‘Channel Firing’ was published on May 1st, 1914, only three months before WWI. It is now considered to be one of Hardy’s best and most popular poems. The poem was inspired by gunnery practice on the south coast of England, taking place while Britain was preparing for the First World War. Although Hardy did not know for sure what WWI was going to be like, he accurately predicted its devastation in the nine stanzas of ‘Channel Firing’.
War is not an uncommon theme in his writing. He held strong opinions about the pointlessness of this kind of loss of life and destruction. This poem is written from the very unusual perceptive of a skeleton, using the first-person plural. The skeleton is one of the dead who has been awoken by the sounds of the guns firing along the coast.
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Summary of Channel Firing
In the first part of the poem, Hardy’s speaker, a skeleton, wakes up to the noises of guns firing overhead. He believes, falsely, that these are the sounds of Judgement Day. God speaks to them dead, telling them that the noises are only guns firing out across the water. God also informs the dead that it’s a good thing that Judgement Day isn’t upon the world because the men fighting in these wars would end up in hell for a long time. The gunshots reverberate around the world at the end of the poem, reemphasizing the fact that war affects everyone in every country throughout time.
Themes in Channel Firing
‘Channel Firing’ is centered around the obvious theme of war. Additionally, Hardy touches on religion and the afterlife. These themes are universal, meaning that throughout time men and women have thought about them and written about them. In this case, Hardy emphasizes that fact by describing war as something that has gone on endlessly. It darkly unifies humankind throughout time. The skeleton/skeletons who tell this poem are speaking from the afterlife, waiting for Judgement Day to arrive. The dead are awoken from their sleep by the sounds of guns and the various preparations for war. God comes into the poem partway through to assure them that these sounds are only the age-old noises of men preparing to kill one another.
Structure and Form
‘Channel Firing’ by Thomas Hardy is a nine stanza poem that is separated into sets of four lines, known as quatrains. These quatrains follow a simple rhyme scheme of ABAB CDCD, changing end sounds from stanza to stanza. The lines are all relatively similar in length, with each containing somewhere between eight and ten syllables. The majority of the lines are eight syllables long.
Hardy also makes use of half-rhyme several times in the poem. For example, the “a” vowel sound in “fall” and “altar” in line three of the second stanza. Hardy also makes use of variable end-punctuation throughout the text. This means that some of the lines end with a period or final exclamation, while others have no punctuation and are enjambed.
Hardy makes use of several literary devices in ‘Channel Firing’. These include but are not limited to examples of caesurae, alliteration, imagery, and enjambment. The first of these, alliteration, is seen through the repetition of words that start with the same consonant sound. For example, “great guns” in line one of the first stanza and “Red” and “redder” in line two of the fourth stanza.
Enjambment is another important formal technique that appears in most poems. It is concerned with the way that a poet uses line breaks. For example, the transition between lines one and two of the second stanza and lines three and four of the fourth stanza. In these moments, as well as others, readers have to go down to the next line in order to conclude a phrase or sentence comfortably.
Imagery is a powerful literary device that is used quite well in ‘Channel Firing’. Without it, readers would not be able to accurately imagine what the speaker is depicting. For example, these lines from the last stanza: “Again the guns disturbed the hour, / Roaring their readiness to avenge”.
There are also some noteworthy examples of caesurae in the text. This poetic technique can be seen when punctuation, periods, commas, semi-colons, etc. interrupt lines of text. Alternatively, caesurae are also created through metrical pauses in the lines. For example, “And sat upright. While drearisome” in stanza two and “Red war yet redder. Mad as hatters” in stanza four.
Analysis of Channel Firing
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
In the first stanza of ‘Channel Firing,’ the speaker begins by using the second-person pronoun “you” to address all the living soldiers firing their guns. The poem is coming from the perceptive of a man who has already died, a skeleton lying in his coffin, awoken by the sounds ringing out overhead. To the skeletons, who have already met their deaths, it felt to them like Judgement Day, as written in the Bible, was upon them. The skeleton speaker also describes the “chancel,” or part of the church, windows breaking with the damage.
