“The Man He Killed” by Thomas Hardy

‘Had he and I but met
By some old ancient inn,
We should have sat us down to wet
Right many a nipperkin!

‘But ranged as infantry,
And staring face to face,
I shot at him as he at me,
And killed him in his place.

‘I shot him dead because —
Because he was my foe,Just so: my foe of course he was;
That’s clear enough; although

‘He thought he’d ‘list, perhaps
Off-hand like — just as I —
Was out of work — had sold his traps —
No other reason why.

‘Yes; quaint and curious war is!
You shoot a fellow down
You’d treat if met where any bar is,
Or help to half-a-crown.’

A “nipperkin” is a small (half pint or less) drink or a glass for serving one.  And “‘list” is “enlist.”  Except to note the plainspoken wisdom of the poem, its homespun diction and the understatement of “quaint and curious,” what else is there to say?  Thomas Hardy’s reflective infantryman, musing on his own time of imperial conflict, knows in 1902 what we don’t quite seem to know yet ourselves.  Or believe, or trust.  The narrator kills his counterpart simply from a failure to exercise his imagination until after the fact and because he has been induced to see red when the propagandists whisper “foe.”  As Hamlet phrases it, “the world is out of joint.”

recent-meR. T. Smith has edited Shenandoah since 1995 and serves as Writer-in-Residence at Washington & Lee. His forthcoming books are Doves in Flight: 13 Fictions and Summoning Shades: New Poems, both due in 2017.