Poems of War and Patriotism

by Pericles Lewis

Among Thomas Hardy‘s “Poems of War and Patriotism,” collected in Moments of Vision (1917), some date to as early as the outbreak of the Great War in 1914. On September 2, 1914, Cabinet Minister C. F. G. Masterman invited Arnold Bennett, G. K. Chesterton, Arthur Conan Doyle, John Galsworthy, Thomas Hardy, H. G. Wells, and other writers to Wellington House to undertake a literary propaganda effort.[1] One of the first and best products of this initiative, Thomas Hardy’s “Men Who March Away,” written on September 5 and published in The Times on September 9, typifies the patriotic intention of the best-known poetry of the first months of the war. Subtitled “Song of the Soldiers,” it describes the emotions of the departing soldiers. In the second stanza, the soldiers address a skeptical on-looker, “Friend with the musing eye,” who suspects that the war is nothing but a “purblind prank.” The soldiers believe “In [their] heart of hearts” that “Victory crowns the just.” Hardy’s frequent theme of blind and hostile fate, in his late novels and such poems as “God’s Funeral” (1908-1910), seems here strangely reversed, with the poem’s speakers emphasizing the ways of Providence. Fatalism is attributed only to the skeptical friend.

Reading this famous poem alongside the other “poems of war and patriotism” collected in 1917 in Hardy’s Moments of Vision, I note certain persistent themes: the address to the skeptical friend seems echoed in “An Appeal to America on Behalf of the Belgian Destitute” (December 1914). A theme that will come up again in war poetry is the ruined church bell in “On the Belgian Expatriation,” where the poet dreams of the bells only to wake and find that the churches have been destroyed by German bombers and the Belgian refugees arrive without bells. While the Germans are implicitly blamed for the war, Hardy tends to portray the war as a perversion of normally good relations between England and Germany (“kin folk kin tongued even as are we” in “The Pity of It,” April 1915). Similarly, “Cry of the Homeless” (August 1915) blames the “Instigator of the ruin— / Whichsoever thou mayst be / Of the masterful of Europe/ That contrived our misery” (this in the voice of the Belgians): the instigator is clearly “Prussian,” but there is a sense that it is the Prussian elite rather than the German people who should be blamed. In this poem, the speaker pulls back from vengeance in the final stanza in favor of compassion. (Note that here as in several other poems, the speaker is plural: “we”).

Notably included in these poems is the pre-war “His Country” (1913), which speaks for a cosmopolitan ethics: no boundary to one’s native country, no man an enemy. (The question of Hardy’s native country being an island is conveniently not broached). Two of my favorite poems in this group seem to return to themes of Hardy’s earlier writing (notably the immediate pre-war poems “Channel Firing” [April 1914], “Ah, Are You Digging on My Grave?” [1913], “In the Cemetery” [April 1911], and others collected in Satires of Circumstance, published in November, 1914, whose irony and morbidity Paul Fussell sees as setting the tone for literary discourse about the war; Fussell refers to Strachey’s review of the volume).[2]

In “The Dead and the Living One” (1915) a living woman exults at the grave of a dead woman whose looks had attracted the attention of the living woman’s soldier-betrothed (a sort of Schadenfreude): the dead woman will never have the soldier. But then the soldier’s “martial phantom” appears: he is dead too and will be with the dead girl. Typically spooky Hardy. Another grim one is “I Looked Up from My Writing” (no date given in Complete Poems) in which the poet has a conversation with the moon about a father who has drowned himself on learning of the death of his soldier-son. The moon: “And now I am curious to look / Into the blinkered mind / Of one who wants to write a book / In a world of such a kind.” The “blinkered” is nice: the image of humanity’s lack of foresight as compared with blind and angry Providence. The poet ends by feeling assured that “she [the moon] thought me / One who should drown him too.” The choice seems to be between suicide and continuing to write. Compare “God’s Funeral” (1908-1910, also collected in Satires of Circumstance).

  1. ↑ Samuel Hynes, A War Imagined: The First World War and English Culture (New York: Atheneum, 1991), p. 26.
  2. ↑ See Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975).