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Monday 12 December 2011

Thomas Hardy: Drummer Hodge


The hill at Magersfontein overlooking the plain where the Battle of Magersfontein (Cape Colony, South Africa) was fought on 11 December 1899; looking south from the Boer position towards the British position in the distance. Remnants of the trenches can still be seen in the veldt.
[In the "Black Week" of 10-17 December 1899, the British Army suffered devastating defeats by the Boer Republics at the battles of Stormberg (690 dead), Magersfontein (948) and Colenso (1,138), with a total 2,776 men killed, wounded and captured: photo by RAM, 16 January 2006


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.

File:Magersfontein Observation Balloon.jpg

An observation balloon being prepared by the British Royal Engineers at the Battle of Magersfontein, with the hills occupied by the Boers in the background, 11 December 1899
: photographer unknown; image by Socrates2008, 11 August 2009; edit by Hohum, 9 November 2010

The Battlefield of Elangslaagte (Second Boer War), 1899: photographer unknown; image by Socrates2008, 11 August 2009; edit by Vberger, 22 December 2008

Explosion of an ammunition wagon during the Battle of Paardeberg, Boer War. [On "Bloody Sunday", 18 February 1900, the first day of the Battle of Paardeburg, British Imperial forces suffered a total 1,100 casualties, with 280 killed -- the worst single day loss of the Second Boer War]: photographer unknown (Robert N. Dennis collection of stereoscopic views /Stephen A. Schwarzman Building / Photography Collection, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, New York Public Library)

This verse of Hardy's comes out of the Second Boer War. Not for a half century had Englishmen engaged other white men in mortal combat. Accordingly, the conflict stirred mixed feeling in British hearts, including that of the never-notoriously-softhearted Mr Hardy. In October 1899, the writer had ridden his bicycle to Southampton to stand on the docks and watch the troops departing for South Africa.

By the end of November, 60,000 young men had sailed off from Southampton to the distant war.

Hardy's note added to the poem Drummer Hodge on its first periodical appearance (under the title The Dead Drummer, in the magazine Literature): "One of the Drummers killed was a native of a village near Casterbridge". (He meant, near Dorchester -- i.e., a local lad.)

kopje = small hillock
veldt = grassy plain, savanna

Karoo = high arid plateau in South Africa
Hodge = patronising generic name for rustic labourer

Cf. Hardy's novel Tess of the D'Urbervilles:

"The conventional farm-folk of his imagination -- personified in the newspaper-press by the pitiable dummy known as Hodge -- were obliterated after a few days' residence. At close quarters no Hodge was to be seen... He had been disintegrated into a number of fellow-creatures -- beings of many minds, beings infinite in difference; some happy, some serene, a few depressed, one here and there bright even to genius, some stupid, others wanton, others austere; some mutely Miltonic, some potentially Cromwellian; into men who had private views of each other, as he had of his friends..."

Canopus, brightest star in the southern constellation of Carina and Argo Navis, and the second brightest star in the night sky, after Sirius. Canopus is about 300 light years from Earth in the southern hemisphere constellation Carina and is a rare class “F” yellow-white (7800 Kelvin) super giant. It is 65 times wider and 15,000 times more luminous than the Sun and is large enough to stretch three-fourths of the way across Mercury’s orbit: photo by astronaut Donald R. Pettit, ISS, March 2003 (NASA)

Thomas Hardy: Drummer Hodge, from Poems of the Past and the Present, 1901


ACravan said...

This is so fine and seems so timely. The observation balloon, charming as it appears on the surface in the way balloons always do, reminds me of our Predator drones (which according to today's news reports, are now being employed for surveillance activities by local police forces in the US). It's also a superb example of what Beyond The Pale uniquely achieves in so many contexts. I would like to think that Hardy scholars and teachers would take note of this; publishers also. Curtis

TC said...


A. said almost exactly the same thing.

The birth of the era of aerial surveillance.

Not that it did the British a whole lot of good at Magersfontein (see stats in attribution note), Colenso (which is probably where Drummer Hodge died), Stormberg, Paardeberg or elsewhere.

To snoop is to see only so much. The under-the-radar movements, esp. nocturnal, have always been the problem for the imperial occupying forces everywhere.

("The Night Belongs to Charlie".)

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

The last verse is as powerful in words as the photo of the southern constellation is stunning, breath-taking in the original sense. Great post, continuing to swoon over Hardy.

And, yes, indeed, his career choices, or more precisely, his timing does seem odd in a whimsical way. And so wonderful that he turned from that great cycle of novels to an equally great body of poesy.

TC said...


So beautiful, breathtaking really, the way the poem "zooms out" from the dusty loam to the great cosmos.

