"The Man He Killed" Poetry Analysis
English novelist Thomas Hardy primarily wrote poetry in his later years, and his poems reflect many of the same political, sexual and moral themes he explored in prose. “The Man He Killed,” written in 1902, is a dramatic monologue in the voice of a soldier returned from war. Its light-hearted rhyme and meter contrasts a bleak anti-war theme, which helps emphasize Hardy's an ironic critique of British foreign warfare.
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.
Jennifer Spirko has been writing professionally for more than 20 years, starting at "The Knoxville Journal." She has written for "MetroPulse," "Maryville-Alcoa Daily Times" and "Some" monthly. She has taught writing at North Carolina State University and the University of Tennessee. Spirko holds a Master of Arts from the Shakespeare Institute, Stratford-on-Avon, England.