Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 402
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.
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.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 404
Unless the comic undercutting of the original atmosphere of the poem is recognized, along with the irony attached to the figure of God, “Channel Firing” might be read as a fairly straightforward and unrelentingly serious condemnation of humankind for continuing to make war, a judgment coming from within a Christian perspective. The moralizing figure of the poem, God, cannot be taken seriously, however, or at least not entirely so. Ultimately, He is an unattractive figure.
The poem is registering the fact of war and its cost in human life. Indeed, the piece might be regarded as prescient, for Hardy wrote it in April of 1914, only months before the outbreak of World War I. Yet Hardy is pointing to the costly use of force less to shake a judgmental finger at humankind than to register such use as apparently inescapable. The poem might be said to replace judgments with facts, and Christian theology, which it finds absurd, with history.
It is interesting to note Hardy’s handling of place names in the last stanza. They are arranged so as to have the sounds of the guns carry not merely inland through space but also backward through time. The reader moves from Hardy’s century to the eighteenth century, the period when Stourton Tower was constructed. The reference to that edifice moves the reader back even further, for it commemorates an event of the ninth century. The mention of Camelot carries the reader still further back, to the sixth century, and the reference to Stonehenge goes back furthest of all, for that prodigious structure is prehistoric.
It is as if Hardy is saying that the use of force, the making of war, has been with humankind for as long as there have been human beings. That, along with the gunnery practice that opens the poem, would suggest that violence will continue to be a fact of human life. A solemnity returns to “Channel Firing” as Hardy offers the reader this bleak but in a way grand perspective on human existence, setting that existence in the framework of the cosmos with the notable phrase that closes the poem, a phrase marked by alliteration and four strong beats—“starlit Stonehenge.” Bloody as it has been, the human enterprise acquires a certain substance and dignity here. Unlike the poem’s handling of God and fundamental presuppositions of Christianity, it does not undercut that dignity by subjecting it to irony.