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Posted on April 26, 2011 by hokku
Thomas Hardy — yes, the same man who wrote Jude the Obscure, Tess of the d’Urbervilles and those other famous novels of Britain — wrote a very meaningful poem about the Boer War (1899-1902). In that war the British (and men from British possessions) fought against the people of Dutch ancestry in parts of what is now South Africa — against the people called the Boers (boer is Dutch for “farmer”). Hardy had news of a drummer killed in that war, a young fellow — probably a boy, really — who was from Dorchester, in the region of south England that Hardy wrote about in his novels under its old name, Wessex (“West-Saxony”). Drummers in that war might be as young as 13 or 14, getting into the military by lying about their age. Here is the poem: 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 constellation reign His stars eternally.
We know already that this “Drummer Hodge” is. a rough and hasty military burial — not even. part by part: They throw in Drummer Hodge. with no coffin at all — the body just as it was found in the field. It is. that rise here and there above the veldt. the level fields that stretch into the distance. And we really do not know what his name was. Yes. meaning one of those hillocks.” but it is just one of those often stony. . A kopje (pronounced “cop-yuh”) means literally a “little head. commemorated on war monuments. ”That breaks the veldt around” means the the kopje rises up above and interrupts the flatness of the surrounding land. but the part about Hodge having a name is an error. with a lion lounging atop one of its big boulders. we may say.” and he proceeds to tell his student how it was at this period of history that ordinary soldiers began to be remembered by name. It is a poignant and effective scene in the film. Let’s look more closely. an enthusiastic teacher — “Mr. Hodge is a genuine family surname. they meant the views of the average British man from the agricultural countryside. but in the England of Hardy’s time it was also used as a nickname for any country boy or man — “that farm kid. the physical feature of the landscape by which one might roughly identify where the grave lies — is just a kopje-crest. of course.” likely no more than 17 and possibly not even that. just one of those farm boys who enlisted for the illusion of military glory.” When the newspapers asked “what Hodge was saying” on a particular matter. still “just a kid. bringing to mind the useless suffering and futility of war. isolated hillocks one sees in movies of Africa. bare rocks and stones. Hodge actually is. just throwing the young body into a hole dug in the ground. “the important thing is that he has a name. often consisting of or surmounted by large. So really Drummer Hodge is anonymous. respectful. And foreign constellations west Each night above his mound. His landmark — that is. to rest Uncoffined – just as found: His landmark is a kopje-crest That breaks the veldt around. Hector” — says of Hodge in this poem.It is a very sad and lonely poem. which writer Alan Bennet later recognized and acknowledged. It is paradoxical that in the film The History Boys. as we would say.
And Hodge never had the time. Hardy tells us that young “Hodge. He was sent off to die in an alien land quite “foreign” to him. when the stars come out. who. how alien it all was to him. from soil to sky.” fresh from the Wessex countryside. Hardy emphasizes. being a farm lad. the trees. Paradoxically.” So Hardy is really saying that strange constellations (star patterns) unfamiliar to Hodge would move and set each night in the wide sky above the little mound where his grave lay in the vast veldt. “foreign” constellations west each night. .” though of course we know he was a Wessex country boy. And why uprose to nightly view Strange stars amid the gloam. never even had the time get to know and understand his alien surroundings in Africa — the Karoo (broad. Here west is a verb meaning “to move toward the West. before he was killed. uncultivated lands away from the towns) — and the dusty loam. dry plateau land). the hedgerows. veldt. The Bush.in this poem. would have been well familiar with the soil.” meaning in the time after the sun had set. partly by his use of Afrikaans (South African Dutch dialect) terms such as kopje. Now all of this is significant in Hardy’s transmission to the reader of just how alien his African surroundings were to this Wessex boy. the Bush (the wild. Hardy tells us… Yet portion of that unknown plain Will Hodge forever be. the dusty loam. to set in the West. the “foreignness” of the resting place of Drummer Hodge. to learn why strange stars — stars he did not recognize — rose in the sky each night “amid the gloam. the dry soil of southern Africa. and the constellations above southern England. an “unknown soldier. Above the mound of his grave. and so on. The next segment of the poem repeats and emphasizes some of the elements of the first part: Young Hodge the Drummer never knew – Fresh from his Wessex home – The meaning of the broad Karoo.
made aware. A dust whom England bore. in the film The History Boys. and he fell in the rain upon tufts of cold plants whose names he did not know. in Greece. now becomes part of that soil. Washed by the rivers. who talks about the sad death of his young country friend Lili des Bellons.” means that the unfamiliar (“strange-eyed”) stars overhead that dominate the sky in patterns unknown to Wessex will be those over Hodge’s grave forever.” Again. Brooke (1887 – 1915) — who joined the British navy. think only this of me: That there’s some corner of a foreign field That is forever England. a dark northern forest in the First World War: “In 1917. Hodge. breathing English air. and was buried on the island of Skyros. . There shall be In that rich earth a richer dust concealed. the student discussing Hardy’s poem remarks that there is a parallel between Yet portion of that unknown plain Will Hodge forever be. a bullet striking full on cut short his young life. His homely Northern breast and brain Grow to some Southern tree… and “golden boy” Rupert Brooke’s poem The Soldier: If I should die. His “homely” breast and brain will be absorbed by the roots of some strange African tree. blest by suns of home. A body of England’s. buried in the dry. lost forever in that alien land. He will never again see England. once. And strange-eyed constellations reign His stars eternally.His homely Northern breast and brain Grow to some Southern tree. who knew every leaf and bird and trail of his home hills. her flowers to love. her ways to roam. not living to see his third decade of life. yet who similarly was killed in land that was foreign to him. And “strange-eyed” constellations reign his stars eternally. died of the effects of a sequence of illnesses that ended with blood poisoning. the autobiographical account of the French author Marcel Pagnol. alien soil of Africa. There is something remarkably like this near the end of My Mother’s Castle. Gave. shaped. but will become part of the soil and growth of Africa.
though both poems are very good. She neither hears nor sees. alien trees. With rocks and stones and trees.com/items/1966622-drummer-hodge-by-thomas-hardy . along with John Steinbeck. “as one would find him at his home. “Mr. saying of the two poems that “It is the same thought. because it is “more down to earth…quite literally. It does not mean “plain and unattractive in appearance. months. Quite literally.In the previously-mentioned film. Hector” replies perceptively to the student. the young man buried remains something alien in that foreign soil — “a richer dust concealed. becomes as much a part of it as the kopje and the “Southern tree” that grows from his remains. direct and unpolished. and years pass ceaselessly on. but just reflects his “country boy” nature — open and simple.” We should note the use of the word “homely” here. The “aftereffect” of Drummer Hodge is somewhat like that of these lines from William Wordsworth’s A Slumber did my Spirit Seal: No motion has she now.” but adds that Hardy’s is the better. “down to earth. as Mr.” But Hardy is more the realist: Yet portion of that unknown plain Will Hodge forever be. Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course. which is one of the reasons why he is one of the few novelists I can read and take seriously.” It is not negative. alien earth and sky – and he gradually becomes one with them.” And it is. no force. not filled with the reflected glory of Brooke. down to earth. His homely Northern breast and brain Grow to some Southern tree… Drummer Hodge becomes absorbed into that alien environment. It really is a very striking poem. In Brooke. as the days. http://www. Hector says.” but it does mean unsophisticated and we may say.helium. But with “Hodge” they are alien rocks. but with the acceptance of hard things as they are that we find in Hardy’s novels.
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