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Analysis of Poem 'The Man He Killed' by Thomas Hardy

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Thomas Hardy

Thomas Hardy

Thomas Hardy and a Summary of 'The Man He Killed'

'The Man He Killed' is a short, lyrical poem, a monologue, that takes the reader into the mind of an ordinary man, returned from war, thinking out loud about the death of an enemy soldier he himself has shot.

  • The poem outlines the ironic madness of war by allowing the voice of a survivor to highlight a killing in the normal surrounds of a rural pub. Here is someone who joined up to fight because they were unemployed and had to sell everything; here is your average bloke suggesting that the man he killed was also just exactly the same, worth befriending.
  • How to reconcile the idea of fighting for glory and the routine death of a fellow human, both under orders to kill the enemy and ask no questions or seek no answers?

Hardy wrote this poem in 1902 following the recent war in South Africa between the Boers (settlers of Dutch descent) and the British army. On the original handwritten manuscript the poet set the scene in a country pub, The Fox Inn, where an ex-soldier, a veteran of the Boer War, talks and drinks with his local friends.

The conversational tone seems rather staightjacketed in full rhyme and iambic metre, but the syntax—the way clauses and grammar interact with the lines—alters in stanzas three and four especially to help the poem succeed.

As the poem progresses, there is a build up of tension as the speaker ventures into the grey area of killing in war, his hesitation marked in stanzas three and four with dashes and semi-colons. This means altered breathing patterns for the reader.

There is no direct sense of remorse on behalf of the man in the pub, but there is an undercurrent of reflection—he shot first, ending the life of a man he might well have treated to a drink in any other situation, in some parallel universe.

The speaker stops short of any philosophical probings or moral regrets. He simply states the facts, the cold fact of war. Kill or be killed. There is no right or wrong or guilt explained or confessed; there is just the lingering feeling of the weirdness of war, how it turns humanity on its head.

Here is a returned soldier attempting to explain or justify the killing of another fellow human who would have done exactly the same. But does he go far enough? Does he need to explain his actions? Is he feeling slight remorse? Is he able to sleep peacefully at night or does he need to drink his way out of this situation?

Hardy first published this poem in Harper's Weekly magazine in November 1902, then again in his book Time's Laughingstock and other Verses, 1909.

Stanza-by-Stanza Analysis of 'The Man He Killed'

'The Man He Killed' has full end rhyme and iambic rhythms. The first stanza has enjambment (lines running into each other with no punctuation) so the reader can smoothly transition with hardly any pause. The second stanza has all lines punctuated; the reader has to pause more.

The third and fourth stanzas have more complex syntax—dashes, semi-colons means hesitation, but note the enjambment from third to fourth stanzas—combined action. The final stanza 'calms down' again.

First Stanza

In this spoken monologue the first line seems to be an answer to a question phrased perhaps 'You killed that young chap, and you didn't even know him. How come?'

The speaker, a returned soldier, is telling his friends in a local pub of how he shot a man dead because he was the foe, the enemy. This opening stanza however reveals an imaginative-minded individual putting forward the idea of an alternative scenario—the enemy as potential friend.

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If they had met outside of war they might have enjoyed a drink together, more than one.

A nipperkin is a small container or vessel able to hold less than half-a-pint of beer or ale. Common in Hardy's part of the world, Dorset, England, back in the day, but essentially an archaic measurement.

Second Stanza

Out on the battlefield in the cold reality of war, face to face, survival, not conviviality is the keyword. Kill or be killed. Shoot first or lose your life. Simple as.

This stanza contrasts heavily with the previous, the speaker's matter-of-fact tone stark and to the point.

On the ground, perhaps in a makeshift trench or shallow pit, infantry soldiers fired at each other from relatively short distances.

Third Stanza

The speaker attempts an explanation of why he shot the man dead. At the end of the first line a dash signifies hesitation, slight unease. Is he looking for a different answer, beginning to search his conscience?

He doesn't quite open up fully but the reader can sense an undercurrent of discomfort. He repeats—because he was my foe—as if to reinforce his own confidence. In war you kill the enemy, logical, necessary, easy.

Fourth Stanza

Note the continuation, through enjambment, of third stanza to fourth.

He wants to speak his mind, go with the flow so to speak and it's at this juncture that the speaker, the soldier returned from duty, realises that the victim was just like him, an ordinary bloke, jobless, signing up (he'd 'list . . . he would enlist), having to sell his belongings (sold his traps), chancing life for the army.

Fifth Stanza

The opening line seems to be the speaker consolidating . . . Yes; . . . as if to reassure himself that what he did was justified in the context of war. He describes war as quaint and curious which means what? Attractive and puzzling?

A countryside cottage built of stone, timber and thatch, with a warped roof might be quaint and curious. But war? The reader has to assume that Hardy meant strange and quirky—in the modern sense we'd probably prefer weird and surreal.

The poem returns to the first stanza's sentiment, the speaker concluding that instead of killing this man in war he might well have, under different circumstances, offered him a drink in a bar or loaned him some cash, half-a-crown being an old British coin.

This is a poem of its time but has relevance still. Hardy first published it as a kind of mini-drama and it would be fascinating to have the friends present answer him back, or have the soldier expand on the morals of war and the hidden consequences that surface once the killing is done.

'The Man He Killed' by Thomas Hardy

'The Man He Killed' by Thomas Hardy

What Is the Rhyme Scheme and Metre of 'The Man He Killed'?

Hardy's 'The Man He Killed' is a fully rhymed poem with the rhyme scheme:

abab

Metrically it has a regular iambic beat, that is, there are three lines of iambic trimeter (three feet per line) together with a single line of iambic tetrameter (four feet in a line).

Let's take a closer look:

Had he / and I / but met

By some / old an / cient inn,

We should / have sat / us down / to wet

Right man / y a nipp / erkin!

The first line has an opening spondee (both syllables stressed) followed by iambic feet. Six syllables, trimeter.

The second line is pure iambic trimeter.

The third line is longer and is an iambic tetrameter (four regular feet).

The fourth line has an anapest (two unstressed syllables plus a stressed) to give that up and down feel as its read.

The final stanza has an opening tetrameter line which goes against the grain of the whole poem, plus the third line has an extra syllable and altered rhythm:

You'd treat / if met / where an / y bar is,

Sources

© 2022 Andrew Spacey

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