That night your great guns, unawares,This poem, written on the cusp of the First World War, has gained new attention since 9-11 for its anti-war message.
Shook all our coffins 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-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 Christes 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.
(By Thomas Hardy, April 1914)
I chose this poem not only for its relevance to our times, but also because of how skilfully and effectively Thomas Hardy uses poetry to tell this story. How would one capture the comical spirit of these verses as effectively as this in prose?
The poem's form follows a regular structure of alternately end-rhymed quatrains in iambic tetrameter. It gives a jovial, conversational tone to the narrator's voice, although he had just had his sleep disturbed by the great guns shaking his and his companions' coffins and breaking the church windows.
The first delightful thing about this poem are Hardy's use of enjambment for comic effect e.g. 'We thought it was the Judgment-day/And sat upright.' Then comes the next part of the line, another enjambed line, 'while drearisome/Arose the howl of wakened hounds,'.
And that's when I started to enjoy the poem purely for its wit and stopped picking at it.
'[...] while drearisome/Arose the howl of wakened hounds,'
It's not just a dreary picture when one hears of dogs howling in the middle of the night, but also one gets the feeling that the narrator is empathic of the cliché that dogs will howl when something spooky happens. Then he also tells us about the startled mouse, the cowardly worms and the drooling cow!
(A glebe cow is a cow kept on church grounds to keep the grass short. It's funny enough image that until I learned that it meant that the cow went starking mad, and then it became quite hilarious — helped by yet another use of a line break for effect.)
Then God calls down, and says “No, it isn't Judgment Day yet, it's just a firing exercise in the English Channel — though obviously how 'English', is still under dispute – the world is the same as it used to be when you all died.”
“They're still at it, madly posturing for war, 'They do no more for Christes [sic. — some versions of this poem give Christ's instead of Christes, an archaic form, but using Christes as the poem was originally written would preserve the rhyme structure.] sake' than you can!”
Some should count themselves lucky that it's not Judgement Day yet; God has a chore ready for them to do!
“Besides, it's going to be a lot warmer than this when I call for Judgement,” chuckles God. And then God says that men need all the rest they can get, so he might just let us be.
As the skeletons settle down to go back to sleep, one skeleton wonders aloud if the world would ever be a saner place, and many shook their heads, wearily contemplating the state of the world. Parson Thirdly, the narrator's 'neighbour' — in more ways than one: in the physical sense; literarily, in Thomas Hardy's oeuvre (Parson Thirdly is a character in Far from the Madding Crowd); as a neighbour in faith (irreverent fact: Parson Thirdly's name is an allusion to the third member of the Holy Trinity) – wishes that he had spent all those forty years smoking pipes and smoking beer instead of preaching.
The poem ends with the narrator describing the sounds of the the roaring guns going on, and can be heard as far inland as Stourton Tower, Camelot, and Stonehenge – three places geographically far apart. They also symbolize, in my opinion, the different ages that war has taken place: in the poem's time-frame; back to the 9th Century, the time of King Alfred the Great; to the legendary times of King Arthur of Camelot; and even further back, to the Neolithic times of the druids.
Thomas Hardy is the novelist of classics such as Far from the Madding Crowd, Jude the Obscure, Tess of the d'Urbervilles, and The Mayor of Casterbridge. He published his first volume of poetry, Wessex Poems, in 1898 and, giving up writing prose entirely, he published poetry until his death in 1928. Channel Firing appears in Satires of Circumstance: The Complete Poetical Works Of Thomas Hardy, first published in 1914.