The central idea of the poem is the futility of war and the havoc it wreaks. The poem is used by Hardy to shed light on the ravages war brings in its wake. The banality of death in times of war is also highlighted while the speaker ruminates on killing the soldier without a second thought. Hardy emphasizes this lack of regard for human life when men are pitted against each other for a cause they aren’t sure about. Thus, the poem is tinged with the senselessness of it all.
Themes of the Poem
There are various themes in this poem.
The Futility of War:
The predominant theme of the poem is the futility of war. The poem stands as a great example of the senselessness of war because the speaker himself admits of its strange nature. The speaker finds it very ‘quaint’ that a man who could otherwise be a friend becomes a foe if he belongs to the opposite faction.
Politics of War:
This has been a favourite theme for most of the war poets. Wars are always fought for the cause of some elect leaders of nations/states. While they don’t actually suffer, millions of innocents do. Hardy is also fueled by this thought when he writes,
Because he was my foe,/Just so: my foe of course he was;/That’s clear enough; although.
The speaker here knows it’s not entirely his fault the soldier died. By condemning his own action and subverting it at the same time the speaker makes it clear that the ones to blame are the few, select ones for whose cause millions die, and many become killers.
This theme lives in the poem subliminally. The poet-persona’s to and fro between self-condemnation and self-justification is an indicator of survivor’s guilt. He knows that if he had not killed the other soldier, he would have been killed by him. Even so, he grasps at excuses by pauses (dashes) and repeating words to assuage his guilt of having killed a man, who perhaps could have been a friend.
Tone of the Poem and Conclusion
Tone of the Poem:
The tone is light, sardonic and rhythmical, but beneath it lurks an immense sadness. The speaker is reminiscent of his time in the battles, but it’s not nostalgia that haunts him. It’s the burden of having killed a man, who could very well have been like him. He keeps the pace upbeat so as not to give in to the guilt, but he also uses dry humour to represent the ridiculous workings of war.
The poem is at once a critique of war and a take on human psyche. Hardy, by representing an honest aftermath of war through a rural setting, tries to drive home the point he so fervently makes. He also questions our sense of morality when faced with crucial question of life and death. As a sidenote, he also beckons towards the establishment of propagandist killings, and how they are justified in our society. Thus, it’s as much a social commentary as a war critique.