War Poems of Thomas Hardy

In Time of ‘The Breaking of Nations’

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.

Before Marching and After

(in Memoriam F. W. G.)
       Orion swung southward aslant
       Where the starved Egdon pine-trees had thinned,
       The Pleiads aloft seemed to pant
       With the heather that twitched in the wind;
But he looked on indifferent to sights such as these,
Unswayed by love, friendship, home joy or home sorrow,
And wondered to what he would march on the morrow.
       The crazed household-clock with its whirr
       Rang midnight within as he stood,
       He heard the low sighing of her
       Who had striven from his birth for his good;
But he still only asked the spring starlight, the breeze,
What great thing or small thing his history would borrow
From that Game with Death he would play on the morrow.
       When the heath wore the robe of late summer,
       And the fuchsia-bells, hot in the sun,
       Hung red by the door, a quick comer
       Brought tidings that marching was done
For him who had joined in that game overseas
Where Death stood to win, though his name was to borrow
A brightness therefrom not to fade on the morrow.

The Man He Killed

"Had he and I but met
            By some old ancient inn,
We should have sat us down to wet
            Right many a nipperkin!
            "But ranged as infantry,
            And staring face to face,
I shot at him as he at me,
            And killed him in his place.
            "I shot him dead because —
            Because he was my foe,
Just so: my foe of course he was;
            That's clear enough; although
            "He thought he'd 'list, perhaps,
            Off-hand like — just as I —
Was out of work — had sold his traps —
            No other reason why.
            "Yes; quaint and curious war is!
            You shoot a fellow down
You'd treat if met where any bar is,
            Or help to half-a-crown."
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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

12 Responses

  1. Harry Colin says:

    I find Hardy’s poetry more appealing than his novels, not that the latter aren’t good, it’s just his poems speak more deeply to me.

    I have always been much moved by “The Man He Killed;” it touched upon emotions that haunted me as a soldier.

  2. Robert Reavis says:

    “Before and After Marching” could be a good example of what has been lost and what a man of his age could take for granted in the audience who read his poems.

    Orion swung southward aslant
    Where the starved Egdon pine-trees had thinned,
    The Pleiads aloft seemed to pant
    With the heather that twitched in the wind;

    An honest contemporary would ask what does it mean that Orion swung southward a slant. What’s a Egdon Oine? Who or what are the Pleiades aloft? What is Heather twitching in the wind?
    Just a rudimentary understanding of those lost realities would fill the ordinary American high school or college youngster with enough wonder for a after and long night becoming acquainted with them.
    Hardy I think worked for a time with stone and restoration projects involving his craft. He knew the limits of restoring lost understandings and is often considered just another pessimist obsessed with a forlorn melancholy and the vicissitudes of life. Yet as the first poem reminds us, the battle axe for the breaking of nations is a belief in lasting subjects too like eating, loving and man’s desire to know.

  3. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    You touch on a good point. Once upon a time, country-bred people knew the stars and could tell seasons and even time by the stars. Such knowledge would also be required of students of ancient poetry, where the rising and setting of the Pleiades or Seven Sisters can be a clue to the season. Today, in cutting ourselves off from the past, we are also cut off from the natural world. The very hippies, yuppies, and globalists who claim to worship Gaia cannot tell a daisy from a dandelion, much less identify the constellations.

  4. Michael Strenk says:

    “The Man He Killed” brings up a point on which I have sometimes pondered regarding the relationship between high unemployment and war. Is unemployment artificially created, in the modern world, so that men at loose ends can be easily taken up and used cheaply and disposed of in pursuit of some purpose, or is war started to engage men incidentally unemployed who otherwise might begin to show their dissatisfaction by taking it out on a nations leading citizens, using these men in projects of conquest to benefit the power, wealth and prestige of the leaders at the expense of those whom they consider to be superfluous?

  5. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    I am not altogether certain that Hardy was talking about high unemployment.

  6. Michael Strenk says:

    Yes, I’m sure that I extrapolate too far on the author’s intent. All the same, it seems that many modern governments are more than happy to have a ready supply of young men at loose ends who ‘might as well’, having no better prospects available.

  7. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    I regret–just a little–putting in the jesting needle, but I do think that in the long run Hardy’s poems will outlast our political crisis, and if they don’t, we shall be even worse off than I think we shall be. But for poems to mean something to us, we must take them as they are, adopt them, incorporate them into our experience, without initially scribbling the graffiti of political news or any other extraneous elements. It is the picture of the old man harrowing clods that struck me perhaps 60 years ago, as one of the last poems in the old Oxford Book of English poetry, and war’s annals–and all the annals of FOX, CNN, the NY Times, and every other piece of paper wasted on trivia–will cloud into night ere the stories of Hardy’s people die.

  8. Michael Strenk says:

    I believe that literature in general, but especially poetry, to have an effect on its audience, should touch us where we live. The passage that touched me was the one I mentioned. A bit lost in high school, despite good grades, I struggled mightily over a decision of whether or not to join the Marines. I was persuaded against it. I think that this was, in the end, the right decision for me, but the plight of others who decided differently and what brings them to that decision almost haunts me at times. My questions above seem to be only politically motivated, I admit, but they are also, in fact, deeply personal and wrapped up with all of the what-ifs brought to the fore very ably by England’s WWI poets, at least two of whom were close friends with Hardy near the end of his life.

  9. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    For good or ill, we make of a poem what we will, but to walk very far down that road leads leads people into the demon-infested wilderness of reader-response theory and deconstructionism. It is a temptation which, if we do not resist it, prevents us from getting very much out of a poem more than we are willing to put into it from ourselves.

    If we are to speak personally, I opposed t he Vietnam War, though I did not demonstrate or join organizations. It was not that I did not view the expansion of communism as an evil to be resisted, only that I saw no possible success for a war that seemed to be waged largely against civilians. In those days, I read a good deal of poetry from WW I, but I read it as poems, not as political editorials. The literature I did enjoy for its confirmation of my own opinions now seems sterile and fatuous. (As a sidenote, I did not care much for Wilfred Owen, who seemed to revel in his misery.) But Hardy was upon the human lives of the simple men sent off to fight for causes they did not understand. There is no propganda, only a tragic sort of kindness.

  10. Harry Colin says:

    My primary interest in poetry is the beauty of the language, the meter, the rhyming, the careful selection of word choice. Certainly then I am also moved by the poem itself ( as I was by the Hardy poem that I mentioned previously) and the subject. I would cite Lepanto as my favorite in poem overall.

    Poetry also forces me to slow down; I’m blessed to read quite fast, but a poem concentrates the mind in a most productive way. This is especially so for me when contemplating Hopkins and some of the French poets.

    If I might, regarding deconstructed literature, I have two friends who have recently retired from teaching college English at least in part because of that affliction. One of them is a proud feminist, but she has the intellectual honesty to be disgusted by the academy’s insistence on viewing every novel, play and poem by its presumed stance on feminism.

  11. Robert Reavis says:

    Yes Mr Colin, I agree with you.
    Derrida, Freud, Marx, Sir Walter Scott, Shakespeare, and Southern Agrarians. I often wonder why undergraduates for the last fifty years know so much about the first three fellows and so little about the last three.

  12. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    E.C. Kopff used to argue that deconstructionism was invented so that critics could ignore the Christian faith of Shakespeare, Milton, Dr. Johnson, Pope and Swift, Scott, Wordsworth, and even Coleridge.