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The Man He Killed

How does war affect the way soldiers view "the enemy"? In his 1902 poem, "The Man He Killed," Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) argues that war is senseless and pits good men against one another. After the speaker takes the life of an enemy soldier, he realizes that in any other circumstance, the two might have been friends. With a jarringly casual tone, "The Man He Killed" examines themes like the senselessness and futility of war and the loss of self a soldier experiences in wartime.

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The Man He Killed

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How does war affect the way soldiers view "the enemy"? In his 1902 poem, "The Man He Killed," Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) argues that war is senseless and pits good men against one another. After the speaker takes the life of an enemy soldier, he realizes that in any other circumstance, the two might have been friends. With a jarringly casual tone, "The Man He Killed" examines themes like the senselessness and futility of war and the loss of self a soldier experiences in wartime.

"The Man He Killed" At a Glance

"The Man He Killed": Summary and Analysis

Poem

"The Man He Killed"

Author

Thomas Hardy

Publication Date

1902

Form

Dramatic monologue

Meter

Iambic (with some variation)

Rhyme Scheme

ABAB...

Poetic Devices

Imagery, Symbolism, Personification, Simile

Frequently noted imagery

  • Old ancient inn
  • Wet many a nipperkin
  • Staring face to face
  • Shot him dead
  • Half-a-crown

Tone

Easygoing, casual

Themes

The futility of war, and loss of self

Analysis

The poem explores the senselessness and futility of war. War turns good, innocent people against one another and forces them to kill without purpose in the name of patriotism.

"The Man He Killed" by Thomas Hardy

Thomas Hardy's "The Man He Killed" was published in Harper's Weekly in 1902. Hardy wrote the poem in response to the Boer War (1899-1902) in South Africa. This was one of Hardy's several anti-war poems that expressed his negative opinion of war. He was suspicious that the British Empire only wanted control of South Africa in order to exploit the natural resources. He was also critical of the Empire's war tactics, such as its scorched earth policies and concentration camps.

The Boer War began in 1899 between the British Empire and the two Boer Republics. Typical of a colonial war, the British Empire fought to exert its influence in South Africa and gain control of the natural resources. The Boers were decedents of early Dutch, German, and Huguenot immigrants. They were mostly farmers. The Boers were hostile towards both the indigenous African peoples and the British government of the Cape.

After discovering gold in the South African Republic, English citizens flocked to the area. That escalated tensions between the Boers and the British Empire. War officially began when Boer forces attacked British colonies. The Boers were largely outnumbered, but they were determined and fought back using guerrilla tactics.

The British eventually won the war using controversial tactics. They adopted a scorched earth policy and rounded up women and children, keeping them in horrific conditions in concentration camps. The war ended in 1902, with total casualties estimated at around 60,000 people.

Hardy was born in Dorset, England, in 1840. Although he never fought in any wars himself, war weighed heavily on the minds of English society. The recent Napoleonic Wars (1803– 1815) captivated Hardy. He wrote his three-part epic, The Dynasts (1904-08), using the Napoleonic Wars as his inspiration. Hardy's other anti-war poems include "A Wife in London" (1899), "Drummer Hodge" (1899), and "The Souls of the Slain" (1901).

"The Man He Killed" Poem

Thomas Hardy's poem is narrated in the first person, which gives it a personal and intimate tone. The speaker addresses the reader directly and invites them to empathize with his situation.

"Had he and I but met
By some old ancient inn,
We should have sat us down to wet
Right many a nipperkin!
"But ranged as infantry,
And staring face to face,
I shot at him as he at me,
And killed him in his place.
"I shot him dead because —
Because he was my foe,
Just so: my foe of course he was;
That's clear enough; although
"He thought he'd 'list, perhaps,
Off-hand like — just as I —
Was out of work — had sold his traps —
No other reason why.
"Yes; quaint and curious war is!
You shoot a fellow down
You'd treat if met where any bar is,
Or help to half-a-crown."

"The Man He Killed" Summary

In this dramatic monologue, the speaker is a soldier who has returned from the battlefield. He shot and killed an enemy soldier in battle. He regrets that it had to come to this and wonders if the two men would have been friends in another life. The speaker has been told that the man was his foe because he was fighting for the enemy, but the speaker wonders if the man enlisted just to have a job as he did. The speaker can imagine himself drinking with the man he has just slain, and he thinks about the nature of war which pits decent men against one another. Through vivid imagery and a poignant tone, the poem highlights the tragedy of killing another human being and the universal experience of war and violence.

