The Man He Killed
The Man He Killed
Thomas Hardy 1902
Hardy is probably best remembered for his novels The Mayor of Casterbridge and Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Having enjoyed the success of novel writing, which brought him acclaim and wealth, Hardy turned to poetry later in his life. His first book of poetry, The Wessex Poems, was not published until 1898 when he was fifty-eight. In the following thirty years he wrote nearly one thousand poems. “The Man He Killed,” first published in 1902, has a message that is timeless; its subject matter is the curious nature of war that allows for such behavior as killing a man with whom, under more mundane circumstances, you would sit sharing drinks. The poem itself comes to no great or deep understanding of war, nor does it propogandize against war. It simply poses a question which, it seems, the speaker does not intend to answer. The matter-of-fact tone of the poem may serve as a contrast to the seriousness of the situation but it may also indicate that the speaker of the poem chooses to maintain a certain level of emotional distance even while considering disturbing subject matter.
Hardy was born in 1840 and raised in the region of Dorsetshire, England, the basis for the Wessex countryside that would later appear in his fiction and poetry. He attended a local school until he was sixteen, when his mother paid a substantial amount of money for him to be apprenticed to an architect in Dorchester. In 1862 he moved to London, where he worked as an architect, and remained there for a period of five years. Between 1865 and 1867 Hardy wrote many poems, none of which were published. In 1867 he returned to Dorchester and, while continuing to work in architecture, began to write novels in his spare time. Hardy became convinced that if he was to make a living writing, he would have to do so as a novelist. Drawing on the way of life he absorbed in Dorsetshire as a youth and the wide range of English writers with which he was familiar, Hardy spent nearly thirty years as a novelist before devoting himself to poetry. In 1874 Hardy married Emma Lavinia Gifford, who would become the subject of many of his poems. They spent several years in happiness until the 1880s, when marital troubles began to shake the closeness of their union.
Hardy’s first book of verse was published in 1898, when he was fifty-eight years old and had achieved a large degree of success as a novelist. Although his verse was not nearly as successful as his novels, Hardy continued to focus on his poetry and published seven more books of verse before his death, developing his confidence and technical competence. With the composition of The Dynasts: A Drama of the Napoleonic Wars (1904-08), an epic historical drama written in verse, Hardy was hailed as a major poet. He was praised as a master of his craft, and his writing was admired for its great emotional force and techical skill. Hardy continued to write until just before his death in 1928. Despite his wish to be buried with his family, influential sentiment for his burial in Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey instigated a severe compromise: the removal of his heart, which was buried in Dorchester, and the cremation of his body, which was interred in the Abbey.
“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.”
The poem is being set up; the action in the poem has already taken place and the narrator of the poem is ruminating on this action. This is a technique that in contemporary literature would be considered a flashback. He imagines himself near “some old ancient inn,” not a specific inn, but a cozy imaginary place. The diction of the poem (particularly “right many a nipperkin”) suggests that the speaker is not a high brow sort, but a common bloke and this diction is important in establishing the persona of the narrator—an educated philospher he is not. “Nipperkin” is a half-vessel that is filled, in this situation, one suspects, with alcoholic drinks.
The speaker locates both himself and the other fellow on a battlefield, a far cry from the ancient inn he imagines in retrospect. The men are not distant from each other, but close enough to look into each other’s faces.
These lines are as jarring and sudden as a gunshot. Two people on opposing lines shoot; one is left dead and the other still enjoys the ability to be able to reflect on the actions. This is the plot of the poem and its climax.
In these lines there is a justification for the killing and it is a simple justification, without deliberation.
The repetition of the concept of “my foe” and the “of course” in this line signify a need for the speaker to convince himself of his justification for the killing. The “Just so:” which prefaces the repetition is similar to the modern phrase: “That’s it; that’s the ticket.”
The “although” in this line serves as the pivot point for the following lines, in which the speaker deliberates his justification.
In these lines the narrator begins deliberation, speculating about the man he has just killed and beginning to attribute his own motives to the dead man. Remember that in line 7, they shot at each other, and the narrator could just as easily have been the dead man. In fact, he imaginarily becomes the dead man. We as readers know this is a imaginary life he has placed the dead man within, but we learn something about the narrator’s life—that he enlisted (’list) in war because he was out of work, and had sold his “traps” which we can read as “possessions,” not because of a cause he believed in, but as something to do. He did it offhand, without much thought about the possible consequences, including the situation he has just encountered.
