The Boer War, faught first in the 1880’s, then again in the 1890’s, and finally between 1899 and 1902, was between the British and The Dutch in South Africa. Like so many conflicts since - *cough* Russia and America in Afghanistan - it was another example of two countries fighting it out in someone else’s continent. The Dutch East India Company had invaded The Cape Of Good Hope and settled themselves there. The French, however, then invaded the Dutch back home, and made them a puppet state. Prompted by this, the British invaded The Cape Of Good Hope, subsequently kicking the Dutch out. This lead to a multi-decade conflict between the Dutch and The British. The Dutch did not like the British ban on slave-trade or their invasion, and the British wanted the land. This was further complicated by Kaiser Wilhelm's support for the Dutch. As a flash in the pan of what would later become the scramble for Africa, The Boer War was an incremental step towards The First World War. It was an all-round tragedy, not just in it’s long term effects, but in it’s immediate ones too. 22,000 British soldiers were killed in the second war alone, with thousands more earlier on. Naturally, such a catastrophe couldn’t help but find it’s way into the literature of England….
We read of it in The Further Adventures of The Amatuer Cracksman by E.W Hornung, still later in John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps, but most poignantly in Thomas Hardy’s poem ‘Drummer Hodge’ --
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 for ever be;
His homely Northern breast and brain
Grow up a Southern tree,
And strange-eyed constellations reign
His stars eternally.
Hardy’s poem drives to the heart of the matter. His use of familiar and unfamiliar words - plain/Karoo - expose the disunity between people and place. He repeats the adjective 'strange', but nothing was stranger to his readers of 1899 than words like kopje and veldt. As they read the poem aloud, their mouths spoke foreign tongues and their brains inhabited new psychological spaces. It therefore produced, at the level of language, the geographical dislocation which ‘Drummer Hodge’ must have felt and was doomed to. A local lad, an average Britisher, he has been buried as a stranger in a strange land. Even the stars, which one would presume to be universal, are described as being ‘foreign constellations.’ He’s off the map, then, both geographically and astrologically, and Hardy’s register gives the reader a taste of that alienation.
Some, of course, might argue that Hardy’s use of foreign words is in itself a kind of imperialism. In appropriating their lexis, one might say he was partaking in the intellectual land-grab, or supporting a kind of linguistic elitism. However, the juxtaposition of English and Afrikaans isn’t there to show how cultures cannot get along. Far from it. Hardy’s image of Hodge’s body 'grow[ing] to some southern tree' shows the shared state of naturalness to which all humans belong; they are all of one matter, of one land, and when they come to dust, a tree can grow for them anywhere. Rather, the juxtaposition shows the ignorant and meaningless pursuit of land and global power. Here is a man 'throw[n]' into his foreign grave 'uncoffined.' The slapdash burial - unaware of Hodge’s religious heritage - proves that those who buried him knew as little about him as he did about their land. This “young” boy is then marked by their “kopje-crest” - a hill he didn’t even know the name of! That Hodge dies without knowing 'the meaning of the broad Karoo' makes two very significant points. First, he was ignorant of where he was going, driven simply by the propaganda and imperialist fervour. And second, the lack of knowledge exposes Britain’s shallow motives. It was not an exploration, a expedition for knowledge, but an imperialist land-grab, more interested in space, resources and military might. The same, of course, can be said for the Dutch and the Germans who also had an interest in it. All three powers were there to conquer the world. But to answer our original point: by using words of which his readers had no knowledge, Hardy exposes their state of ignorance, and draws attention to the craziness of conflict for imperialist gain. The poem, in effect, states that you’re fighting for what you don’t even know.
With its common metre of 4/3/4/3 and it’s alternating rhyme, Drummer Hodge tells the simple tale of a simple soul crushed by the wider powers of greed and empire. It is prescient of the conflicts that would come, and Hardy’s line of 'Yet portion of that unknown plain / Will Hodge for ever be' hears its echo in Rupert Brooke’s The Soldier:
If I should die, think only this of me;
That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England.
Brooke died of illness in 1915 while serving in the Expeditionary Force. His reiteration of the notions found in Hardy’s poem evidences the way in which literature, as a cultural space, is a burial ground for the dead. Allusions carry the ghosts of old poems, of old conflicts, and keep our eye on the past. From that, we can learn, and we can hopefully do better in the future. So take note of Drummer Hodge, who was “fresh from his Wessex home.” Choose to learn, and don’t walk blindly into the propagandist desert. Choose to think, and to understand, and to not be greedy. Those, at least, are the lessons which I will take from this work.
If you have any thoughts on this poem, or would to like to suggest some reading, please leave a comment below.
