Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Literature

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Hardy on War

Here is a poem by Thomas Hardy about war. It is grim and ironic: precisely what one turns to Hardy's novels and poems expecting to find:

The Man He Killed

Had he and I but met
By some old ancient inn,
We should have set us down to wet
Right many a nipperkin!

But ranged as infantry,
And staring face to face,
I shot at him as he at me,
And killed him in his place.

I shot him dead because--
Because he was my foe,
Just so: my foe of course he was;
That's clear enough; although

He thought he'd 'list, perhaps,
Off-hand like--just as I--
Was out of work--had sold his traps--
No other reason why.

Yes; quaint and curious war is!
You shoot a fellow down
You'd treat, if met where any bar is,
Or help to half a crown.

A "nipperkin," by the way, is (according to the OED online):

"A small vessel used as a measure for alcoholic liquor, containing a half-pint or less."

Because they would have gotten the nipperkin wet, one might have guessed that the nipperkin was something like a napkin. "Nipperkin" can also refer to the ale or liquor in the vessel. So if you said, "May I have a nipperkin of bourbon?" and the bartender were to understand what you said, s/he would give you a certain amount of bourbon, not the nipperkin itself to take home.

As with many men and women who serve in the U.S. military, these two men enlisted because they didn't know what else to do and/or were out of work. The speaker speculates that the other man may have, like him, "sold his traps"--probably referring to fishing-traps or crab-traps. Then suddenly the two men are opposing each other on a battlefield in a war not of their making. As in Wilfred Owen's famous "Dulce et Decorum Est," there is no note of patriotism or even passion in the killing. It is accidental in the sense that two soldiers more or less wander into their respective armies and by chance oppose each other one day. If fate had gone another way, they might have had some beers together in a bar. There is more than a little of Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage in his poem. It also brings to mind a film with Toshiro Mifune and Lee Marvin, Hell in the Pacific, wherein an American and a Japanese soldier are stranded, by accident, on the same small island.

I wonder how many of those serving in Iraq now have a similar perspective on their circumstance.
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