Now the speaker gives some thought to the condition of war. The word “quaint” is an unusual one to use here. One can think of it as a word which describes antique shops, not a war, but it can also be taken to mean cunning. Still, the explanation point suggests a tone that is not dire but almost ponderingly wonderous and the word “curious,” while suggesting perplexion, does not suggest despair that another speaker in the same situation might have voiced.
Here the narrator defines the curious nature of war—you shoot a man, who under other circumstances you would act kindly toward, a man who could possibly become your friend. “Half-a-crown” is roughly about sixty cents, and it is probably not so much that the narrator imagines the fellow as a beggar as it is that he feels that his own character—in a different context—is one which would be willing to do a stranger who needed it, a kindness, and so by the end of the poem he has also arrived at a kind assessment of himself. He has done so with the presumption that his actions are universal, saying, “You shoot a fellow down / You’d treat” in lines 18-19, rather than using the first person as he did in “I shot at him …” in line 7. This movement from individual accountability to universal justification leads the speaker to a distance within himself and perhaps causes the use of the second person when the poet may still be speaking of himself.
“The Man He Killed” is written in the form of a dramatic monologue, and when it was first published, Thomas Hardy described the setting he had in mind: “Scene: the settle of the Fox Inn, Stagfoot Lane. Characters: The speaker (a returned soldier) and his friends, natives of the hamlet.” The speaker, back from serving in the Boer War (fought between the British and the Boers from 1899 to 1902 in South Africa), uses the poem both to recount and to try to understand his action of shooting and killing a man. The first stanza is so warm-hearted and lacking in rancor, it belies the fact that he killed the man about whom he is speaking. The speaker talks casually and warmly of the inn, creating a setting that harshly contrasts with the battlefield where he encountered this man. It is apparent that the speaker feels a bond with his victim, because the poem opens with an air of regret: if we had only met in a tavern like this one, we would have had a fine time together and we might have become friends. Unfortunately their encounter was in a completely different setting where they had predetermined roles; their only possible roles were as enemies. It seems the most natural action in the world that infantrymen would shoot at and possibly kill each other.
But while they stood there on the battlefield, “staring face to face,” the speaker had time to notice that the man he was shooting at was probably no different than himself. It is that knowledge that confuses the speaker and makes him struggle to grasp the reason for his act. The obvious reason—“That’s clear enough”—is that the men were enemies. But no matter how he tries to convince himself, he cannot get beyond the word “foe.” He stutters over this explanation that fails to reassure him, and, almost involuntarily, he imagines his victim as a man like himself, who had joined the army without much forethought. They were out of work and needed jobs, “No other reason why.”
The narrator’s main dilemma is that he cannot reconcile two very different situations. On the one hand there is the congenial setting of the inn where men buy each other drinks and loan each other money; on the other is the field of battle where men kill each other. The narrator cannot explain how, in each situation, two men could have such converse relationships. The contrast is all the more poignant because from the very start of the poem, the narrator reveals himself as preferring the inn, although he has committed an act completely antithetical to its spirit.
In thinking about his actions on the battlefield, the speaker in “The Man He Killed” must confront the nature of warfare. The voice that speaks is not Hardy’s own; it belongs to a character he created. The protagonist’s artless words and way of speaking as he tries to fathom what happened reflect his simple background and his unsophisticated way of pondering complex issues. He remembers very clearly what happened: “I shot at him and he at me / And killed him in his place.” He only falters when he tries to explain why it happened—that is, why war ultimately is senseless at the personal level. The best he can come up with is a pat answer: because he was my enemy, I killed him. The emptiness of this response is evident by the effort the speaker must make to reassure himself that such reasoning is legitimate: “Just so … of course he was; / That’s clear enough.”
Although he is relieved to find an explanation that seems to settle his moral dilemma, doubts continue
Topics for Further Study
- Hardy’s war poems, published thirteen years after the fact, supported Britain’s the war effort. Is it possible to be a pacifist only sometimes?