I love to read short stories. To my mind, they’re the ultimate test of a writer’s skill. Like poems, they rely on a delicate and artful brevity, a balance between style, space and narrative. There are some amazing short-story writers: M.R. James, Edgar Allan Poe, D.H. Lawrence, Robert Louis Stevenson, Neil Gaiman, William H. Gass, H.P. Lovecraft, Saki, Chekov, Jack London, Ernest Hemingway and, of course, James Joyce. I knew this already, from rumour - and legend, let’s be honest - but I had it confirmed on Friday evening. Lost between novels, I googled the ‘Greatest Short Stories’ and ‘The Dead’ was the first on the list. By happy coincidence, a very good friend had also recommended it to me, and thus encouraged, I settled down with a cup of decaf coffee and began to read…
What a masterpiece. ‘The Dead’ begins with a Christmas party - a warm, social affair with music, dancing, food, wine, ale and raucous hospitality. People are in conversation, people are mingling and flirting, people are debating about points of the day. Into this party walks Gabriel - an aptly biblical name - who is our protagonist for the evening. I found, somewhat to my amusement, that I could readily identify with him. For one thing, he’s nervous about the party: he has to give a speech, and thinks about quoting from Browning, but decides Shakespeare will be best. It's also said that “As Gabriel never ate sweets, the celery had been left for him.” (A man after my own heart, indeed.) He’s an avid reader, journalist and literary critic. He views the world around him through an hermeneutical lens. He looks at his wife, for instance, and Joyce writes “There was grace and mystery in her attitude, as if she were a symbol of something… He asked himself what is a woman, standing on the stairs in shadow, listening to distant music, a symbol of…” That unfinished moment, with his thoughts beginning but not ending, is simply the way of the piece: there is a girl called Ivors, who, after Gabriel converses with her, just ups and leaves the party, walking out of the story, never to be heard of again. There are other conversations that go unfinished, and there are other character’s whose stories you could have followed - want to follow! - but they all take cabs into the night. They linger, however, in the reader’s mind, and that - in light of Joyce’s ending - is a significant point… (But it shall not be ruined for you here.)
With the symbol of his wife, with Ivors, with the vanishing characters, Joyce creates a story so rich and nuanced, that it is almost a novel in miniature. In just 15,000 words, Joyce builds a whole community of middle-class, intellectual Irish-folk. You know roughly who they are; you understand the tensions and divisions; the happiness and the sadness. It’s a world unto itself, told in a matter of pages. It's been filmed by John Houston, and Dan Barry of The New York Times once called 'The Dead' "just about the finest short story in the English language." And now, you can see why I said the short-story is a writer’s greatest test.
For this tale, unlike in Ulysses, Joyce’s style is clear, lucid and perfectly balanced. The scene unfolds one calm sentence at a time, not too slow, not too fast. Yet, from the cool-stream of this prose, little eddies of turbulence will rise up
“And haven’t you your own land to visit,” continued Miss Ivors, “that you know nothing of, your own people, and your own country?”
“0, to tell you the truth,” retorted Gabriel suddenly, “I’m sick of my own country, sick of it!”
and then calm down again… Somewhere, then, is the sense that the balanced facade of social-life could collapse and fracture at any minute. The drunkard is therefore a Geiger-counter, registering radiation from some hidden source. The argument is a seismometer, waiting for the inevitable earthquake… Perhaps the time of writing - 1914 - has something to do with that imminent collapse. Few could fail to recognize, by that year, the onset of war and it's inevitable impact on social life. In the short term, though, the party wraps up nicely. Everyone goes home happily, and Gabriel and his wife get a cab to their hotel where a passionate night is promised.
And then Joyce turns the tables. The story that was, hitherto, a tale about sociality, about tradition and Christmas and age and music and literature and class, suddenly transcends itself and muses upon the past, upon death, upon the effect of the dead upon the living. It makes you wonder about the impact of absent members; absent from the party, and absent from life. Like a gentle ghost-story, 'The Dead' is about memory, and the people we’ve known. I shan’t tell you why, for that would be to spoil it, but this story is ultimately very profound, and takes you by surprise.
This leap from the social to the sublime is there in Joyce’s style. It’s not only in the narrative content, but in the tone and technique of the medium itself. After a tale of clean and normal prose, he lets his pen walk free and concludes with: “His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.” Those lines are poetry, not prose. In a seamless slip between forms, the words becomes soft and sibilant (soul...swooned...slowly...snow…) and then chiastic: “falling faintly… faintly falling.” That mirrored inversion, where the line runs one way and then again in reverse, embodies the tale’s whole message. It explains that what happens on one side of the line, in death, can have an effect on the other, in life.
I can’t wait to read more of Joyce’s work. This story took my breath away, and I can’t recommend it enough.
For more reviews like this, try these links:
The Odour Of Chrysanthemums - D.H. Lawrence
Tales and Poems - Dylan Thomas
O Whistle and I'll Come For You My Lad - M.R. James
To buy a copy of The Dubliners, the collection from which 'The Dead' comes, click the cover below. (If you do, you’ll be supporting the site through affiliate links.)
And lastly, if you would like to see a video review of this story or any of the books covered at this site, leave a comment below. Likewise, if there is a short story you would like to recommend, or a novel you’d like to see reviewed, I’m open to suggestions.
Until next time, happy reading.
THE BOOK CLUB
Author - James
A twenty year old English student at Cambridge University. I fell in love with literature at an early age and have been with it ever since.