For the “military post” hour today (it will actually be up some minutes late), we dig into our spotty repository of World War I poetry, to offer up a piece, not by some young officer at the Front, but by one of Britain’s top men of letters, Thomas Hardy. (And here we always thought of him as a 19th Century guy. He was in his seventies as he wrote this and would live more than 10 more years). (Edited to add: this poem was actually written before the war, and he really was, as is mentioned, complaining about a Royal Navy exercise. We had forgotten that).
That night your great guns, unawares,
Shook all our coffins as we lay,
And broke the chancel window-squares,
We thought it was the Judgement-day
And sat upright. While drearisome
Arose the howl of wakened hounds:
The mouse let fall the altar-crumb,
The worm drew back into the mounds,
The glebe cow drooled. Till God cried, “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 Christés 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.
There is more going on in this poem than seems at first glance. At first, it condemns the madness of the war, and the madness of the men that undertake it — hardly an unusual theme. But the device Hardy chooses, of having the old dead themselves condemn war, and not only them, but God Himself — that’s why he’s one of the Dead White Males people read, and your Grand-Uncle Nigel is not.
“That this is not the judgment hour [is] for some of them a blessed thing,” speaks the deity. It is not coincidental that the guns that wake the dead — an image that is grown from an ancient English expression itself — break the windows not in the house, but in the “chancel,” a word which many will associate vaguely with church but which particularly means the part of a Christian church around the altar; where the priest conducts Mass. (It is elevated above the pews of the parishioners, like a theater stage). The windows here are not simple portals to the outdoors, but usually crafted by the architect to shine light on the altar (the chancel is traditionally the east, sunrise side of the church), and filled with stained-glass decorative art, usually depicting some uplifting sermon, such as Christ’s ascent into heaven.
The poem’s structure and rhyme scheme is simple, its words — apart from chancel and some iconic English place names — consciously basic and Anglo-Saxon. This makes it very accessible to all classes and all educations, easily memorized, and yet, it rewards some careful study, if you care to try.