Thomas Hardy portrays death as meaningless and futile in the beginning of ‘Drummer Hodge’
Thomas Hardy portrays death as meaningless and futile in the beginning of ‘Drummer Hodge’, published on the 25th November 1899, just weeks into the outbreak of the Second Boer War in Southern Africa (11 October 1899 – 31 May 1902) In fact, ‘Drummer Hodge’ was inspired by, and possibly an elegy to, a drummer boy killed in the war. At the start of ‘Drummer Hodge’, the boy is ‘thrown’ into a ‘kopje-crest’ and is ‘Uncoffined’. The syntactical placement of ‘Uncoffined’ at the beginning of the line, along with the word ‘thrown’ and how he is referred to as Drummer Hodge or Hodge throughout the poem, instead of having a discernible name and thus identity, highlights how unidentified, dehumanised and objectified the boy is. The fact that he is ‘Fresh from his Wessex home’, especially the word ‘Fresh’ shows us that although he is naïve and innocent, the boy is an alien in Southern Africa; that he ‘never knew/… The meaning of the broad Karoo’ shows us that he never knew Southern Africa and never will. When the boy is ‘thrown’ into a ‘kopje-crest’, the ‘kopje-crest’ is his ‘landmark’, which ‘breaks the veldt around’. The fact that the ‘kopje-crest’ is the only thing ‘breaking the veldt around’ and the geographical contrast between his ‘Northern breast and brain’ and ‘some Southern tree’ compound the sense that he is an alien in Southern Africa.
However, at the end of ‘Drummer Hodge’, Hardy seems to have changed his outlook; he now depicts death, specifically the aftermath of death, as uplifting and celestial. We see this from the image shift; from violent and somewhat graphic imagery in the 1st stanza to images of peace and eternal rest in the last stanza. The boy will now ‘forever be’ a part of ‘that unknown plain’; forever, he will ‘grow to some Southern tree’. The possessive exacerbates how he will be remembered and celebrated ‘eternally’ – the ‘foreign constellations’, ‘strange stars’ and ‘strange-eyed constellations’ are ‘His’ – nobody else’s – for evermore, for every ‘gloam’ that sets upon the ‘dusty loam’ of the bush. The contrast between the bright, shining ‘stars’ and the ‘gloam’ shows us that even though people do die, death is celestial. Through this, Hardy empathises with people, and quells the anxiety people have of not being remembered when they die. Death is not always negative. Whilst one can interpret the end of the poem, and thus the overall tone of the poem as celestial with the use of Hardy’s language, Hardy’s unexpected use of the hymnal metre, more commonly seen in Dickinson’s work, creates a funereal and memorial tone, and a religious aspect. The fact that Hardy decides to use hymnal metre is surprising, given that he lived in an iconoclastic society (Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species having been published 40 years before ‘ Drummer Hodge’. Interestingly, the positive motif of the ‘stars’ and the possessive ‘His’ also create a dichotomy between death and immortality here. Drummer Hodge is a part of something that is bigger than death itself. Just as Drummer Hodge is dehumanised, the structure of the poem is potentially dehumanised as well; as Jonathan Culler puts it, ‘the conventions of line-endings, rhythms and phonetic patterns help make the poem seem an impersonal object’. Although the tone of the poem seems to be impersonal through the conventions listed above by Culler, there is a dichotomy between this and the relatable, deeply personal, melancholic yet bittersweet tale of the eponymous Drummer Hodge; rather than the conventions creating an impersonal object, the conventions are expressing a sense of aloofness and distance, which is contrasted by the deeply personal nature of Hodge, his short life, and his bittersweet death.
In the beginning of ‘Because I Could Not Stop For Death’, Dickinson personifies Death as a gentlemanly suitor, who ‘kindly stopped’ for her; the colloquial opening and first person speaker make for a light, civil, and relaxed atmosphere, in contrast to the violent opening of ‘Drummer Hodge’.
Yet, both ‘Drummer Hodge’ and ‘Because I Could Not Stop For Death’ end with similar words; Hardy with ‘eternally’, and Dickinson with ‘eternity’.
‘Eternally’ implies that one will be remembered forever. However, ‘eternity’ highlights the finality, and concrete nature, of death. In ‘Because I Could Not Stop For Death’, the narrator of the poem believes that death and immortality are synonymous with one another. This is seen in the scene between Death and the narrator; whilst Dickinson describes a ‘Carriage which held but just Ourselves (herself and Death) — And Immortality’, she also mentions that ‘he kindly stopped for her’ . This personal moment between the narrator and Death shows us that she believes that death is immortality. This is a case of dramatic irony; the narrator does not surmise until the end of the poem that death and immortality are not synonymous with each other. The ‘Horses Heads’ are an allusion to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The volta of ‘the setting sun passing the narrator and Death’, whilst shifting from life to death, creates a descent into despair and apocalypse; by the end of the poem, in which ‘Roof was barely visible – The Cornice – in the Ground -‘ the narrator realises that her relationship with Death is not immortality, but the concrete ending of the world, much like in ‘Drummer Hodge’ when the boy is ‘thrown’, ‘Uncoffined’ into a ‘kopje-crest’. Instead of being a highly lauded figure like Drummer Hodge, who is part of an infinite and growing tree, part of a symbiotic relationship with the Earth, she is a figure who is completely unprepared for death (as seen in the metaphor of the 4th stanza) and is decaying in a grave.The roof being barely visible’ and ‘the cornice being in the ground’ is an inversion of Calvinist societal beliefs; instead of ascending to Heaven, Dickinson is descending into a claustrophobic Hell for eternity. In ‘Because I Could Not Stop For Death’ the 1st person narrator luxuriates in the long journey; this is seen from the assonontal lexical field; they drive ‘slowly’, with Death knowing ‘no haste’. This is further emphasised by the passive tricolonic anaphora of ‘we passed’. This is comparable to the arc of Dorian’s journey of Dorian in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. In the early stages of the fin de siècle, Lord Henry seems to be subverting the sagacious nature of an Ancient Greek pederastic relationship; rather than being a spiritually advising erastês to Dorian’s naïve erômenos, he is taking advantage of Dorian. He leads Dorian into a downward spiral of decadence, hedonism, visiting opium dens and other places of ill-repute. Whilst the respective journeys of the narrator of ‘Because I Could Not Stop For Death’ and of Dorian are similar, Dickinson mentally explores death and life without religion (which she also does in ‘I Felt A Funeral – In My Brain’), whereas Dorian’s deterioration, which culminates with him lashing out and stabbing the painting and thus indirectly committing suicide, is a physical exploration of death and of a debauched and immoral lifestyle. Although Dorian’s journey towards a dark and morally decadent existence resonates with Dickinson’s journey towards an apocalyptic eternity, with both the narrator of ‘Because I Could Not Stop For Death’ and Dorian losing their deep-seated belief in immortality, Grace Marks’ journey has more similarities with the journey of Drummer Hodge.