Friday, 20 May 2016

Men Who March Away, by Thomas Hardy




( For more poetry analyses, see Great poetry explained: an index to my blogs )

Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) had been bitterly opposed to the Boer War of 1899 (during which he wrote poems such as “Drummer Hodge”) but regarded the outbreak of the “Great War” (now referred to as World War I) in 1914 quite differently. His view, in common with the vast majority of his fellow countrymen, was that this was a “just war”.

Great Britain declared war on Germany on 4th August 1914 and the Government immediately saw the need to persuade the whole British population that they were right to do so, not least so that recruitment to the Army would be encouraged. They also wanted to convince other countries, who might otherwise remain neutral, that they should support the “Entente” of Britain, France and Russia as opposed to the “Central Powers” of Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire. To this end, a conference was called at Wellington House, London, to which most of the literary greats of the day were invited, including Thomas Hardy. The idea was that these were the people best placed to make persuasive public statements that people at home and abroad would listen to.

The conference was held on 2nd September, and three days later Hardy completed his poem “Men Who March Away” as his contribution to the cause. It was published in the “Times” on 9th September under the title “Song of the Soldiers” and was widely reprinted. It became enormously popular and was soon set to music, with a version appearing as early as 22nd September and others following later.

The poem

What of the faith and fire within us
Men who march away
Ere the barn-cocks say
Night is growing gray,
Leaving all that here can win us;
What of the faith and fire within us
Men who march away?


Is it a purblind prank, O think you,
Friend with the musing eye,
Who watch us stepping by
With doubt and dolorous sigh?
Can much pondering so hoodwink you!
Is it a purblind prank, O think you,
Friend with the musing eye?


Nay. We well see what we are doing,
Though some may not see—
Dalliers as they be—
England's need are we;
Her distress would leave us rueing:
Nay. We well see what we are doing,
Though some may not see!


In our heart of hearts believing
Victory crowns the just,
And that braggarts must
Surely bite the dust,
Press we to the field ungrieving,
In our heart of hearts believing
Victory crowns the just.


Hence the faith and fire within us
Men who march away
Ere the barn-cocks say
Night is growing gray,
Leaving all that here can win us;
Hence the faith and fire within us
Men who march away.

Discussion

The poem comprises five stanzas each of seven lines. Lines one, five and six have four stressed syllables and the rest have three stresses, thus giving the poem a marching beat with slow paces contrasting with faster ones. There is a great deal of repetition in the poem, in that the first and second lines of each stanza are repeated as the last two, and the whole of the first stanza is repeated as the last stanza with only one word (which appears twice) being changed. Again, the effect is to impose an almost military rhythm on the poem, which matches the sentiment of the words.

The theme of the poem is that the soldiers who “march away / Ere the barn-cocks say / Night is growing gray” have no doubts about the justness of the cause they are about to defend, even if others might not be so sure. Hardy was presumably inspired by the sight of Dorset soldiers marching from their barracks in Dorchester to the railway station where troop trains would take them to the docks at Southampton and thence to the war in France. The opening stanza has the men asking “What of the faith and fire within us”, thus stating that the “faith and fire” are there in the first place, but the reason for their presence needs to be explained to the doubters.

The second stanza addresses the “Friend with the musing eye” who watches the marchers “With doubt and dolorous sigh”. Words are put into the doubter’s mouth, namely that he might consider the war to be “a purblind prank”, such that the soldiers do not have a clear vision of what it is that they are about to do (as it turned out, this was not far from the truth). The viewer is accused of allowing “much pondering” to “hoodwink” him into getting the wrong idea, which again might strike the modern reader as being unknowingly ironic given the horrors that were about to befall so many who made this and similar marches all over the country.

The questions are answered in the next stanza, which defiantly declares: “Nay. We well see what we are doing, / Though some may not see”. They are responding to “England’s need” because “Her distress would leave us rueing”. The argument is that going to war is the only sensible course of action, and that the soldiers are therefore making a logical and reasoned choice. This was, as mentioned above, precisely the attitude that Hardy himself adopted at this time.

The fourth stanza develops this idea and refers back to the “faith” of the opening line. The soldiers have an unshakeable belief, in their “heart of hearts” that “Victory crowns the just” and that they are therefore destined to return triumphant. Not long after writing and publishing the poem, Hardy wrote in a letter that the poem was “not free from some banalities which it is difficult to keep out of lines which are meant to appeal to the man in the street”. Presumably the lines in this stanza that read: “And that braggarts must / Surely bite the dust” were among the ones that he had in mind as “some banalities”. Presumably he would not have written these had he had more time to compose the poem and not been quite so wound up with patriotic fervour.

As stated earlier, the final stanza is a virtual repeat of the first, with the questioning “What” replaced by “Hence”. The question was raised, and here it is answered in exactly the same words, because the question was, to Hardy and the soldiers, a rhetorical one that contained its own answer. This is a war that is just and in which victory is assured. There may be doubters, but their reservations can easily be overcome. It is little wonder that this rhythmical, repetitious poem, so easily set to music, became an instant hit as it matched so perfectly the mood of the hour.

There is, however, something missing from “Men Who March Away” that one might have thought to be a staple requirement of such a poem written at that time, and that is any mention of God. Hardy had long since abandoned any belief in the God presented by Christianity, preferring to talk about an “Immanent Will” that governed the universe in a wholly impersonal way. It is therefore not surprising that this poem should avoid references to God being on the side of the righteous, or anything along those lines. He does use the word “faith”, but this should not be taken to mean religious faith so much as firm belief in the justice of what the men are doing. Of course, many individual soldiers did have religious beliefs, as did many people who might have sung the “Song of the Soldiers” after it was set to music, but, for Hardy, the word “faith” can be translated as “conviction”.

It is well known that initial hopes for a quick and clean victory in the war were soon dashed, and that the war dragged on for four years of stalemate and massive loss of life in the trenches of northern France and elsewhere.  The initial optimism of Britain’s poets was soon replaced by the realism and despair of poets such as Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. Thomas Hardy, aged 74 at the outbreak of war, would not of course have first-hand experience of the horrors to come and so his poetry did not evolve in the way that that of younger generations did. Even so, he was affected by the war in several ways, including suffering the loss of his favourite cousin and intended heir at Gallipoli in 1915. There were therefore darker war poems to come, and his reputation as a commentator on the war should not depend on pro-war propaganda such as is represented by “Men Who March Away”.


( For more poetry analyses, see Great poetry explained: an index to my blogs )

© John Welford