Drummer Hodge and the Cape of Good Hope
“Drummer Hodge” (1899) may well be the best-known poem (in English, anyway) about the Second Boer War (1899-1902). Thomas Hardy wrote and published it within weeks of the outbreak of fighting. Before reading the poem here, I’ll sketch out the white mischief that brought a homely lad from the west of England to die “uncoffined” on the South African veldt.
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“Night made us return to our crazy ship,” wrote William Deventer, in the Netherlands, late in the 17th century. The ship lay anchored off the Cape of Good Hope; it had weathered the journey badly (in nautical contexts, “crazy” then meant “cracked,” “frail,” “unsound,” etc.). “And as we were returning from the land,” Ten Rhyne continues, “we observed the sea near the rocky shoar almost covered with haddocks; being extremely satisfied we had escaped this without the least danger, as having in full remembrance what happen’d to eight Dutch-men sometime before, who being imploy’d in the pursuit of some sea-horses, were cut to pieces by the natives.”, a native of
I do not know when the party of Hottentots—as Europeans called them—cut those eight Dutchmen to pieces for poaching “sea-horses” (which almost certainly meant “hippopotamuses” in 17th century English). But I do know that the killings were a footnote to the Khoikhoi-Dutch Wars fought on the Cape of Good Hope, first in 1659, when the Dutch East India Company arrived, then in 1673, and then again from 1674 to 1677.
Hunting hippos, fishing for haddock; setting up naval stations to resupply ships attached to the Dutch East India Company (whether against scurvy, or for some other purpose); mining gold and diamonds: whatever their enterprise, the Europeans had come to make the Cape their own. The Hottentots, who called themselves the Khoikhoi, resented it.
William Ten Rhyne and his party—the name, Wikipedia gives me to understand, is now spelled Willem ten Rhijne—took refuge in their “crazy ship,” as it lay off the coast of the Cape, on October 9, 1673. This dates his expedition to the second of the Khoikhoi-Dutch Wars. What details I know of it derive from An Account of the Cape of Good Hope and the Hottentotes, the Natives of that Country, by William Ten Rhyne, Native of Deventry, Physician in Ordinary, and a Member of the Council of Justice, to the Dutch East India Company (as Englished from the Latin original).
There we learn that the Hottentots call the Dutch “Onkay”; that they manage bows and arrows “with such dexterity that at forty paces” they always “hit the mark”; that they make use of a “hypnotick plant” known, in their language, as “dacha”; that they call thunder “kou” and oxen “boeba”; that, to them, a wolf is an “ouka”; and that lions are “gamma.”
Willem ten Rhijne doesn’t record the native words for “council of justice.”
The third Khoikhoi-Dutch war brought the natives under “Onkay” control. This made possible the permanent settlement, and ever-inward incursion, of the Onkay who came to be called, by Europeans, Afrikaners (known also, in certain contexts, as the “Boer”). The Fourth Anglo-Dutch War (1780-84)—incident partly to the American Revolution, but also to British aspirations to steal a march on the Dutch East India Company—issued, after the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1784, in the establishment, in Holland, of the Republic of Batavia. That republic, in its turn, became a client state of France under Louis Bonaparte.
All of which explains (in part) why, on January 8, 1806, British infantry, under the command of Lieutenant General David Baird, moved on Cape Town, South Africa. His purpose was to seize control of the cape from the (now French-allied) Dutch. He succeeded. Conflicts over the resources of the Cape of Good Hope, so obliquely registered in Willem ten Rhijne’s old narrative, had, in the ripeness of time, entangled men (white and black) in the far-flung Napoleonic Wars, with all its crazy ships; about which Thomas Hardy would later write an epic poem called The Dynasts.† Europeans no longer depended on Hottentots to cut them to pieces on the Cape. They’d taken that job for themselves.
The Afrikaner descendants of what the “Hottentots” called the “Onkay” looked as unkindly on the prospect of British rule as had the Khoikhoi on the prospect of rule by the Dutch. The ground was now laid for the First and 1880-81 and 1899-1902, respectively). The latter concerns me here. While it was in progress, Thomas Hardy published his second book of verse, Poems of the Past and Present (the front matter dates the book in 1902, but it was actually issued—as Samuel Hynes, Hardy’s editor, points out—in November 1901).(fought in
Hardy opens the book with eleven poems bearing on the Second Boer War, set aside in a section of their own. He’d followed the war “avidly” (so reports his biographer, Michael Millgate). In a letter to his friend Florence Henniker, the poet notes, with a satisfaction altogether proper, that “not a single one [of his war poems] is Jingo or Imperial.”†† No one, I think, would disagree.
Among these poems of the Boer War is “The Dead Drummer” (Hardy later changed the title to “Drummer Hodge,” by which name it is now generally known):
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.
