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Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Waking the Dead: "Channel Firing" by Thomas Hardy

 
 British Fleet at Scapa Flow
 

CHANNEL FIRING (1914)

By Thomas Hardy

That night, your great guns, unawares,
Shook all our coffins 1 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 2 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 Christés 3 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 4 (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. 5
And Camelot, 6 and starlit Stonehenge. 7

* Notes

1 It had been common practice in England for hundreds of years to bury the dead under the floors or in the basements (crypts) of village churches and cathedrals.
2 A parcel of land adjoining and belonging to the local church is the "glebe." Cows were grazed there to keep the grass short.
3 Before Shakespeare's time, the possessive form of most singular nouns ended in "es" rather than the modern "'s." In the countryside, this old-fashioned possessive continued in use well into the eighteenth century.
4 According to Judeo-Christian and Arab traditions, at the end of time God will command the angel Gabriel to blow a great trumpet to signal the Last Judgment. This will follow the ultimate destruction of the world, when God will judge each soul as good or evil, and pronounce its salvation or its doom (see "Revelation" 20: 11-15 in the Bible).
5 Stourton Tower commemorates King Alfred the Great's defeat of the Viking invaders in A.D. 879.
6 Camelot is the legendary location of the court of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table.
7 Stonehenge is a group of gigantic stones on Salisbury Plain, probably built as a temple to the Sun and Moon between 2500 and 1000 B. C.


 Stonehenge


Thomas Hardy and "Channel Firing"

Thomas Hardy, (1840 – 1928) was an English novelist and poet. A Victorian realist, in the tradition of George Eliot, he was also influenced both in his novels and poetry by Romanticism, especially by William Wordsworth. Charles Dickens is another important influence on Thomas Hardy. Like Dickens, he was also highly critical of much in Victorian society, though Hardy focused more on a declining rural society.

While Hardy wrote poetry throughout his life, and regarded himself primarily as a poet, his first collection was not published until 1898. Initially therefore he gained fame as the author of such novels as Far from the Madding Crowd (1874), The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886), Tess of the d'Urbervilles (1891), and Jude the Obscure (1895). However, since the 1950s Hardy has been recognized as a major poet, and had a significant influence on The Movement poets of the 1950s and 1960s, including Phillip Larkin.

Hardy’s well-known war poems spoke eloquently against some of the horrors of his present, notably the Boer War and World War I. In such works as “Drummer Hodge” and “In Time of ‘The Breaking of Nations,” Hardy addressed the conflicts in visceral imagery, often using colloquial speech and the viewpoint of ordinary soldiers. His work had a profound influence on other war poets such as Rupert Brooke and Sassoon. 

"Channel Firing" was written just a few months before the outbreak of hostilities that became World War I. It begins with an immediate experienced moment: the sound of naval gunfire from the British Grand Fleet, conducting night-time gunnery exercises in the channel. The poet's home in Dorchester was only a few miles from the coast. Hardy was said to have later expressed surprise that the war came so close on the heels of his quite prophetic poem.

The setting of Scapa Flow is a body of water in the Orkney Islands, Scotland, United Kingdom, sheltered by the islands of Mainland, Graemsay, Burray, South Ronaldsay, and Hoy. It is about 312 square kilometres (120 sq mi). It has a shallow sandy bottom not deeper than 60 metres (200 ft) and most of it about 30 metres (98 ft) deep, and is one of the great natural harbours/anchorages of the world, with sufficient space to hold a number of navies.

Viking ships anchored in Scapa Flow more than 1,000 years ago, but it is best known as the site of the United Kingdom's chief naval base during World War I and World War II. The base was closed in 1956.

Seeing the Grand Fleet in Scapa Flow, Hardy could not help recalling that a war of that dimension could not have been "produced" without a good deal of rehearsal by the great opposed political, imperial, diplomatic, industrial and military ring of various of "mad hatters."

Hardy employs references from history to prehistory to myth -- Stourton Tower, Camelot, Stonehenge, increasingly remote realms. This serves as a device that allows the themes of war and death to echo time and again.

 “Channel Firing” is written from the perspective of a male corpse that is disturbed by gunnery practice. At first the corpse believes that it is the Judgment Day, giving a detailed description of the coffins shaking and the fear of the animals. Hounds, mice, and cows protest in the din of the channel firing.

However, God assures the corpse that it is only gunnery practice. God tells him that nothing has changed while he has been dead. War is just as violent as before, if not worse, and people’s hearts are just as cruel.

 "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:"

It seems the man may have been a veteran who became a victim of the last war. Now, another conflict seems imminent.

"'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.'"

The tone becomes cynical as God speaks of war. This stanza relates an often unsaid but certain truth that "all nations" and their inhabitants are less identical to one another than they are in outright opposition (These conflicting countries often see an "us" versus "them" solution as a finality.) Rarely is this more stark than during war.

God tells the corpse that the living seek such madness again. But, this is no worry for the dead. After all, God tells the corpses in a matter-of-fact tone: "You are helpless in such matters." (A fact the dead should have surmised.) 
 
In stanza’s five and six, Hardy gives God a sense of humor:


"'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).'"

God assures the dead that His judgment, if it ever comes, will be much more threatening for many of them than gunnery practice. Those sinners will suffer a much worse fate because of their earthly sins.
 
One can surmise what may be "scoured from Hell's floor" after the Almighty's ultimate barrage. God reminds them that they are men who "sorely need" eternal rest. Perhaps He is speaking of the need for special dispensation for those warriors who break the commandment of "Thou shall not kill."

"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!'"

The corpse talks as if he can hear and see other bodies in their coffins. At this point another awakened graveyard inhabitant wonders if people who face an approaching war will "be saner" than those in his generation who died in a similar conflict.

"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.'"

As the big guns blaze, the awakened graveyard inhabitants shake their heads "no" as to the question of sanity prevailing and preventing this new war. It seems they will soon witness the sacrifice of an entire generation of young men coming to join them in their restless place.


"Parson Thirdly" is a little joke of Hardy’s. Often boring people, who speak in a long-winded fashion, will speak in the form of a list. "Firstly, I will say this, secondly, I will say that, and thirdly...." Parson Thirdly is the parson of Weatherbury, a character the reader never meets in Hardy's novel Far from the Madding Crowd. It seems all the uproar has made this dead parson wish he had never considered "preaching forty year" to those who would not listen to the good teachings of religion. Thirdly concludes it would have been better to spend his life in pleasant vices "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."

The poem ends but the guns continue to "disturb the hour." The reference to time sets up the historical echo of "red war" made "ever redder." War has been a bloody, senseless part of human society from the beginning of time until the present day.

It seems since the dawn of English history (3000 BC to 2000 BC), human kind has waged war. Through the allusions to Stonehenge, King Alfred the Great's defeat of the Viking invaders in A.D. 879, and the mythic, aggrandized castle and court of Arthur's Camelot of the 12th century, Hardy sets the channel firing free to reverberate amid English monuments of the ages. At the same time, he uses the uproarious percussion to awaken not only corpses of the dead lost in wars throughout the ages but also living minds of those in the present to the deadly destruction of impending war.

Hardy convey the belief that war is pointlessly destructive, no matter what its justification. "When will we ever learn?" asks the refrain of the famous folk song "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" To Hardy and the history books, it seems the answer is "Never." Not even the war to end all wars, World War I, ended national hostilities.


Stourton Tower

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