“Had he and I but metBy some old ancient inn,We should have sat us down to wetRight 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 downYou’d treat if met where any bar is,Or help to half-a-crown.”The Title of the poem.The title of the poem reveals the irony of the poem’s message. This is because the title uses the third person pronoun ‘he’ in order to deflect attention away from the actual author of the anonymous man’s death- namely the first person ‘I’ speaker of the poem. The narrator’s displacement is suggestive of guilt. The speaker is attempting to hide from his conscience through the veiling effects of syntax. War commits soldiers to killing the ‘foe’ yet does not prepare them for the burden of guilt; for the mental horror of taking a life. Ironically, the title avoids any direct admission of responsibility, unlike the main body of the poem itself which steadily reveals the psychologically damaging repercussions of following orders in war.
Note the sombre tone of the title. It reads dismally: as an inconvertible fact. This sombre tone is in direct contrast to the animated, friendly tone of the first stanza. Unsurprisingly perhaps, the speaker is happier imagining his dead enemy alive, rather than killed on the battlefield.The animation is always interesting in any text. It guides the reader or listener to an energy source and personal truth. The poem uses the dramatic monologue to explore the futility of war: in this case the Second Boer War. Hardy was opposed to this war and the poem explores his antipathy towards the war through an act of imaginative ventriloquism using the dramatic monologue.
The animated cosiness of the opening stanza explores an alternative meeting with the dead man, a meeting unencumbered by war: ‘Had he and I but met’. Here the qualification ‘Had’, reveals the random cruelty of war. The speaker is ruminating, trying to come to terms with the reality of what he has done, however legitimately. The conversational tone belies the nightmare of conflict and the simplicity of the rhyme scheme suggests the narrator is an ordinary soldier: a pawn like the man he killed. Perhaps the simplicity also suggests that the soldier is trying to rationalise his conflicting emotions and conscience.Second Stanza.The first line underlines how like a ‘game’ war might appear, to those in power. The men are ‘ranged’ by powers higher than they. The men, like the speaker, and the man he killed, are mere pawns in the game of war.
This is a very intimate war. The speaker describes how they are arranged ‘face to face.’ The battle involves close fighting and survival or death seems a matter of chance. Nothing sanitised however, about this conflict.
Both men are disciplined and dutiful, so the dead man died ‘in his place.’ The terrible sense than the speaker and the man he killed are almost doubles of each other, underlines the palpable horror of his enemy’s death as being almost like his own. Killing another human being has destroyed part of himself; destroyed his peace of mind.Third Stanza.
The speaker has gathered himself for his direct admission at the beginning of the third stanza. He uses the pronoun ‘I’ so there is no ambiguity about his ownership of the action. We feel as if the speaker has perhaps drunk some ale and is now ready to deal with what has occurred. Yet the precarious positioning of the ‘-‘ at the end of the line reveals the effect of his thoughts on the coherence of his words. The dash shows hesitation, reluctance and maybe the way that speech actualises the reality of our actions. The dash certainly breaks up the flow of the line and indicates some form of fragmentation, both of the syntax and also the composure of the speaker.When the second line begins with the word ‘because’ we sense the self-justification of the speaker. He is remembering his role as a soldier. He needs to resort to his role in order to compose himself again. Yet the rather forced, internal rhyming of ‘so’ and ‘foe’ and the repetition of ‘foe’ creates and communicates a feeling of awkwardness or discomfort.
Look at the pauses or caesurae generated by the semi colons and the full colon. The painful irony of the hiatus after the verb ‘was’ is apparent as the speaker is using the past tense reminding himself that the ‘foe’ is now dead. This is further ironised by the hiatus after ‘clear enough;’ – evidently he is striving to believe it is clear and he has done his duty, yet the pauses tell another story.
The qualification of the word ‘although’ carries us over into the next stanza using enjambment; underlining the unfinished business of the speaker’s rumination about the man he killed.
Fourth Stanza.The hesitations and colloquial voice of the speaker, reveal his sense of guilt and anxiety around his role as a soldier. Men signed up because they needed a job to feed themselves and their families. The proliferation of the dashes shows how afflicted by doubt the speaker is at this stage of the poem. He has killed someone very much like himself. The plainness of the last line of the stanza, ‘No other reason why’ is both bathetic and moving in its simplicity. The irony of the rhyme ‘I/why’ does not escape the speaker or the listener-reader.
The more the speaker examines his actions through speech, the more he recognises how haunted and guilty he feels.Fifth Stanza.
The attempt at the syntactical shrug in the final stanza is transparently obvious. “Yes; quaint and curious war is!’ The preponderance of clipped, single syllabled words reminds us of the fact that the speaker is an ordinary soldier, perhaps a farmer, now enmeshed in recrimination, but fighting to regain his old ways. The reference to a ‘bar’ underlines the cosiness of the reflection. The discussion is fuelled by alcohol perhaps, and serves to remind the speaker of the similarities between himself and his ostensible’foe’. He ends the poem on a note of charity: ‘half a crown’ yet tragically and ironically charity has become corrupted by war into senseless slaughter. Maybe the reference to money also evokes a sense of betrayal- like Judas perhaps? The speaker certainly seems to recognise that killing another human being is deeply unsettling and that he has betrayed something infinitely precious within himself.
The Woman in Black
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