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Extract A is a poem entitled ‘Drummer Hodge’ written by Thomas Hardy before the First World War had begun but shortly after the Boer War that took place between 1899 and 1902. The poem is based on a true story about the death of a local boy during the Boer War. The boy is referred to as ‘Drummer Hodge’ in the poem. Extract B is a poem called ‘A Dead Boche’, this time written after the First World War had started, and after the Somme, said to be the bloodiest battle of the entire war.
The poet, Robert Graves had fought in the Somme and his poem reflects on his experiences as a soldier in the First World War. His poem is centred on his discovery of a dead German soldier referred to as a ‘Boche’
‘Drummer Hodge’ describes the thoughts and feelings of the poet on the death of the young boy and his fate thereafter. ‘His homely Northern breast and brain Grow to some southern tree’ Hardy believes that Drummer Hodge will forever be a part of the earth after he dies, showing death to be a release from mortality into an eternal rest.
‘Drummer Hodge’ describes the events taking place after the boy has died, whereas ‘A Dead Boche’ centres on the event of the discovery of a dead soldier and the writers response to the experience. Graves’ poem is directed to the reader in the opening line where he says ‘To you who’d read my songs of War and only heard of blood and fame, I’ll say (you’ve heard it said before) “War’s Hell!”‘.
Graves is saying to the reader that war is not as glorious as his songs may have put it to be, and that there is more to war than blood and fame.
He goes on to say he has discovered a cure for those who crave blood and death, and that is the sight of a dead German soldier. ‘With clothes and face a sodden green, big bellied, spectacled, crop haired, dribbling black blood from nose and beard’. Graves’ creates a diabolic image of this dead soldier, upon sight of which he apparently lost his appetite for killing the enemy and his ‘lust for blood’ was cured. Graves describes the death if this German soldier with a certain repugnance ‘In a great mess of things unclean, sat a dead Boche; he scowled and stunk’. His style is similar to Wilfred Owen, when he describes the death of a soldier in his poem ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’. Owen also uses graphic images to convey his feelings to the reader, and describes the physical features of the dying soldier.
On the other hand, ‘Drummer Hodge’ uses more refined and poetic imagery ‘His homely Northern breast and brain Grow to some southern tree’. This line of the poem can be translated as meaning that after Drummer Hodge’s body has decayed he will become part of the growing plants, therefore being a part of Nature and Earth forever. In addition, ‘breast’ could be taken to mean his heart, and ‘brain’ could be taken to mean his soul, meaning that his heart and soul are now part of the Earth. It is clear from this that Hardy uses more graceful and positive imagery to describe death to the reader, whereas Graves tends towards the more physical aspect of death, which consequently entails the more shocking details which create a sense of revulsion within the reader. This emotion makes ‘A Dead Boche’ so effective in making people realise that death is not something that can be taken with a light heart.
This leads on to the idea that Graves’ poem is presented with a stark realism. One could agree with this statement on the basis that he omits no detail in describing the corpse of the dead soldier. Graves’ poem is phrased in a way that makes it easy for the reader to see the situation from his perspective, which entails the fact that the poem is presented with realism as we are able to visualise very well what is being said, ‘with clothes and face a sodden green’. This is very blunt yet brutal imagery, which is reminiscent of Owen’s style of writing, since it is after the Somme and Graves had had sufficient exposure to the war to become questioning of the British propaganda.
‘Drummer Hodge’ however, mirrors British propaganda in the sense that the poem expresses death in a romanticised and idealistic way. The slogan Dulce Et Decorum Est Pro Patria Mori, meaning that it is sweet and fitting to die for your country, made death into a bearable concept, until the war actually began and people started to lose loved ones. Much of the Pre war propaganda in Britain followed the same pattern of glorifying death and rewarding patriotism. ‘And strange-eyed constellations reign His stars eternally’ can symbolise that Drummer Hodge is in heaven, with God apparently. This is also mirrored in some of the speeches, the St Crispin’s Day Speech for example insinuates that God is on the side of the British so we cannot lose, and if you should die, you will go to heaven and spend eternity with Him.
Both the poems feature a rhyme scheme, which is significant as it adds a rhythm to the poem. In the case of ‘Drummer Hodge’, it adds a somewhat jaunty air to the poem; however, with ‘A Dead Boche’ the rhyme scheme creates a false sense of security, luring the reader into the final shock of the poem. It almost adds a feeling of indifference to the poem, as if Graves is talking about an everyday event of his life. This is partially true as Graves would have been experiencing death around him all the time, but for people at home away from the war this would have come as a nasty shock. ‘A Dead Boche’ takes the form of an account, especially in the second stanza where Graves uses much description. This allows the reader to visualise what is being said and be more affected by the message of the poem. ‘Drummer Hodge’ however is more like fictionalised speculation, romanticised in that it deals with death in an idyllic way. Hardy’s poem is like a reassurance to Drummer Hodge’s family that he is now in a better place, much in the same way as priests and vicars were called into the army to give set soldiers’ minds at rest so that they would not fear death so much.
To conclude with I would say that the two poems are a prime example of how pieces of writing concerning the same subject can often be so different in style and content presentation, especially those concerning war and death. On the one hand ‘Drummer Hodge’ successfully restores faith in the age old reassurance that death is only a release mechanism to bring us closer to God and that we need not fear it. On the other hand, ‘A Dead Boche’ draws attention to the detail that hearing about death and actually experiencing it are two very different things by saying that death should be feared, as that is its very nature.
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