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Of the three, I would choose the latter as truest testimony." - Sir Kenneth Smith, Great Civilisations

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is when he compares the volume as it is with what he vowed to make it." - J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Thomas Hardy - Drummer Hodge

Thomas Hardy, poet

Drummer Hodge
by Thomas Hardy (c.1840-1928)

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 to some Southern tree,
And strange-eyed constellations reign
His stars eternally.

- Thomas Hardy


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Poem Analysis: Welford

Drummer Hodge” by Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) was first published in “Literature” on 23rd November 1899 with the title “The Dead Drummer”. It later appeared as one of the “War Poems” in Hardy’s 1901 collection “Poems of the Past and the Present” with its new title.

It is one of several poems inspired by the Anglo-Boer War in what is now South Africa, fought between the British Army and settlers of Dutch origin from October 1899 to May 1902. Thomas Hardy was opposed to the war from the outset, regarding it as an imperialistic outrage that would take the lives of innocent men for the sake of enriching powerful people whose sole concern was the control of land and mineral resources. Hardy had cycled the 50 miles to Southampton to watch the troops embark and wrote several poems on that occasion, plus others at a later date as reports appeared in the newspapers. “Drummer Hodge” is one of the latter.

Although the poem mentions “Young Hodge the Drummer”, there is no evidence that there was such a person of that name. The name “Hodge” was used as a nickname by “townies” for a yokel or country bumpkin, and Hardy had used the convention before in his 1891 novel “Tess of the d’Urbervilles”. His purpose here, as in the novel, was to give character and individuality to someone who might otherwise be passed over as a nobody. That said, Hardy may well have had somebody specific in mind, given that he added a note when the poem first appeared to the effect that: “one of the drummers killed was a native of a village near Casterbridge (i.e. Dorchester)”. As Hardy himself came from such a village it is possible that he knew the family in question, or, if not, he would have been fully aware of the effect on such a family of a loss such as that described in “Drummer Hodge”.

It also needs to be borne in mind that many soldiers who went to South Africa as drummers were very young, maybe only fourteen or fifteen years of age. Many accompanied their soldier fathers or older brothers because they wished to share the adventure of war that seemed preferable to working on a farm or in a factory. They were not trained to fight, their role being to lead the fighting men into battle by beating drums to set their marching rhythm and “stiffen the sinews”. They also used drums to send signals and their other roles included taking messages and carrying ammunition. Being in the front line, and unable to defend themselves, they were extremely vulnerable and many were killed. Fortunately, the role of drummer was made obsolete in the era of “total war” that began in 1914 with World War I.

The poem, in three six-line stanzas with an ABABAB rhyme scheme, expresses Hardy’s horror at the disrespect shown to the dead body of a young drummer, his corpse having been thrown into an unmarked grave somewhere on the African plain and forgotten about, as though his existence had no value other than as “cannon fodder”.

The first stanza sets the scene in stark, unvarnished terms: “They throw in Drummer Hodge, to rest / Uncoffined – just as found”. He is to be left under a “mound” that is marked only by “a kopje-crest”. Hardy makes use of this Afrikaans word (for a small rocky hillock), and “veldt” in the next line, to emphasise how foreign this environment would be for a boy from a Dorset village. This is confirmed by the mention of “foreign constellations” that “west” (i.e. set in the west) “each night above his mound”. The grave, being in the southern hemisphere, might as well be on a different planet given that there is not a single point of contact between this place and the land that Drummer Hodge knew, day or night.

This theme continues in the second stanza, but the focus turns to the perspective of Drummer Hodge himself, and the fact that, when alive, this environment would have been another world to him and so will continue that way for ever, now that he is dead. The line “Fresh from his Wessex home” (Wessex being Hardy’s name for Dorset and the neighbouring counties) allows the contrast to be made between the boy’s familiar English landscape and: “… the broad Karoo, the Bush, the dusty loam”. Again, by using unfamiliar words such as “Karoo”, Hardy points to the differences not only of geography but also of language and culture.

As with the first stanza, Hardy ends with a reference to “strange stars”, thus maintaining the theme of night following day, time after time for eternity.

