In this poem, the speakers are skeletons of the dead who are awakened by the booming sounds of "gunnery practice" on the English Channel in the months before World War I.
The light-hearted tone of the poem, in which Hardy imagines making literal the cliche about sounds loud enough to wake the dead, contrasts with the poem's bleak and somber anti-war theme. In the poem, the skeletons sit "upright" as they hear the guns, thinking it is the sound of Judgement Day. However, God speaks, telling them this is not the case and delivering his opinion of the war mongering:
Mad as hatters
They do no more for Christés sake
Than you who are helpless in such matters.
A former parson agrees that Christianity as practiced in England does nothing to prevent war and says he wishes he had spent more time in pleasurable pursuits than pointless preaching. The poem ends wryly, with positive images of England's past juxtaposed against the present reality of war mongering:
Again the guns disturbed the hour,
Roaring their readiness to avenge,
As far inland as Stourton Tower,
And Camelot, and starlit Stonehenge.
Hardy's poem, bitter about war and the way it keeps repeating, showing that Europeans have not yet internalized Christ's message of love, peace, and forgiveness, is considered prescient, as it appeared shortly before the outbreak of World War I.
The poem is written in quatrains, with a regular ABAB rhyme scheme and is enlivened by dialogue and such poetic devices as alliteration
, as in the line "the howl of wakened hounds," with its repeated "h" sounds. Overall, the poem reflects Hardy's late life pessimism and mastery of the poetic art.