Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Thomas Hardy: 'A Christmas Ghost-Story'

The Christmas Truce of 1914 brought soldiers together in No-Man's-Land to exchange cigarettes and drinks, play football, sing hymns together, and talk about their families. Christmas is something of an embarrassment for those who wage war: the Tommies and Fritzes who climbed out of their trenches were acknowledging an authority higher than their own military leaders.

Thomas Hardy's 'A Christmas Ghost-Story' is a Boer War poem which sets in opposition the Christian message and the unChristian nature of war. Its publication was enough to outrage the Daily Chronicle, which, with an absence of self-awareness most kindly described as comical, chose Christmas Day, 1899, as the right time to denounce Hardy as a 'pacifist'.

A Christmas Ghost-Story

South of the Line, inland from far Durban,
A mouldering soldier lies---your countryman.
Awry and doubled up are his gray bones,
And on the breeze his puzzled phantom moans
Nightly to clear Canopus: 'I would know
By whom and when the All-Earth-gladdening Law
Of peace, brought in by that Man Crucified,
Was ruled to be inept, and set aside?
And what of logic or of truth appears
In tacking "Anno Domini" to the years?
Near twenty-hundred liveried thus have hied,
But tarries yet the Cause for which He died.'
    Christmas Eve, 1899.

Hardy later allowed the poem to be republished in an anti-war periodical. Quite what the Church made of it, one can only guess, but the poet was not content to leave the matter there. Two months later he reported a conversation with a 'religious man': 'I said, We the civilized world have given Christianity a fair trial for nearly 2000 years, & it has not yet taught countries the rudimentary virtue of keeping peace.'

Yet 'A Christmas Ghost-Story' is a problematic poem. Hardy's prosopopoeia, by which he forces his own political views into the mouth of a dead soldier, is ethically dubious. Compare McCrae's 'In Flanders Fields', from the Great War: McCrae, like Hardy, claims to speak for the dead ('We are the Dead'), yet he burdens them with the argument that the war should be fought to the bitter end lest 'ye break faith with us who die'. Both poems are propaganda, one against war, and one for it, and both enlist the authority of the dead soldier (or soldiers) to protect their own agenda from attack. After all, who would dare argue against those who have made the ultimate sacrifice?


  1. This one suits me. I quite like the details ("Awry and doubled up"; "Nightly to clear Canopus"; the last two lines and more). But "prosopopoeia"? Yowie! Since I have no idea what that is, let me just mention a couple of things triggered by your heavy-handed sentence condemning Hardy...

    The speaker is a "puzzled phantom," not a soldier specifically bemoaning his unfair death. Nor does he say "we" as in your contrasting poem. I think our phantom speaks only for himself, as he questions the 2000-year failure of the Christian Peace Initiative. He makes no specific charges against governments or individuals (however implicit), nor does he rail against organized religion; he is simply puzzled, wondering about the well-evident lack of progress on the Peace front, 2000 years and counting. Christ died for that cause, and Man has failed him yet again...

    While Hardy may have been anti-religious, I'd say this poem does not sneer, but only observes quietly and sadly, speaking Truth to Power.

  2. Ed, his questions are obviously rhetorical, and the word 'puzzled' is a disguise. For example, 'And what of logic or of truth appears / In tacking "Anno Domini" to the years?" The question is, to all intents and purposes, a statement. And the poem ends with another statement. It is perfectly likely, of course, that some of the soldiers who died in South Africa held the views that Hardy attributes to his soldier; just as it is undeniable that many soldiers in France held the view attributed to dead soldiers by McCrae. But I maintain that the appropriation is gross. Imagine that a poet, today, put his or her opinions on Afghanistan into the mouth of a dead soldier. By what right?

