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The Man He Killed

The Man He Killed

by Thomas Hardy

Analysis: Form and Meter

Quatrains of Iambic Trimeter and Tetrameter

Activity time. Let's scan the second stanza, just for kicks:

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

Three things you might want to note:

  • Hear that daDUM daDUM? That's iambic meter at work. In this case, Hardy smushes three iambs in the first, second, and fourth lines of each stanza, making it iambic trimeter, and he drops an extra one in the third line of each stanza, making that line iambic tetrameter. 
  • Each stanza has four lines, which makes it a quatrain
  • And finally, the first and third lines rhyme (infantry and me) and the second and fourth lines rhyme (face and place), giving this quatrain an ABAB rhyme scheme.

Each quatrain of the poem looks pretty much like this one. Easy peasy, right? Right. There are a few places, though, where Hardy wants to keep you on your toes, but for the most part, this poem sticks to its form like a magnet to a fridge.

Why be so traditional in a poem that's being spoken by a lowly foot soldier, just back from war? Why not? might be the better question. After all, this poem still manages to sound like everyday speech, despite the fact that it happens to be written in near perfect meter. The fact that Hardy can pull that off tells us that he's one of the greats.

But more than that, it tells us something about his take on war, too. We often associate perfect meter with serious subjects, deserving of careful attention. War certainly fits the bill. But this speaker is an average Joe talking about how he wouldn't mind having a drink with the guy he killed on the battlefield, which adds a hint of irony to what should be a serious poem. Instead of hearing about glory and sacrifice from some grand, mustachioed general, we hear about drinking and shooting from someone who, as far as we can tell, is not much more than a barfly.

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