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.
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.]