- The poem’s narrator imagines his victim to be exactly like him. In what ways might the dead man be different from the man who killed him? How might those differences change our attitudes toward his death?
- Imagine you are one of the friends to whom the poem’s narrator is speaking. Write a poem that could be your reply to him.
- Does the narrator accept responsibility for the death he caused? To what degree is he responsible?
to nag him. After settling his argument on why he killed the man, the stanza ends with the word “although,” indicating that there is more to be considered. He goes on in the next stanza to imagine how he and his victim are alike. But, perhaps because he is a simple country man, and even though he realizes the man he killed was as human as himself, he cannot see the logical implications. The most he can conclude is “Yes; quaint and curious war is!” as if he were observing some interesting but useless artifact in a museum. After the speaker’s nearly total identification with the dead man, this remark surprises the reader. It appears as though he has set aside his misgivings. But the poem draws its power from the speaker’s hesitation. Ironically, the speaker best expresses Hardy’s views on war by what he omits from his argument. Because he balks at drawing the obvious conclusion, the reader is forced to do it for him and conclude that war is murderous and wrong.
“The Man He Killed” is constructed simply, with short meters, lilting rhythmns, and a colloquial manner of speech. The rhyme scheme also is simple: the first and third lines in each of the five stanzas rhyme, as do the second and fourth lines, but what is interesting about the form of this poem is the intent of the line length. Most lines of the poem are written in trimeter but the third line in every stanza is longer, written in tetrameter. The extended length of these third lines may mimic a deeper dramatic weight given to these lines. The poem is written as a dramatic monologue, a frequent technique of Hardy’s. He creates a voice not his own to speak in his poems, and this is indicated by the quotation marks bracketing the poem.
The Boer War
The Boer War began on October 11, 1899, when the British declared war on the South African Republic. The Boers were farmers of Dutch and French descent who first settled South Africa in the 1700s. Britain received the Cape Colony at the southernmost tip of the African continent in 1806 as part of the Napoleonic Wars settlement, and it was not long before the conservative Boers became dissatisfied with England’s liberal policies, notably the freeing of slaves. In reaction, approximately 12,000 Boers migrated from the Cape Colony to more remote areas of the country between 1835 and 1843. Following what was termed the Great Trek, the Boers and the British managed to coexist peacefully. The British recognized the independence of the South African Republic (also known as the Transvaal) in 1852 and of the Orange Free State in 1854.
In the latter half of the nineteenth century, the discovery of diamonds and gold—the world’s largest gold mining complex was in the Transvaal, just outside of British control—set the stage for war. When the South-African government refused full rights to foreigners, in particular English settlers, the British declared war. The Boers—the allied South African Republic and the Orange Free State—waged a brilliant guerrilla war for a year. The British, however, had an overwhelming numerical advantage. The tide turned when Herbert Kitchener took over as the commander of the campaign. He instituted a brutal scorched-earth policy: African and Boer farms were systematically destroyed and Boer civilians were herded into concentration camps. When the news reached England that 20,000 Boer women and children had died in the appalling camps, the British public was outraged. Kitchener’s strategy was nonetheless successful. In March of 1901, the Boers sued for peace. The bid was rejected by the British, however, and the war continued for more than a year. When a peace settlement was finally reached on May 31, 1902, the two Boer nations lost their independence and were placed under British military administration.
Thomas Hardy was appalled by the Boer War from its outset, considering it nothing more than a war of imperial conquest. He was dismayed by both the human and animal suffering that it caused. Some of the poems he wrote during the hostilities (later known as the “War Poems”) drew criticism down upon Hardy for his antiwar sentiments. Nevertheless he steadfastly refused to write the uplifting poems to support the war effort that many expected from him. He was convinced—at least until the carnage of World War I—that man was evolving away from warfare. “Oh yes, war is doomed,” he wrote a friend in 1901, as noted by J.O. Bailey in The Poetry of Thomas Hardy: A Handbook and Commentary, “It is doomed by the gradual growth of the introspective faculty in mankind—of their power of putting themselves in another’s place.”