The salient astronomical body in the night sky above Drummer Hodge's anonymous burial mound, there in the wide wilderness of the veldt, would have been Canopus.

The star is by some English-speakers in other parts of the world called Sohel, feminine form Sohelia. Its Turkish name is Süheyl, or the feminine Süheyla, from the Arabic name for several bright stars, سهيل suhayl, including Canopus and Regor. To the Bedouin of the Negev and the Sinai, Canopus is known as Suhayl. Canopus and Polaris are the two principal stars used by the Bedouin for navigation at night. Due to the fact that it disappears below the horizon, Canopus became, among these tribal peoples of the desert, whose world was that of the grains of sand and the seas of stars, associated with a cowardly or changeable nature, as opposed to the circumpolar star, Polaris, always visible and hence "steadfast''. In Chinese, Canopus is called 老人星 or The Star of the Old Man. In Japanese, it is Mera-boshi or Roujin-sei, the Old Man Star. From what we can tell at this great distance, the spirit of Thomas Hardy seems to have been a resistant and durable yet at the same time strangely mercurial thing, both steadfast in attachment to some unidentifiable sadness, some elusive source of melancholy, and changeable in its recasting of itself into successive artistic forms, from architecture, which had once promised an excellent career before being mysteriously abandoned, to the various kinds of writing, each a distinct universe with a distinct set of technical demands. He did not mysteriously turn away from writing novels to writing lyric poetry until he was an old man.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

Your in-depth commentary finds me thinking of Drummer Hodge and Hardy, too, as two bodies moving through space, quite literally, as do we all, separately, and then as one ...

Nin Andrews said...

Yes, I agree that our lives, too, are or sometimes seem battle zones. Amazing the depths we go, and that Hardy takes us to.
I am currently watching my mother near the end, and the battle within is fierce
And the medical surveillance we now have is fierce as well.

What a wonder life and death . . .

vazambam (Vassilis Zambaras) said...


Your barrage of Hardy poems sent me diving into my hopelessly disarrayed library until I found my volume of his Selected Poems, edited and introduced by John Crowe Ransom, a book I bought while I was at the UW in Seattle.

Time to read more of this "brooding precursor of modern poetry"--thanks for the nudge.

Anonymous said...

By another coincidence (and as I wrote elsewhere, so I hope you haven't heard this one...) I've been reading Winston Churchill's My Early Life, which covers his time as a soldier and journalist during the Second Boer War. Churchill wrote it in 1930, and all the way through he gives the impression that prior to 1914 many upper-class people in Britain, particularly the cavalry, went to war in the colonies for a bit of a laugh, sort of like playing extreme polo. He uses 'jolly' and phrases like 'great fun' a lot. The contrast was intended to seem extraordinary to the bitter WW1 generation, presumably.

The first battles, as you say, Tom, were all lost by the British. The commander was a Sir Redvers Buller, VC. Churchill writes:

Buller was a characteristic British personality. He looked stolid. He said little, and what he said was obscure. He was not the kind of man who could explain things, and he never tried to do so. He usually grunted, or nodded, or shook his head, in serious discussions; and shop of all kinds was sedulously excluded from his ordinary conversation. He had shown himself a brave and skilful officer in his youth, and for nearly twenty years he had filled important administrative posts of a sedentary character in Whitehall. As his political views were coloured with Liberalism, he was regarded as a very sensible officer. His name had been long before the public; and with all these qualities it is no wonder that their belief in him was unbounded. 'My confidence', said Lord Salisbury [the PM] at the Guildhall, on 9 November 1899, 'in the British soldier is only equalled by my confidence in Sir Redvers Buller.' Certainly he was a man of considerable scale. He plodded on from blunder to blunder and from one disaster to another, without losing either the regard of his country or the trust of his troops, to whose feeding as well as his own he paid serious attention.

The Wikipedia article about Buller says
He was defeated at the Battle of Colenso, where he had forbidden his troops to dig trenches or foxholes for fear of damaging the pleasant countryside, and warned them against muddying their uniforms by crawling along the ground.

So he wasn't a wholly bad man, Churchill just thought he was in the wrong job. I believe Buller may be an ancestor of Eliza Manningham-Buller, former head of MI5 and daughter of the reactionary judge nicknamed by Bernard Levin "Sir Reginald Bullying-Manner".

Here's another excerpt from My Early Life about the preparations for going to war:

[Lord] Gerard's function was to look after the personal comfort of the Commander-In-Chief [Sir Redvers Buller], and for that purpose he was presented at the [London] dinner with I don't know how many cases of the very best champagne and the very oldest brandy which the cellars of London boasted...In order to make sure they reached the headquarters intact, Lord Gerard took the precaution of labelling them 'Castor Oil'. Two months later in Natal, when they had not yet arrived, he dispatched an urgent telegram to the base at Durban asking for his castor oil. The reply came back that the packages of this drug addressed to his lordship had by an error already been issued to the hospitals. There were now, however, ample stores of castor oil available at the base and the commandant was forwarding a full supply forthwith!
Many of our South African experiences were to be upon a similar plane.


