Thomas Hardy’s “Channel Firing” is a poem written in 1914, four months prior to the start of World War 1. This historical context is crucial to understanding the poem as it expresses the dark and sorrowful foreshadowing of the months before the war, creating feelings of tension, turmoil and unrest. There were, at the time, many young men who did not share the common unease, more so tension turned to excitement, turmoil to eagerness and unrest to anticipation.
The split between society in the months leading up to the war is portrayed in Hardy’s poem. For example, the anonymous character Hardy embodies in this poem states how he “thought it was judgement day” as he hears gunfire, quite clearly depicting his fear and others around him as he uses the collective term, “we”. The “howl of wakened hounds” could also be used to describe the fear and tension of society as we are presented with a somewhat evil and malevolent image of howling hounds, hardly an image to inspire joy or happiness.
In contrast to the aforementioned points, the excitement and anticipation of some young men at the time could be portrayed through the use of the quote “All nations striving strong to make Red war yet redder”. This quote could perhaps be interpreted to show the bloodthirsty nature of man, not seeking to win freedom but showing how eager each nation was to annihilate another. The poem tells a story of how numerous deceased, perhaps those killed in war, are awoken from the dead by the sound of gunfire on the British Channel.
The use of the phrase “Judgement Day” holds both religious allusions and may also hold reference to how they believe they have been taken back to the day they died. The quote “The mouse let fall the altar-crumb” could possibly allude to the mouse, as a rodent, being a symbol of death and decay. Coupled with a place of religious worship, this produces more interpretations. Perhaps it signifies that man fights and dies in God’s name, it may be that, with reference to the quote, “Instead of preaching forty year,” My neighbour Parson Thirdly said, “I wish I had stuck to pipes and beer. This quote could be seen to show how, as Parson laments his choice in profession, he quite possibly believes that maybe the church should have done more for mankind to stop bloodshed and bloodlust. This interpretation could be seen to blame the church, as does the aforementioned point made stating how men fight and die in the name of God, making a direct relation between religion and death. In the third stanza, I believe Hardy uses an interesting and peculiar image of a drooling glebe cow.
This image, in my opinion, could either show how this creature is unaffected by the turmoil of war, perhaps showing how mankind’s wars have little impact on the rest of the world. It could also be a criticism towards the church. Throughout Hardy’s other poetry he questions either the motivations or the very existence of God, therefore we could assume that the image given through the quote, “the glebe cow drooled” could indeed be critical towards the Church or God. However, clearly in this instance Hardy is not necessarily doubting God’s existence as he introduces him as a character.
He explains to the risen dead that it is not “Judgement Day”, merely the beginning of another war, comparing it to the wars in which they died, describing it as “the world as it used to be”. This description brands humanity as a race born to fight, nothing more. The usage of the quote “All nations striving strong to make Red war yet redder” show how this could be viewed as an anti-war poem as it never states the motivations of war, only the consequences and losses.
Another point to consider is when Hardy uses the phrase, “Mad as hatters” to describe the warring nations. Possibly an allusion to a children’s tale Alice in Wonderland in which the Mad Hatter is frozen in time and perhaps as a result goes insane, Hardy perhaps draws a comparison between this character and the leaders of humanity. The use of mad as hatters could also be a reference to humanity’s aggressiveness and thirst for blood to be a detrimental mindset, or indeed it could depict the primal instincts of man.
Another quote that is perhaps important to consider is “They do no more for Christes sake”. This could be seen to have two meanings, “for Christes sake” could itself be a curse as is used in modern day in anger or exasperation, or perhaps it could allude to an aforementioned point that humanity goes to war, fights and dies in God’s name, thus meaning that they no longer fight for God. With further reference to religion, the poem seems to allude to, through the use of humanity’s unending cycle of violence, a powerless God or a God that does not care.
The key way in which this poem slightly differs from other Hardy work is that he accepts God’s existence, even going so far as to introduce him as a character with a stanza’s worth of dialogue, “ Till God called, “No… ””. A major factor to take into consideration when studying any of Hardy’s poems is his religious background. Having little if any religious belief, the introduction of God as a character can only be to question his existence or his care for humanity. Hardy references “Stourton Tower, And Camelot, and starlit Stonehenge”.
These buildings must either have specific relevance to the poem or to Hardy himself. Camelot brings forth the legend of King Arthur, Stonehenge’s origin is one of the earth’s many mysteries, also coupled with the word “starlit” making it ever more mystical and mysterious and stourton tower was erected in honour of King Alfred’s victory over the Danes. Stourton tower and camelot could be used to represent past battles, a foreshadowing of the war to come, whereas stonehenge’s reference in this poem is less easy to decipher.
The only allusion to Stonehenge I was able to glean from the poem and it’s own social and historical background would be upon the basis of myth and legend, that the site itself had certain magical qualities and reference to King Arthur. By referencing Camelot, Hardy brings to light the legend of king arthur. According to this legend, Arthur and the knights of the round table are buried within a hill and will return when britain is in need.
Thus, the reference to stonehenge could be seen as a possible resting place to those knights and that the collection months leading up to the war was indeed britain’s greatest hour of need. Hardy, interestingly so, uses no description of sound when depicting the sea, no onomatopoeia is used for crashing of waves and nor is the weather described. This is a different tact for Hardy to take as he seems to delight and revel in using nature to describe the emotions of man. However, in Channel Firing he seems to do the opposite.
Instead of comparing the calm of the sea to the tension of humanity, or some other such allusion, he gives animalistic qualities to the weaponry. “Arose the howl of wakened hounds” could possibly be the guns, the wolf-like, primal, savage guns used in the first war, being set up, “awakened” one could say. The guns themselves now hold an image in the readers mind of feral, wild animals filled with the same bloodlust as the men operating them. This image seems brutal, savage and, to a certain extent, evil and malicious, yet again occupying human qualities.
This personification is, in my opinion, an excellent way to describe humanity’s depiction in the poem, through the war machines they created. Another minor allusion to God could be that where he creates life, humanity simply creates new ways to annihilate. In conclusion, the thoughts of the dead who narrate the poem depict how the war had such a profound impact upon many peoples’ lives. It is my belief that using images including a glebe cow, mice and worms show how even the most primitive, meaningless and mundane creatures in existence can be considered, in some way, affected by the Great War.
The tone of the poem throughout is the same, mournful and apprehensive yet laced with conviction and, to a certain extent, contempt for humanity. The overall message that I believe Hardy is trying to convey is a simple one. War is pointless, meaningless and ruins lives, both those of soldiers and families. This is an anti-war poem which also provides an excellent description for the reader of the apprehension and tension felt by all of humanity in the months prior to the Great War.