Yet portion of that unknown plain
—Will Hodge for ever be;
His homely Northern breast and brain
—Grow up a Southern tree,
And strange-eyed constellations reign
—His stars eternally.
The poem appeared first in Literature on 25 November 1899, where it bore a subtitle: “One of the Drummers killed was a native of Casterbridge.” (Casterbridge is the name Dorchester takes in Hardy’s alter-west-England: “Wessex.”) The war had begun in October 1899 with a successful Boer assault on British positions in Natal and Cape Colony. Drummer Hodge, we are to understand, perished in that offensive. The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that “Hodge” is “a familiar by-form and abbreviation of the name Roger; used as a typical name for the English agricultural labourer or rustic.” Hardy uses it as both a proper name and as a “type.” Hodge, though the poet apparently knew of such a young man from Dorchester, is a representative casualty of the Boer War, a poor, outlandish chap caught up in the machinery of empire. He dies not so very far from the site where, more than two centuries earlier, the native Africans of whom Willem ten Rhijne writes cut eight Dutchmen to pieces; in fact, he’d been dispatched to follow their example.
Hardy probably knew nothing of ten Rhijne’s expedition. But he knew, even if Drummer Hodge did not, the more salient details of the European mischief that bestowed on the South African landscape names like “veldt” and “kopje” (Afrikaans for “open pasture-land” and “hill”). He knew also that “Drummer Hodge” named, whatever else it named, yet another vessel through which ancient antagonisms coursed, and left behind “uncoffined.” The first stanza of the poem catches something of that tangled history even in its diction, as rustic English epithets (“Hodge”) and homely English expressions (“mound” for grave) mingle so oddly (we are made to feel how oddly) with Dutch-derived Afrikaans terms like “veldt” and “kopje.” The language available to the poem already bears the history it conveys (as how could it not?).
Hardy preferred to see in present wars (e.g., the Boer War) continuity with wars past. “Embarcation,” the first in the series of Boer War lyrics in Poems of the Past and Present, makes this perfectly clear (if the title of the volume itself hasn’t already done so). The poem, a sonnet, carries the subtitle “Southampton Docks: October 1899.” It begins:
Here, where Vespasian’s legions struck the sands,
And Cerdic with his Saxons entered in,
And Henry’s army leapt afloat to win
Convincing triumphs over neighbour lands,
Vaster battalions press for further strands,
To argue in the self-same bloody mode
Which this late age of thought, and pact, and code,
Still fails to mend.
In October-November 1899, some 60,000 soldiers took ship from Southampton (among them the original of “Drummer Hodge”). Hardy himself was personally present one October Friday when 5,000 troops went. Vespasian took part in the Roman invasion of Britain in the year 43 (though the precise location of the landing is unknown, good reason exists to suppose it lay near present-day Southampton). The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us that in 495 “came two leaders into Britain, Cerdic and Cynric his son, with five ships, at a place that is called Cerdic’s-ore. And they fought with the Welsh the same day” (James Ingram’s translation, 1823). Cerdic landed, apparently, in the county of Hampshire, one of whose major ports is, of course, Southampton. Henry V launched his 1415 campaign against France—the one depicted so unforgettably by Shakespeare—from the same port.
Anyhow, the troops sent to South Africa did not (as Hardy has it) depart unattended. Vespasian, Cerdic, and Henry V had one thing in common: they embarked on invasions, with a view to conquer and subdue. So it is with the men setting out in 1899 to “argue in the self-same bloody mode.” Hardy is not so naive as to suggest the indifference of wars; none is altogether like another. But neither is he “jingo” or “imperial,” and he sees the Boer War for what it was: one of a number of very nasty squabbles among white folk—whether English, Dutch, Dutch-descended, French, or German—for African resources and African labor. None of the men embarking for the Cape of Good Hope, says Hardy later in the sonnet, is “dubious of the cause”; neither do any “murmur.” That doesn’t mean the cause wasn’t dubious. Hardy thought it was. (If anyone doubts the poet found white supremacy troubling, let him read, closely, “The wind blew words along the skies . . .”, reprinted and discussed here.)
Whatever the case, Hardy does say, in “Embarcation,” that beyond the harbor at Southampton “lies the tragical To-be.” He doesn’t say so because he knows the outcome (even for poor Drummer Hodge); Hardy published the poem in The Daily Chronicle for October 25, when the war had scarcely begun. He says so because he knows, or supposes he knows, something dark about the Immanent Will that stirs and urges everything (and which figures as the prime mover in his vast poem on the Napoleonic Wars, The Dynasts). Finally, before returning to Drummer Hodge where the new war left him, it’s worth mentioning that Hardly freely conceded his copyright to “Embarcation”—he cast it upon the waters with the troops—as if to say: “Let the whole of England, the whole of the world, own this, since nothing in the ‘thought,’ ‘pact’ or ‘code’ of an enlightened Europe bids fair to ‘mend’ the ancient ‘bloody mode.'”
