“A Christmas Ghost-Story” by Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) is a rare example of a poem that reached its present form after being altered in response to criticism when it first appeared. Although the poem is only twelve lines long, it originally only had eight lines, with the final four being a later addition.
The poem is dated “Christmas Eve 1899”, but was actually printed in the “Westminster Gazette” on the previous day. The poem was roundly attacked in an editorial in the “Daily Chronicle” on 25th December, and Hardy replied in a letter that was printed on 28th December. The poem, with its extra four lines, was included in the “War Poems” section of his 1901 collection “Poems of the Past and the Present”.
South of the Line, inland from far Durban,
A mouldering soldier lies - your countryman.
Awry and doubled up are his gray bones,
And on the breeze his puzzled phantom moans
Nightly to clear Canopus: "I would know
By whom and when the All-Earth-gladdening Law
Of Peace, brought in by that Man Crucified,
Was ruled to be inept, and set aside?
And what of logic or of truth appears
In tacking 'Anno Domini' to the years?
Near twenty-hundred livened thus have hied,
But tarries yet the Cause for which He died.”
The poem, as it now stands, consists of twelve lines arranged as rhyming couplets, although some of the rhymes (know/Law, appears/years) are “three-quarter” rhymes at best.
There is nothing particularly “Christmassy” about the poem, and although it concerns a ghost it is hardly a story. The title sounds like an eye catcher to grab the newspaper reader and then present an uncomfortable situation that they were not expecting to read on Christmas Eve when jollity and fun might have been the order of the day. The second line, beginning “A mouldering soldier lies”, would certainly disabuse the reader of his/her expectation.
The Second Boer War between Great Britain and the Dutch settlers of the Transvaal and Orange Free State had broken out in October 1899 and Thomas Hardy had been opposed to it from the outset, believing it to be an unnecessary exercise of colonial aggression. He was unusual in taking such a stance, especially at this early stage of the war, and poems like “A Christmas Ghost-Story” and “Drummer Hodge” were intended to impress upon people the reality of what was happening to their fellow-countrymen on the other side of the world.
The opening line immediately places the “story” in its context: “South of the Line [i.e. the Equator], inland from far Durban”. The mouldering soldier is “your countryman”. In other words, somebody you might have known is lying dead far from home. This is not somebody who has made the supreme sacrifice in defence of his country to become one of the glorious dead, but he has died a painful and undignified death, with his bones now “awry and doubled up” and clearly unburied because they have yet to be discovered. This could easily be “Drummer Hodge” before he was thrown unceremoniously into a hole in the ground.
Above the rotting corpse his ghost “moans nightly” to the stars (in this case Canopus, which is a bright Southern Hemisphere star). The rest of the poem is what the ghost says. In the original version this was a simple question referring to “that Man Crucified”. There is a Christmas connection here which is to the message of the angels who declared “On Earth peace, goodwill towards men”. The ghost asks about “the All-Earth-gladdening Law / Of Peace”, his question being when that law was “ruled to be inept, and set aside?”
That was the point at which the poem ended in its first version. The attack in the “Daily Chronicle” was that Hardy was advocating pacifism during a time of war and that the soldier was one of his own invention who was a million miles removed from the brave and noble warriors “who cried amidst the storm of bullets ‘Let us make a name for ourselves!’” Hardy’s response was that he was writing about a phantom rather than a living soldier, and that a phantom had no need to display courage but could make what comments he liked about war and peace.
The extra four lines reinforce the argument of the preceding eight as the ghost continues with his plea, but the tone changes to focus criticism on the Church rather than the state. Lines nine and ten question why the years since the first Christmas have been designated “Anno Domini” (Year of the Lord) as there seems to be no “logic or … truth” behind this move. The final couplet states that after nearly 2,000 such years the “Cause for which he died” “tarries yet”.
This short poem therefore makes a sharply-worded attack on Christian nations for ignoring the message of the founder of Christianity and continuing to wage war. By focusing attention on an individual soldier whose body has been abandoned he asks the reader to consider the consequences of war on a personal level. Then, by turning attention to a disembodied spirit, he broadens the approach to include every soldier who has ever fought and died. As Hardy wrote in his replying letter to the “Daily Chronicle”, “He has put off the substance and has put on, in part at any rate, the essence of the Universe”. For this reason, “His views are no longer local; nations are all one to him”.
By making this a “ghost-story”, Hardy is able to make a universal appeal for peace, and to castigate the Church for distorting the Christmas message.
(Discussion section © John Welford)