Dramatic Monologue: a type of poetry in which a single speaker addresses a silent listener; the observations and comments of the speaker on their own story give readers psychological insight into the character.

"The Man He Killed" Tone

The easygoing tone of "The Man He Killed" contrasts harshly with the disturbing contents of the poem. The speaker talks in a causal, friendly tone using phrases like "sat us down to wet / Right many a nipperkin!" (3-4) and "You'd treat if met where any bar is, / Or help to half-a-crown" (19-20). He is at ease and talks as though he is sitting at a bar, telling his war stories to those around him.

The Man He Killed, Tables and chairs inside an old saloon, StudySmarterFig. 1 - The setting of the poem is most likely an old inn or tavern, where the speaker discusses his actions in the war over a drink.

Even when the speaker talks about killing the man, he does so without feeling exceptionally sorrowful. His words reveal a twinge of regret, but it seems as though he would kill again if given the orders. He says,

"I shot him dead because —

Because he was my foe,

Just so: my foe of course he was;

That's clear enough..." (9-12).

His tone is very matter-of-fact, even as it remains casual and light. He briefly considers why he killed, but he doesn't get overly emotional even at the end of the poem.

The tone works in tandem with the easy meter and rhyme of the poem. The meter is mostly iambic, and the consistent rhyme scheme creates a singsongy feeling reminiscent of a nursery rhyme. The poem's themes—warfare, death, loss of individuality—contrast jarringly with the light feeling created by the tone, meter, and rhyme scheme.

Read the poem aloud! Are there any lines where the meter seems slightly off or where a punctuation mark purposefully slows the pace? What effect do you think that has on the poem?

"The Man He Killed" Analysis

"The Man He Killed" by Thomas Hardy tells the story of a soldier who killed an enemy soldier in battle, and later reflects on the fact that if they had met under different circumstances, they might have had a drink together at a bar. The poem explores the absurdity of war and the humanizing effect that can arise from seeing the enemy as an individual rather than an abstract concept.

In the poem, Hardy uses simple and straightforward language to convey a powerful anti-war message that resonates with readers to this day. Hardy mainly uses the literary devices of irony and juxtaposition for this message. The poem also uses caesura, diacope, and alliteration for a more subtle effect.

Irony and juxtaposition

"The Man He Killed" begins with an ironic statement that sets the mood for the entire poem. The speaker says,

"Had he and I but met

By some old ancient inn,

We should have sat us down to wet

Right many a nipperkin!"

"But ranged as infantry,
And staring face to face,
I shot at him as he at me,
And killed him in his place." (1-8)

This sentence is ironic because the speaker has recently murdered the man he wants to have a drink with. From the beginning, the speaker makes it clear that he didn't kill the man out of hate or anger. Instead, he actually thinks the enemy soldier could have been a friend. This statement is juxtaposed with the second stanza, in which the speaker shoots and kills the soldier.

Irony: a situation in which there is a contrast between what the reader or a character expects and what actually happens

Juxtaposition: when two things are placed close together that have contrasting effects/images

The Man He Killed, Cheers with beer, StudySmarterFig. 2 - The speaker ironically states he would have liked to have a drink with the man he killed.

This irony underscores the poem's main theme: the futility and senselessness of war. War makes men do immoral things (murder) that are justifiable because they do it in the name of their country. Soldiers behave contradictorily to their human instincts for connection, seeking to kill before they are killed.

Caesura

Caesura underscores the speaker's ultimate uncertainty about war and his regret at having murdered a man who was probably as innocent as him. The speaker states,

Off-hand like — just as I —

Was out of work — had sold his traps —" (14-15)

Caesura breaks up the lines, showing the speaker's hesitation. When he really stops to consider the enemy soldier's motivations for fighting, he sees their shared humanity and connection. The use of caesura is perhaps the only time the speaker's tone wavers. Throughout the rest of the poem, the speaker is confident and casual. He discusses his war stories wistfully but without any true sorrow. It is in these two lines, though, that he hesitates.

