The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The title refers to the firing of naval guns on the English Channel, guns apparently engaging in a military exercise. The poem registers a complex response to this event, using nine stanzas, each a quatrain set in an abab rhyme scheme, one of the most common forms of English poetry.

In “Channel Firing,” Thomas Hardy uses the first-person plural, though the “We” might be thought of as a single individual speaking for his companions as well as for himself. The “We” are all dead and buried in a graveyard situated beside a church. This location is indicated not only by the reference to an “altar-crumb” but also by the word “chancel,” which means the space around the altar of a church for the clergy and the choir, as well as by the term “glebe cow,” which means a cow pastured on church grounds for the pastor’s use.

The first two stanzas describe the arousal of the dead by the sound of the guns, a sound that is interpreted by them as signaling the arrival of Judgment Day. That occasion, according to Christian belief, will see the destruction of the world as humans know it, the resurrection of the dead, and their assignment by God, along with those still living, to eternal bliss or eternal torment.

God does in fact enter but not to proceed to judgment. Rather, He assures the dead that the sounds they have heard are simply those of guns at sea practicing to make war even bloodier (“redder”) than it...

(The entire section is 526 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Hardy has made a daring choice of speakers for the telling of this curious anecdote, employing not only the dead, whose actions and speech are reported to the reader directly, but also God Himself, who speaks condemningly of humankind. The presence of these beings, along with the graveyard setting, would seem to make for an unrelievedly solemn and moralistic piece, but in fact “Channel Firing” works to subvert such an effect through the use of irony.

Irony comes in various forms, but it always involves a gap or discrepancy of some sort. One such gap occurs between the thrust of the first six lines and that of the next three. The initial somberness and spookiness created by guns shaking coffins, the disturbing of the dead, and the awakening of dogs who then proceed to howl in a “drearisome” manner is undercut by the distinctly unthreatening details of the mouse, the withdrawing worms, and, most of all, the drooling cow. Hardy heightens the incongruous presence of the cow by having it enter the poem in the same line that sees the entrance of God. The setup of that line—“The glebe cow drooled. Till God called, ‘No’ ”—creates the momentary impression that God is enjoining the cow not to drool, a patently ridiculous effect.

Even when the reader continues and realizes that the “No” refers to the fact that God is informing the dead that it is not Judgment Day, irony persists. It now involves the discrepancy between the way one...

(The entire section is 490 words.)