On a great war poem by Thomas Hardy
Thomas Hardy: war poet? His name doesn’t leap to mind as, say, Wilfred Owen’s or Siegfried Sassoon’s does. But Thomas Hardy wrote some of the greatest war poems of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: poems about soldiers, conflict, and matters military. (See ‘Channel Firing’ for another example.) ‘Drummer Hodge’ is perhaps Hardy’s most famous poem about war and soldiers, although its language and imagery call for a bit of analysis to be fully understood. First, though, here’s a reminder of ‘Drummer Hodge’.
They throw in Drummer Hodge, to rest
Uncoffined – just as found:
His landmark is a kopje-crest
That breaks the veldt around:
And foreign constellations west
Each night above his mound.
Young Hodge the drummer never knew –
Fresh from his Wessex home –
The meaning of the broad Karoo,
The Bush, the dusty loam,
And why uprose to nightly view
Strange stars amid the gloam.
Yet portion of that unknown plain
Will Hodge for ever be;
His homely Northern breast and brain
Grow to some Southern tree,
And strange-eyed constellations reign
His stars eternally.
Published in 1899, ‘Drummer Hodge’ was originally anonymous: as Richard Griffiths points out in the film of Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, the important thing about Hodge in the poem is that he is Hodge: far from being some anonymous soldier, he is granted a name and an identity. Not so in the original 1899 publication, where the title was simply ‘The Dead Drummer’.
Hardy wrote ‘Drummer Hodge’ shortly after the outbreak of the Second Boer War in 1899, so the poem was topical when it was published. In summary, the poem focuses on the burial of Hodge, a drummer in the British army fighting in the Boer War. Hodge doesn’t have a conventional burial, such as he might have expected if he’d died at home: there is no coffin, and instead of a tombstone to act as ‘landmark’, he has just a mound of earth or a little hill (a ‘kopje’ is a small hill in South Africa). To underscore the fact that Drummer Hodge has died far from home, Hardy mentions that the stars that move west every night in the sky are ‘foreign constellations’: not the Plough or North Star and the other familiar stars in the British night sky, but constellations found in the Southern Hemisphere.
Hodge was too young and innocent, and hadn’t been in South Africa long enough when he died (bearing in mind Hardy wrote ‘Drummer Hodge’ only weeks into the Second Boer War), to know what these unusual constellations were, or to get to know the local terrain: the ‘broad Karoo’ (the deserts of South Africa) or the soil or ‘loam’ in the area. (‘Gloam’, by the way, is a poetic word for twilight.)
Yet Hodge, in being buried in this faraway southern spot, has become part of the land, and it has become part of him: the two have merged. In a most literal sense, Hodge’s remains will become part of that ‘dusty loam’ that he never had a chance to get to know during his brief life.
‘Drummer Hodge’ shares much with A. E. Housman’s poems about dead soldiers: poems which also liken the dead soldier lying below ground with the vast canopy of stars above him. But another poem about soldiers dying in service with which ‘Drummer Hodge’ might be productively compared and analysed, and which it precedes by some fifteen years, is Rupert Brooke’s ‘The Soldier’, written shortly after the outbreak of another war: ‘If I should die, think only this of me: / That there’s some corner of a foreign field / That is for ever England…’