Sunday, May 06, 2007

Drummer Hodge

We watched History Boys. One of its achievements is to reveal the greatness of Thomas Hardy, the poet. He wrote the following a couple of months after the outbreak of the Boer War.
Drummer Hodge, Thomas Hardy

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 forever be;
His homely Northern breast and brain
  Grow to some Southern tree,
And strange-eyed constellation reign
  His stars eternally.
{Boer words in the poem: kopje: small hill,
velte: prairie, Karoo: South African plain.}

From a review of the play:
Who could have thought that one of the most gripping scenes on Broadway this season would be a secondary-school teacher explaining a poem by Thomas Hardy?

It happens in "The History Boys," Alan Bennett's funny, touching and eloquent play about the meaning of education, which opened Sunday at the Broadhurst Theatre.

The teacher, Hector (the superb Richard Griffiths), has just been told he must retire from the North of England secondary school where he's worked for many years because he's been observed groping -- rather ineffectually -- his students.

Posner (Samuel Barnett), the pupil he's speaking to in an otherwise empty classroom, is confused about his sexuality, wondering if he's gay. But the scene is not about sex. It's about the consolation of poetry, thinking and understanding, connecting to something outside yourself.

The poem, "Drummer Hodge," concerns a young British soldier killed in Africa, and the usually exuberant Hector discusses it quietly and a bit wearily. ("Un-coffined is a typical Hardy usage. A compound adjective ... un-kissed, un-rejoicing, un-confessed, unembraced. ... It brings a sense of not sharing, of being out of it ... a holding back. ... Can you see that?")

The scene fascinatingly dramatizes what "The History Boys" is about: the unquantifiable value of learning.
Phillip Mallett has a good page on Hardy and the war on the home page of the University of St. Andrews.

Addendum: I've previously written about a famous battle -- Spion Kop -- and its connections with the Liverpool Football Club.

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