The third stanza introduces a new idea with the couplet: “Yet portion of that unknown plain / Will Hodge for ever be”. His decomposing body will become part of that strange world and “Grow to some Southern tree”. This concept, of a soldier’s body becoming part of a foreign land, is one that sounds familiar to readers of war poetry, as it was used, for a somewhat different purpose, byRupert Brooke in his World War I poem “The Soldier”:

“If I should die, think only this of me:

That there’s some corner of a foreign field

That is for ever England. There shall be

In that rich earth a richer dust concealed … ”

Brooke’s aim was to make a patriotic point that the sacrifice of the soldier’s life had the benefit of making a foreign place more English, and therefore better. Most readers today would take the line that Hardy’s attitude is the more honest one, namely that the hasty burial of a young soldier far from home is a matter for sorrow and lament rather than national pride. Incidentally, it is known that Rupert Brooke’s poetry was influenced by that of Thomas Hardy, and it may well be that Brooke had read Hardy’s “Drummer Hodge” before writing “The Soldier”.

As with the first two stanzas, the third ends with the stars: “And strange-eyed constellations reign / His stars eternally”. The impression given at the end of the poem is therefore of the stars looking down (“strange-eyed”) as protectors of the young boy’s body, and of Drummer Hodge’s ownership of those stars. He has been abandoned in a lonely grave in a strange land, but he will always have these Southern stars for company.

It is to Hardy’s credit that he stops short of sentimentality in this poem, even though some readers might argue that the final stanza veers a little way in that direction. Hardy does not need to labour the point that this is a needless waste of a young life for a cause that the drummer had no knowledge of and of which the poet thoroughly disapproves.

Thomas Hardy is not often thought of a “war poet”, that accolade being reserved for such as Wilfred Owen, Edward Thomas, Siegfried Sassoon and Isaac Rosenberg, who fought in World War I and some whom failed to survive it. However, a number of these poets acknowledged their debt to the influence of Thomas Hardy’s Boer War poems, “Drummer Hodge” being one of them. What Hardy’s poem and those of the poets listed (among others) have in common is their concern for the common soldier as a person who is suffering and dying, as opposed to being a symbol of some greater good for which their life is being nobly sacrificed. That distinction is what marks “Drummer Hodge” out as being infinitely superior to Brooke’s “The Soldier” and other poems of that ilk that failed to appreciate the humanity of their subject. Hardy may have taken a pessimistic view of life in many of his poems and novels, but always at their heart was sympathy and empathy for ordinary people and their triumphs and tragedies. “Drummer Hodge” is a good example of this approach.

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Poem Analysis: BCSE


Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) was born in Dorset and was encouraged to develop a love for both education and stories by his mother, Jemima. He trained to be an architect and then moved to London to pursue his studies and career. After five years in the capital, he returned to Dorset and began writing more seriously.

His first writing career was as a novelist rather than a poet. Hardy published Tess of the D'Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure that are now very well thought of but were criticised at the time. Such was the level of criticism for Jude the Obscure, Hardy decided to move away from writing books and turned to poetry.

The death of his wife Emma in 1912 had a huge impact on Hardy and he wrote many poems about her and his feelings for her. Even though he remarried (to his secretary, Florence Dugdale) it is said he never got over the loss of Emma.

Themes that recur in Hardy's writings are injustice, love, break ups, disappointment, fate and the unfair treatment of women. He was basically a traditionalist when it came to the form of poetry but one interesting thing he often did was include colloquial language. This type of language is usually heard rather than read; spoken language that is usually not standard English.

Subject matter

Dummer Hodge was originally published in 1899 under the title ‘The Dead Drummer’, only a few weeks after the start of the Second Boer War. The Boer Wars were fought between the British and the Dutch settlers of the Boer republics in what is now South Africa. There were a number of wars throughout the 19th century that were aimed at consolidating British rule throughout the Empire.

Hardy was against the Boer War. Like many liberals of the time, he thought the Boers were simply defending their homes. Why did the British feel the need to keep their territory so strongly? Perhaps the diamond and gold mines of the area had something to do with it.

Drummer Hodge describes the burial of a British soldier during the Second Boer War, in South Africa. He is buried without ceremony, a coffin, or a gravestone. His humble roots are contrasted with the exotic South African landscape, and the poet repeatedly refers to the unfamiliar stars that will watch over Drummer Hodge’s grave. Finally he introduces the idea that Hodge’s body becomes part of the landscape, so that he has some permanent home there. Despite his short life, the Drummer has become part of something that is far more permanent.

Form and structure

The poem is formed of three stanzas, each of six lines, with a very regular metre and rhyme scheme. The lines alternate between 8 and 6 syllables, with the rhyme scheme of ABABAB for each verse. This is a very common metre for traditional English hymns to follow. It seems appropriate, therefore, for this poem, about the burial of a young soldier.

Language and Imagery

There are a number of Boer words used in the poem. Boer is a term that describes the first Dutch settlers of the area that is now South Africa. Their language is called ‘Afrikaans’.