The subject of war was a lifelong interest of Hardy’s, and the war poetry he wrote at different times during his life reflects the complex nature of his interest. His poems composed during World War I, for example, reflect none of the outrage evident in those about the Boer War. The later poems are more traditionally patriotic and uplifting, primarily because he felt England was threatened by German militarism. In contrast, his epic-drama The Dynasts describes the Napoleonic Wars as the result of a universal power Hardy called the Immanent Will. Here he argues that the ambitions and desires that drove the generals and leaders were not the product of any free will, rather they were the result of the machinations of the transcendent power.
The End of the Victorian Age
On January 22, 1901, England’s Queen Victoria died. The queen who had been on the British throne longer than any British monarch to date, 62 years, came to symbolize the age. Queen Victoria’s reign saw the spread of industrialization, the growth of science, and the decline of religion. During the Victorian Age, the Church of England was threatened by new discoveries in science. The Bible, which had already been under the scrutiny of textual analysis by scholars, was challenged by the
Compare & Contrast
- 1902: The bicycle was still a novelty and automobiles were virtually unknown. Trains traveled between cities, but most people relied on horse-drawn transportation.
- 1902: Great Britain was the most powerful nation in the world, with colonies on all five continents.
1930: Citizens of the nation of India boycotted British goods as part of the “civil disobedience” movement led by Mohandas Gandhi; this was a start toward Indian independence, which came in 1950.
Today: Acts of political violence due to British rule in Northern Ireland have claimed more than 3,200 lives since the 1960s.
- 1902: Britain fought an unpopular war against the Boers, an enemy that relied on guerrilla tactics instead of traditional modes of warfare.
1968: The United States waged war in Vietnam against a nationalist army of guerrilla forces. The news media and domestic protest movement publicized atrocities and illegal actions by the American military in neighboring countries and possibly prevented the American government from using nuclear force, as some were suggesting, to win the war.
Today: A multinational force is stationed in Bosnia to monitor an uneasy peace between Serbs, Croats, and Muslims. Disagreement among the nations involved in the action makes actual military engagement of those who violate the peace nearly impossible.
- 1900: Sigmund Freud publishes Interpretation of Dreams in which he describes a technique for decoding the language of the unconscious and, thus, initiates a new kind of human psychology.
Today: Neuropsychologists study the physical basis of memory, language, and consciousness, using such modern technology as positron emission tomography.
publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859 by Charles Darwin. The Bible had long been considered the final word on how the universe and all things within had come into existence. On the Origin of Species put forth the theory, substantiated with scientific data, that living creatures had evolved into their present form; this contradicted the Bible’s account of creation. Though religious authorities dismissed these new scientific discoveries, the theory of evolution had contributed to the decline of religion in Victorian life.
The Victorian Age is now synonymous with sexual repression: human sexuality was not spoken of in public, and it was not mentioned in print. Since it was believed that literature should provide an example of how to live correctly, novels did not deal with socially controversial topics, such as divorce, alcoholism, or promiscuity. Works that dealt with sexual themes honestly, no matter how guarded and careful the treatment, were harshly criticized—when it was even possible to publish them. This was the fate of Hardy’s later novels, especially Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure, two books that were extremely critical of prevailing moral standards. It was the bitter criticism of Jude that led Hardy to give up fiction for poetry in the 1890s.
David Perkins, writing in ELS, states that “one may describe many of Hardy’s poems as a fingering of the theme of isolation and an exploring of roads out of the dilemma. It is precisely in his sensitivity to the frustration and tragedy of human life that Hardy feels himself cut off from other men.” Perkins connects this sense of isolation directly to “The Man He Killed” by identifying the two layers of irony in the poem: the first is that two decent men who have no quarrel with each other would be shooting at each other, and the second is that a decent man can justify that fact in such a matter-of-fact manner. Perkins also states that the understatement of the speaker is essential in that it forces the reader to confront the underlying questions directly. Perkins further says, “Although the outlook of people such as the speaker in “The Man He Killed” is rooted in a limited awareness, it figures in Hardy’s poetry as a ground of happiness. From this point of view, sensitivity or awareness may itself be felt as a burden or blight.”
