Had he and I but met By some old ancient inn,
We should have set us down to wet
Right many a nipperkin!
The speaker begins by talking about an unnamed man. We are not told who he is right away. We are introduced to him as the poet wonders what would have happened in a different situation. He says that if he had met the man he’s talking about under normal circumstances, for example, in a bar or an inn, they probably would have shared many a drink.
But ranged as infantry, And staring face to face,
I shot at him as he at me,
And killed him in his place.
In this stanza, we are finally given a definitive answer about this unnamed man of the previous stanza. The man was a soldier in the war the speaker fought in. We are given more details as he tells us that the man he could have shared drinks with was a soldier of the opposite camp and that they were fighting face to face, that is, fighting each other. He describes how both of them shot at each other at the same time, but it’s the other soldier who succumbs to the bullet. This indicates that either the speaker was quicker than his opponent, or that his aim was better. However, the underlining point was that the speaker shot his opponent down.
shot him dead because– Because he was my foe,
Just so: my foe of course he was;
That’s clear enough; although
Here the speaker reiterates the death of his opponent in the first line. He tries to justify it by telling us that he was the enemy. He harps on the soldier being his enemy, although he can’t confidently give a reason why the soldier was his enemy. He stops, and feels unsure of what he means. He uses the word ‘because’ twice , as he tries to straighten his excuse out in his mind. This is proved by his use of the word, ‘of course’, by which he means killing one’s foe was a given in certain situations and it was nothing out of ordinary during war.And his inconstancy ends the sentence in a cliffhanger, which is continued in the next stanza.
He thought he’d ‘list, perhaps, Off-hand like–just as I–
Was out of work–had sold his traps–
No other reason why.
In stanza 4, the speaker’s ‘although’ is expanded so as to continue his sardonic justifications. The poet surmises that the soldier he shot, had perhaps enlisted in the army just for the sake of it, or probably because he had no job and no money, like himself. This is also the stanza where his survivor’s guilt creeps in, especially when he realizes the soldier he killed was a man like him, in dire need of employment.
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.
Here, the poet talks about the curious nature of war through the speaker. He says that the senselessness of war lies in the fact that one often has to shoot a fellow, with whom, in other circumstances; one would share drinks, or help in times of financial crisis. The tone is kept light all throughout yet there’s a certain bite in the lines the speaker utters because he realizes the ridiculousness of it all.