The concept of the drummer is a key image. Drummers were young lads who beat the drum to keep time as soldiers marched. There is a sense of innocence and youth here, which gives his death more pathos.

The image of the constellations is repeated at the end of each stanza. In the first two stanzas they are "foreign" and "strange", but in the final verse, although they are "strange-eyed", they are linked closely with Hodge himself. His own"stars" are also there. The use of celestial imagery elevates the dead soldier, making him seem more important and more valued, in contrast to the careless way in which he was buried.

This is complemented by the metaphor of his being a "portion" of the land ever after. His "breast and brain", that is all of him – his heart and his mind, become the source of "some Southern tree". This sense of belonging is contrasted with the fact that his "home" was "Wessex". The sense of value and belonging together contrast with the lack of care shown for him by his fellow soldiers, which is ironic considering the reverence with which the names of the war dead are usually treated.


The use of Boer vocabulary introduces some unfamiliar combinations of sounds – the "kopje-crest" for example, combining consonants that are not usually found together. Similarly the "broad Karoo", where the assonance emphasises the strange name, sounds almost nonsensical. These words emphasise the exotic location, particularly when contrasted with the "homely" soldier.

Attitudes, themes and ideas

There is a certain amount of anger in this poem, in the contrast between the way that Hodge is treated by his own fellows, and the acceptance and value that he finds within the "unknown plain". His "homely" (that is, lowly) origins are emphasised, as is his youth: Hodge is unimportant so they throw his body into a grave "uncoffined".

The unimportance of Hodge in life forms the basis of the strange contrast in the poem. Despite his lack of importance in life, in death Hodge becomes part of something that will outlast the war, and all the soldiers who buried him: the land. He will never be a hero but the reference to "his stars" seems to suggest that Hodge even has a divine element. His treatment in death forms another contrast, with the traditional way war dead are glorified and remembered.

By concentrating on, and elevating, a single unimportant soldier in the war, Hardy is able to say something about the value of all life, and to make a powerful anti-war statement.

Sample task

In the Literary Heritage poetry comparison it’s important to think about the theme in relation to both poems, their language and imagery. You also need to include an element of personal reflection and response to the poems.

Compare the ways in which Thomas Hardy portrays the idea of remembrance of the dead in these two poems: Drummer Hodge and Transformations.

In both Drummer Hodge and Transformations Hardy explores the ways in which the bodies of the dead can become part of the landscape. In both the transformation seems initially to be literal and physical, but becomes metaphorical, so that Hardy begins to suggest a way in which the dead experience an afterlife. In Transformations a variety of different people become part of a yew tree, or other local plants; in Drummer Hodge a soldier killed far from home goes from being out of place in his "foreign" location into being a ‘portion of that unknown plain’.

The people in the two poems are very different in terms of how they are remembered by those who are still living. Drummer Hodge is buried unceremoniously "uncoffined – just as found", disregarded by his fellow soldiers, and left alone in a foreign land. In Transformations there is a sense of community continuity, as Hardy refers to "a man my grandsire knew", and various other individuals. The narrator in this poem is clearly remembering people that he knew, and perhaps people that he wants to imagine a happy transformation after death for, such as the "fair girl" he had tried to woo.

However, the degree to which other people remember them, or care about their death, does not make a difference in how they are transformed to become part of the land, suggesting that this is an inevitable process, and that the world will provide for an ongoing role for the dead, no matter whether other people remember them or not. This idea of it being ongoing is emphasised in Drummer Hodge by the use of words such as "for ever" and "eternally". Despite the strangeness of the ‘broad Karoo’ in contrast to the ‘homely’ Hodge, and the use of "Southern" and "Northern" to express the fact that he has died in South Africa, having come from his native Britain, the land still finds a way to remember him. Unlike his fellow soldiers who "throw" him in to his grave, the land seems to take care of him and welcome him in.

In both poems Hardy makes use of natural imagery to emphasise the continuing cycle of life. In Drummer Hodge the imagery includes a "Southern tree" but also the "strange-eyed constellations"; this use of celestial imagery suggests an elevation of the dead, into something grand and wonderful. Although Hodge does not have an actual gravestone to be remembered by, his grave is marked by a"kopje-crest", a hill, so that the landscape makes a natural way to remember him. In Transformations the imagery is entirely plant-based, so people become yew trees, grass or a rose. This imagery means that the dead are no longer"underground", and have a chance to experience the "sun and rain" again.

In both poems the imagery and the language suggests an idea that people are part of the landscape, and can be remembered, or have an ongoing life, through their transformation into living plants, or the land in which they are buried.

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Drummer Hodge Community Play