the tide.

The special magic of Hardy's poetry is suggested by these lines: despite the fussy, pedantic versification, the almost deliberate awkwardness of diction ("shagged," "eyed"), they suggest a haunting precision of memory. It is with memory that they are in love. Every writer depends upon memory, but Hardy's art had memory as its subject. Not by accident did a late, minor novel, The Well-Beloved (1897) capture the attention of Proust when he was contemplating Remembrance of Things Past. Even the great novels, Tess and Jude the Obscure, are drenched in memory. Once these seemed exercises in a gloomy but powerful determinism. We read them now almost as poems are read, as lovely, elegiac yet minutely accurate recreations of a Dorset countryside and culture which were changing even as he wrote.

Hardy's early life was indeed a tissue of mysteries and secrets, but for reasons which run deeper than his thin- skinned snobberies. His life was mysterious, recessed, shrouded, because such was his temperament, and because he saw life as mysterious and shrouded, shaped by the commingling of past and present. The Dorset of his novels and poems (which he re-created as "Wessex," a county that came to have an actual existence for his readers) was, in his boyhood, an anachronism within England, an almost feudal county, living by the customs, traditions, folkways and poverty of some earlier century. But in his young manhood, first as architect and then as writer, he watched the beginnings of its painful, mute transformation into a modern county, like all the others.

The recession of this world into the unrecoverable past, save as he could hold it within his powerful and tenacious imagination, was not the theme of his novels, but rather was the atmosphere in which they moved. So too with the poems. As the verse quoted above may suggest, the present had but to fall into the past, to be charged for him with the magic and energy of the past. Dead, Emma became for him once again the girl who had ridden the coasts of their Cornwall courtship.

The reading of Millgate's ample and alert biography is, in a curious and appropriate way, a Hardyesque experience. He moves us back into that remote world of Hardy's youth, which he re-creates in a just and ample detail, and then moves us forward through the long decades of his life. Until we are at last with the old man at Max Gate, sorting over his memories, shaping and burnishing them, confessional and evasive to the end. Hardy had taken all into account save the inexhaustible persistence of modern scholarship.