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The Brutal Reality of War in Poems and Art

The poem “The Man He Killed” by Thomas Hardy was published during the Second Boer War in 1902. Hardy opposed the colonial conflict between the British Empire and combined forces of the Orange Free State and the South African Republic and decided to portray the horrors the war embodied for any ordinary man. “The Man He Killed” examines the internal battle of a soldier who has to kill an ‘enemy.’ An unnamed protagonist tries to justify his actions to himself but ultimately fails and has to face the feelings of regret and sorrow that overcome his mind.

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The tragic abundance of alternatives is represented through a painting “Crossroads” by Ben Will. Salvador Dali’s “The Face of War” demonstrates the terror and disgust Hardy associated with the Boer War and any military conflict, in general. The figurative painting “REGRET” by Hana Davis visualizes the main character’s emotions as he ponders about the kill.

A street artist Banksy manages to capture the massage of Hardy’s poem with his graffiti “CND Soldiers.” “Sailors Carousing” by Julius Caesar Ibbetson represents the alternative meeting of the soldier and his victim at a bar where they would possibly become friends. Even though a poet uses words to express their emotions and an artist is left to the canvas and paint, both can create a net of colors, associations, and moving images to send an important message to the audience.

The first passage of the poem is dedicated entirely to the alternative path the protagonist could take:

Had he and I but met

By some old ancient inn,

We should have sat us down to wet

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Right many a nipperkin! (Hardy 1-4). By beginning with a hypothetical of two men meeting up and having a drink together, Hardy manages to demonstrate the humanity of both the soldier and ‘the man he killed.’ It does not sound like the protagonist had any hateful feelings towards the other man. This stanza shows he wishes he had met this man Andre in different circumstances. Ben Will creates a straightforward visual representation of what making a choice is like.

“Crossroads” shows four roads, each leading to a different outcome. The painting relates to the alternative life the soldier might have had with so many possibilities open to him. He might think that there is no other choice on the battlefield, but “Crossroads” represents the opposite. The murky and dark sky illustrates the tone of the poem that deals with the tragic outcomes the war can lead to. The painting by Will helps the readers understand that circumstances often influence the path a person might take when faced with an important decision as if standing at the crossroads choosing which way to go.

Hardy publicly criticizes the British government’s quest for dominance through colonial expansion. He describes the absurdity and finality of a person’s actions on the battlefield:

But ranged as infantry,

And staring face to face,

I shot at him as he at me,

And killed him in his place (Hardy 5-8).

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The second stanza demonstrates how similar the two men are. They are both confused and scared, having no idea what to do next as they stare at each other. The fact that the protagonist is the one who survives and walks away is a coincidence. The simplicity and speed of shooting and killing someone (as Hardy describes the act in only two lines) creates an absurd image in the readers’ minds. Absurdity leads to horror at the realization of what the protagonist has done.

“The Face of War” is Dali’s interpretation of what the war looks like. The painting shows a disembodied face that wears the expression of horror and misery. It represents Hardy’s attitude towards violence and war. Both Dali and Hardy have a negative view of war and trauma associated with it. “The Face of War” represents the themes and message of the poem but also manages to show the urge most artists have to express their stance on pressing social issues.

The themes of self-reflection and regret are present in the poem. The fourth stanza further explores the similarities both men share:

He thought he’d ‘list, perhaps,

Off-hand like – just as I –

Was out of work – had sold his traps –

No other reason why (Hardy 13-16).

In this passage, the narrator considers the circumstances that might have led the other man to enlist, which could be the same as his. He comes to the realization that people usually do not go to war because they desire to kill a man. Most often, the person is trapped and becomes a victim to their circumstances. Hana Davis does an excellent job of visualizing what a feeling of remorse is like in her painting “REGRET.” The person in the painting is painted with bright colors, while his surroundings appear gray, bleak, and insubstantial. It represents the feelings of the main character in Hardy’s poem, his isolation and self-imposed guilt.

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The message of “The Man He Killed” is clear in the last stanza as Hardy writes “Yes; faint and curious war is! / You shoot a fellow down” (17-18). Hardy once more demonstrates his attitude towards the war and killings that become inevitable on the battlefield. A famous street artist Banksy shared Hardy’s views and decorated the wall near the UK House of Parliament with the graffiti “CND Soldiers.”

The graffiti portrays two men in uniforms painting a peace sign, and it serves as a statement to demonstrate the soldiers’ protest against the 2003 Iraq War. Banksy’s works can help the readers to better understand the message of the poem and Hardy’s call for peace.

Lastly, the poet reengages the readers with the idea of an alternative story the soldier and his victim might have shared. The lines “You’d treat if met where any bar is, / Or help to half-a-crown” (19-20) paint a picture of two men becoming friends after meeting by chance at a bar. Ibettson’s oil painting “Sailors Carousing” shows the loud and carefree atmosphere of an old tavern. It represents the tragic finality and the character’s acceptance of his own guilt as he considers shooting the very same man he would treat to a drink had he met him under different circumstances.

Literary and visual art can evoke emotions, but the combination of both art forms creates a unique experience for the audience. In the age of visual storytelling, images become more important as they use colors, shapes, and abstract ideas to deliver a message. Paintings and photographs manage to simplify dense concepts helping readers engage with a poem in a more meaningful way. Visual representations of the poem’s themes and tone are essential to exploring a message the author conceals in his writing.

Works Cited

Banksy. “CND Soldiers.” 2005. MyArtBroker. Web.

Dali, Salvador. The Face of War. 1940. Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam. The 8 Percent. Web.

Davis, Hana. “REGRET.” Saatchi Art. Web.

Hardy, Thomas. “The Man He Killed.” 1902. Poets. Web.

Ibbetson, Julius Caesar. Sailors Carousing. 1802. National Maritime Museum. Collections. Web.

Will, Ben. “Crossroads.” Saatchi Art. Web.

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