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A Short Analysis of Thomas Hardy’s ‘Channel Firing’

A summary of a classic Hardy poem

Thomas Hardy’s poem ‘Channel Firing’ is one of his most popular poems; it was also, perhaps, the most prophetic. Written in April 1914 and published in May of the same year, just a few months before the outbreak of the First World War, it anticipates the conflict that would break out later that year. (Hardy would later write about the war in his classic poem ‘In Time of “The Breaking of Nations”‘.) A brief analysis of the poem should help to show why ‘Channel Firing’ is such a favourite anthology piece among Hardy’s poems.

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 Judgement-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 Christés 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.

‘Channel Firing’ must be one of the finest poems written from the perspective of a skeleton: the speaker is one of the dead, roused from the deep slumber of death by the sound of the guns firing out at sea in the English Channel. (The noise is a result of the navy’s gunnery practice.) In summary, the poem’s speaker is a member of the dead addressing Stonehenge by starlightthe living (‘your great guns’), describing how the noise of the gunfire roused the dead from their rest – indeed, so loud was the sound of firing that the dead thought Judgment Day had arrived. Even the animals in the surrounding area are frightened and disturbed by the sound of gunfire.

But this is not Judgment Day – as God himself confirms, speaking to the dead and assuring them that this is the same old sound of men firing guns and preparing for war. ‘The world’, as God says, ‘is as it used to be’. It’s merely ‘nations’ fighting to make ‘Red war yet redder’. God goes on to say that it’s a ‘blessed thing’ for many of the living that this isn’t the Day of Judgment, for if it were, many of them could expect to spend a long time in Hell for the sins they have committed – including, it’s implied, the war they have waged.

God summarily commands the dead to go back to their rest and not to worry about the ‘channel firing’ going about them. It’s just men killing, or practising to kill, each other: nothing new. So they lie down again in their coffins. In a lovely touch, Hardy takes the word ‘indifferent’ and makes it strange – as it were, different – by loading it with two meanings:

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!’

‘Indifferent’ normally means ‘uncaring’: if you’re indifferent to something, you aren’t bothered or concerned by it. So the past century in which these dead men lived is ‘indifferent’ to the fighting going on in the present because that century is dead and buried (literally, in so far as its inhabitants now lie under the ground). But ‘indifferent’ is also twisted by Hardy into meaning – or at least suggesting – a second meaning of ‘not different’: both the previous century in which these dead men lived and the present century in which Hardy is writing are not all that different. ‘The world is as it used to be’, to go back to God’s words in the poem.

The poem then concludes with the grimly humorous image of the skeletons shaking their heads (or skulls), lamenting the fact that the men of future generations are still fighting each other, nations are still at war with other nations, and the bloodshed continues. The dead parson wonders what was the point of having spent his life preaching, when men have clearly not heeded the Christian message of love and peace. Perhaps he should just have enjoyed himself and not cared about trying to change the world, taking pleasure in his ‘pipes and beer’ instead of preaching Christ’s word.

‘Channel Firing’ ends with a stanza reporting how the reverberations from the gunfire could be heard ‘As far inland as Stourton Tower, / And Camelot, and starlit Stonehenge.’ Hardy’s decision to mention these places is significant: Stourton Tower is also known as King Alfred’s Tower, a folly built to commemorate the end of the Seven Years’ War against France and erected near the location where it is believed that Alfred the Great rallied his troops before the Battle of Edington in 878. Thus the Tower is a reminder of two different battles and wars: the Saxons’ resistance to the Vikings in the ninth century and the Seven Years’ War some nine centuries later. War has always been a part of history.

The mention of Camelot and Stonehenge can also be analysed in terms of war: Camelot, the mythical seat of King Arthur’s Court, summons up a romanticised view of medieval history filled with battles and knights, while Stonehenge takes us back not hundreds, but thousands of years, when Celtic tribes were doubtless at war with each other, too. Nothing has changed when it comes to warfare, Thomas Hardy seems to be saying in ‘Channel Firing’. A few months after he wrote the poem, he would be proved right yet again.

We discuss some of Thomas Hardy’s greatest poems here, and analyse his great poem ‘During Wind and Rain’ here.

Image: Rave in the Henge by Andrew Dunn, 2005; Wikimedia Commons.

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About interestingliterature

A blog dedicated to rooting out the interesting stuff about classic books and authors.

Posted on August 22, 2016, in Literature and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Very good poem. I doubt those skeletons would have even bothered to rise there heads as WW1 was followed by WW2 and so many more after that.

  2. Very nice analysis, thanks a lot! I also wondered if the simple form of the poem (4 beats per line; abab rhyming) was used as a way of saying that war and fighting are commonplace/ordinary in all times…

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