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 skeleton, and his companions, woke up from their sleep, and each part of the world around shook with what was about to occur. Hardy uses animals as symbols to foreshadow what’s to come. They know that something terrible is on the horizon, even if living human beings aren’t totally aware. Although it seems like it, this is not, in fact, judgment day.
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:
In the third stanza of the poem, God confirms that no, this is not Judgement day. This is “gunnery practice out at sea”. He adds onto this, telling the skeletons that things have not changed since they were alive. Death still rules, and more is to come. The same sounds are echoing around the world, and the same soldiers are marching to their deaths.
“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.
God’s words continue into the next stanzas. Here, he says that the nations of the world are preparing for war. They are prepping to make the world redder than ever before. These living men do nothing, God says, in Christ’s name or for Christ’s sake. They continue to murder one another, seemingly unable to learn the lessons of the past. They are, he adds, as helpless as the dead.
“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….
Hardy’s depiction of God makes a powerful point in the next lines when he says that if it were Judgement Day, then the living would have to be prepared to spend a long time in Hell. Its a blessing for them that they still have time left before the Rapture. The speaker alludes, quite obviously, to the fact that the war they’re about to fight is doing them no favors in God’s eyes. This plays into Hardy’s opinion of the war in general and his dislike of it. Its clear that he felt God condemned war and would not have humankind killing one another.
“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).”
God tells the skeleton men that it will be “warmer when / [he] blow[s] the trumpet” to signal the beginning of judgment day. He isn’t sure, apparently, that this is ever really going to happen because the skeleton men are in need of rest. For now, that is what they should do, return to their graves, and sleep as they have been for centuries prior.
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!”
God’s words allow the skeleton men to lay back down and return to their restless sleep. They don’t need to, at this point anyway, worry about Judgement day. The men above them are doing what they’ve always done, firing guns and killing one another. The word “indifferent,” which appears in the last line of this stanza, does a wonderful job of summarizing the world of these skeleton men. Its a different century, one that’s distant and indifferent to the fighting going on above, but at the same time, it’s not different. There are infinite similarities as the poem as so far proven.
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.”
There is a slightly humorous image in this line of skeletons shaking their head. This is not surprising considering everything else the skeletons were doing and saying up until this point. One, a Parson, considers his life choices. He thinks it might’ve been better if he’d sat around smoking and drinking than trying to spread the word of God. From the evidence that they’ve seen, no one has benefited from it or been changed by it.
Again the guns disturbed the hour,
Roaring their readiness to avenge,
As far inland as Stourton Tower,
And Camelot, and starlit Stonehenge.
In the concluding four lines of ‘Channel Firing,’ the speaker describes how the sound of the gunfire was heard as far away as Stourton Tower, Camelot, and Stonehenge. The Tower is added to this poem due to its own war-centered history. It was built to commemorate the end of the Seven Years’ War in the location that supposedly Alfred the Great gathered troops before a battle in 878.
The following locations are also connected to war and myth. King Arthur and Camelot is a clear reference, and then Stonehenge takes history back even farther to the numerous wars fought by Celtic tribes in the area. This conclusion is meant to remind readers that humankind appears incapable of change. War is ever-present throughout time.
Readers who enjoyed Hardy’s ‘Channel Firing’ should also look into Hardy’s other best-known poems. For example, ‘And There Was a Great Calm,’ ‘Wessex Heights,’ and ‘The Convergence of the Twain’. The first of these is also concerned with war. In it, Hardy describes the horrors of World War I and the “Great Calm” which came on November 11th, 1918. Some other poems of interest include ‘The Next War’ by Wilfred Owen, ‘Song-Books of the War’ by Siegfried Sassoon, and ‘Spring in War Time’ by Sara Teasdale. Also, make sure to check out our list of 10 of the Best War Poems.