Men who march away

(Song of the Soldiers)

What of the faith and fire within us
Men who march away
Ere the barn-cocks say
Night is growing gray,
To hazards whence no tears can win us;
What of the faith and fire within us
Men who march away?

Is it a purblind prank, O think you,
Friend with the musing eye
Who watch us stepping by,
With doubt and dolorous sigh?
Can much pondering so hoodwink you!
Is it a purblind prank, O think you,
Friend with the musing eye?

Nay. We see well what we are doing,
Though some may not see —
Dalliers as they be —
England’s need are we;
Her distress would leave us rueing:
Nay. We well see what we are doing,
Though some may not see!

In our heart of hearts believing
Victory crowns the just,
And that braggarts must
Surely bite the dust,
Press we to the field ungrieving,
In our heart of hearts believing
Victory crowns the just.

Hence the faith and fire within us
Men who march away
Ere the barn-cocks say
Night is growing gray,
Leaving all that here can win us;
Hence the faith and fire within us
Men who march away.

Thomas Hardy, 5 September 1914

NOTES

In this poem we hear the voices of soldiers addressing onlookers as they march away to war.

STRUCTURE NOTE: Written in five seven-lines stanzas, this poem has an unusual structure, ABBBAAB. The same words are repeated in lines one and six, and the same rhymes at the end of lines two and seven. This makes this a very structured poem and slightly repetitive, both being appropriate to a marching song. There is a variety in the line length- lines two, three, four and seven are shorter and snappier than the longer other lines, and this has the effect of bringing a strong rhythm to the poem— again appropriate to a marching song.

Thomas Hardy: Hardy was a famous Victorian novelist who at the end of his life took successfully to writing poetry. Hardy was interested in the lives of country folk, and had a deeply pessimistic and fatalistic view of life. He was a writer who loved the plain-speaking English of the common people and uses ‘simple’ Anglo-Saxon words to reflect this.

Men Who March Away (Song of the Soldiers): Marching songs allow soldiers to raise their spirits and keep time as they march. The title reflects two perspectives here. The first is that of the onlookers, who watch the marching men; the second, that of the soldiers themselves. This poem was published in the Times Literary Supplement on the 9th of September, 1914: just a month after the beginning of the war.

“What of the faith and fire within us / Men who march away…”: The poem begins with a rhetorical question, asking ‘What is it that gives us men who march away faith and courage?’. The poem seeks to answer this question by examining the men’s feelings and motivation on going to war. Note the alliteration that echoes the rhythm of marching: this runs throughout the poem.

“Is it a purblind prank…”: a blind joke.

“O think you, / Friend with the musing eye…”: A thoughtful (musing) onlooker watches the men march away.

“With doubt and dolorous sigh?”: the watching man who watches the soldiers “stepping by” is sad (dolorous) and doubtful: perhaps about their purpose, or the fate that awaits them.

“Can much pondering so hoodwink you!”: The men are confident, both of the rightness and victory of their cause. They accuse the man of “pondering”— thinking, or deciding slowly— too long, until he is hoodwinked (meaning ‘tricked’) by his own intellectual way of thinking. Some think that the man watching is in fact Hardy himself, expressing his own thoughtful doubts as to the war; others that this is a patriotic criticism of over-cautiousness. The meaning is ambiguous.

“Nay. We well see what we are doing…”: A confident one-word rebuttal of the onlookers doubt and worry by the soldiers.

“some may not see— Dalliers as they be—”: those who question the war are uncommitted, slow and lazy, or “dalliers” . The men’s voice is patriotic, in tune with the times: they declare, “England’s need are we”.

“Her distress… ruing”: A common emotive personification of England; she is pictured as a woman under needing rescue by ‘her’ men. See Brooke’s ‘The Soldier’, Pope’s ‘The Call’. The men will be sorry (“ruing”) if they do not fight for England.

“In our heart of hearts believing / Victory crowns the just…”: The men emphatically believe they will win the war because their cause is right. “Victory” is personified here, giving this a rhetorical and rather false air— right doesn’t always win. The reader must decide: does Hardy really believe this? If so, this is patriotic poetry, much like the majority produced at the beginning of the war. Or is he attributing false confidence to his excited soldiers? This then becomes a portrait of the atmosphere in September 1914.

“braggarts must / Surely bite the dust…”: Colloquial and clichéd language (“bite the dust”, meaning to be defeated), appropriate to the voices of soldier. A “braggart” is an arrogant boaster— the Germans were often depicted as overconfident military upstarts, intent on ruling the world.

“Press we to the field ungrieving”: we march to battle without grief or mourning.

Hence the faith and fire within us…”: The opening question is considered answered, demonstrated by the change from the “What of…” in the line of the first verse to “Hence…” (“That is why…”). The final verse simply repeats the first verse, in a confident tone of justification.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: Published just a month after the beginning of the war, Stallworthy begins his anthology chronologically, with reactions to the outbreak of war— contrast ‘Peace’ by Brooke and ‘The Volunteer’ by Asquith, at the beginning of this First World War selection. It is interesting it is Hardy’s voice he uses to open this section; Hardy is the older voice of a previous generation, bringing a mature perspective to the outbreak of war.]

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