POETICAL EXCURSION #8
"Channel Firing", by Thomas Hardy (1840-1928).
That night your great guns, unawares,
Shook all our coffins as we lay,
And broke the chancel window-squares,
We thought it was the Judgment-day
And sat upright. While drearisome
Arose the howl of wakened hounds:
The mouse let fall the altar-crumb,
The worms drew back into the mounds,
The glebe cow drooled. Till God called, "No;
It's gunnery practice out at sea
Just as before you went below;
The world is as it used to be:
"All nations striving strong to make
Red war yet redder. Mad as hatters
They do no more for Christés sake
Than you who are helpless in such matters.
"That this is not the judgment-hour
For some of them's a blessed thing,
For if it were they'd have to scour
Hell's floor for so much threatening ....
"Ha, ha. It will be warmer when
I blow the trumpet (if indeed
I ever do; for you are men,
And rest eternal sorely need)."
So down we lay again. "I wonder,
Will the world ever saner be,"
Said one, "than when He sent us under
In our indifferent century!"
And many a skeleton shook his head.
"Instead of preaching forty year,"
My neighbour Parson Thirdly said,
"I wish I had stuck to pipes and beer."
Again the guns disturbed the hour,
Roaring their readiness to avenge,
As far inland as Stourton Tower,
And Camelot, and starlit Stonehenge.
:: This is one of the more cynical poems I have read on the subject of war. Anti-war poems are fairly common, but in this one Hardy conveys the distinct belief that war is an inevitable result of human interactions. God's assurance to the dead that "No, it's not Judgement Day, it's just your brethren making more war." Worse than that, they are making "red war yet redder" in their madness, as though men have no better pursuit with which to occupy themselves. God even goes so far in this poem to joke about the timing of when shall call Judgement Day, because if we here to call it on a day such as this -- when the cannons are thundering -- one gets the feeling that the majority of men would come up wanting.
A couple of other interesting details in the poem should be mentioned. One of the dead asks if the world will ever be any saner than it was in their century. I am not certain, but I suspect that this poem was written in reference and response to World War I, which was itself the beginning of a bloody, "indifferent" century. Another of the dead, a clergyman, openly wishes that he had spent less time preaching and more time on the pleasurable things in life, naming pipes and beer specifically. By "pipes" I take him to mean music, but I suppose it is possible that he is talking about smoking. And finally, in the last stanza, the guns are heard in places far inland -- Stourton Towen, Camelot, Stonehenge. These landmarks are not only named by Hardy for their physical distance but for their distance in time, from youngest monument to oldest. Hardy is telling us that war is almost an eternal part of the human condition, having been with us from the very beginning.