As we move along I’ll be posting some links to online resources on the poets that we study. Why? Well, the first rule about becoming an A-level student is: if you want to succeed, you better study independently. Read about your subject on your own time.

Get to know writers and what other people think of them. Believe it or not, your ideas about literature probably aren’t unique– someone will often have written similar opinions to your own about this or that writer or poem before. Don’t despair  that you’re not  a total original, though. The truth is, no-one is. Moreover, those people who beat you to publication are in fact your friends when you enter a literary debate; they’re on your side. Quote them!

Even better, there’ll be people whose ideas about literature are completely different from you. These are the really interesting articles to read. Some arguments will seem so unbelievably stupid to you that you’ll want to scream while you read, ‘you’re a moron!’. Others will seem odd or irrelevant or just plain wrong. But some of these arguments, even although you don’t agree with them, will stick with you, like a bit of grit in your shoe. You’ll find yourself thinking about them– either deciding just exactly why your original rejection was correct or, against your own will sometimes, seeing the other’s point of view.

The thing is that changing your mind about books or poems is a good thing. It shows mental flexibility. It means you’re learning, broadening your horizons.

So the first rule of becoming an A-level student is independent study. Here’s the second: ‘independent study’ does not mean ‘looking things up on Wikipedia’. Sure, Wikipedia is useful. It’s an amazing resource. Go have  a look. Use it as your first port of call, if you like. But Wikipedia can be boring, badly written and wrong. It’s a collaborative encyclopedia– not always a place for interesting points of view. You’ve got to spend time finding the kind of critical voices that I’ve already talked about: this turns you from being a mere fact-checker to a literary student, involved in debates. So: no links to Wikipedia from here, I’m afraid!

Anyway. The first of the poets represented in our selection is Thomas Hardy– a writer  better known today for his novels than the poetry he produced later on in his life. GCSE students, though, will probably be familiar with his war poem ‘The Man He Killed’; while A-level students might know novels like ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’ better. As a much respected novelist and poet, his life and works are well represented on the net, and you can find some excellent stuff about him online. I’ll update as and when I find good sites or essays, but to start with, you might want to look here. Both these sites have compendious links to decent sources on Hardy:

http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/hardy/index.html

http://www.literaryhistory.com/19thC/HARDY.htm

Happy hunting!

In Time of ‘The Breaking of Nations’

I

Only a man harrowing clods
In a slow silent walk
With an old horse that stumbles and nods
Half asleep as they stalk.

II

Only thin smoke without flame
From the heaps of couch-grass;
Yet this will go onward the same
Though Dynasties pass.

III

Yonder a maid and her wight
Come whispering by:
War’s annals will cloud into night
Ere their story die.

Thomas Hardy

NOTES

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.]

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.]