TC said...


Extremely moved to hear of the passing of that remarkable woman, your mother.

Samuel Johnson: Passion and Meditation; together with a little elegy for teachers

TC said...


"Extreme polo" -- that's wonderfully good.

I think that when the news of Magersfontein got back, even in altered version, there would have had to have been some at least moderate consternation in some drawing rooms.

"Lord Methuen failed to perform adequate reconnaissance in preparation for the impending battle, and was unaware that Boer Veggeneraal (Combat General) De la Rey had entrenched his forces at the foot of the hills rather than the forward slopes as was the accepted practice. This allowed the Boers to survive the initial British artillery bombardment; when the British troops failed to deploy from a compact formation during their advance, the defenders were able to inflict heavy casualties. ...The Boers attained a tactical victory and succeeded in holding the British in their advance on Kimberley. The battle was the second of three battles during what became known as the Black Week..."

After that embarassment, the taken-aback British did their bit of "vamping" (this part does remind one of the state of shock-and-awe-about how it had all gone pear-shaped, within the American military, after the actions at the Ia Drang Valley, late 1965, and then again at Dak To, November 1967) -- they delayed at the Modder River for another two months while reinforcements were brought forward.

And then, the "Black Week" at Paardeburg...

The assumptions of Empire die hard, Gordon at Khartoum & all that.

It's surprising how these lessons seem to have been lost, as soon as thirteen years later.

Americans have yet to face this news. It's surprising the lessons of Vietnam, a bitter foretaste of the incipient failure of Empire, never really did sink in.

Perhaps it's somewhat akin after all to the blind enclosure of the drawing room. There has always been a desperate yen among the colonial nouveau riche to attain to the superficial levels of comfort which they have all along (deliberately?) misperceived as "class".

The Bloomsburyites knew all this, of course.

The difference for those lakeside thinktankers at Tuxedo Park was that they could affect the lives (and of course more importantly, the deaths) of millions, without ever leaving their armchairs on the screened-in front porches of those wondrous estates beside the pleasant lakes nestled into in the Ramapo Mountains.

Hardy's strong anti-war sentiments did not develop until the '14 war got going, and the point (that is, the pointlessness of it) could not be missed. Obviously he felt for young "Hodge", a local Dorset lad and in that sense as real to him as the goldfinch or that thrush (if also of course every bit as hopelessly "other"), left dead there so far, far from home.

At the beginning of the '99-'01 conflict Hardy's personal "position" was complicated by friendship with the wife of a prominent officer in the British expeditionary force.

But the thought of this man of almost sixty, riding a bicycle from Dorchester to Southampton, does give pause. That's a fair ride. The ankle-clips would have dug into one's fleshless calves, gnawing at the bone by the time one cleared the hill and got that view of the ships lying out before one.

I once rode the Queen Mary in and out of that port. All the Cunard shipboard people were lifetime Cunarders, they and their families had lived their lives at sea (much as, I guess, "airline families" nowadays), in those great boats.

When the Queen Mary II was built, Hardy's poem "Embarcation", writ that day in October 1899 when he cycled over from Dorset to see off the troops, was inscribed on the starboard side of the hull. Those Cunard families doubtless would have understood it better than, say Empson or Leavis.

TC said...

And as we'll only ever be here but this once, here 'tis:

Here, where Vespasian's legions struck the sands,
And Cerdic with his Saxons entered in,
And Henry's army leapt afloat to win
Convincing triumphs over neighbour lands,

Vaster battalions press for further strands,
To argue in the self-same bloody mode
Which this late age of thought, and pact, and code,
Still fails to mend.--Now deckward tramp the bands,

Yellow as autumn leaves, alive as spring;
And as each host draws out upon the sea
Beyond which lies the tragical To-be,
None dubious of the cause, none murmuring,

Wives, sisters, parents, wave white hands and smile,
As if they knew not that they weep the while.

TC said...

And from that same dolorous act of dockside witnessing had come another Hardy verse, Departure:

While the far farewell music thins and fails,
And the broad bottoms rip the bearing brine -
All smalling slowly to the gray sea line --
And each significant red smoke-shaft pales,

Keen sense of severance everywhere prevails,
Which shapes the late long tramp of mounting men
To seeming words that ask and ask again:
“How long, O striving Teutons, Slavs, and Gaels

Must your wroth reasonings trade on lives like these,
That are as puppets in a playing hand? -- ...