‘And There Was a Great Calm’ by Thomas Hardy is a nine stanza poem which is made up of sets of five lines. Each of these sets of lines follows the same rhyme scheme of abaab. Hardy has maintained this rhyming pattern throughout the entirety of the poem giving the stanzas a sense of unity and cohesion The poem flows easily from line to line as the reader comes to expect the rhymes which are to follow.
Summary of And There Was a Great Calm
‘And There Was a Great Calm’ by Thomas Hardy describes the horrors of WWI, the end of the war, and the “Great Calm” which came on November 11th, 1918.
The poem begins with the speaker describing all the years of emotion which have impacted the peoples of the world. There has been much anger, fury, despair and passion amongst those fighting and those “feeble folk” who are at home but still immersed in the war. No one has been able to escape it. The men on the battlefields have truly suffered, so much so that when the war is declared over, no one can quite believe it.
The speaker describes the men walking away from their posts and marveling at the silence that surrounds them. The calm brings with it a new hope the world has finally changed and all people will be able to return to the lives they once had.
Analysis of And There Was a Great Calm
(On the Signing of the Armistice, 11 Nov. 1918)
There had been years of Passion—scorching, cold,
And much Despair, and Anger heaving high,
Care whitely watching, Sorrows manifold,
Among the young, among the weak and old,
And the pensive Spirit of Pity whispered, “Why?”
The poem begins with the speaker describing the general sense of the times in which people had been living. The reader will have already read and understood the fact that this piece is going to concern the end of World War I and the peace that finally came after the “years of Passion,” that the speaker emphasizes.
These years were not one singular thing, it was not all the pure horror of war, but a mix of emotions like “Despair,” “Anger,” and “Care.” These emotions were felt intensely and passionately. So much so that Hardy has chosen to capitalize the words. This gives the emotions a sense of agency which they would not normally have. They seem to take on abilities of their own, as if “Anger” was a conscious being able to influence the lives of men and women.
No matter the emotions which were felt, there were a lot of them— sorrow was “manifold” and anger was “heaving high.” All the peoples of the world seemed to be touched by these emotions, all ages and all races and genders asked, “Why?” The world was aching to know how it got into the state that it was in and what could be done to remedy it.
Men had not paused to answer. Foes distraught
Pierced the thinned peoples in a brute-like blindness,
Philosophies that sages long had taught,
And Selflessness, were as an unknown thought,
And “Hell!” and “Shell!” were yapped at Lovingkindness.
The question that was asked in the first stanza, “Why?” is again referenced in the second set of lines. The speaker states that the “Men” who were at the heart of the passionate emotions, “had not paused to answer.” There was not time to make a considerate reply or try to figure out why one was forced to participate in war.
The speaker goes on to describe the things that were common in those days before the end of the war. There were endless “Foes” who “Pierced the thinned people.” There was always an enemy to be fought, someone who was doing their worst against a people who were “thinned,” both in number and in their physicality. There was no “selflessnesss” to be found in Europe, but plenty of shouts of ‘“Hell!” and “Shell!’” These words were as common as the words of love had once been.
The feeble folk at home had grown full-used
To ‘dug-outs’, ‘snipers’, ‘Huns’, from the war-adept
In the mornings heard, and at evetides perused;
To day-dreamt men in millions, when they mused—
To nightmare-men in millions when they slept.
The third stanza is also concerned with word usage and how uncommon words such as “dug-outs” and “snipers” became “full-used” in the houses of the “feeble folk.” Just as all people felt the emotions of the war, so too did they learn the jargon. Every aspect of one’s day was overcome with the war— from the mornings to the “evetides,” one was inundated with emotions, news, and terrifying speculation.
The speaker notes that the men on the front made up an important part of the speculation. During the day one might daydream about a time when the war was over and the men could come home, but during the night the dreams turned into nightmares. The same is said of the men themselves, they were never given a reprieve from their situation. The war was happening all the time, everyday.
Waking to wish existence timeless, null,
Sirius they watched above where armies fell;
He seemed to check his flapping when, in the lull
Of night a boom came thencewise, like the dull
Plunge of a stone dropped into some deep well.
