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‘The Man He Killed’ is a poem written by Thomas Hardy. It is a poem that delves into the mind of a man traumatized by war, thus allowing the reader a peek into the mind of a soldier from a war-torn region.
About the Poet:
Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) was a prominent English novelist and poet. Belonging to the Victorian Era, his works are known to be of Romantic nature. Famous works of his include ‘Tess of the d’Urberville’, ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge, and ‘Hard Times’.
"Had he and I but met By some old ancient inn, We should have sat us down to wet Right many a nipperkin!
The poem starts with the persona, a soldier who had fought in a war recently, being in a contemplative mode. He muses had ‘he’ and the persona met in some ‘old ancient inn’, then they both would have sat together and would have shared many a drink. ‘Nipperkin’ refers to a kind of liquor, usually connoting beer or wine. The identity of ‘he’ although specifically not mentioned here, can be derived to be a soldier of the enemy army the persona had fought.
"But ranged as infantry, And staring face to face, I shot at him as he at me, And killed him in his place.
However, they had not met in the inn first but as soldiers part of the infantry of their respective armies, they were forced to fight each other. Both the persona and the other soldier, the ‘he’ had shot at each other. However, only the persona emerged victorious for he had managed to kill his opponent in the war successfully.
"I shot him dead because — Because he was my foe, Just so: my foe of course he was; That's clear enough; although
Here, the persona can be seen to be anything but victorious. He is in a turmoil, doubting whether what he had done was right or wrong. He is hesitant when he declares the man he killed to be his ‘foe’ for he himself is unsure whether he was correct in deeming a complete stranger whom he was forced to fight as such. He half-heartedly tries to convince himself that he was justified in killing the ‘foe’ as he was, after all, the enemy.
"He thought he'd 'list, perhaps, Off-hand like — just as I — Was out of work — had sold his traps — No other reason why.
However, the persona here is again in a dilemma over the morality of his actions. The enemy soldier, ‘the foe’ could very well be like him, thinking that he would enlist his name in the war almost callously because he did not have a job at that time. He might have merely sold off his belongings and joined the war almost on a whim, with no other reasoning or motive such as that of anger or resentment. Here, the persona displays a hint of guilt.
"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."
In the final stanza, the persona declares war to be ‘quaint and curious’, deeming it to be something strange thus. His reason for this is because, in a war, one shoots down a man without hesitation, one with whom they might otherwise have been friends. They might even have been friends who shared drinks in a bar and lent money over, should the circumstances have proved to be much more favorable. The poem ends on an almost wry note thus.
Narrated not by the victor or the loser in the war but by a common soldier, one who is often overlooked and is not given much importance, this is a poem that offers a fresh perspective on the nature of war and its consequences.