The Man He Killed

by Thomas Hardy

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What kind of literary devices were used in "The Man He Killed" by Thomas Hardy?

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Literary devices used in the poem "The Man He Killed" by English writer Thomas Hardy include the following:

1. A Protagonist and Antagonist

In this poem, the narrator is the protagonist and the man he is talking about, the one he killed, is the antagonist. The protagonist of the story had a struggle against the antagonist and killed him. In this poem, as the narrator (protagonist) relates his story, the lines eventually blur as to whether either man is a protagonist or antagonist. The narrator realizes that this man, like him, probably joined the army because he needed money – he was unemployed just as the narrator. They did not join for ideological reasons.

2. Ballad Model

The Man He Killed” is written in the ballad format, which is stanzas consisting of four lines each. It is a narrative poem because it is a poem that tells a story. Here the story is how the narrator killed a man, and that under different circumstances, these two men would probably share an ale with each other in a tavern as friends if not for the scourge of war upon their landscape.

3. A Rhyme Scheme

This five stanza poem is twenty lines in total. In each four line stanza, line number 1 rhymes with line number 3, and line number 2 rhymes with line number 4. This is consistent throughout the poem. Therefore, the rhyme scheme is ABAB/CDCD/EFEF/GHGH/IJIJ.

4. Use of aCaesura’

In poetry, a caesura is when the poet puts a strong pause within a particular verse line. Thomas Hardy employs a caesura in stanza number 4 (line 2), with the dash or hyphen he injects into the middle of the line:

Off-hand like — just as I —

This strong pause causes the reader to stop and ponder what the poet is saying, if only for a second. The caesura, in essence, jolts the reader a bit; it stops the smooth flow of the poem so as to grab the attention of the reader and make a certain point.

5. Use of Iambs

An iamb is when a stressed syllable follows an unstressed syllable. An example of this in the poem “The Man He Killed’ is evident in the first line of the first stanza, as well as throughout the poem. The bold, underlined syllables are the stressed syllables:

Had he/ and I/ but met

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The central device of Thomas Hardy's "The Man He Killed" is irony.  The world is a place of chance and irony for Hardy.

The same man who, met in normal, everyday circumstances, might be a man you would have a drink with or loan a buck to, when met during wartime, is a man you kill.  And there's no ideology in the poem.  The two men facing each other on opposing sides do not have different opinions on vital issues, and are not fighting for any ideologies.  They joined up because they needed money, or for some such trivial reason.  They have nothing against each other.

Yet, when one is in a situation of kill or be killed, one kills.  These men have absolutely nothing against one another, yet one kills the other during the muck and mayhem of a battle.

That is irony.

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