The use of a narrator was common in Hardy’s poetry. Perhaps it was because of his background in fiction that Hardy often chose dramatic monologue as a poetic format. William Morgan, writing in Tennessee Studies in Literature, divides Hardy’s dramatic poetry into two categories—the personal and the impersonal. The critic suggests that both types share “a kind of incompleteness of vision,” noting that in the impersonal poems, Hardy “effaces his narrator to bring the experience to the fore, and in the personal poems he binds his narrator’s vision to the moment so as to restrict its relevance to the particulars in the poem.” Morgan goes on to state “that the impersonally dramatic are incomplete because they are without a context of values, a framework of moral norms; the personally dramatic, because their vision cannot be generalized beyond the temporal and spatial limits specified in them.”
Tyrus Miller teaches comparative literature and English at Yale University, and has written extensively on twentieth-century poetry, fiction, and visual culture. In the following essay, Miller presents the historical background that led to the confrontation depicted in “The Man He Killed” and examines the contradiction between the implications Hardy made about war and the limited narrative of the poem’s protagonist.
Thomas Hardy’s poem “The Man He Killed,” first published in 1902 at the end of the Boer War in South Africa, can be counted as one of the first great antiwar poems of the twentieth century. It sets an ironic, disillusioned tone that would become characteristic in the work of such World War I trench poets as Robert Graves, Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, and Ivor Gurney. Hardy’s protagonist is a plain-speaking countryman, whose concerns lie with the simple, enduring customs of his locale and not with the ambitious aims of imperial power in far-off lands. Nonetheless, the nation has called him to do his duty, which he has done unquestioningly. Now, however, he is left to explain to himself and to his fellows—the ones with whom he is drinking and implicitly the one he shot down—why he has killed another man so like himself, except for the flag under which he marched.
Hardy had very specific details in mind when imagining his speaker, and he succeeded in evoking them so believably that some critics have speculated that the poem may have been occasioned by a story the poet overheard in a tavern. When the poem was originally published in the New York magazine Harper’s Weekly on November 8, 1902, Hardy included a set of accompanying stage directions to help his American readers imagine the scene properly. These read: “Scene: The settle of the Fox Inn, Stagfoot Lane. Characters: The speaker (a returned soldier) and his friends, natives of the hamlet.” Stagfoot Lane was a locale previously depicted by Hardy in his novel Tess of the D’Urbervilles; it was a thin disguise for the real hamlet of Hartfoot Lane, a village near Hardy’s home. Hardy’s speaker is thus a native of Dorset, England, sent off to fight in South Africa against the Boers, who had rebelled against the British imposition of rule in their territory.
Writing as he was at the bitter end of the protracted conflict in South Africa, Hardy could assume that his readers would be able to fill in the historical and political subtext that gives his speaker’s spare lines their ironic force. For today’s reader, however, some historical background is necessary. Great Britain had ended up controlling the colony of South Africa following the defeat of Napoleon’s French forces early in the nineteenth century. Most of the white settlers, however, were Dutch: “Boers,” as they were called, was a name derived from the Dutch word for farmer. These settlers moved into the territory across the Orange and Vaal rivers, the Transvaal region, seizing control of the land, enslaving the native inhabitants of the region, and fiercely defending their independence
What Do I Read Next?
- After serving in World War I, e.e. cummings wrote some of the most powerful antiwar poetry of all time. Full of irony and bitter humor, it can be found in his Collected Poems. Cummings also wrote a moving, phantasmagorical novel based on his experiences in the war titled The Enormous Room.
- The antiwar literature that came out of the World War I is among the most critical ever written. All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque captures the meaninglessness of the war and the horrible human cost as seen by the soldiers in the trenches. Its straightforward style makes the book highly readable.
- In Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun, a young victim of the war, who is now deaf, blind, and quadriplegic, recalls his life.
