"The Man He Killed" Summary

"The Man He Killed" is a poem by Thomas Hardy that explores an ordinary man's experience of war.

  • After killing a man on the battlefield, the speaker thinks about the life of the man he killed.
  • Though he knows he did his duty as a solider, the speaker can't help but wonder whether he and this other man might have been friends under different circumstances.
  • The speaker concludes that war is "quaint and curious," for it turns men who would normally show compassion to one another into mortal enemies.

Summary

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Last Updated on December 7, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 584

Introduction

The Man He Killed” was written by British novelist and poet Thomas Hardy in 1902 and published first in the November 8, 1902, issue of Harper's Weekly and later in Hardy's 1909 anthology Time's Laughingstocks and Other Verses. Hardy was fascinated and appalled by wars, both historical and contemporary, and he composed this poem during the last year of South Africa's second Boer War. In the poem, Hardy explores the reaction of an ordinary British infantryman (in his own dialect) to the violence and absurdity of war.

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Summary

In the first stanza, the speaker invites his audience to picture a scene: he speculates about an unnamed man, referred to only as “He.” Had the speaker met this man in front of a British pub or tavern, he thinks the two might have sat down in companionship and had a few drinks together (“wet / Right many a nipperkin!”). Here, the word “nipperkin” refers to a container holding a particular amount of alcohol, probably between an eighth to a half of a pint. Thus, the speaker implies, two men might have been friends, drinking together and enjoying one another's company.

Yet, as the second stanza makes clear, a friendship is not to be. The speaker does not meet the other man near an “ancient inn” but rather “ranged as infantry,” revealing that the speaker is a soldier, and the unknown man he speaks of is his enemy on the battlefield. The speaker recounts how, when they faced one another on the battlefield, he shot at the other man even as the other man saw and shot at the speaker. Apparently, the speaker possessed the better aim or speed, for the other man fell down dead right where he stood.

In the third stanza, the speaker tries to justify his actions. Both men were just doing their duty, the speaker implies. He shot the man in front of him because he was his enemy, and there was simply nothing else he could have done. The other man had to die or—it’s implied—the speaker would have. The speaker does not appear completely convinced by this reasoning, however. He tries to reassure himself that the situation was “clear enough,” but the stanza ends on a speculative note, with the speaker remarking, “although.”

In the fourth stanza, the speaker returns to the conjectures in the first stanza. Now, however, he considers the other man’s life, speculating that he probably enlisted casually without thinking much about it (“Off-hand like”), just like he himself did. Perhaps, the speaker wonders, the man needed the work, having already sold off all his “traps” (belongings). The final line of the stanza emphasizes that enlisting is not always motivated by patriotism or devotion to a particular cause—for many people (and perhaps for the speaker himself) mundane needs like money and an occupation might be the only factors that lead one to become a soldier.

In the fifth stanza, the speaker sums up his reflections by concluding that war is “quaint and curious.” The speaker uses both of these words differently from their most common meanings. “Quaint” here means peculiar or unusual while “curious” refers to something odd, strange, or unexpected. Yes, war is strange, the speaker muses. Under ordinary circumstances, one might treat a fellow man to a drink in a bar or offer a couple of shillings to him (“help to half-a-crown”) if he’s in need; on the battlefield, however, one is expected to shoot down that same man without any hesitation.

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Themes