Themes

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

War

The main theme of this poem by Thomas Hardy is war. The poem describes how at the sound of guns firing in the English Channel, a group of dead men sit up in their graves, thinking that Judgement Day has come because the noise is so loud. However, God speaks to them and tells them that this is not the case—the sleepers should return to their slumber, because all that is happening is that the living people above are making war on each other, just as was the case in their day.

Relentlessness

War is spoken of in a condemnatory fashion in this poem. The theme of relentlessness is emphasized through the allusions to ancient, legendary sites such as Camelot, reinforcing the idea that people have always gone to war with each other, and that this is a facet of human behavior which is unlikely ever to change. However, that war is ultimately meaningless and detrimental is also underlined through the use of words such as "red war" and "threatening." The men, as they lie down to sleep again, question whether it will ever be the case that the world above ground will be "saner" than it was in their day. Another of the men suggests that he wishes he had not wasted so much of his life on preaching and praying to Christ, because now this seems as if it was all useless—the world does not change, and these men, briefly woken in their slumber, have found no reward but only God telling them to wait a little longer. Notably, the God who speaks to these men does not promise, either, that they will ever reach the promised place with him—his tone suggests that this is a possibility, but by no means a foregone conclusion. Meanwhile, the speakers grumble to each other—there is a suggestion that when Judgement Day does eventually come, if it does, it will be at a time when the world has indeed become "saner," but also that this outcome is unlikely.

Hardy wrote "Channel Firing" in 1914, the year the First World War broke out. Hardy had already lived through, and written poetry about other wars, including the Boer Wars of fifteen years before, which he also condemned. In the First World War, he saw a bleak continuity of the human tendency to wreak unnecessary pain and suffering on each other through violence.

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