By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) wrote ‘In Time of “The Breaking of Nations”’ in 1915 when the First World War was raging, and the poem was published in January 1916 in the Saturday Review. The poem is one of Hardy’s most famous and popular war poems. Here we offer a short summary and analysis of ‘In Time of “The Breaking of Nations”’, focusing on its language and meaning.
In Time of ‘The Breaking of Nations’
Only a man harrowing clods
In a slow silent walk
With an old horse that stumbles and nods
Half asleep as they stalk.
Only thin smoke without flame
From the heaps of couch-grass;
Yet this will go onward the same
Though Dynasties pass.
Yonder a maid and her wight
Come whispering by:
War’s annals will cloud into night
Ere their story die.
Thomas Hardy wrote ‘In Time of “The Breaking of Nations”’ specifically for the Saturday Review, having been asked for an uplifting poem during the First World War. The title is an allusion to the Bible and the Old Testament, and, more specifically, to Jeremiah 51:20: ‘Thou art my battle axe and weapons of war: for with thee will I break in pieces the nations, and with thee will I destroy kingdoms.’
In other words, Hardy’s poem is written in the time of such ‘breaking of nations’ – in a time of war. Hardy’s biblical allusion suggests that war has always been a part of human history: such ‘breaking of nations’ as that being seen across Europe during the First World War is nothing new, and although it seems momentous and horrendous now, while people are living through it, in the grand scheme of things it will make little difference.
Indeed, if we summarise the three stanzas of this short poem, we see that this is exactly the meaning of Hardy’s poem. The first stanza matter-of-factly focuses on ‘a man harrowing clods’, i.e. using an implement to break up clods of earth.
Rather then wielding the battle axe of the Book of Jeremiah, this man is using an agricultural tool to perform a very different ‘breaking’ of the earth. There is something almost dreamlike about the man’s ‘slow silent walk’ and his ‘old horse that stumbles and nods / Half asleep’.
The second stanza, like the first, begins with the offhand word ‘Only’: this is all, nothing to see here. There is ‘thin smoke without flame’ coming up from the ‘heaps of couch-grass’ (a common weed-like grass), an unremarkable sight that will endure the current tumult of the war and outlast the ‘Dynasties’ or royal and imperial houses that currently wage war on each other (the First World War was, after all, very much a clash of empires).
The third and final stanza focuses on a young woman and her male lover, who pass this rural scene, whispering (sweet nothings to each other, no doubt). The details of this war will be forgotten before (or ‘Ere’) the ‘story’ embodied by the man and woman – i.e. love – has died. Love, in short, will outlast war.
Hardy’s point in depicting these everyday sights and occurrences is to highlight that, humble though they are, they have lasted a long time, and will last yet.
We might say that the three stanzas represent, respectively, the qualities of work, nature, and love, all of which are more powerful than the short-lived effects of war. Hardy emphasises their impressive pedigree through using language which suggests they are age-old, almost timeless: the horse in the first stanza is ‘old’, and rather than a man and woman courting in the final stanza it is a ‘maid and her wight’, an almost medieval choice of words for two twentieth-century lovers. (A ‘wight’ is an archaic word for a man.)
‘In Time of “The Breaking of Nations”’ is a war poem, but a war poem written from the perspective of one at home rather than in a ‘foreign field’ amongst the fighting. Hardy’s evocation of a pastoral way of life unchanged for centuries was designed to console those living through the terrifying and rapid upheaval of the First World War.
As a close analysis of the poem shows, the qualities he chose to emphasise – work, nature, love – are the things that will endure. The war will not. ‘In Time of “The Breaking of Nations”’ is worth comparing with Edward Thomas’s classic poem ‘As the Team’s Head Brass’, also written during the First World War, and also written from the perspective of being ‘back home’ rather than in the midst of the fighting. (Thomas’s poem also features a farmer ploughing a field and a pair of young lovers.) A comparative analysis of the two poems might prompt a fruitful discussion of English attitudes to the war while at home.
To go in search of more of Hardy’s poetry, we recommend The Collected Poems of Thomas Hardy (Wordsworth Poetry Library), which is excellent value for money and contains nearly 1,000 pages of Hardy’s poems. For more discussion of Hardy’s work, see our summary of his classic poem ‘Neutral Tones’, our analysis of his heartfelt poem about the death of his first wife, our thoughts on his classic poem ‘Afterwards’, and our pick of his best novels.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.