Thomas Hardy’s poem “The Man He Killed” is a juxtaposition of a real versus imagined situation aimed at depicting the nature of war. Specifically, the persona appears to be troubled about killing. However, the persona is sure that if he had met the man in an inn they would get along well. By contrasting the reality of war and his thoughts the poet reveals the irrational situation on the battlefield. Soldiers are required to shoot at an opponent without any justified reason. For this paper, direct quotes and paraphrased contents are used to analyze the central message and tone of the poem. Kusch states, readers can draw meaning from the poem but they are “bound by the law of evidence to ensure the validity of [the] interpretation” (19). Although the poet killed the stranger it was due to unavoidable circumstances, he would have embraced him as kin which implies that there is no point, in war.
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Hardy is credited as one of the most talented literary writers of his time although he was also criticized for being pessimistic. The poet was born on June 2, 1840, to a stonemason based in Dorset, England (Sexton 371). Following in his father’s footsteps, Hardy trained as an architect and worked in Dorset and London for ten years before starting his career as a professional writer. The poet did not believe in the Victorian faith in benevolent God. He chose to embrace the traditional technique while introducing an original style to write poems that combines colloquial diction and rough-hewn rhythms with a variety of unique stanzaic and meter forms. Many poets of the 20th century, including Dylan Thomas, Robert Frost, and Philip Larking, borrowed from his style. He died on January 11, 1928, having written several literary classics that remain relevant in the academic and entertainment spheres (Sexton 371). The use of literary elements makes his poems interesting and with a depth of meaning about his social, geographical context
The title is a significant part of any write-up as it gives an idea about the prose. Hardy’s title is “The Man He Killed” which gives an impression that someone, not the speaker, was responsible for the death of an individual. Upon reading the entire poem, the audience realizes that it is the speaker that shot the person. The use of the preposition “he” in the title, thus, serves to create suspense and conceal the identity of the murderer until his part of the story is heard. The impression is that the “I” in the poem is not responsible for the crime because it was his friend on the other side of a gunshot. Probably, the people who organized and influenced soldiers to fight are the ones who should be guilty and not the ones who acted.
Throughout the poem, quotation marks are used to connotate the use of direct speech and give the impression that the person is talking directly to the reader. As a result, the empathy and interest of the audience are aroused since they are involved in the conversation. The first stanza is a dramatic monologue combined with imagery. The line “Had he and I met” means that the two of them met but at a different place from the one the persona imagines, “old inn…” (Hardy stanza line 1-2). Alliteration is also evident in the first line where the first two words start with the letter “h”. The tone is somber since meeting in a bar would have allowed the speaker to have a nice moment but it is obvious, they encountered each other in a different setting.
A simile is used at the beginning of the second stanza, which unveils that the speaker is a soldier who met a stranger on a fierce battlefield. He states “But ranged as infantry, And staring face to face,” denoting that they are on opposing side of an ongoing militia (Hardy stanza 2 line 2). The consonant “n” in the line is used nearby which the poet and the killed man were. The situation in the battleground gives no chance for negotiation or rethinking one’s actions as evident in “I shot at him as he at me” (Hardy stanza 2 line 3). The fact that they were close and using their lethal weapons at each other means that running or hiding was not an easy alternative. The words “he” and “me” rhyme, the intention is not to produce a melodious ballad but to create an imagery of the close successions of gunshots trauma it causes.
The next line indicates that the person survived the fight by shooting his friend. However, since the initial quatrain had already introduced the main character as being ready to enjoy a drink with the opponent the reader is moved to empathize with rather than judge. The arrangement of the verses in syllogistic structure helps to understand the perspective of the poet. For example, the reader understands why the speaker sounds regretful and sad in the initial lines.
Hardy uses irony to reveal that the killing, and the war at large, was not justified. In the third stanza the persona states, “Just so: my foe of course he was; That’s clear enough; although” (Hardy stanza 3 line 3-4). The speaker is trying to justify why he killed his friend, but then he knows the truth- that there was no specific reason. In the verse, there is the repetition of the words “because” and “foe” to show the difficulty that the speaker has in killing his friend. In addition, emphasis on the death of an innocent man is created.
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In the fourth stanza, the speaker is no longer trying to prove why he is innocent as he moves his focus to understand how he ended up in the fatal war. Dashes are used throughout the verse to show that there is no definite reason for the dead man joining the military. The persona states “off-hand-like–just as Was out of work–had sold his traps—” (Hardy stanza 3, line 3-4). Most of the causes were economical such as, not having a source of income and having sold all the possessions that he had. The motivation was not patriotism or even faith in what they were fighting for but for money. Abdulsalm rightly states that “Hardy resorts to punctuation marks to probe the sense of guilt his speaker endures as a result of killing his “enemy” (63). This further justifies the difficulty of the speaker reconciling with the fact that he killed his friend.
In the last stanza, the pronoun is changed from “I” to “you” indicating some level of denial for killing the man and rationalization on the bitter nature of war. The poet utilizes hyperbole to denote that the nature of war is indescribable in “Yes; quaint and curious war is!” (Hardy stanza 5, line 1) The implication is that the thought of being enlisted in the militia was charming so the poet and his opponent had some eagerness. Had they known the result; they would probably look for alternative ways to solve their monetary challenges. Consonance is also apparent in the line as most words end with the letter “s” to hide the unresolved negative emotions.
The poem ends with a synecdoche “help to half-a-crown” which means that in a different setting the killer and the dead man would help each other. They were never enemies but for the reality of the battlefield where fate decides who survives.
Knowing the time and geographical context of a literary work helps to understand the themes, plot, and other literary elements. In this case, “The Man He Killed.” was first published in 1902 (Sexton 382). According to Chan, Britain was involved in the “Boer War from 1899 to 1902” which was motivated by various conflicts (par.3). Hardy’s context of the poem as a battlefield was, thus, influenced by this battle in which Britain’s military was not well prepared for the fight. The other significant aspect of the war is that the guerrilla tactic was utilized where people would be ambushed and open gunshots started (Chan par. 3). Such wars often occur like an ambush, once the gunshots have started. This coincides with the description of stanza two where the speaker and the foe are fighting face to face.
Hardy was a talented poet who integrated traditional style with a blend of his unique structure to create informative and entertaining literature. This poem is one of his masterpieces, which utilizes different stylistic devices to enrich the meaning. The write-up is about the troubled speaker who is unable to reconcile himself to the fact that he killed a man who would otherwise be his friend. The tone is somber and an ideal solution is not established at the end.
Abdulsalm, Hamid B. “Demystifying the Other.” Koya University Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences, vol. 3, no. 1, 2020, pp. 63-68. DOAJ. Web.
Chan, Gregory. “Britain And the Boer War 1899-1902: Organizational, Tactical, And Strategic Adaptations.” National Defence, 2019, pp.1-14. Web.
Hardy, Thomas. “The Man He Killed.” Literature: Reading Fiction, Poetry, and Drama, edited by, Robert DiYanni. 6th ed. MGraw Hill, 2008, pp. 813-814.
Kusch, Celena. Literary Analysis: The Basics. 1st ed., Routledge, 2016.
Sexton, Dr J. English Literature: Victorians and Moderns. E-book, BCcampus Open Textbook, 2016.