Study Guide

The Man He Killed

The Man He Killed Summary

The speaker recalls a time when he shot a man in war, and realizes that if they had met at a bar instead of on the battlefield, they could have had a grand ol' time. The speaker then goes on to describe how he killed the guy and tries to explain why. But in the end, the speaker doesn't have a good reason for killing the man, because the other man was a complete stranger, and what did he ever do to this guy?

  • Stanzas 1-2

    Lines 1-4

        "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.

    Lines 5-6

        "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.

    Lines 7-8

    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.
  • Stanzas 3-4

    Lines 9-10

         "I shot him dead because—
         Because he was my foe, 

    • In case we hadn't figured it out already, the speaker tells us that he shot the guy because he was his foe, or enemy. 
    • The repeated use of because and his repetition of the fact that he shot this man make us think that the speaker is trying to come up with a reason or an explanation for why he killed the other dude. 
    • He might even be rationalizing the whole awful event to himself, but he's certainly not doing a bang-up job of it if you ask Shmoop. The guy's stumbling over his words.
    • This long pause and the repetition of because suggests doubt, confusion, and hesitation. So while he seems pretty clear on the whole I-shot-this-guy-because-he-was-my-enemy thing, his mannerisms make us think he's not so sure. 
    • After all, who's to say this guy really was his foe. Since he's an infantry man, we're betting those military hot shot head honchos told him who's friend and who's foe. But, really, why do they get to make that call?
    • It's entirely possible that our speaker might be struggling with some of these Big Questions. But we can't know for sure—we're hearing his spoken words, not his thoughts.

    Lines 11-12

    Just so: my foe of course he was;
         That's clear enough; although 

    • Sounds like our speaker is still trying to convince himself of why he shot this man in war. Of course he was my foe. Right guys? Right?Check out the weird jumbling effect in line 11. Suddenly the speaker launches into Yoda-speak when he says "my foe of course he was." 
    • Maybe this reordering is to help the assonance on O stand out, but the poetic inversion of the words makes us feel like the speaker is struggling to put the sentence together. In fact, it almost sounds like he's talking to himself here, muttering the words to make himself believe.
    • But all he's really doing here is saying the same thing over and over again. We still don't know why he thinks this dead man was his foe. In fact, we have no way of knowing what war these guys were fighting, what the war was about, or whose side they each were on.
    • And maybe that's precisely the point. 
    • The last word of this stanza packs quite the punch, don't you think? This whole time he's been rationalizing the death of this man he shot, and now, lingering at the end of the line, there's this one little word: "although." It's enjambed with the stanza that follows, so we're left hanging about what he's thinking. 
    • But we know that whatever it is, it's going to contradict the idea that this guy was our speaker's enemy. 

    Lines 13-16

       "He thought he'd 'list, perhaps,
       Off-hand like—just as I—
    Was out of work—had sold his traps—
       No other reason why. 

    • Although what, you ask? Although… the guy the speaker shot was probably a lot like the speaker himself. 
    • Here the speaker imagines a life for the man he killed, and it wasn't much different from his own. He guesses that maybe the other guy enlisted (that's where that strange word 'list comes from) because he was out of work and needed a job (which is why he sold all his traps, or personal effects), probably never imagining that this one choice might lead to his death. 
    • And all of a sudden—poof!—there goes the speaker's reason for killing this guy. Foe? Hardly. He's just another guy, trying to make a life for himself out there in the big bad world. 
    • We've got a lot more dashes peppering these lines, which helps us remember that this is a spoken poem—that we're actually listening to a guy try (and fail) to work out his role in a violent war. 
    • Here, the dashes make it sound like he's spitballing—just listing possible scenarios for this dead man's life.
  • Stanza 5

    Line 17

        "Yes; quaint and curious war is! 

    • Right, speaker. Because when we think of war, the first words that come to Shmoop's mind are quaint and curious.
    • What's up with that? Sounds like the understatement of the year, right? He's talking about having killed someone. There's nothing quaint or curious about it. 
    • It sounds like our speaker doesn't quite have the vocabulary to talk about what really went down. Sure, quaint and curious can mean strange and bizarre, and war is definitely those things. But there's more violence, horror, and destruction at its heart than this guy seems ready to talk about just yet. 
    • To be fair, he is on to something. After all, it seems that, after all his thoughts about the dead man, this guy has realized something: a lot of war is about luck and chance. And a lot of war is seemingly senseless killing. 
    • So it is bizarre that he killed this man, who was probably a lot like him. It could have just as easily been the other way around. Heck, there could have just as easily been no killing at all. They could have been friends.

    Lines 18-20

        You shoot a fellow down
    You'd treat if met where any bar is,
        Or help to half-a-crown."

    • The poem ends with the speaker coming right out and saying what we've been guessing all along.
    • In war, you wind up killing men you'd happily buy a drink for or loan money to. You kill men you'd happily have as friends. You kill fellows.