The speaker of the poem uses casual, colloquial language interspersed with such slang terms as “nipperkin,” a small drink, and “’list” for enlist. This informal diction reflects the speaker’s lower-class status, which is confirmed in his description of having been unemployed before joining the army. In the third stanza, Hardy introduces dashes and repetitions, showing the speaker’s hesitation as he grapples with the moral issues of the war.
The poem’s theme centers on the dilemma suggested by the title -- the speaker has killed a man, and although it occurred during wartime, he feels conflicted about whether this was right. The other soldier was someone whom he would have bought a drink for or lent money to, a man very like himself. These thoughts lead him to reconsider the situation in the middle stanzas, as attempts to convince himself that the other soldier “was my foe, / Just so; my foe of course he was.” He muses that, because of such situations, war is “quaint and curious.”
Hardy wrote “The Man He Killed” during the Boer War, a colonial conflict in South Africa that both he and his wife opposed. The Boers were descendants of Dutch colonials, in what is now South Africa, who had left English-controlled territory decades earlier to carve their own states out of indigenous-held lands. Unlike many colonial conflicts in the 19th century, the Boer War was largely fought between Europeans and men of European descent. This distant war, in which the British army acted as colonial police and whose objectives were unclear to many fighting men, gave rise to the moral dilemmas this poem addresses.
“The Man He Killed” uses a simple ABAB rhyme scheme and short iambic lines, mostly trimeter, with three “feet” (or six syllables) per line; only the third line in each stanza is longer, at four poetic feet. This simple, regular meter gives the poem a deceptively lighthearted tone, like a nursery rhyme. Its whimsical sound deepens the irony of the poem’s serious theme, raising questions about the ethics of war.