Monday, 23 November 2009

The Man He Killed - Thomas Hardy

Thomas Hardy's poem 'The Man He Killed' focusses on the senselessness and futility of war, where a man has killed another quite simply because they were fighting on opposing sides in a war.

Written in the first person from the standpoint of one of the soldiers, the first stanza expresses the idea that the two men who fought would, had they in other circumstances met each other outside a pub, have enjoyed a few drinks ('right many a nipperkin') together. Yet it becomes clear in the second stanza that they in fact met as foot soldiers in a battle, and being confronted with each other, one had to die. The narrator received a bullet but survived, whereas his shot fatally injured the other man.

The writer falters at the end of the opening line of the third stanza as he tries to justifies his action. Repeating the word 'because', he states that he had to kill the other soldier as he was his enemy. The third line of this stanza features more repetition, this time of the word 'foe' (enemy); the use of phrases such as 'Just so' and 'of course' suggest that the narrator is trying to convince himself that his action was inevitable. The stanza, however, ends with the word 'although', telling us that the writer is not in fact at ease with the idea that he has killed his enemy. Using enjambment to link to the fourth stanza, the narrator reflects on the fact that the soldier he killed probably decided to join the army ('list is short for enlist) because he had no work and had sold his belongings. The narrator understands this, having been in a similar situation himself and having found himself with no alternative but to join the army. It was not a positive decision, but a last resort when there were no other options.

The final stanza reiterates the main theme of the poem, that war is a strange phenomenon because a soldier finds himself forced to kill a man that he would otherwise have bought a drink for or lent money to, had they met in times of peace. 'Half-a-crown' is the old British money, worth about twelve and a half pence in today's currency. In 1902 that would of course have had considerably more value than it does just over one hundred years later.

The poem is written in a conversational tone, with speech marks included, making us feel that the soldier is addressing us personally in an informal way, and pleading with us to understand his action in killing his enemy. The language is very straightforward and easy to comprehend with the exception of two or three words. There are five stanzas, each of four lines, all of which are inset to a certain degree other than the third in each stanza, which creates a regular pattern on the page. The rhyme scheme and rhythm are also regular and give the poem quite a fast pace.

It is easy to appreciate this poem and to identify with the soldier and his feelings, sympathizing with his predicament and sensing that he regrets having had to kill his enemy. We understand that individual soldiers do not necessarily nurture hatred for those they are fighting against, but see them as human beings in circumstances similar to their own, enlisting in order to earn money and suppport a family. But when facing each other at close range, the reality of war kicks in and one of them must kill the other. The narrator here knows that he could easily have been the one to die. The idea that war is nonsensical when seen at the level of ordinary human beings who are obliged to carry out orders is evident throughout the poem.

Here is the complete text of the poem:

'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.'

Thomas Hardy


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