Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
"Had he and I but met
By some old ancient inn,
We should have sat us down to wet
Right many a nipperkin!
- Someone's talking, but we're not sure who yet, or whom he's talking to, either.
- We do know what he's talking about—someone he met once. Apparently, if had met this certain someone in an old tavern or some such place, they would have had an awesome chat over a few drinks, or nipperkins.
- But they didn't meet that way. They met some other way, and we're betting it wasn't over beers. We're thinking the circumstances were far, far worse.
- The desire for this meeting to be different implies that something went wrong when the men met. The speaker's wishing for a serious do over. But of what?
- From the title, we can guess that someone is going to be killed or has been killed, but the first stanza doesn't help us solve that riddle. It just hints at what might have gone down between these two dudes.
- Before we keep on reading, let's talk form. When you read these lines aloud to yourself, you should notice two things: rhythm and rhyme.
- That's because this poem's written in a pretty strict meter and it follows a strict rhyme scheme to boot. Lines 1, 2, and 4 are written in iambic trimeter, and line 3 is written in iambic tetrameter.
- And met rhymes with wet, while inn rhymes with nipperkin, which gives us an ABAB rhyme scheme. Shmoop's gonna go ahead and give you a hint: these patterns will continue in the other stanzas of the poem, so head on over to our "Form and Meter" section for the scoop on how they work.
- All right, one stanza down, four to go.
"But ranged as infantry,
And staring face to face,
- A-ha. Here's the real scoop at last. It turns out that the speaker and the other guy were enemies in a war.
- And when they were "ranged as infantry," or lined up in ranks for battle, they could totally look right at each other.
- Awkward? Yes. Actually, try horrifying. Since they're standing face to face, we know that they're on opposite sides of the fight. Which also means they won't be drinking buddies anytime soon.
- The fact that they're infantry tells us something interesting, too: these dudes are low on the military totem pole. Usually, it's the infantry who die in the largest numbers, because they're following orders from the higher-ups.
I shot at him as he at me,
And killed him in his place.
- Well, that's kind of how it goes down when you're at war. Our speaker came out on top in this horrific face off, and killed the other guy—his potential bar bud—right where he stood.
- The speaker talks about the shooting in cold, simple language that's well worth a closer look. He doesn't just say "Then I shot him." The speaker says, "I shot at him as he at me."
- This tells us a couple things. One, these two soldiers were on equal footing. It was like a good old-fashioned duel.
- Plus, it tells us that winning this duel was a total crapshoot. The fact that our speaker's the one who's still standing was sheer, dumb luck.
- And finally, the brevity here tells you just how quick a death can go down on the battlefield. One minute, you're standing there staring at a guy, the next minute, he's dead at your hand.