Saturday, May 20, 2006

"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

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 Christes 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.

(By Thomas Hardy, April 1914)
This poem, written on the cusp of the First World War, has gained new attention since 9-11 for its anti-war message.

I chose this poem not only for its relevance to our times, but also because of how skilfully and effectively Thomas Hardy uses poetry to tell this story. How would one capture the comical spirit of these verses as effectively as this in prose?

The poem's form follows a regular structure of alternately end-rhymed quatrains in iambic tetrameter. It gives a jovial, conversational tone to the narrator's voice, although he had just had his sleep disturbed by the great guns shaking his and his companions' coffins and breaking the church windows.

The first delightful thing about this poem are Hardy's use of enjambment for comic effect e.g. 'We thought it was the Judgment-day/And sat upright.' Then comes the next part of the line, another enjambed line, 'while drearisome/Arose the howl of wakened hounds,'.

And that's when I started to enjoy the poem purely for its wit and stopped picking at it.

'[...] while drearisome/Arose the howl of wakened hounds,'

It's not just a dreary picture when one hears of dogs howling in the middle of the night, but also one gets the feeling that the narrator is empathic of the cliché that dogs will howl when something spooky happens. Then he also tells us about the startled mouse, the cowardly worms and the drooling cow!

(A glebe cow is a cow kept on church grounds to keep the grass short. It's funny enough image that until I learned that it meant that the cow went starking mad, and then it became quite hilarious — helped by yet another use of a line break for effect.)

Then God calls down, and says “No, it isn't Judgment Day yet, it's just a firing exercise in the English Channel — though obviously how 'English', is still under dispute – the world is the same as it used to be when you all died.”

“They're still at it, madly posturing for war, 'They do no more for Christes [sic. — some versions of this poem give Christ's instead of Christes, an archaic form, but using Christes as the poem was originally written would preserve the rhyme structure.] sake' than you can!”

Some should count themselves lucky that it's not Judgement Day yet; God has a chore ready for them to do!

“Besides, it's going to be a lot warmer than this when I call for Judgement,” chuckles God. And then God says that men need all the rest they can get, so he might just let us be.

As the skeletons settle down to go back to sleep, one skeleton wonders aloud if the world would ever be a saner place, and many shook their heads, wearily contemplating the state of the world. Parson Thirdly, the narrator's 'neighbour' — in more ways than one: in the physical sense; literarily, in Thomas Hardy's oeuvre (Parson Thirdly is a character in Far from the Madding Crowd); as a neighbour in faith (irreverent fact: Parson Thirdly's name is an allusion to the third member of the Holy Trinity) – wishes that he had spent all those forty years smoking pipes and smoking beer instead of preaching.

The poem ends with the narrator describing the sounds of the the roaring guns going on, and can be heard as far inland as Stourton Tower, Camelot, and Stonehenge – three places geographically far apart. They also symbolize, in my opinion, the different ages that war has taken place: in the poem's time-frame; back to the 9th Century, the time of King Alfred the Great; to the legendary times of King Arthur of Camelot; and even further back, to the Neolithic times of the druids.

Thomas Hardy is the novelist of classics such as Far from the Madding Crowd, Jude the Obscure, Tess of the d'Urbervilles, and The Mayor of Casterbridge. He published his first volume of poetry, Wessex Poems, in 1898 and, giving up writing prose entirely, he published poetry until his death in 1928. Channel Firing appears in Satires of Circumstance: The Complete Poetical Works Of Thomas Hardy, first published in 1914.

— Reza

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14 Comments:

Blogger Leon Wing said...

As skilful as Hardy was at making surprises using enjambment or run-ons, he is just as masterful in manipulating the tetrameter of this poem.

The metrical reading of the first line should rightly go, if adhering strictly to form, as:

That night your great guns, unawares,

However, Hardy could also have meant it to read as

That night your great guns, unawares,

If the first metrical reading, “un” in “unawares” is promoted to a stress and “guns” is demoted to a non-beat or stress, the effect of the alliteration of the g’s in “great guns” would have been lost. So, I’d prefer the second metrical reading, with a falling inversion in the last 3 words.

Equally, if we stick to the ta-tum rhythm strictly for the second line, we are not giving sufficient attention to shook:

Shook all our coffins as we lay,

So, I’d think Hardy could have wanted us read it, with initial inversion, as

Shook all our coffins as we lay,

The stressing of “shook” without following a non-stress makes the sensation of “great guns” going off more strongly felt.

Hardy repeats this technique in the last stanza, with a slight variation of a triple metre, also on the second line. The r’s in “roaring” and “readiness” work together to give the firing of guns a strong palpable effect:

Roaring their readiness to avenge,

Hardy imposes the iambic tetrameter rhythm without variations in stanzas 2 and 3, and 5 and 6. However, the last lines of stanzas 4 and 8 have a triple metre variation.

One might argue that in stanza 7, there, in the last line as well, is also such a variation, in 2 instances:

In our indifferent century!”

If you read “indifferent” as 4 syllables, yes. But I think Hardy would want us to read it as 3 syllables, with the last 2 elided. Equally, you can read “century” with elision so that it reads as 2 syllables. But I should think the “ry” should receive a stress so that it rhymes with “be” of line 2.

In stanzas 4 and 7 Hardy varies the stress endings of the tetrametre. In stanza 4, in lines 2 and 4, the rhymes of “hatters” and “matters” extend a little further. So do the rhymes in stanza 7, in lines 1 and 3, of “wonder” and “under”. They make you linger a little longer at the line endings, as if Hardy wants you to mull over them.

11:51 AM, May 20, 2006  
Blogger dreamer idiot said...

