Last Updated September 5, 2023.
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.