"The Man He Killed" was written in 1902 by Thomas Hardy, an English Victorian poet and writer of fiction. The poem, in the form of a dramatic monologue, is a wonderful example of Hardy's belief in meliorism and his anti-war sentiments.
The poem is spoken in first person, using a young soldier as the speaker. To summarize, the speaker is attempting to explain to others and to himself why he killed another soldier, one from the opposing side.
Many of Hardy's poems, including this one, reflect Hardy's belief in meliorism. Meliorists believe that society is constantly improving, but only through man's efforts. He felt that either there was not god to save us, or if there were a supreme being, He did not concern himself about man's fate. In other words, we had to save ourselves by helping one another and by being kind to all our fellow creatures.
Hardy was very concerned with man's inhumanity to man, and he felt that war was the ultimate form of this, being planned, organized inhumanity. The poem specifically addresses the Boer War, which Hardy was vehemently against.
The Boer War took place in South Africa, which was largely populated by Dutch farmers. Great Britain was in possession of lands surrounding the Boers. When gold and diamonds were discovered in the Boers' land, however, Britain desired the area, and the Boer War ensued.
"The Man He Killed" basicaly tells the story of a young soldier who off-handedly enlists into the infantry because he needs the salary. He does not fight for some lofty patriotic reason or because he believes in "the cause." After killing his foe, he ponders if perhaps the other young man entered the army for similar reasons:
He thought he'd [en]list, perhaps,
Off-hand, like, just as I -
Was out of work - had sold his traps -
No other reason why.
He explains that had he and the other soldier met under different circumstances, they would probably be buying each other pints in a pub instead of trying to kill each other:
Had he and I but met
By some old ancient inn,
We should have set us down to wet
Right many a nipperkin!
The poem makes it obvious that the speaker understands the senselessness and futility of the war, yet he rationalizes his killing of the man:
I shot him dead because -
Because he was my foe.
Just so: my foe of course he was;
That's clear enough; although...
The last stanza sums up the speaker's views on the whole incident:
Yes; strange and curious war is!
You shoot a fellow down
You'd treat, where any bar is,
Or help to half a crown.
Most of Hardy's poems are pessimistic, reflecting the dark side of man, especially his capacity for violence and cruelty, and this poem is no exception. In fact, "The Man He Killed" is probably one of the poet's most disturbing set of verses. It forces the reader to examine the brutality and inhumanity of war, and to ponder how humans are often victims of sheer circumstance and fate.