“The Man He Killed” by Thomas Hardy
Published 25 Sep 2017
“The Man He Killed” by Thomas Hardy is a narration after a shootout between 2 soldiers at a time of war. The speaker is the victor of the duel. His use of the past tense shows that the event has already taken place. He is contemplating on what had happened. There is no sign of remorse in his words although there is a sense of pity when he said, “Had he and I but met” (1). Using these word in the very first line gives significance of the speaker’s sincerity on how he would have treated his victim if the circumstances were different, which is what the first four lines of the poem is about. He went on to say “By some old ancient inn,” (2) which he imagines the two of them in a different place. This could be a literal meaning where a nearby inn is in the vicinity. However, it may symbolize an imaginary place perhaps from a past life. The latter meaning could be the case as it demostrates the speaker’s state of daydreaming which seeks to sooth his mind after killing a person. Using the words, “some” to designate an unspecific place and “ancient” to represent a distant past attest to this use of symbolism. The speaker further elaborates the fanciful scenario where the two of them are having what obviously is a driking spree. “Nipperkin” is a slang used by the British underworld to denote a small measure (Grose). This establishes the character of the speaker as a common person and not an educated philosopher which he seem to be.
The next four lines are a flashback of the event that happened earlier. “But ranges as infantry,/ And staring face to face,” (5-6) signifies two people in range of their infantry weapons yet close enough to stare at each other face to face. This is the event which the poem revolves around. The line “I shot him as he at me,” (7) shows that a shootout has ensued. The speaker wanted to tell that a fair fight had occured and that his opponent was able to fire back at him. This is a subtle way of saying it could be his opponent telling the story and he being the victim. However, the line, “And killed him in his place,” (8) clearly shows who the winner is. It also emphasizes that no excessive force was done during the process and that no close combat finish off was necessary as the enemy was killed where he was hit. On the next line however, the speaker made sure to express that his intent is to shoot to kill. “I shot him dead because-/ Because he was my foe,” (9-10) may at first appear as a justification of his action. However, the lines that followed shows a rationalization why he did what he did while showing he is not making an effort to justify anything by saying “Just so../That’s clear enough” (11-12).
In “He thought he’d list, perhaps,” (13) represents the act of enlisting to the army. Here, the speaker starts to identify hisself with his victim. The line, “Off-hand like-just as I-” shows how he got into the army without much thought and is projecting that his victim could have had done the same. The “traps” in “Was out of work-had sold his traps-” represents his possessions signifying the state of poverty he was in before joining the army. This also shows his affiliation to the army has nothing to do with any ideal or patronage. He summarizes it by saying “No other reason why” (16).
The line, “Yes; quaint and curious war is!” (17) further elaborates his apathy towards armed conflict. Describing war as “quaint” and “curios” shows the speaker has neither a favorable nor opposing view about war. His neutrality leads him to describe war as nothing more than something that attracted his interest. Although he seem to show a subtle disgust about it by saying “You shoot a fellow down” (18) which shows he views his enemy as an ordinary “fellow” like he is. This down-to-earth philosophy further shows the kind of person the speaker as shown by the last two lines: “You’d treat if met where any bar is, /Or help to half-a-crown.” (19-20). “Half-a-crown,” which is a old British coin worth two shillings and sixpence, symbolizes the act of giving (Allwords.com). The poem shows how war can make a good-natured person kill another person for no other reason but a job that he has to do.
Although the individual lines appear benign, the impact of the poem effectively ellicits a negative view about war. “The Man He Killed” shows ill effects of war through the eyes of an ordinary soldier.
- Grose, Francis. “Nipperkin.” The 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue. 4 July 2006.
- “Half-a-crown.” Allwords.com. 4 July 2006. http://www.allwords.com/word-half-a-crown.htm