- Thomas Hardy began The Dynasts, his book-length epic poem about the wars against Napoleon around the time he wrote “The Man He Killed.” He did not write about war in his novels, which are by and large social dramas set in the Dorset countryside where he lived most of his life. Tess of the D’Urbervilles, the story of a young woman’s conflict with the moral double standard of the village in which she lives, is probably Hardy’s most popular novel.
from taxation and centralized rule. England tried to annex the Transvaal in 1877, but was forced to grant the Boers independence in 1881. Then, unexpectedly, gold and eventually diamonds were discovered in the Transvaal. The gold rush brought thousands of foreigners to the region. These newcomers, or Uitlanders as they were called, quickly outnumbered the Boers, who viewed them as interlopers and as agents of British interests. Colonists from neighboring Rhodesia attempted to invade the Transvaal and to provoke an uprising of Uitlanders which would definitively defeat the Boers. With the stage already set for armed conflict, the German Kaiser, who also had imperial designs on southern Africa, encouraged the Boers to do battle with his British rivals. In 1899, open warfare broke out.
The British, numerically and economically superior to the Boers, were confident that their uncouth enemy could be rapidly defeated. The Boers, however, had lived for decades on the rugged terrain of the Transvaal, and they utilized their familiarity with the landscape to sustain a demoralizing guerilla war with the British for three years. Eventually, the British resorted to the dangerous tactics of clearing the land sector-by-sector, during the course of which they gained the dubious honor of introducing one of its most notorious innovations of the twentieth century: the concentration camp. By the end of the war, forty thousand Boers were being detained under the most inhumane conditions. The unexpected length of the conflict; the solidarity of other rebellious and oppressed peoples in the British Empire with the tenacious Boers (above all, the Irish); the humanitarian outrage of liberals and socialists about the treatment of Boer prisoners; and the dispiriting nature of the war goals all contributed to making the Boer War increasingly unpopular and divisive on the domestic front.
Hardy employs this historical situation to evoke several themes in a concentrated, dramatic way. First of all, his speaker’s sympathies are divided: the soldier’s roots lie in a specific, traditional part of Britain, but he is also a subject of the modern British nation that was pursuing its imperial designs in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. Hardy makes his readers ponder the question of whether this rural man should feel loyalty to the country that is his dwelling place and native home, the land and people of Dorset, or to the bigger country that has its national interests in southern Africa and its armies to protect them. He also contrasts the civilian role of his speaker as a reflective, feeling, if somewhat inarticulate man of the land, to that same man’s role as soldier and an impersonal part of an infantry lineup—a cog in a military machine. Finally,
“Through the doubts of his Dorset soldier, Hardy suggests the larger worries that were beginning to haunt the British nation about the meaning of its experience in South Africa.”
the poet also reveals the deep strains placed on the man by the contradictions between his class, which might lead him to identify with his fellow farmer, and his nationhood, which makes that fellow man of the Transvaal countryside his foe. In other words, though Hardy’s soldier must kill the Boer as a national enemy, as a fellow Boer (farmer) he has everything essential in common with his foe.
These tensions are set up by the first two stanzas, which establish the single broad irony of the situation: the man he killed might have easily been included among his present drinking companions. At the same time, these stanzas lend several subtle inflections to that perplexing fact. Hardy hints at how important the question of place and placement is to the life and death of his opposed soldiers. Had the Boer soldier been met in such as place as the inn, in the local place of the British soldier, they would have been fellows and friends. Yet in his place, the Boer’s own local environs, this would-be comrade had to be killed. Hardy thus carefully sets up the symmetry between the two soldiers and the apparently interchangeable nature of their places, only to undermine it in the end. The soldiers stare at one another “face to face,” as if in a mirror. Further reinforcing this implied symmetry with internal rhyme (he / me), Hardy presents the men shooting at each other, as if each one shot at a reflection of himself: “I shot at him as he at me.” But just as the outcome of this shooting is fatally different for the two soldiers, so too the original symmetry between them proves deceptive. For as Hardy subtly reminds us—and as his speaker perhaps never realizes—there is one irreducible difference between his British soldier and his Boer. The Dorset man is an outsider in South Africa, an invader; the Boer settler is at home—already in that very place where, under other circumstances, he might meet his British fellow as a drinking companion. But he had no chance to offer the Dorset man a pint of beer; their meeting in his home means that they are already enemies. There can be no symmetry or equality between invader and invaded.
Hardy’s Dorset soldier is genuinely perplexed by the human dimensions of his story. Yet he also remains profoundly blind to its political truth: that in the end, the places of the British and Boer soldiers are not interchangeable. The unpolitical man, doing his duty without ambition or understanding, experiences this history as a kind of fate that colors invader and invaded alike with its grey strokes. Though Hardy is not unsympathetic with the simple man’s perspective, he is equally rigorous in suggesting its narrow limits.