So, yes: “They throw in Drummer Hodge, to rest / Uncoffined—just as found.” “They” are Boer guerrillas, I suppose, tossing the dead boy from “Wessex” into an unmarked grave. (His British confederates, I assume, would have accorded him at least a measure of respect.)
The enjambment that draws the first line so quickly into the second allows for a fleeting intimation of what “to rest” ought to mean: we wish Drummer Hodge to be “at rest,” even if he has been “thrown in” to a grave rather than “laid” there. But no. The meter won’t allow for any “rest”; the elegiac mood is dispelled before it ever consolidates itself. They throw the boy in “to rest uncoffined“—just as they found him (in what state other than “uncoffined” could they have found him anyway?). One doesn’t know whether the Boer fighters are acting simply out of unsentimental dispatch—after all, bodies have to be buried—or whether they intend for the burial to be as contemptuous in spirit as it is absent of consecration. Let Hodge have for his “landmark” a “kopje-crest,” a hill-crest, on an otherwise unbroken veldt; which is to say, let him have no monument at all, not even the rudest of crosses. (Strictly speaking, what caps Hodge off in the poem is an Afrikaans/Boer, Dutch-derived word meaning, at its own roots, “head.”) Hardy assumes the burden of memorializing a boy who is at once a soldier “known” (a native son of Casterbridge-Dorchester) and also the very type of what we now call the Unknown Soldier (as we sometimes style them gravely, rendering to the grunts we send to slaughter rather more reverence in death than we accord them on recruitment).
Hardy drafts “Drummer Hodge” in three six-line stanzas. The first four lines of each works as does a ballad stanza (four alternating lines of iambic tetrameter and trimeter, rhymed ABAB), but with two additional lines appended. I wouldn’t so describe the structure if these last two lines did not, in all three instances, concern the constellations, and constitute, therefore, a kind of refrain, or tonic note, laid in between what I expect most readers “feel” as ballad stanzas (“common meter” for the commonest of men: young Hodge).
In stanza one the rhymes following on “rest” work well, in that the series (rest/crest/west) affiliates words that fulfill quite different grammatical roles. This allows for a nicely regulated variety within the little grouping the words form—an effect sometimes called “rich” rhyme to distinguish it from “poor” rhymes that join words whose functions match one another. With “to rest” we have a verb in its infinitive form (answering a kind of adverbial office: it modifies the “throwing in”); with “-crest” we have the second half of a compound noun, the other half of which (“kopje”) is strange to Hodge; with “west” we have an intransitive verb rarely used in speech (and which fetches in a slightly strange, archaic flavor somehow appropriate to the theme). In all three cases the lines disallow a full stop (i.e., they are enjambed). The result is especially good in the first line, where one so much wants to let “to rest” rest—to mark a terminus. But Hodge enjoys no such end; he will “rest / uncoffined,” which is to say all the readier food for the worms that will incorporate his remains into alien soil for the rooting of an alien, “Southern” tree.
Young Hodge “never knew” the “meaning of the broad Karoo, / The Bush, the dusty loam.” Nor did he know “why,” in those latitudes, strange stars rise “amid the gloam.” What could it mean to “know” the “meaning” of the Karoo (an arid, desert-like plateau)? What does it mean to know the “meaning” of any landscape? You certainly can know a landscape (be familiar with it). But a landscape can have “meaning” only to those who are native to it. After some eight years inhabiting it I “know” the land around Kyoto perfectly well, but it means nothing to me as compared to the midlands of South Carolina and Georgia. Hardy depends upon an undefined and undefinable notion operating in such commonplace phrases as these: “The place just means so much to me.” Or: “I’d never part with that old rocking chair; it means everything to me.” To mean something, here, is to be dear, or precious. We weep (or anyway choke up) at the sight of, or in the presence of, things that “mean” something to us in this sense, even if we can’t give reasons why—other than that we just do. Why do strange stars rise in the Southern hemisphere? Beats me. They rise because that’s what stars appear to do from where we stand, on whatever continent. But in wondering what the meaning of the Karoo is, or in asking “why” strange stars rise above it, Hodge had really wondered and asked (or: the poem does this for him) about the reasons for his dislocation; which is to say, the reasons for the war. These are hardly self-evident. The question “why are those stars there” is but a bewildered way of saying: Why am I here? To Drummer Hodge, “fresh from Wessex,” South Africa was uncanny, or unheimlich, as the German word goes: it was “British soil” that wasn’t, and could never be, truly English. Of course, though Drummer Hodge never “knew the meaning” of the broad Karoo, the poem called “Drummer Hodge” gives us a way to “know” it, and unforgettably at that. Hardy has certainly given it all a name—and a local habitation, too (in the pages of Poems of the Past and Present). In addition to everything else it may do, “Drummer Hodge” helps make the Boer War intelligible, if not sensible.
