In Time of ‘The Breaking of Nations’ – Thomas Hardy

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


In this poem a farmer leads his horse as he farms his fields: a young man and his lover walk by as he does so. This simple poem was written by Hardy for a conservative paper, the Saturday Review, in January 1916. Hardy was asked for a heartening poem at a time when public opinion was turning against the war.

STRUCTURE: Three alternate rhyming quatrains, ABAB. The lines are short and the sense fragmentary, as we read. There is enjambment here, but the running over of meaning from line to line in fact slows the reader down as she attempts to build a picture.

In Time of ‘The Breaking of Nations’: this poem takes an epochal perspective on the war. It recognizes the world-changing nature of the war (the “breaking of Nations”), but only to contrast this to the timeless nature of the work of the farmer and the meeting of lovers. The title is taken from the Bible: 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.” This poem can be interestingly compared to a very similar poem in theme and content, ‘As the Team’s Head Brass’ by Edward Thomas (p.180).

“Only a man harrowing clods”: Harrowing turns over the ground to prepare for seeds. There is a double meaning here, however: the war is also ‘harrowing’, or ‘extremely disturbing’. The word “only” is deceiving: though indeed this poem concerns a simple farmer, the poem suggests that such men will outlast the war.

“In a slow, silent walk”: note the sibilance here and throughout the first stanza, which, with the use of assonance in the opening stanza (only, clods, slow, horse, nods) leads to a soft, slowly paced beginning to the poem, suitable to its slow-moving subject.

“Half asleep as they stalk”: the beginning of the poem has a deliberately slow, soporific feel: everything moves at a slower pace in this rural world.

“Only thin smoke without flame”: contrasts with the terrible fires and destruction of the war. The farmer is burning weed he has pulled from his fields.

“this will go onward…though dynasties pass”: compared to the war, the conflagration the farmer starts is small, but part of a farming tradition that will continue “the same” as rulers and governments come and go over centuries.

“Yonder a maid and her wight”: antiquated language here: wight is an old word for a knight or man. The lovers are another timeless element added to this scene, contrasted with the passing horrors of war.

whispering by”: the deliberate quiet of the scene in this poem can be a source of criticism— isn’t Hardy similarly silent about the events in Europe? In taking refuge in timeless truths, isn’t he running away from the horrific events of today?

“War’s annals”: annals are books describing particular years. These books will fade away and disappear (“cloud into night”) “Ere their story die”. ‘They’ are the couple— love and lovers, Hardy seems to say, are eternal.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: This poem is typical of a certain pastoral or rural view of humanity’s rightful place in Nature— a view opposed the mechanized horror of man’s present wars. Pastoral scenes and the depiction of rural life were popular in poetry before the First World War, and the peace and contentment found there, the space for thought and refuge, and the nostalgia felt there for a lost England means Nature is a subject matter that runs throughout most of the poetry of the First World War.]


10 thoughts on “In Time of ‘The Breaking of Nations’ – Thomas Hardy”

  1. This poem is similiar to ‘The men who march away’ Thomad Hardy was told to write the poem to crush any doubt and fear that people had about the war not bringing their men home.The poem is about a man who is farming and he sees a couple walking past.The poem is used to projet the feeling that ‘love will last’ and that the people at home that were not away at war should have love and faith in the men that are at war.The poem tries to put the worrying women at ease ‘only thin smoke without flame’ this contrasts with the reality of war and the terrible destruction war actually caused. It also constrasts to the stories and articles that were being published around that time.

  2. I think that this poem is a religious and aspirational poem regarding the aspects of war. As Hardy was told to write an heartening poem, this poem creates some very beautiful images involving a farmer and a couple. However it has an ambiguous tone- for example, by the title ‘In the time of ‘The Breaking of Nations’- which portrays the world-changing nature of war.

    The poem uses rural life to talk ambiguously about war. Hardy uses ambiguity by writing of ‘Only a man harrowing clods’. This implies that a man is sowing his seeds but yet again has the double meaning of the war being harrowing. ‘Half sleep as they walk’ could represent the slow paced lifestyle of the farmers but yet again could also suggest the mentality of the soldiers during the war. Yet again Hardy uses ambiguity when he describes ‘Only thin smoke without flame’, suggesting that the farmer is burning weed. However maybe Hardy is trying to tell us that as the weed is consumed, maybe war will be consumed in the end as well. At the end Hardy talks of ‘Ere their story die’. This may illustrate the strong love the couple share for each other, or this may show that with love for your country and holding pride in it, war will be over one day and victory will be England’s.

    Hardy uses a lot of detail to get his picture across and create a clear image of the war, using rural life as a contrast. The use of the three stanzas show different images, which suggests that war has many sides to it.

    1. I like your interpretation of the poem but please do not mind if i may add some corrections.

      Harrowing means to draw harrows or break ground… Therefore here it would mean ploughing of earth not sowing..

      Couch grass is a breed of coarse grass that is dug up and burnt since it affects vegetation.. It does not mean weed..

      Remaining i find your interpretation quite agreeable and good… Do not mind for the correction..

      Thank you.. 🙂

  3. I agree with Toni; the poem does portray war as a disaster but because of the assonance it has a melancholic touch added to it. Possibly to calm worried women who are waiting for their beloved husbands and sons to return. The first stanza in my opinion is like a extended metaphor; the soldier is compared to a horse. “…an old horse that stumbles and nods…” this is used to get across the ideology of how war makes men futile. a horse cant walk and cant keep its head up would be seen as useless.

  4. I see the futility of war and the permanance of love and work, a simple life. The horses half-asleep – that is simply what horses do at the plow. I have plowed with mules – much the same thing. Work by rote. The daily rhythm of of life, meaningful life. One step after another, never a change, not even across generations. I believe that Hardy recognized that war has no winners. Love, a simple life -these endure. Nations do not. Compare with the last stanza of “Recessional,” by Rudyard Kipling.

  5. This poem shows the main theme of the continuation of life. Life goes on in spite of all the difficulties of life. The contrast between war and life is one of the main elements in many of Hardy’s poems. The poem moves on in a slow and destructive pace. The poem is depicted with a dark and grey background, as in “Half asleep”. Destruction and the loss of humanity is portrayed.

    In the end poem concludes with a unifying note, as the lovers meet.

  6. I think Hardy is trying to bring optimism in this poem in a beautiful and mesmerizing way.The title itself shows the underling message of optimism and hope in this way. Rather than using words or expressions which creates a horrific portrait of war and destruction, he chooses to write ” In Times of The Breaking of Nations” and hence adopting a softer tone. Hardy wanted his reader to meditate over the fact of what might happen during the times of war. Though we cannot deny the fact that on first reading the title we feel that this poem might be on the subject of war but with it the reader finds a ray of hope that the poem might be based upon serene and tranquility and optimism as Hardy never mentioned bloodshed and chaos in the title.

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