DRUMMER HODGE: STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND

Boer War drummer boy writing his mum

Thomas Hardy — yes, the same man who wrote Jude the Obscure, Tess of the d’Urbervilles and those other famous novels of Britain — wrote a very meaningful poem about the Boer War (1899-1902).  In that war the British (and men from British possessions) fought against the people of Dutch ancestry in parts of what is now South Africa — against the people called the Boers (boer is Dutch for “farmer”).

Hardy had news of a drummer killed in that war, a young fellow — probably a boy, really — who was from Dorchester, in the region of south England that Hardy wrote about in his novels under its old name, Wessex (“West-Saxony”).  Drummers in that war might be as young as 13 or 14, getting into the military by lying about their age.

Here is the poem:

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 forever be;
His homely Northern breast and brain
  Grow to some Southern tree,
And strange-eyed constellations reign
  His stars eternally.

It is a very sad and lonely poem, bringing to mind the useless suffering and futility of war.  Let’s look more closely, part by part:

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.

It is, of course, a rough and hasty military burial — not even, we may say, respectful; just throwing the young body into a hole dug in the ground, with no coffin at all — the body just as it was found in the field.

His landmark — that is, the physical feature of the landscape by which one might roughly identify where the grave lies — is just a kopje-crest, meaning one of those hillocks, often consisting of or surmounted by large, bare rocks and stones, that rise here and there above the veldt, the level fields that stretch into the distance.  A kopje (pronounced “cop-yuh”) means literally a “little head,” but it is just one of those often stony, isolated hillocks one sees in movies of Africa, with a lion lounging atop one of its big boulders.  “That breaks the veldt around” means the the kopje rises up above and interrupts the flatness of the surrounding land.

We know already that this “Drummer Hodge” is, as we would say, still “just a kid,” likely no more than 17 and possibly not even that.  And we really do not know what his name was.  Yes, Hodge is a genuine family surname, but in the England of Hardy’s time it was also used as a nickname for any country boy or man — “that farm kid.”  When the newspapers asked “what Hodge was saying” on a particular matter, they meant the views of the average British man from the agricultural countryside.

So really Drummer Hodge is anonymous, just one of those farm boys who enlisted for the illusion of military glory.  It is paradoxical that in the film The History Boys,  an enthusiastic teacher — “Mr. Hector” — says of Hodge in this poem, “the important thing is that he has a name,” and he proceeds to tell his student how it was at this period of history that ordinary soldiers began to be remembered by name, commemorated on war monuments.  It is a poignant and effective scene in the film, but the part about Hodge having a name is an error, which writer Alan Bennet later recognized and acknowledged.  Hodge actually is, in this poem, an “unknown soldier,” though of course we know he was a Wessex country boy.

Hardy emphasizes, partly by his use of Afrikaans (South African Dutch dialect) terms such as kopje, veldt, and so on, the “foreignness” of the resting place of Drummer Hodge, how alien it all was to him.

Above the mound of his grave, “foreign” constellations west each night.  Here west is a verb meaning “to move toward the West, to set in the West.”  So Hardy is really saying that strange constellations (star patterns) unfamiliar to Hodge would move and set each night in the wide sky above the little mound where his grave lay in the vast veldt.

The next segment of the poem repeats and emphasizes some of the elements of the first part:

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.

Hardy tells us that young “Hodge,” fresh from the Wessex countryside, never even had the time get to know and understand his alien surroundings in Africa — the Karoo (broad, dry plateau land), the Bush (the wild, uncultivated lands away from the towns) — and the dusty loam, the dry soil of southern Africa.  And Hodge never had the time, before he was killed, to learn why strange stars — stars he did not recognize — rose in the sky each night “amid the gloam,” meaning in the time after the sun had set, when the stars come out.

Now all of this is significant in Hardy’s transmission to the reader of just how alien his African surroundings were to this Wessex boy, who, being a farm lad, would have been well familiar with the soil, the trees, the hedgerows, and the constellations above southern England.  He was sent off to die in an alien land quite “foreign” to him, from soil to sky.

Paradoxically, Hardy tells us…

Yet portion of that unknown plain
  Will Hodge forever be;
His homely Northern breast and brain
  Grow to some Southern tree,
And strange-eyed constellations reign
  His stars eternally.

Hodge, buried in the dry, alien soil of Africa, now becomes part of that soil.  His “homely” breast and brain will be absorbed by the roots of some strange African tree.  And “strange-eyed” constellations reign his stars eternally,” means that the unfamiliar (“strange-eyed”) stars overhead that dominate the sky in patterns unknown to Wessex will be those over Hodge’s grave forever.  He will never again see England, but will become part of the soil and growth of Africa, lost forever in that alien land.

There is something remarkably like this near the end of My Mother’s Castle, the autobiographical account of the French author Marcel Pagnol, who talks about the sad death of his young country friend Lili des Bellons, who knew every leaf and bird and trail of his home hills, yet who similarly was killed in land that was foreign to him, a dark northern forest in the First World War:

“In 1917, a bullet striking full on cut short his young life, and he fell in the rain upon tufts of cold plants whose names he did not know.”

Again, in the film The History Boys, the student discussing Hardy’s poem remarks that there is a parallel between

Yet portion of that unknown plain
  Will Hodge forever be;
His homely Northern breast and brain
  Grow to some Southern tree…

and “golden boy” Rupert Brooke’s poem The Soldier:

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

Brooke (1887 – 1915) — who joined the British navy, died of the effects of a sequence of illnesses that ended with blood poisoning, and was buried on the island of Skyros, in Greece, not living to see his third decade of life.

In the previously-mentioned film, “Mr. Hector” replies perceptively to the student, saying of the two poems that “It is the same thought,” but adds that Hardy’s is the better, because it is “more down to earth…quite literally, down to earth.”  And it is, though both poems are very good.  In Brooke, the young man buried remains something alien in that foreign soil — “a richer dust concealed.” But Hardy is more the realist:

Yet portion of that unknown plain
  Will Hodge forever be;
His homely Northern breast and brain
  Grow to some Southern tree…

Drummer Hodge becomes absorbed into that alien environment, becomes as much a part of it as the kopje and the “Southern tree” that grows from his remains.  Quite literally, as Mr. Hector says, “down to earth.”

We should note the use of the word “homely” here.  It does not mean “plain and unattractive in appearance,” but it does mean unsophisticated and we may say, “as one would find him at his home.”  It is not negative, but just reflects his “country boy” nature — open and simple, direct and unpolished.

It really is a very striking poem, not filled with the reflected glory of Brooke, but with the acceptance of hard things as they are that we find in Hardy’s novels, which is one of the reasons why he is one of the few novelists I can read and take seriously, along with John Steinbeck.

The “aftereffect” of Drummer Hodge is somewhat like that of these lines from William Wordsworth’s A Slumber did my Spirit Seal:

No motion has she now, no force;
She neither hears nor sees;
Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course,
With rocks and stones and trees.

But with “Hodge” they are alien rocks, alien trees, alien earth and sky — and he gradually becomes one with them, as the days, months, and years pass ceaselessly on.

There is a very telling comment about the Boer War in the film Dean Spanley.  An elderly British father of two sons, one of whom died in the conflict, asks the surviving son, “Did we win the Boer War?”  The reply is, “I believe we lost more slowly than the other side.


David

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One Response to DRUMMER HODGE: STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND

  1. Thank you for this post! It’s very worthwhile for my paper’s reference🙂

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