“Drummer Hodge” by Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) was first published in “Literature” on 23rd November 1899 with the title “The Dead Drummer”. It later appeared as one of the “War Poems” in Hardy’s 1901 collection “Poems of the Past and the Present” with its new title.
It is one of several poems inspired by the Anglo-Boer War in what is now South Africa, fought between the British Army and settlers of Dutch origin, from October 1899 to May 1902. Thomas Hardy was opposed to the war from the outset, regarding it as an imperialistic outrage that would take the lives of innocent men for the sake of enriching powerful people whose sole concern was the control of land and mineral resources. Hardy had cycled the 50 miles to Southampton to watch the troops embark and wrote several poems on that occasion, plus others at a later date as reports appeared in the newspapers. “Drummer Hodge” is one of the latter.
Although the poem mentions “Young Hodge the Drummer”, there is no evidence that there was such a person of that name. The name “Hodge” was used as a nickname by “townies” for a yokel or country bumpkin, and Hardy had used the convention before in his 1891 novel “Tess of the d’Urbervilles”. His purpose here, as in the novel, was to give character and individuality to someone who might otherwise be passed over as a nobody. That said, Hardy may well have had somebody specific in mind, given that he added a note when the poem first appeared to the effect that: “one of the drummers killed was a native of a village near Casterbridge (i.e. Dorchester)”. As Hardy himself came from such a village it is possible that he knew the family in question, or, if not, he would have been fully aware of the effect on such a family of a loss such as that described in “Drummer Hodge”.
It also needs to be borne in mind that many soldiers who went to South Africa as drummers were very young, maybe only fourteen or fifteen years of age. Many accompanied their soldier fathers or older brothers because they wished to share the adventure of war that seemed preferable to working on a farm or in a factory. They were not trained to fight, their role being to lead the fighting men into battle by beating drums to set their marching rhythm and “stiffen the sinews”. They also used drums to send signals and their other roles included taking messages and carrying ammunition. Being in the front line, and unable to defend themselves, they were extremely vulnerable and many were killed. Fortunately, the role of drummer was made obsolete in the era of “total war” that began in 1914 with World War I.
The poem, in three six-line stanzas with an ABABAB rhyme scheme, expresses Hardy’s horror at the disrespect shown to the dead body of a young drummer, his corpse having been thrown into an unmarked grave somewhere on the African plain and forgotten about, as though his existence had no value other than as “cannon fodder”.
The first stanza sets the scene in stark, unvarnished terms: “They throw in Drummer Hodge, to rest / Uncoffined – just as found”. He is to be left under a “mound” that is marked only by “a kopje-crest”. Hardy makes use of this Afrikaans word (for a small rocky hillock), and “veldt” in the next line, to emphasise how foreign this environment would be for a boy from a Dorset village. This is confirmed by the mention of “foreign constellations” that “west” (i.e. set in the west) “each night above his mound”. The grave, being in the southern hemisphere, might as well be on a different planet given that there is not a single point of contact between this place and the land that Drummer Hodge knew, day or night.
This theme continues in the second stanza, but the focus turns to the perspective of Drummer Hodge himself, and the fact that, when alive, this environment would have been another world to him and so will continue that way for ever, now that he is dead. The line “Fresh from his Wessex home” (Wessex being Hardy’s name for Dorset and the neighbouring counties) allows the contrast to be made between the boy’s familiar English landscape and: “… the broad Karoo, the Bush, the dusty loam”. Again, by using unfamiliar words such as “Karoo”, Hardy points to the differences not only of geography but also of language and culture.
As with the first stanza, Hardy ends with a reference to “strange stars”, thus maintaining the theme of night following day, time after time for eternity.
The third stanza introduces a new idea with the couplet: “Yet portion of that unknown plain / Will Hodge for ever be”. His decomposing body will become part of that strange world and “Grow to some Southern tree”. This concept, of a soldier’s body becoming part of a foreign land, is one that sounds familiar to readers of war poetry, as it was used, for a somewhat different purpose, by Rupert Brooke in his World War I poem “The Soldier”:
“If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed … ”
Brooke’s aim was to make a patriotic point that the sacrifice of the soldier’s life had the benefit of making a foreign place more English, and therefore better. Most readers today would take the line that Hardy’s attitude is the more honest one, namely that the hasty burial of a young soldier far from home is a matter for sorrow and lament rather than national pride. Incidentally, it is known that Rupert Brooke’s poetry was influenced by that of Thomas Hardy, and it may well be that Brooke had read Hardy’s “Drummer Hodge” before writing “The Soldier”.
As with the first two stanzas, the third ends with the stars: “And strange-eyed constellations reign / His stars eternally”. The impression given at the end of the poem is therefore of the stars looking down (“strange-eyed”) as protectors of the young boy’s body, and of Drummer Hodge’s ownership of those stars. He has been abandoned in a lonely grave in a strange land, but he will always have these Southern stars for company.
It is to Hardy’s credit that he stops short of sentimentality in this poem, even though some readers might argue that the final stanza veers a little way in that direction. Hardy does not need to labour the point that this is a needless waste of a young life for a cause that the drummer had no knowledge of and of which the poet thoroughly disapproves.
Thomas Hardy is not often thought of a “war poet”, that accolade being reserved for such as Wilfred Owen, Edward Thomas, Siegfried Sassoon and Isaac Rosenberg, who fought in World War I and some whom failed to survive it. However, a number of these poets acknowledged their debt to the influence of Thomas Hardy’s Boer War poems, “Drummer Hodge” being one of them. What Hardy’s poem and those of the poets listed (among others) have in common is their concern for the common soldier as a person who is suffering and dying, as opposed to being a symbol of some greater good for which their life is being nobly sacrificed. That distinction is what marks “Drummer Hodge” out as being infinitely superior to Brooke’s “The Soldier” and other poems of that ilk that failed to appreciate the humanity of their subject. Hardy may have taken a pessimistic view of life in many of his poems and novels, but always at their heart was sympathy and empathy for ordinary people and their triumphs and tragedies. “Drummer Hodge” is a good example of this approach.
The full text of the poem is as follows:
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.
Picture credit: Photograph of a portrait of Thomas Hardy by William Strang; placed in the public domain by the National Portrait Gallery.