Last Updated on November 22, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 530
Hardy's "Channel Firing" is often considered prescient, as it was written and published in the spring of 1914, a few months before the outbreak of World War I.
In this poem, the dead, described as skeletons in stanza eight, speak light-heartedly to the living about the loud noises made by war guns practicing their firing in the English channel. The poem plays on the cliches of nosies so loud they wake the dead. Its comic tone and fanciful dialogue contrast with it serious theme about the threat and madness of warfare.
In stanza one, the skeletons say they are startled (caught 'unawares') by the violent shaking caused by the reverberations of the great guns going off. They think it signals Judgment Day, potentially good news to them, as they hope to be raised from the dead to go to heaven or to become part of the New Jerusalem when God unites heaven and earth. The irony, of course, is that this gun firing has nothing to do with God and represents the opposite of the building of a New Jerusalem. The dead, nevertheless, sit up in their coffins, while a mouse is so startled it drops its crumb and even the worms are taken aback.
God, in stanza three, gets into the action, informing the dead that this is "gunnery practice," not a call to the dead to rise. God characterizes the humans preparing for war as mad (insane) for trying to make warfare bloodier ("redder") than it already is with their great guns. God explains that these war mongers have no more to do with Christ than the dead in their graves do.
God goes on to say it is a "blessed thing" for the warmongers that Judgment Day is far off, for they will have much to answer for:
they’d have to scour Hell’s floor for so much threatening [of war and death] . . . .
The skeletons lay down again in their coffins, knowing that Judgment Day is not at hand. The firing guns are not God's trumpets.
The skeletons talks among themselves and wonder, as the twentieth century world seems to be getting so much more full of violence, whether the nineteenth century when they died—what they call the "indifferent" century—was in fact the "sanest" century. Since God has equated war with madness, this is an allusion to the peace from a major war that was maintained from 1815 onward in Europe.
The dead shake their heads mournfully at the foolishness of the living. Parson Thirdly, from his grave, wishes he had enjoyed life more ("stuck to pipes and beer") rather than preaching the Word of God, implying the preaching made no difference.
The poem ends on a line evoking Camelot and Stonehenge, showing that war's reach stretches into the far past. Camelot conjures the dream of the Round Table and a glorious past under a great leader, while Stonehenge, too, an ancient Celtic religious site, evokes dreams of a romantic era. Even these places, perhaps bloodthirsty in their own ways (Stonehenge was considered by some the site of human sacrifices) are impacted by the sounds of war and can no more sleep soundly than the dead.