The narrator of Thomas Hardy's "The Man He Killed" is stationed as an infantry soldier and speaks of an enemy soldier he was forced to kill in defense during a war. The actual act of the killing isn't really described or detailed. In fact, it only seems to be mentioned in passing, as if only to make the reader understand the situation. The narrator is assumed to be a simple and average person, due to his use of common slang phrases and cut off words, such as "nipperkin" and "'list." He is not a hardened and robotic soldier either. Rather, he simply joined the army "off-hand-like" and possibly because of financial situations (Hardy 814).
Instead of metaphors and similes, the poem focuses on a 'what if' type of situation. The narrator wonders what would have happened if he and his victim had met any place else besides a battle field. Had they met in a bar, would they have drank together in companionship? Would the enemy soldier have been the type he would have easily loaned money to? What sort of man was this person that he killed?
Because he is not an experienced soldier, the narrator finds it difficult to comprehend the situation. Despite the fact that he knows the obvious reasons for his actions, that during a war it is a 'kill or be killed' situation, he still tries to find a deeper meaning. The broken syntax that begins in the third stanza "is an important element of [the poem's] tone and a guide to the speaker's state of mind" (DiYanni 810). As he attempts to justify his actions, the narrator hesitates, as if not truly believing that is all there is to the killing. He seems skeptical that the taking of a life can be justified as easily as 'he was my foe.'
"The Man He Killed" was specifically chosen by myself because of the topic presented: war. As a pacifist, I disagree with all wars in theory. Though I am realistic enough to understand that, at times, conflict will be unavoidable due to certain circumstances, understanding and accepting are two very separate concepts. I hold on to the idealistic view that situations can be resolved peacefully so long as all parties contribute. And, on a more personal level, my opposition also stems from the two close cousins and a friend who are enlisted in the US Armed Forces, as well as horror stories told from my grandfather and uncles.
"The Man He Killed" seems to speak of the shock and confusion that afflicts all victims of war. In my view, it describes my own inability to understand how violence can be such a common event among the supposed sentient beings of the human race.
Thomas Hardy, the son of a stonemason, was born in Dorsetshire, England, in 1840. He trained as an architect and worked in London and Dorset for ten years. Hardy began his writing career as a novelist, publishing Desperate Remedies in 1871, and was soon successful enough to leave the field of architecture for writing. His novels Tess of the D'Urbervilles (1891) and Jude the Obscure (1895), which are considered literary classics today, received negative reviews upon publication and Hardy was criticized for being too pessimistic and preoccupied with sex. He left fiction writing for poetry, and published eight collections, including Wessex Poems (1898) and Satires of Circumstance (1912).
Hardy's poetry explores a fatalist outlook against the dark, rugged landscape of his native Dorset. He rejected the Victorian belief in a benevolent God, and much of his poetry reads as a sardonic lament on the bleakness of the human condition. A traditionalist in technique, he nevertheless forged a highly original style, combining rough-hewn rhythms and colloquial diction with an extraordinary variety of meters and stanzaic forms. A significant influence on later poets (including Frost, Auden, Dylan Thomas, and Philip Larkin), his influence has increased during the course of the century, offering an alternative—more down-to-earth, less rhetorical—to the more mystical and aristocratic precedent of Yeats. Thomas Hardy died in 1928."
DiYanni, Robert. Literature: Reading Fiction, Poetry, and Drama. 6th ed. New York: McGraw Hill, 2008. 810-811
Hardy, Thomas. "The Man He Killed." Literature: Reading Fiction, Poetry, and Drama. Ed. Robert DiYanni. 6th ed. New York: McGraw Hill, 2008. 813-814