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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 410

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Thomas Hardy's "Channel Firing" is one of his most well-known poems. Written in 1914, it takes as its subject the gunnery practice which took place off the south coast of England as Britain was preparing to go to war, and which Hardy could hear from his home. In 1914, the world did not yet know how terrible would be the war to come, but Hardy seems to have feared a catastrophe which would make "red war redder," as indeed turned out to be the case. Hardy had previously written poetry condemning the pointless loss of life in the Boer War, and this poem continues on the same theme—as the world prepares for yet another war, humans are simply repeating the mistakes of their forbears.

The choice of speaker in the poem is an interesting one—Hardy's protagonist is a corpse from an "indifferent century" who, awoken by the loud noises of the guns, complains that he feels as if Judgment Day is upon him. God, however, in rueful tones, intervenes to tell him and his dead companions that it is not Judgment Day after all, but gunnery practice, observing that "the world is as it used to be." Hardy's God is conversational and wry, stating that the people making war are "mad as hatters" and that he himself would struggle to find more "threatening" when Judgment Day truly came. God even laughs at himself—or perhaps at the state of what he observes—"Ha, ha." The punctuation, a period rather than an exclamation mark, suggests that God does not really find human behavior funny—on the contrary, he has the world weary tone of one who has had to watch this sort of foolish behavior for far longer than he wanted to.

The sleeping men, grumbling to each other, wonder whether the world will ever be "saner" than it was in their time. There is very much a sense of continuity and relentlessness to the human state of warfare, emphasized by words such as "again" and the repetition of "and." Hardy alludes, at the end of the poem, to three significant ancient sites: Camelot, the legendary home of King Arthur and his knights; Stourton Tower, where King Alfred had his seat; and Stonehenge, the most significant monument of ancient Britain. These allusions underline the fact that war has been a part of human existence for far longer even than recorded history and suggests that, alas, this is unlikely ever to change.

The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 526

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 has been in ages past. God accuses the nations preparing for war of being insane. The living, he says, are doing no more for promulgating Christian principles than are the dead, who are helpless to affect the course of human events. God further states that it is a good thing He has not arrived to deliver judgment, because if He had, some of the living would be consigned to hell for engaging in military threats. God’s statement, which dominates the middle section of the poem, concludes by His saying that “It will be warmer” if He ever does blow the trumpet signaling Judgment Day. By that, he apparently means the flames of hell will engulf the world.

Assured that Judgment Day has not arrived, the dead, who had sat up in response to the sounds they heard, resume their horizontal position. One of them wonders aloud whether humanity will ever prove to be saner than it was when he and his companions were sent to their death by God. Another, who had been a clergyman, wishes that he had spent his life enjoying himself (smoking and drinking) rather than preaching.

As the poem concludes, the sounds of the guns are heard once again, creating an impression of their readiness to carry out acts of revenge. The guns’ reverberations extend inland to Stourton Tower, a structure built to commemorate the victory of Alfred the Great over Danish invaders. The sounds also reach Camelot, the site of the legendary King Arthur’s court, and, finally, Stonehenge, a ring of monoliths that may have been used by a sun-worshiping cult or for astronomical observation.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 490

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 would commonly expect God to talk and the way Hardy’s creation speaks. While God’s statement is given a touch of the elevated and archaic by His employment of the medieval “Christés” (instead of “Christ’s”), His speech is notable for its use of the all-too-human taunting remark, “Ha, ha,” as well as for the cliché “Mad as hatters” (which alludes to the occupational hazard once faced by people who made hats because of a chemical used in their production). Even “for Christés sake” carries with it the echo of the common human and secularized expression “for Christ’s sake.”

Related to God’s use of “Ha ha” is the irony involving His attitude. Functioning neither as the figure of mercy nor the solemn deliverer of justice that common belief would expect, God taunts and teases the dead on the matter of Judgment Day. Instead of having the coming of that momentous occasion continue to be regarded as a certainty, He leaves the matter open. He says, when referring to His blowing of the trumpet signifying judgment, “if indeed/ I ever do,” bringing into question a fundamental Christian belief under the cover of His solicitousness for the dead (“for you are men,/ And rest eternal sorely need”). It is no wonder that in response to the appearance of this sort of divinity, one of the dead should regret having given his life to being a Christian preacher.