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Channel Firing -- Thomas Hardy

Armistice Day guest poem sent in by Reed C Bowman

[We received this a little too late to run it for the 11th, but I felt it
was worth posting anyway - martin]
(Poem #939) Channel Firing
 That night your great guns, unawares,
 Shook all our coffins as we lay,
 And broke the chancel window-squares,
 We thought it was the Judgment-day

 And sat upright. While drearisome
 Arose the howl of wakened hounds:
 The mouse let fall the altar-crumb,
 The worms drew back into the mounds,

 The glebe cow drooled. Till God called, "No;
 It's gunnery practice out at sea
 Just as before you went below;
 The world is as it used to be:

 "All nations striving strong to make
 Red war yet redder. Mad as hatters
 They do no more for Christés sake
 Than you who are helpless in such matters.

 "That this is not the judgment-hour
 For some of them's a blessed thing,
 For if it were they'd have to scour
 Hell's floor for so much threatening ....

 "Ha, ha. It will be warmer when
 I blow the trumpet (if indeed
 I ever do; for you are men,
 And rest eternal sorely need)."

 So down we lay again. "I wonder,
 Will the world ever saner be,"
 Said one, "than when He sent us under
 In our indifferent century!"

 And many a skeleton shook his head.
 "Instead of preaching forty year,"
 My neighbour Parson Thirdly said,
 "I wish I had stuck to pipes and beer."

 Again the guns disturbed the hour,
 Roaring their readiness to avenge,
 As far inland as Stourton Tower,
 And Camelot, and starlit Stonehenge.
-- Thomas Hardy
           (April 1914)

[notes:
I got this text from http://www.library.utoronto.ca/utel/rp/poems/hardy7.html
They provide these explanations (among others):
  glebe cow: cow put out to pasture on church land for the vicar
  Stourton Tower: in Wiltshire, a tower built to honour Alfred the Great's
    victory over the Danes
]

This poem was written in April 1914, and beautifully expresses the
feeling of gloomy foreboding that some, at least, felt in the months
before the First World War. Though it's relieved by some oddly light
touches, in a time when across Europe huge masses, especially among the
young men, were looking forward to the war all knew was coming, Hardy
injects a recollection of  what war was to those who fought and died in
bygone years under the thunder of other guns, and how much worse it
might be this time. Probably at the time only by describing the unquiet
of the honored dead at the sound of more guns could a message of gloom
and hesitation be heard. Hardy (1840-1928) was old enough in 1914 to
have perspective on this, was fully adult for the news of the last big
European war in 1870, and in his youth might easily have met or seen
veterans of the Napoleonic wars. I don't know if the gunfire of the land
forces of the Franco-Prussian War was ever heard across the Channel, as
most certainly the guns of the Great War would be in coming months and
years, but big guns by night communicate their threat effectively  both
to the young abed in England who've never heard them, and to the future
enemies and allies listening upon the continent.

The poem effectively evokes the broken quiet of a country churchyard on
a dark night. I was going to say it also effectively described the
bleak, menacing sound of distant naval gunfire coming far over the water
and inland by night, but on rereading it I was surprised to find there's
no description of the sound at all - that is supplied by my own
recollection (as in this poem, it is only the Navy's practice firing
that I've ever heard) and by the description of the reaction of the
nocturnal beasts and the buried dead. But that reaction does clearly
call up the way you feel the gunnery in your spine and muscles, and the
way your body responds to the urgency of its threat, however distant.

The last stanza, taken out of context, or with only a vague reading of
the rest of the poem, might seem like an affirmation that the guns were
being trusted in as guardians, "Roaring their readiness to _avenge_,"
but the fifth stanza shatters this illusion. Having already said the
nations are "striving strong to make/Red war yet redder", he condemns
the threatening fire of the gunnery practice just offshore (where the
Continental powers are sure to hear as well), going so far as to put
words in God's mouth saying that Hell awaits the warriors for their
threatening.

Overall this is a good poem to remind people, in time of slowly igniting
war, that the last time a war was begun to put an end to war and punish
warmongers it merely ushered in a new century of bloodier conflicts than
any in history. Now it is the dead of that same (the twentieth) century's
wars that may stir at the rise of a new century's same old war, and
wonder if their descendents for whose future and way of life they fought
will ever live in a saner world than theirs.

RCB

Links:

  Biography: See Poem #96

  Thomas Hardy on Minstrels:
    [broken link] http://www.cs.rice.edu/~ssiyer/minstrels/index_poet_3.html

49 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Suresh Ramasubramanian said...

Hardy has had plenty of experience painting an extremely depressing picture,
what with all his stories set on blasted heaths and deserted moors.

He's distilled *all* that experience and put it into this poem.

Phew. This is one of the better poems among the recent crop on minstrels.

-srs

David Angell said...

Thanks for publishing one of the greatest poems by one of England's
greatest poets.

Having been brought up in Dorset I have always loved Hardy's work. Your
readers may be interested to know that another Hardy enthusiast was the
English composer Gerald Finzi. He set many of Hardy's poems to music
which, to my ears, perfectly matches their spirit; "Channel Firing" is
one of Finzi's best compositions. A recommended recording is "Earth and
air and rain" on Hyperion CDA66161/2 (see www.hyperion-records.co.uk).

In the last verse, Hardy links the forthcoming war of 1914 with Alfred's
victory over the Danes (as you mentioned in your note), with Camelot,
the mythical capital of King Arthur, and with the prehistoric formation
of Stonehenge. It is generally agreed that the legends of Arthur are
based on the reality of a great leader who, after the departure from
Britain of the Romans, tried to hold the country together and preserve
Romano-British civilisation from the assault of the Saxons. According
to legend, Arthur and all his knights are buried in a hill and will
return in the hour of Britain's greatest need. The origins of
Stonehenge are, largely, a mystery, but to visit the site is to be
struck by its atmosphere of inconceivable antiquity.

Thus, the final stanza transforms a description of a particular time and
place into a poem of wider significance and timeless relevance.

Also worth reading: for a much more bitter comment on the war, see
Hardy's "The Pity of It" at www.sonnets.org/hardy.htm#500

David

Mark Packwood said...

Dear David Angell,
I have read your letter to "Minstrels" about Hardy's poem, Channel Firing. You say that you were bought up in Dorset, could you please help me find the definition of a word that Hardy used in "The Clock of the Years" (set by Finzi). The word is "griff". I'm performing the sings soon and I cannot find the word in any dictionary (ancient or modern) I possess.
Any assistance would be more than welcome.
Best wishes,
Mark Packwood.

SSweb10 said...

Can you identify the Persona of the poem?

nano said...

i didnt understand the last santaza can any one paraphrase it for me plzz

Anonymous said...

perhaps hardey is predicting the extent of the war since in the prior stanzas he already describes how they've prepared themselves for war

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