Thomas Hardy wrote several war poems. This one is about a country lad who goes to South Africa fight in the Boer War and gets killed there. Hardy reflects on the circumstances in which this young man is crudely buried in a strange land, far away from his own people. Everything around him is strange and unfamiliar.
In this poem, Hardy bemoans the fate of the young soldier newly arrived from Wessex and who was found dead in action. He was buried with no coffin to hold his remains, in the bare earth with just a mound of earth to mark his grave. All around were the grasslands of South Africa. Every night the strange stars of the Southern hemisphere shone over his grave. But the fact that he is interred there made that part of earth undeniably the soldier’s. His body and his brain will now feed some tree or bush that grows near his grave. Hardy seems to have believed that buried bodies can in some way reincarnate themselves and become part of the local flora.
The young British soldier is given a casual burial in the foreign soil with just a mound of earth to mark his grave. So strange and foreign is this land that even the stars that shine overhead are unfamiliar ones. The young man did not have time to get to know this strange dusty land that was so different from his Wessex home. But now, having been buried here, the land will unquestionably belong to him and his body will go to nourish the trees around. He will eternally sleep under strange constellations of the Southern skies.
The opening lines of the poem sum up the haste and crudeness of the burial accorded to the young soldier. There is no coffin and no grave stone; just a mound of earth is all that is provided. The strangeness of the landscape finds echo in the stars above him too; these are constellations not seen in his home country. The fifth line of the first stanza sees the unusual usage of the word ‘west’ as a verb. In order to highlight the foreignness of the land, Hardy uses several Afrikaans words.
The second stanza is reflective in mood; the young man like young soldiers all over the world is yet to comprehend the meaning of all this. He doesn’t quite know what he is doing in this strange land. He has come all the way from Wessex but before he becomes familiar with this foreign land, he is dead.
Nevertheless, the land under which he lies buried will now be undeniably his. Though he came from another land, his body will now become nourishment for the trees that grow locally. Above his head will forever shine strange stars.
The violence and brutality of the opening lines give way to a more reflective and calm mood. The poet seems to accept the fact of the death of the soldier in a foreign country.
Looking beyond the meaning contained in the lines of the poem, Hardy seems to wonder at the futility of war. The Drummers were the youngest soldiers, just boys in their late teens. The word Hodge is not a name but a derogatory word meaning country bumpkin or laborer. This young man is a nameless soldier who had been packed off to die in a strange land. He perhaps did not know what this war was all about.