Several touches help to foster a sense of simple immediacy and authenticity in the speaker’s quoted voice. Hardy takes up the man’s table talk in midstream, creating the illusion that the words begin not, as they actually do, at the top of the page where the poem is printed, but in some unheard speech already in progress before we entered the tavern to overhear them. The poem represents a kind of snapshot of speech, a fragment of an ongoing rotation of a problem, snatched out of time and offered up for view to the reader. Though Hardy does not write in dialect, he does use Dorset slang such as “nipperkin” (a drink) and “traps” (tools, gear), as well as registering the specific oral sounding of’“list” (enlist), which lends the man’s speech its specificity and local flavor.
Above all, however, it is Hardy’s skillful manipulation of the syntax to suggest a psychological rhythm of thought that gives this poem its strikingly dramatic quality. In the latter three stanzas, the pauses and repetitions indicate clearly that the man is anything but convinced of the necessity of killing the man opposite him: because—/ Because he was my foe, / Just so: my foe of course he was; / That’s clear enough.“By ending the third stanza on the word although,” Hardy makes his poem pivot around a second thought. The fragmentation of the syntax in the fourth stanza makes crumble before the reader’s eyes any conviction won in the previous stanza. It is impossible to decide if “No other reason why” refers to the Boer, the Dorset man, or both.
The final stanza does not so much resolve the doubts raised in the earlier stanzas as simply shut them down, at least for the meantime. It is hard to believe, given Hardy’s effective beginning in midstream and careful pacing, that this meditation has truly come to a close. We imagine this returned soldier turning his enemy’s death over and over in his mind, being unwilling to face the truth of his act, and being unable to bring it to a conclusion. Hardy’s poem points beyond the narrow confines of its protagonist’s scope of understanding to encompass the historical world. Through the doubts of his Dorset soldier, Hardy suggests the larger worries that were beginning to haunt the British nation about the meaning of its experience in South Africa: the threats to and from the colonies, the danger of widespread revolt, the decay of national unity at home, and the unchecked drift toward new, barbaric forms of war and politics. The lines crossed—at first unwillingly and unwittingly—during the Boer War had, for Thomas Hardy at least, left behind a faint intimation of the horrors that modern war would bring fully to light in only a few short years.
Source: Tyrus Miller, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1998.
In the following excerpt, Perkins analyzed humans’ ability to dismiss the suffering of others, using Hardy’s “The Man He Killed” as a case in point.
The sense of personal isolation is one of the most obvious impressions conveyed by the literature of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. That this should be so implies the convergence of widespread influences; but an artist has only himself to give to his work, and any voice he may lend to a general dilemma will be as he himself feels it rather than as a delegate from some historical era. One need not demonstrate Hardy’s urgent preoccupation in his poetry with the hurt of aloneness. Its importance is marked not only by open statement in his poems, but also by the fact that the protagonists almost always appears as a solitary, an outsider, or an individual alienated from the life of his fellows. The intention here is rather to discuss what is individual in Hardy’s own response. In Hardy’s poetry the feeling of isolation does not primarily stem from the typical Victorian complaint that the forms of society themselves keep people apart. Nor does it arise, as in much of the poetry earlier in the century, from the experience of an inner light, of possessing sources of inspiration and insight unavailable to the generality of mankind. To feel that you have secret springs of insight entails some alienation; but as with Blake or Wordsworth, it also makes that insight more a cause of joy than of uneasiness. In Hardy, however, the ever-present sense of difference seems to have resulted only in un-mingled discomfort. It is something from which the poet would wish to escape. Hence one may describe many of Hardy’s poems as a fingering of the theme of isolation and an exploring of roads out of the dilemma—roads which are inevitably obstructed by a nagging honesty to his own experience. It is precisely in his sensitivity to the frustration and tragedy of human life that Hardy feels himself cut off from other men. Much that is usually termed his “pessimism” is a way of looking at things which he felt to be unshared and which prevented him from entering whole-heartedly into the state of mind of his fellows.…