  3. Now I'm the puzzled one. Aren't you denying poetry, drama, reality-based fiction, and any other format that allows the author to imagine, and speak, the words of once-living people--whether kings, outlaws, churchmen, mothers, soldiers, or other? To answer your question, I'd say that, yes, the poet can project his/her own words into the mouth of any dead person (even if it may be legally wiser to voice the long dead rather than the recent). Shakespeare, Browning, Eliot, Doctorow, and any biographer who puts a real subject in imagined scenes might object to your apparent contemptuous rejection.

  4. I'm not objecting at all to drama, or to dramatic monologue. I am objecting to the opportunistic press-ganging of the very recently dead (Hardy's soldier would have been 1 month dead at the most) to serve one's own political ends.

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  6. I'll shut up soon, but I too am pleased with your choice and intro and this exchange of opinions. Just want to add one thought I failed to mention: my main objection to your dissection, Tim, is that you are ascribing line interpretations using your century-later knowledge of Hardy's biography and world view and depression and what-all, not just reading the lines for what THEY say. I see the poem as musing sadly rather than making angry accusations (which may be naive or wrongheaded on my own biased part, of course)--no matter what we now know of his politics or state of mind on that particular Christmas Eve.

    One soldier's ghost wonders why Peace has failed for 2000 years, even though the world continues to pay lip service to Christ's concept. I don't believe Hardy's pro-Peace poem within itself even really qualifies as anti-Boer War.

    Further deponent sayeth not, in this Year of our Lord 2009, the world so clearly having accomplished Christ's and Hardy's intents.

  7. Surely an important aspect of this poem is that Hardy was not a christian and so the soldier is an unreliable narrator. I don't think Hardy used the dead for his own political ends; I think he recognised the double irony that the soldier killed and died in the name of a pacifist creed and that that creed could not be made to work anyway.
    As the gutter press and politicians gleefully press-gang the recently dead to serve their own ends, I think it is a shame that poets, who at least ought to try to use language carefully, do not try to speak on behalf of the dead.

  8. I can't imagine putting my own words/political views etc. into a dead soldier's mouth, but what I can imagine is repeating what a soldier has told me or asked me to tell, before VSA.

    I am thanked almost daily by those serving abroad, or vets, for telling their story. I use their words often. I have spent thousands of hours with them, recording their stories, their turn of phrase, etc., is it possible Hardy did too? And isn't it a poet's duty in part, to articulate that which others can't?

    Vis-a-vis the failure of Christ's great project, I have seen firsthand, and heard, the gesture of peace deep in the heart of war-country.


  9. There isn't any evidence that Hardy was parroting the views of soldiers to whom he had spoken. However, he did apologise to Florence Henniker, whose husband served in the War, for sounding too 'tragic' in his Boer War poems. That suggests a certain anxiety about his appropriation of the war for his own artistic and political ends.

  10. Don't have anything special to say. Just wanted to tell you I really enjoy the stories you find.
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  11. studying my a levels
    thanks for your interpretations,
    personally i agree with tim (:
    but helped a lot xD

  12. Thanks for expressing your feelings so sincerely. I was especially impressed by the poem. Once I was trying to expand an essay received from the writing services, but then I did not manage to find something like your post.

  13. Surely the character is Hardy's because he is his creation and so should be subject to the author's needs and if that means expressing his own political views then why not?
    However I understand the sensitivity of the topic, should Hardy have restricted his poetic license in view of the harm that he could potentially cause?

  14. So creative and cute article i am love to read this. Very happy to see your article, I very much to like and agree with your point of view. Thank you for the tips.

  15. Having included this poem in our latest church magazine, I'm now wondering if it was such a good idea. My view was that it was a whimsical examination of the failure of peace over the years and the hope that the true meaning of Christianity would one day be realised. However, I'm now thinking that many people who read the magazine will know of Hardy's persuasions and read it as a negative message about Christianity. But then I suppose that's the point of the poem isn't it - everyone has their own interpretation and it should therefore open up healthy discussion...we'll see.

  16. On line 11, the word "liveried" appears as "livened" in other online versions of the poem. Which is correct, or did Hardy use both?

    1. Hello Brian. It should always be 'liveried'.