The Man He Killed
4 nipperkin: a small drink, or the container of that drink (certainly less than a half pint).
13 ‘list: enlist, i.e. volunteer to join the army.
15 traps: things, stuff (a short form of trappings).
How simple this poem looks, yet how wonderful it is! The story and scene are easy to understand: it is 1902, and we are in a pub somewhere in Dorset. We are overhearing a man who has returned from fighting in the South African War (the Boer War) describing his experience of killing one of the enemy.
When this poem was first published, it had a note preceding it, which clarified the scene: “SCENE: The settle of the Fox Inn, Stagfoot Lane. CHARACTERS: the speaker (a returned soldier) and his friends, natives of the hamlet.”
The poem is, of course, a dramatic monologue – that is to say, Hardy is not speaking in this own voice, but ventriloquizing the voice of an ordinary working man, swept up into the Boer War, and now thinking about the fighting he saw in South Africa and what the whole experience has meant to him. (For this reason, you might compare the use of the speaking voice to that in “My Last Duchess”, “The Laboratory”, or “Ulysses”.) Basically, the experience of the war has left the man confused: he doesn’t really know what the war was about, or why the Government decided to go to war. He does know that (though he puts it light-heartedly) he was shocked to have shot one of the enemy dead, because, as he realizes, the person killed could just as easily have been himself. He’s an ordinary working-class man, who just happened to sign up for the army: the man he killed, on the other side, was probably just like him – the war doesn’t make sense at all. What was the point of it?
Like many liberals at the time, neither Hardy nor his wife Emma approved of the South African War – it gave Hardy qualms about the whole business of the British Empire and what it was really about. The Boers (i.e. South Africans of Dutch descent) just seemed to be defending their homes and land against the English: why did the English want to keep control in South Africa so strongly? Were we just after the gold and diamond mines?
As the war broke out in 1899, Hardy cycled the fifty miles over to Southampton to watch the troop ships departing, and, as things went badly wrong for the English in the early phase of the war, so he wrote a number of poems expressing his sorrow at the whole thing. The finest is “Drummer Hodge”, originally called “The Dead Drummer”, about an ordinary Dorset lad who Hardy may have known, who was killed in the war, and buried in a slapdash fashion far from home. Hardy’s poem “A Christmas Ghost-Story”, also about the war, was accused of being “unpatriotic”, though Hardy defended himself cleverly. In another poem provoked by the war, he spoke vividly of the lists of killed and wounded posted up outside the War Office in London: “hourly posted sheets of scheduled slaughter”.
Hardy’s own class origins are at play in this poem. Hardy’s father was a mason and builder: his mother had been very poor indeed when she was young. So, even though he was now a rich and successful novelist, he could easily put himself into the shoes of ordinary people, like the man in this poem, trying to make sense of his part in a war the reasons for which he doesn’t understand. Hardy may be an intellectual, but he’s implicitly asking the same questions as the man: “What’s the point of this war? What was it really about? I’ve gone out to South Africa, and I’ve shot someone just like me. What is the point?”
Hardy makes the man’s ordinary, conversational speaking voice move within a small but interesting stanza pattern. The rhyme is alternating (i.e. ABAB, etc.), the line lengths usually six syllables with the longer third line. The colloquial vocabulary marks out the kind of man who is speaking: so he says “nipperkin” (meaning just an ordinary small drink) – we’d probably say, “a half”; and he says that he “sold his traps”, meaning “his stuff, his belongings”. When he signed on to the army, he was unemployed, and that was even less fun then than now, for there was no social security or unemployment pay. The pause in his speech, so well enacted across the line ending between lines 9 and 10, says it all; ” because / — Because” (9–10). He hesitates, trying to work it out. He knows all the official Government propaganda about the war, but it doesn’t make much sense, and when he has to put that propaganda into a short phrase it seems ridiculous: “Because he was my foe” (10). But “Why was he your foe?” we’re thinking, and he’s really thinking it too. We sense the man’s uncertainty, and so he has to repeat the formula trying still to make sense of it: “Just so: my foe of course he was” (11). This is Hardy’s skill. Just by the hesitations and repetitions in his speech we can see that the man has only partly understood or perhaps partly believed the war propaganda, and the war hasn’t really made sense to him. He didn’t join the army for huge patriotic reasons, more that he was unemployed at the time. Hardy brings us near to one ordinary man’s life and experience, and, through close attention to it, asks wider questions about the South African War, and war in general.
The obvious way to take this poem forward in our time is by comparison with the Iraq war – there are many similarities between the Iraq war and the South African War of 1899–1902. Imagine the poem spoken by a veteran of the Iraq war. Was that war really fought to bring democracy to the Iraq people? Or was it really fought partly for Iraqi oil?
The poem discusses the experience of killing an enemy soldier. Other famous treatments of this, by soldier-poets who had actually done it, are Wilfred Owen’s “Strange Meeting”, and Keith Douglas’s “Vergissmeinnicht”. These make interesting comparisons. Hardy’s poem is far more laconic and off-hand in tone. Hardy really enjoys creating an ordinary working man’s speaking voice (nothing posh or middle-class), but he lifts up that voice through the skill of his poetry, giving that voice a certain beauty and eloquence through his use of rhythm and rhyme, and so posing some hard questions to his readers.