IN TIME OF 'THE BREAKING OF NATIONS'
by Thomas Hardy
Only a man harrowing clods
In a slow silent walk
With an old horse that stumbles and nods
Half asleep as they stalk.
Only thin smoke without flame
From the heaps of couch-grass;
Yet this will go onward the same
Though Dynasties pass.
Yonder a maid and her wight
Come whispering by:
War's annals will cloud into night
Ere their story die.
In 1915, when Hardy wrote this poem, his novel-writing years were already twenty years behind him. He had given up any further ambitions for fiction after the hostile reception given to Jude the Obscure. He wrote many fine poems after 1895, though. This is one of them, although most of his war poetry was patriotically unthinking.
In this poem, simple in both structure and meaning, Hardy creates images of a timeless rural idyll, perhaps harking back to his time in Cornwall where he met his first wife. Essentially he was saying, 'this is what really matters; war and politics won't change this.' Unfortunately, he was wrong about that, as we can say with the benefit of hindsight. The world was forever changed by the Great War and its aftermath.
Hardy was in his mid-seventies when he wrote this poem. He was to die in 1928. Like others of his generation, he could not begin to understand what industrialised, large scale war would mean. But then, could anyone else?