The fourth stanza picks up where the third left off. The men on the battlefields of war were pulled between a wish for two different types of existence. In an effort to escape from the world they were living in, they might wish for there to be no end to time, no death in the future. Or, one might have wished for time to be “null,” and for everything to end that very moment.
There is a certain constellation in the sky, “Sirius,” which is described in the second line of the poem. It is a presence which the speaker says the men often paid attention to. It was there when “armies fell.” The constellation, also known as Canis Major, appears like a large dog. The dog-like image stopped “his flapping,” or metaphorical moving about, when there was a “lull” in the action. The constellation, just like all the soldiers on the battlefield, knew not to trust the silence. The “lull” was only a warning for the “stone” that was to drop “into some deep well.” It was the plunge that preceded the destruction.
So, when old hopes that earth was bettering slowly
Were dead and damned, there sounded ‘War is done!’
One morrow. Said the bereft, and meek, and lowly,
‘Will men some day be given to grace? yea, wholly,
And in good sooth, as our dreams used to run?’
The fifth stanza contains a turn in the poem’s tone and in the history of WWI. It signals the end of the war and the hope that soon “men [will] be given to grace.”
This section begins with a statement that the signs of peace only came after all the “old hopes” that the “earth was” slowly becoming better, had died. Once all hope for the future was exhausted, the cries went out, “War is done!.” This spurns further speculation about how men will be in the future and if one might return to the dreams they used to have.
Breathless they paused. Out there men raised their glance
To where had stood those poplars lank and lopped,
As they had raised it through the four years’ dance
Of Death in the now familiar flats of France;
And murmured, ‘Strange, this! How? All firing stopped?’
The men who have heard this news are unable to believe it. They pause, breathlessly, and wait for another dropping of the stone. They raise their eyes to the vast fields which used to have “poplars” but now are filled with death, but there is no sound. All the firing has “stopped.” It is truly the end of the war and they might leave the “familiar flats of France.”
Aye; all was hushed. The about-to-fire fired not,
The aimed-at moved away in trance-lipped song.
One checkless regiment slung a clinching shot
And turned. The Spirit of Irony smirked out, ‘What?
Spoil peradventures woven of Rage and Wrong?’
Due to the fact that the end was so hard to comprehend, the speaker confirms once more, “Aye all was hushed.” The front is quiet and all those who were about to fire their guns, “fired not.” Everyone moved away from the battles in a trance except for one regiment who turned and fired a final shot to signal the true end of the battle before turning away for the last time. This shot is now known as “Calamity Jane.”
The irony of this moment is not lost on the poet. He muses over the fact that the end of one of the most terrible periods of human history should be marked by another shot. He describes it as pleasing the “Spirit of Irony” who “smirks” at all those who might speak against the action.
Thenceforth no flying fires inflamed the gray,
No hurtlings shook the dewdrop from the thorn,
No moan perplexed the mute bird on the spray;
Worn horses mused: ‘We are not whipped to-day;’
No weft-winged engines blurred the moon’s thin horn.
In the second to last stanza the speaker is still coming to terms with the fact that there will be no more fighting. There were no more “flying fire” inflaming the “gray” days of battle. There will be no more moaning from the battlefield, nor anymore tired horses. Even they know what has happened, saying, “We are not whipped to-day.” Everyone’s pain seems to be at an end.
Calm fell. From Heaven distilled a clemency;
There was peace on earth, and silence in the sky;
Some could, some could not, shake off misery:
The Sinister Spirit sneered: ‘It had to be!’
And again the Spirit of Pity whispered, ‘Why?
In the final stanza the speaker concludes with a few final words about the falling “Calm.” It came, as if from “Heaven” to grant “clemency” to the people of Earth. There was nothing but silence in the sky, but that did not mean that misery was at an end. There were many who “could not, shake” it off.
In the last two lines the speaker returns to his initial question of why this had to happen at all. The “Sinister Spirit,” perhaps a reference to the devil, says that what happened, “had to be!” And the “Spirit of Pity” who feels for all those impacted asks again, “Why?” The poem ends with no answer to this question.