Thomas Hardy wrote poems such as The Man He Killed as a way to express his feelings about the Boer wars which were going on during his time. Most of Great Britain supported this war, so his words about it mark him as one who was willing to go against the tide, think through what was happening, and form his own opinions about this war. With this poem, Hardy makes war personal, and that is what allows his readers to relate with The Man He Killed, whether or not they have personally been to war. He is able to help readers to identify with his feelings by bringing the war down to a personal, one on one level. The way in which he does this helps the readers to understand the realities of war.
Rhythm and Rhyme in The Man He Killed
This poem follows a pretty simple scheme. “Met” and “wet” rhyme, as do “inn” and “nipperkin”, giving this poem an ABAB rhyme scheme. The result is a lulling, nursery rhyme kind of feeling. The subject of The Man He Killed however, is clearly not nursery rhyme material and the rhyme and rhythm paired with the ideas presented create a sense of irony.
The Man He Killed Analysis
“Had he and I but met
By some old ancient inn,
We should have sat us down to wet
Right many a nipperkin!
This poem begins with the hypothetical that the speaker and a man meet up in “some old ancient inn”. Because the title is, “the man he killed” the readers can assume that the speaker is referring to the man he killed. He is giving a hypothetical to help the readers to understand the humanity of each of them. Immediately, the readers can picture two men meeting up by chance and sitting down for a drink together. A “nipperkin” refers to a type of container that held a certain amount of liquid. This stanza makes it clear that the speaker wishes that he had met this man under different circumstances. The reader does not yet know what the circumstances were that led to the speaker shooting the man. It does not sound like the speaker had any hateful feelings toward the man, and it certainly does not seem like the speaker had any reason to kill the man. In fact, it rather sounds like he wishes he hadn’t.
“But ranged as infantry,
And staring face to face,
I shot at him as he at me,
And killed him in his place.
The word “but” jolts the reader out of the hypothetical and back to reality. In real life, as a part of the infantry, the speaker stared a man in the face and shot him. The man also shot at the speaker. The speaker “killed him in his place”. This stanza also reveals to the reader that the speaker had a near death experience. The speaker, being so focused on the man he shot, does not give any insight into what he felt at having been the man to walk away. The fact that the two men were face to face shows that either one could have died. It was only by chance that the speaker walked away and the other man fell. Perhaps this near death experience was what caused the speaker to think about the other man rather than himself. Whatever the reason, the speaker seems to grow very contemplative after this experience.
“I shot him dead because —
Because he was my foe,
Just so: my foe of course he was;
That’s clear enough; although
The first two lines of this stanza of The Man He Killed reveal that the speaker does not really know why he shot the man. He says “I shot him dead because-” and then he pauses. The reader can imagine that he is thinking, for he does not know why he killed him. Then he finally gives the reason. He says he killed him because he was a foe. Then, he asserts, “my foe of course he was; that’s clear enough;” as if to try to justify what he did when he shot the man. It is clear that the speaker is quite uncomfortable with what he has done, and is trying to reason with himself to convince himself that he had done the right thing in shooting the man. The fact that he was at war was not reason enough for the speaker. He felt that he must have a deeper reason, but he could not find one.
“He thought he’d ‘list, perhaps,
Off-hand like — just as I —
Was out of work — had sold his traps —
No other reason why.
At first, the speaker tries to justify shooting the man. Then, he begins to think about that man’s life. He supposes that the man enlisted in the military “off-hand” because he was out of work. The speaker thinks about the man as being somewhat like himself. He himself enlisted because he knew not what else to do. He did not go to war with the desire to kill a man, and now that he has killed a man, he cannot explain to himself why he has done it.
“Yes; quaint and curious war is!
You shoot a fellow down
You’d treat if met where any bar is,
Or help to half-a-crown.”
The speaker, after trying at first to justify his shooting of the man, and then thinking about the man’s life, ends The Man He Killed by concluding that war is a very strange think. He calls it “quaint and curious” because in war, you might shoot the very same man whom you would treat to a pint of liquor had you met him in a bar rather than on the battlefield.
Thomas Hardy Background to The Man He Killed
Thomas Hardy began his writing career with novels, but when many of them received negative reviews, he seemed to abandon fiction in favor of poetry. The time period in which Hardy lived was such that he experienced war first hand. He also had a keen interest in history, and studied many of the wars that had happened much before his time. This knowledge of the effects of war, and his first hand experience of war, brought Hardy to write poems which expressed a desire for peace. This particular poem makes war very personal, and causes the reader to think about war in terms of one man killing another even though neither man hated the other. Hardy’s poems are often described as dark and gloomy. The experiences that Hardy had throughout his life did not give him a very optimistic view of mankind. Thus, his poetry reflects his feelings toward humanity, giving them a rather dark and cynical feel. However, the rhyme and rhythm that he uses are light and musical, giving The Man He Killed a feeling of irony that makes the dark images all the more powerful. As in this poem, many of Hardy’s poems cause the readers to think about humanity and to question why people do the things they do.