Caesura: a break/pause near the middle of a line of poetry

Diacope and alliteration

Diacope, the quick repetition of words, occurs twice in the poem. The first instance is in line 6 with "face to face" and the second is in lines 10 and 11 with the word "foe":

Because he was my foe,

Just so: my foe of course he was;"

Like caesura, diacope subtly hints at the connection between the two men. They are mirror images of one another, enemies only because their commanding officers have told them to be. They stand face to face and have to remind themselves that they are foes. Each man attempts to kill one another because their lives hang in the balance of a war they didn't create.

Diacope: the close repetition of a word is quick succession, only separated by one or two other words in between

The Man He Killed, Hand reflected in mirror, StudySmarterFig. 3 - Diacope positions the enemy soldier as the speaker's mirror image.

These two lines are also one of the many cases of alliteration throughout the poem. The repetition of the "H," "M," "W," and "F" sound inherently link the two men together. Alliteration also occurs in line 15: "Was out of work — had sold his traps —" ("W," "O," and "H" sounds). And alliteration is apparent in the "Q" sound in line 17: "Yes; quaint and curious war is!"

Alliteration: the repetition of the same consonant sound at the beginning of a group of closely connected words

"The Man He Killed" Themes

The main themes in "The Man He Killed" are the futility and senselessness of war and loss of self.

Futility and senselessness of war

The predominant theme of the poem is the futility and senselessness of war. Even as the speaker discusses his reasons for killing the enemy soldier, he doesn't truly understand why he ended up in a life or death situation with the other man in the first place. They could have been friends, bought one another drinks, and even lent each other money. Instead, they were forced to kill or be killed. The speaker begins to realize that it makes no logical sense to kill someone without a personal purpose. But he never truly comes to terms with what he has done.

War is ultimately senseless. The speaker implies that many soldiers enlist just to find work and provide for themselves. And they end up dying in wars they don't have a hand in controlling. It is the innocent soldiers who give up their lives, while the kings and queens who actually start wars stay perfectly safe in their palaces. Soldiers on both sides are forced to turn the other into an enemy for no reason other than where their loyalty lies.

Loss of self

The senselessness of war ties in with the more subtle theme, a loss of self. Before he enlisted in the war, the speaker had values and connections. He talks openly and even describes his "foes" in an empathetic manner. He enjoys drinking but more than that connecting with other people. The speaker enlisted in the war "off-hand" (14) to have a job, with "no other reason why" (16).

The war changed the speaker from someone who loves forming relationships with others into a self-defensive killer. He has experienced a loss of self: his first instinct was once to connect but now it is to kill so he is not killed.

The Man He Killed, Hands connecting puzzle pieces, StudySmarterFig. 4 - The war forced the speaker to abandon his values and desire for connection.

"The Man He Killed" Meaning

"The Man He Killed" is ultimately a critique on the senselessness and futility of war. Although the speaker isn't depicted as cruel or unjust, his actions during the war are questioned. The speaker killed a man he would just as soon have a drink with. The speaker reflects on why he "shot him dead," (9) and the only reason he gives is that the two were foes. War turns good, innocent people against one another, forcing them to kill without purpose in the name of patriotism.

An anti-war poem, "The Man He Killed" also examines the individual loss of self that soldiers undergo in order to serve their country. Instead of staying true to their personal values and ideas, soldiers must blindly follow their officer's commands. The speaker was willing to murder, not because he wanted to, but because he was commanded to.

The Man He Killed - Key takeaways

  • "The Man He Killed" was written by Thomas Hardy in 1902 as a response to the Boer War.
  • It is a dramatic monologue in which the speaker tells his war stories and reflects on why he killed a soldier who he believes he would have befriended in a different life.
  • The poem follows a simple ABAB rhyme scheme with five stanzas of four lines.
  • The easygoing, casual tone of the poem, along with the meter and rhyme scheme, contrasts sharply with the violent content.
  • The main themes are the futility and senselessness of war and loss of self.

Frequently Asked Questions about The Man He Killed

"The Man He Killed" is a dramatic monologue. 

"The Man He Killed" does not have metaphors. 

The conflict is presented in the irony of the poem as the speaker says he would have been friends with the soldier he killed if given the chance. The conflict is also apparent in the speaker's inability to articulate why he's willing to kill solely because his country told him to. 

"The Man He Killed" is not a sonnet. It more closely resembles a ballad.

War turns good, innocent people against one another, forcing them to kill without purpose in the name of patriotism. 

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