Reza/Machinist, congratulations on your first post! Your extensive background research is just great, especially the tracking down of the context in which this poem was written. So, are you sure you are still a novice? You write more like a poetry teacher to me I am definitely looking forward to learning more from you. :)

It is really wonderful how each of us bring different things to this new blog.
PS. My comments on the poem later

7:34 PM, May 20, 2006  
Blogger dreamer idiot said...

If I am not terribly mistaken, Thomas Hardy was an atheist of sorts, and that would mark the sudden appearance of God in the poem a mock-satiric one, not to mention the employment of the voices of the dead arisen. (I also laugh at the comic exaggeration of the mouse dropping its crumb). Indeed, God, far from being awe/ terror-inspiring, turns almost jocularly to deflate the seriousness of the situation (war), laughing out later “Ha, Ha”, declaring that hell would be “warmer” on the Last Day (what an understatement!).

Despite the comic tone used, the fact that it seem as if it were Judgement Day itself suggests the large and frightening scale of the war – one whose magnitude (with the use of various weapon technology like war planes) loomed with the sceptre of great destruction. Hence, the satiric humour here further sharpens and heightens the terrors and horrors of what is happening.

Later, one of the dead asks whether this world would ever be a “saner” place compared to their rather “indifferent” century; a question that rings so true then, and even now, as Machinist points out, relevant to our post 9/11 world. No direct answer is given in the poem, but the allusions to Stourton Tower, Camelot and the Stonehenge with its past histories of other wars and strife in times of yore seem to say (to me at least)‘Ah, such is the self destructive propensities of humanity and nothing can be done about it. So was it then, so is it now.’.

12:46 PM, May 21, 2006  
Blogger dreamer idiot said...

As for the poem’s rhythm, I am inclined to agree with Leon about the metrical pattern of the first line, mainly because of the alliterative ‘g’.

I also think Leon has a point about stanzas 4 and 7, where the rhymes 'hatters - matters' and 'wonder - under' seem to slow the poem to make us think about the war's madness and the helplessness of not being able to do anything at all.

Walker who commented on one of my earlier post made a helpful point about thinking of metric and rhythm; that they are actually open to a degree of different readings which bring about different meanings. So, if any reader here feels intimidated by poetic rhythm, please don't feel worry about it. I'm not good at it myself and am learning as I go along, from others such as Leon, our resident poetic rhythm maestro (Thanks)

1:03 PM, May 21, 2006  
Blogger madcap machinist said...

Maestro! Leon, I am absolutely in awe. I had thought that the poem was in a strict rhythm, but you have shown how minor variations can still exist without breaking the poem's form, and open to interpretation. How interesting...

DI, I am still a novice and have much to learn, especially since I'm not a human throboscope like Leon ;-) I hope that part about being a poetry teacher didn't mean that I was boring! Haha... poetry was never so much fun in school.

If you do a search for this poem with Google you'll find a lot of discussions about the poem's meaning. I didn't feel any need to add more to the topic.

What I really wanted to put forward is how poetry can be an effective and versatile storytelling tool. Of course, I'm not forgetting the epic poems and plays that were written in verse.

This poem is a great example because I feel that it just wouldn't work as well in a different form, say, a short story, or a song. I really hope that doesn't point to a failure of imagination :-)

Isn't the form of a poem is just as important as its content? I wonder if the poem was written as a limerick, for example, would it have a very different effect?

12:11 AM, May 23, 2006  
Blogger bibliobibuli said...

forgive me for taking so long to comment! this was an intriguing poem by hardy and one i haven't come across before. you've all discussed it pretty thoroughly.

just to add that it is intriguing to see hardy tackling a subject as modern as the run up to the first world war - and really this poem foreshadows the terrible things that would happen in both this war ... and the next.

hardy's theme in his novels was often the way that traditional rural life (here represented by the characters in the poem) was giving way to a more inhuman and mechanised future

hardy's own religious beliefs border on the pagan at times, and he'd had his last novel (Jude the obscure) burned by a bishop - so yes, there was something of a rift with the church

disappointed by the criticism of jude, hardy wrote no more fiction, so i guess when he wanted to tell a story his poetry was the place

11:13 AM, May 23, 2006  
Blogger dreamer idiot said...

Machinist, Haha, I wasn't aware that that there were a lot of discussions on this poem online, but definitely you did splendidly, showcasing its technique and the consequent effects produced. No, this wasn't boring at all. It is refreshingly enriching how different contributors and commenters approach poems differently.

Yeah, you are absolutely right about form and content, critics in the early 20th century proposed the unity and close interrelationships between the two, mutually reflecting and elaborating each other (but, I suspect, that there are exceptions to the case, like postmodern poetry, which I am unfamiliar).

If this poem were limerick...mmm, I don't know much, but I think for me it would make the poem less 'biting', perhaps.

11:40 AM, May 23, 2006  
Blogger bibliobibuli said...

A dead man called Parson Thirdly
Was woken from death much too early
"Those guns make such a rackett
The twentieth century can't hack it."
Other corpses were equally surly.


I don't know ... I don't think the poem loses much ...

5:18 PM, May 23, 2006  
Blogger dreamer idiot said...

Yeah, Sharon, I think you're right, I guess it wouldn't, because of the seriousness of the subject matter.

7:26 PM, May 23, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

good review

7:34 AM, February 11, 2008  
Anonymous Term Paper said...

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6:14 PM, February 13, 2010  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading the comments and the explication of the poem, but I take exception to the description of the poem as "comic." There's a dark humor at work here, but I think "comic" is too light and fanciful a word to describe it.

9:14 PM, March 17, 2010  
Anonymous Matthew said...

Did you catch the joke about beer being greater than God?

"...FORTY year...Parson THIRDLY...TO [two] pipes...BEER [one]."

Within the context of the poem, it is even funnier.

12:35 PM, November 24, 2010  
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