A Practical Look at Drummer Hodge
The rest of the site is designed to provide a better understanding of Thomas Hardy’s work by examining the culture and society that surrounded him at the turn of the century. The intention of this page is to take a closer look at his most celebrated poem from that era, Drummer Hodge. Examining the poem in some detail will provide some clues as to Hardy’s thoughts on war and humanity in general.
They throw in Drummer Hodge, to rest
Uncoffined – just as found:
His landmark is a kopje-crest
That breaks the veldt around;
And foreign constellations west
Each night above his mound.
Young Hodge the Drummer never knew –
Fresh from his Wessex home –
The meaning of the broad Karoo,
The Bush, the dusty loam,
And why uprose to nightly view
Strange stars amid the gloam.
Yet portion of that unknown plain
Will Hodge forever be;
His homely Northern breast and brain
Grow to some Southern tree,
And strange-eyed constellations reign
His stars eternally.
On a first reading of Drummer Hodge there are some questions that spring to mind:
Who are “they” and what is their attitude to Hodge?
The poem begins ambiguously. “They” could refer to either friend or foe. Their identity is not as important as their attitude to their discovery. None of the funeral traditions are observed: Hodge is “thrown” into a pit “just as found”, without a coffin and presumably without a service. Hodge is representative of the thousands of casualties of the battle, just one more unremarkable victim.
How did Hodge react to South Africa?
There is some mortal irony that Hodge gave his life for a country and cause of which he was largely ignorant. The poem makes constant reference to Hodge’s lack of knowledge – the name Hodge is synonymous with country yokels. His “homely Northern breast and brain” suggests Hodge was a simple, unpretentious sort, but a valuable human nonetheless. While alive Hodge never felt comfortable with the new and unfamiliar night sky, or had the time to learn the names of his new surroundings, yet this alien landscape becomes his permanent home. The constellations that were foreign to him become “His stars eternally.”
What is the landscape’s attitude to Hodge?
Nature’s attitude to Hodge contrasts with that of his fellow men. He is welcomed and coveted as something precious by his new surroundings. Hodge becomes an important, integrated part of the landscape: “His homely Northern breast and brain/ Grow to some Southern tree,” and in death he achieves a worthiness he never received in life.
What is the poem’s form?
The poem is very structured, never deviating from its metre or abab form. The Roman numerals at the head of each stanza provide a classical feel to the poem. It is as if Hardy is paying his own tribute to the otherwise unlamented Hodge, treating him as with the deference that was lacking from his burial.
What is the poem about?
The poem is an existentialist paradox – Hodge was an unimportant figure in a major war, but becomes a vital part of something that will last far longer than any human conflict.
The opening lines concentrate on the waste of Hodge’s death, the lack of mourning contrasting with the traditional glorification of the war dead. Hodge will never be a hero among men, but he is elevated to a divine level through the Southern landscape that harbours him as something precious.
There are some ways in which a knowledge of the historical context can clarify some of the poem’s features. Some of this is expanded further elsewhere in the site.
Drummer Hodge was originally published under the title The Dead Drummer in the 25th November edition of Literature, weeks after the war began. It appeared at a time when Hardy was struggling to prove his worth as a poet. His first published collection, Wessex Poems was a selection of his work dating from the 1860’s to the publishing date, came out in December 1898 and the reviews were mostly hostile. The furore caused by Jude the Obscure had affected his reputation and many of the influential critics were not prepared to accept Hardy the Poet. The criticism wounded Hardy, and his early poems of 1899 were deeply introspective. The outbreak of war gave him the subject matter and inspiration to make better use of his downbeat frame of mind when turning his attention to the story of a local boy killed in the early part of the war.
The drummer boy had long played a significant part in war literature. The dramatic appeal of a naive young lad becoming a man in dangerous circumstances stirred the emotions of many a writer. One of the more recent had been Kipling’s short story, The Drums of the Fore & Aft, where two grubby, drunken tykes inspire a great victory in India through their pluck and daring. Hardy’s decision to cast Hodge as a drummer was a deliberate attempt to debunk the mythology that surrounded war-glory by showing one of the staple characters in a pathetic light.
It had only been in recent years that soldiering had been regarded as anything other than a profession for the lowest in society, a fate only slightly better than prison. far-reaching reforms had created a more democratic army, popular with the general public. As the British soldier became humanised, the roguery that had seen him despised became part of his charm. Tales of heroic deeds in far-flung countries by Kipling and Rider Haggard sold in great volume. The growing pacifist movement of the 19th century looked upon the ordinary soldier as a victim of other men’s cruelty. While other poets wrote of the sights and smells of the battle, Hardy concentrates on the aftermath, pointing out the broken body of Hodge, lying almost unnoticed, a victim of a madness that should have been dispensed with years before.