[W]ith a state of mind such as Hardy’s the shuffling unawareness which permits most people to ease through life without being perturbed by the general view of human suffering becomes a cause of bafflement. In a writer such as Swift, it may also release a powerful indignation; but Hardy seems to have been too gentle and too humble to assert himself in that way. In fact, the reservations implicit in humility gave Hardy’s attitude much of its complexity. Perhaps Hardy’s most successful exploration of the common mental attitude which permits men to slough their questionings occurs in “The Man He Killed.” Here the extreme surface simplicity, the short, almost jingling meters, the colloquial idiom, the total absence of stock poetic associations, the unwillingness to employ the glitter of poetic phrase, bespeak a rigid artistic discipline and integrity in which all has been subordinated to an interplay of character and incident. The situation, of course, is simply that in battle two soldiers, “ranged as infantry, / And staring face to face,” have fired on each other, and the survivor narrates that event. The poem turns on the character of the speaker revealed in his reactions to what has taken place. The speaker begins by stating that he had no personal quarrel with the man he killed. This naturally raises the question of why he killed him, and, pondering the question, the speaker can only say that it was “Because he was my foe,” But he seems unsure and unsatisfied, and hence reiterates the explanation: “my foe of course he was; / That’s clear enough.” We are introduced, then, to a rather simple type of person, incapable of thinking past stock and ready-made answers (“he was my foe”), well-meaning and troubled by having killed a man toward whom he felt no rancor. At once the speaker goes on to recognize that the man was not his “foe” at all, but simply a man who happened, like himself, to have drifted into the army.…
At this point, the speaker having identified himself with the man he killed, convention would seem to suggest a revulsion from the killing, and a direct attack on war and the meaningless slaughter it involves. But this would take the poem outside the limited feeling and moral awareness of the speaker. Instead the speaker merely concludes:
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.
The summing up leading to the conclusion that war is “quaint and curious” suggest that the speaker has resolved his problem and will be no more troubled by it. But in the reader the aroused sense of wrong is in no way satisfied by the words “quaint and curious.” Instead, by the drastic understatement of the last stanza, Hardy forces the reader to face up to the situation more or less on his own, and exacts that “full look at the worst” which is a necessary prelude to any possible “Better.” Hence it is by the limitations of the speaker that the poem makes its point. But the limitations of the speaker give an additional edge of irony to the poem. For the irony is not simply that two men who have no quarrel should fire on each other, being trapped in the blind moilings of the “Immanent Will.” There is the further irony that a decent man, such as the speaker, should not be more disturbed, should be able to appease his discomfort with the words “quaint and curious.”
Although the outlook of people such as the speaker in “The Man He Killed” is rooted in a limited awareness, it figures in Hardy’s poetry as a ground of happiness. From this point of view, sensitivity or awareness may itself be felt as a burden or blight. Indeed, in Hardy this mode of feeling underlies a frequent metaphysical conceit by which “the birth of consciousness” on the earth is explained as a mutation, not expected or allowed for in the pattern of the cosmos, and the accidental cause of pain.
Source: “Hardy and the Poetry of Isolation” in ELH. Vol. 26, No. 2. June 1959, pp. 253-56.
Morgan, William, “The Partial Vision: Hardy’s Idea of Dramatic Poetry,” in Tennesse Studies in Literature, Vol. XX, 1975, pp. 100-08.
Perkins, David, “Hardy and the Poetry of Isolation,” in ELH, Vol. 26, No. 2, June, 1959, pp. 253-70.
Bailey, J.O., The Poetry of Thomas Hardy: A Handbook and Commentary, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1970.
A reference book with a wealth of background material and commentary on every poem Hardy wrote.
Green, Brian, Hardy’s Lyrics, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996.
A detailed, if at times academic, book that discusses empathy and the narrator’s conflicting roles in the “The Man He Killed.”
O’Sullivan, Timothy, Thomas Hardy: An Illustrated Biography, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1975.
A highly accessible biography of Hardy that discusses his life and major works.
Perkins, David, “Hardy and the Poetry of Isolation,” in Hardy: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Albert J. Guerard, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1963.
A good, straightforward discussion of the themes in “The Man He Killed.”