Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Channel Firing

I don't read much poetry, because I find it difficult to get anything out of it on a quick reading and in general I'm too lazy to analyse it further. I should, though, because I do love it so. Today's poem is Thomas Hardy's Channel Firing and I read it and feel confident talking about it because I just wrote an essay on it.

That night your great guns, unawares,
Shook all our coffins as we lay,
And broke the chancel window-squares,
We thought it was the Judgment-day

And sat upright. While drearisome
Arose the howl of wakened hounds,
The mouse let fall the altar-crumb,
The worms drew back into the mounds,

The glebe-cow drooled. Till God called, “No,
It's gunnery practice out at sea.
Just as before you went below,
The world is as it used to be:

All nations striving strong to make
Red war yet redder. Mad as hatters,
They do no more for Christes sake
Than you who are helpless in such matters.

That this is not the judgment-hour,
For some of them's a blessed thing,
For if it were, they'd have to scour
Hell's floor for so much threatening ...

Ha, ha! It will be warmer when
I blow the trumpet (if indeed
I ever do — for you are men,
And rest eternal sorely need).”

So down we lay again. “I wonder,
Will the world ever saner be,”
Said one, “than when He sent us under
In our indifferent century!”

And many a skeleton shook his head.
“Instead of preaching forty year,”
My neighbour Parson Thirdly said,
“I wish I had stuck to pipes and beer.”

Again the guns disturbed the hour,
Roaring their readiness to avenge,
As far inland as Stourton Tower,
And Camelot, and starlit Stonehenge.

I like it muchly. Reading stuff on the internet, it's great to see how many interpretations there are that are different to my own. I must say, I totally failed to see any irony or humour in it (cf. this blog) but maybe I'm just dumb. Or different! Or different! This is what I tell myself daily. But darn, it's clever. I love the way he uses dead people as the narrator, and God as a character. I said that the use of iambic tetrameter mimicked the throbbing sound of guns, but someone pointed out in the comments of the blog I linked to earlier that Hardy plays around with the stresses of the beats a lot, which is true too, and could even be interpreted in the same way - guns don't fire regularly, after all. I even noticed it, but didn't comment on it in my essay. Ah well.

So basically, what's going on in this poem is dead people being woken up by the sound of gunfire - people practising for WWI (the poem being written just weeks before it started) and it being loud enough to wake the dead. So in comes God, and tells them it's ok, it's just humans doing what humans do - killing each other. The more things change, the more things stay the same. Human nature will not change - we grow no wiser as our race grows older. I found this pretty poignant, to say the least.

But I'm quite proud of my interpretation of the choice of landmarks in the last two lines. Stourton Tower and Camelot are both to do with wars, right? Stourton Tower to commemorate King Alfred vanquishing someone-or-other (probably at Thanet) and Camelot is King Arthur, no duh. But Stonehenge is like, what is this shit for? No one knows why it was built. So I say, Hardy put it in as a sort of metaphorical question mark. Why the hell do we continue to fight stupid wars, huh?

I probably shouldn't rant about my exams in this blog, but how the hell are you supposed to analyse this poem effectively under exam conditions, when you can't look stuff up? According to something I just read, Hardy was an atheist or a pagan or something, which is what makes the appearance of God so ironic and satirical. And now I get it! But how was I supposed to know that? Anyway, a glebe cow (a cow kept in the field attached to the vicarage to keep the grass short) is supposed to be mad, which makes perfect sense. I was just lucky I happened to know something about Stourton Tower, Camelot and Stonehenge. What the hell's a 'chancel', anyway? I had to look that one up in a dictionary. Also I said the 'mad as hatters' bit was a reference to Alice in Wonderland, an absurd tale if ever there was one, pointing out the absurdity of war.

I also found the use of euphemisms intriguing. 'going below' and 'being sent under' are both used instead of 'dying', which is interesting since you'd think the dead people would have come to terms with their death by now. I said it was to blur the boundaries between the living and the dead, and to show that in war the line between living and dying is pretty easily crossed. I for one didn't realise that it was dead people talking at first (I read too fast! It's a curse), so that also helps confuse things.

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