Channel Firing

I’ve loved Thomas Hardy since high school. Although I had always loved reading, his novels, particularly Return of the Native and Jude the Obscure, came as a revelation to me. Their brutal honesty and unsentimental analysis of the human condition amazed me, especially since much of the literature I had previously encountered in high school struck me as sentimental nonsense.

I wrote my first research paper on his works after reading all of his novels. I earned an “A” on that paper, no small feat from Mr. Thomas. And, perhaps for the first time, I thought of becoming an English major instead of a physics major in college.

Later, I grew to love his poetry more than his novels. Although his works seem to have gone out of style because they “lack style,” I still believe that they convey a truth through their simple language that is often lacking in more popular works. And, most of all, I look for truth in literature.

“Channel Firing” is a simple poem that needs no explanation, but it conveys truths about war that are as true now as they were when this poem was written:

THAT night your great guns, unawares,
Shook all our coffins as we lay,
And broke the chancel window-squares,
We thought it was the Judgment-day

And sat upright. While drearisome
Arose the howl of wakened hounds:
The mouse let fall the altar-crumb,
The worms drew back into the mounds,

The glebe cow drooled. Till God called, “No”
It’s gunnery practice out at sea
Just as before you went below;
The world is as it used to be:

“All nations striving strong to make
Red war yet redder. Mad as hatters
They do no more for Christ’s sake
Than you who are helpless in such matters.

That this is not the judgment-hour
For some of them’s a blessed thing,
For if it were they’d have to scour
Hell’s floor for so much threatening. . .

Ha, ha. It will be warmer when
I blow the trumpet (if indeed
I ever do; for you are men,
And rest eternal sorely need).”

So down we lay again. ‘I wonder,
Will the world ever saner be,’
Said one, ‘than when He sent us under
In our indifferent century !’

And many a skeleton shook his head.
Instead of preaching forty year,
My neighbour Parson Thirdly said,
I wish I had stuck to pipes and beer.

Again the guns disturbed the hour,
Roaring their readiness to avenge,
As far inland as Stourton Tower,
And Camelot, and starlit Stonehenge.