Being a dramatic monologue, this poem sounds exactly like what it is—a dude talking. He stumbles over his words, repeats himself, hashes things out as he goes, and even has hints of an accent or dialect, what with the way he says "'list" instead of "enlist." Plus there's that awesome use of the word "nipperkin," which probably sounds plumb strange to us modern-day Shmoopers, but to a turn-of-the-century Brit would be a normal, everyday kind of slang. Sure, the poem follows a strict rhyme and meter, but it does so without losing sight of what it really is—a spoken poem, with a chatty vibe.
What's conspicuous here is what we don't hear. There are no grand speeches about the glory of war, no philosophical ponderings about sacrifice and death. This guy is very much a dude using a dude's vocabulary to try and make sense of something that really makes no sense in the first place. The simple, straightforward language of the poem is yet another way Hardy emphasizes that fact.
Here's the thing. This entire poem is written in the first person. We're hearing about this battlefield death from the mouth of the man who actually made that death happen.
Which raises the question: why isn't the title "The Man I Killed"? Great question, Shmoopers. We were wondering just that. So we came up with a little theory. Hear us out.
We are not meant to be on board with this speaker. We're not meant to relate to him, feel empathy towards him, or even approve of him. Thomas Hardy certainly doesn't, and we shouldn't either.
Why? Because this is an anti-war poem. Because Hardy wants to show us just how senseless war really is. And he does so by giving voice to someone who clearly can't quite find his voice—someone who stumbles over his words and is insensitive enough to call war "curious," someone who can't quite acknowledge the fact that he ended another man's life.
But Hardy doesn't want you confusing this speaker with, you know, him. So he takes a step back in the title and calls it "The Man He Killed." Hardy's off the hook for being a clueless jerk (like our speaker kind of is), and already we're looking at this poem with a cool, calm, and critical eye.
This theory's a bit less controversial, but no less viable. You could absolutely argue that this poem is called "The Man He Killed" to remind us of the fact that it's a narrative and dramatic poem. In fact, it's a dramatic monologue, which means that this poem is being spoken to us from the perspective of a particular character whom Hardy has invented.
What that tells us is that we're going to get a story, a moment of drama, rather than a personal confession of someone's thoughts and feelings. This speaker isn't pouring his heart out. He's talking to a person, or a group of people. That means he's probably not saying everything. We don't know the whole story. Calling the poem "The Man He Killed," reminds us that we're eavesdropping on a dramatic moment—not snooping on the thoughts and feelings inside a speaker's mind.
It's easy to imagine our speaker sitting at a bar shooting the breeze with his buddy, trying to make him understand what it's like to shoot a man face to face on the battlefield. That's the easy part of the setting.
What's trickier is understanding the historical context in which it was written—which can tell us a great deal about what's really going on here. Like many of Hardy's famous poems, this one was written in the aftermath of the Boer Wars, which was waged between the Brits and the locals in South Africa, which they colonized. It was a brutal, messy war and it cost a lot of lives. So we can see where Hardy's coming from in dramatizing this one soldier's response.
Hardy was a realist through and through, and he was part of a growing movement in literature that believed in telling it like it is. You'll notice that we don't really get an opinion on the war in here—or about war in general. Hardy wasn't trying to tell us he was in favor or against the Boer Wars. In fact, he wasn't even trying to tell us whether he's in favor or against war in general. Instead, he's telling us that no matter our opinions, war is the pits.
You can see this speaker in one of two ways: he's a bumbling oaf who doesn't get the magnitude of his actions, or he's a wounded, shell-shocked veteran of a terrible war.
Of course, he's probably a bit of both.
This guy stumbles over his words (which all those em dashes go to show), and can't seem to say anything intelligent about the fact that he ended another man's life, except that he shot him. Dead. While he manages the ever so keen insight that he and the man he killed could totally have been bros, he can't muster any deep thoughts beyond that. It's clear that the world is just too big for this guy's small mind.
There's a reason this guy can't find his words—or his footing. He's been deeply affected by the violence he saw, and he's torturing himself with the idea that he and the man he killed could have been best friends, if the circumstances had been different. We're betting he has all kinds of deep thoughts and feelings about this whole big mess, but he's too wounded to hash it out. Next stop, therapy.
To be honest, neither one of these options is very satisfying. We can't write this guy off as an idiot of few words and even fewer insights. It's clear from his struggles in the third and fourth stanzas that he's doing his best. And it's also clear from the last stanza that he's a genuinely good guy. In fact, he's the kind of guy who will buy you a round, as long as you're his fellow.
But it's also clear that these circumstances are a bit beyond him. He's just one average Joe in the big mess called war, and he can't quite see the big picture. But that's not really any fault of his. At the end of the day, he's one of thousands of guys who are forced, by orders, by chance, by war to kill other men. There's a cruelty to that fact that's not lost on Hardy.
That's probably why he makes this speaker an infantryman, and not some high falutin' general or mustachioed politician. Their words are too grand, and they'd probably find it easy to rationalize human deaths for the greater good. But this guy who spends his days in bars? Well he just doesn't buy it—and why should he?
This poem begs to be understood. There are no references to obscure myths or funky words that you can't guess the meaning of (except maybe nipperkin). The real work of "The Man He Killed" is sorting out the big moral and ethical questions of killing and war—but hey, that's your job, not the poem's.
Hardy wrote his fair share of war poems—"Drummer Hodge," "Channel Firing," "In Time of 'The Breaking of Nations.'" But he also wrote other poems about major historical events, like "The Convergence of the Twain," about the sinking of the Titanic. Hardy was all about connecting historical events with Big Themes like warfare, tragedy, and all that jazz.
"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:
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.
By Hollywood standards, "The Man He Killed" isn't that violent, and that is the real power of the poem. While the speaker entertains the idea of meeting the other man in a different context, he doesn't think once about what it would mean to kill another person in any other context than war. In fact, he doesn't really think much about what it means to have killed someone in war either. We're never even sure that the speaker thinks of the event as violent in the first place. It sounds like just another day on the battlefield, which is exactly the point.
Both the speaker and the dead man enlisted in opposite armies, but there's no difference between the two… well, except that one is alive and the other is pushing up daisies. That aside, the idea here is that the two positions these men are in are interchangeable in the speaker's version of events. Neither man has a name. They probably joined because they were broke. And they were both infantrymen in the same war. But we should also keep in mind that the speaker has made up everything he says about the other guy. He wants to give this guy an identity, maybe as a way to cope with the fact that he took the man's real identity away forever.
Yep, you read that right. While Shmoop may not be the world's foremost punctuation experts (although we stand by our oxford commas with the conviction of… convicted people), we couldn't resist taking a stab at talking about those all too conspicuous em dashes in the poem. What in the world are they doing there? Quite a bit, it turns out.
War poems tend not to be all that sexy. Just sayin'.