Hodge is not simply in South Africa for good; he is, and “for ever,” “portion of that unknown plain.” “Portion” doesn’t merely mean “a part of.” Drummer Hodge has been allotted to the veldt; he is its portion. “His homely Northern breast and brain” will “grow up a Southern tree” (or, to take the reading Hardy favored in later editions of his poetry, his “homely Northern breast and brain” will “grow to some Southern tree”). Hodge is now actually part of a thing he could never have “known” or understood—a not unsoldierly fate (or “portion,” to take that word in another of its senses). “Unknown plain” is an odd phrase, but a perfect one. Of course, no “plain” in South Africa is “unknown.” What the Onkay called the Hottentots had “known” them all for millennia; they are thoroughly known things. The stanza works so well because Hardy chooses an anatomical term to pair, alliteratively, with a quasi-anatomical one, in referring to Hodge’s remains: his “breast and brain” will now enrich the loam. “Breast” may refer, of course, simply to the upper thorax (if the person bearing it is male). But coming, as it does, with “homely” attached to it, “breast” works in the affective register so familiar to speakers of English (as in OED sense 5a: “the seat of the affections and emotions; the repository of consciousness, designs, and secrets; the heart; hence, the affections, private thoughts and feelings”). This is why it is jarring to find “breast” coupled with so utterly corporal a term as “brain.” Yes: Hodge’s brain, the organ that couldn’t “know the meaning” of the broad Karoo while he lived, and now will never come to know it, lies “uncoffined” in his mound (which is not “his” mound in any possessive sense but “his” simply because it now comprises him, now is him).
As it happens, Hardy likes to point out how, by means of decomposition, “we”—being, as we are, identical with our bodies—wind up in this or that plant. He makes an entire poem of the idea in “Transformations”:
Portion of this yew
Is a man my grandsire knew,
Bosomed here at its foot:
This branch may be his wife,
A ruddy human life
Now turned to a green shoot.
These grasses must be made
Of her who often prayed,
Last century, for repose;
And the fair girl long ago
Whom I often tried to know
May be entering this rose.
So, they are not underground,
But as nerves and veins abound
In the growths of upper air,
And they feel the sun and rain,
And the energy again
That made them what they were!
The mood here is in quite a different register from that of “Drummer Hodge”—and not without its queer, touching humor. The “fair girl” Hardy once tried to know “may be entering this rose.” The verb is pitch perfect. (After you, dear.) The man and wife his grandsire knew are now not simply a “portion” of the yew but, possibly, distinct portions of it (this branch?—that must be where the wife makes snug). Governing the whole poem—and redeeming, somewhat, its mortuary wit—are two notions: a) that the “energy” once “organized” as this girl or that man survives them, lending what they were a natural kind of immortality (as against a supernatural one) in a rose-bush or a yew tree; and b) that, far from dead as doornails, they now “abound” as “nerves” that can somehow “feel” the energy, the will, of which they were the temporary manifestation.
No one would call “Transformations” Whitmanesque (here, the grass isn’t really “the beautiful uncut hair of graves“). But neither would anyone confuse the way “Transformations” carries itself toward its central ideas—the continuity of “organic” energy; the human in the humus and the humus in the human—with the way “Drummer Hodge” carries itself toward the same idea (Hodge now “grows to” or “grows up” a “Southern tree”). [P.S.: have a look at Tim Kendall’s remarks on Hardy’s revision of the line in question here; you’ll find them in the “comments” below.]
Of course, what’s striking in “Transformations” is the thoroughly English known-ness of its landscape: the country churchyard, with its inevitable yew tree, etc. Easy enough to feel comfortable here (more or less). The grandsire, his wife, and the girl all lived nearby, and all died (we are left to assume) of “natural” causes;—and all were duly “coffined.” Death may be the Great Leveler, but not all deaths are on the level. Ask the family of Drummer Hodge. Or better still, have them ask Lord Kitchener. Did Drummer Hodge board that crazy ship at Southampton to die for haddock, sea-horses, gold, and diamonds?
One thing more bears notice about poor Drummer Hodge: the curiously apt phrasing of the last two lines Hardy devotes to him, in which “strange-eyed constellations reign / His stars eternally.” This carries forward (ever so slightly and ironically) the idea that it was Hodge’s “portion” (his lot, his fate) to wind up dead on the veldt, with a kopje-crest for his landmark; it’s as if an ignominious, “uncoffined” end were in his stars. But of course “The Dead Drummer” lends Drummer Hodge his dignity, as I’ve said; it makes him known (notwithstanding that “Hodge” is a type). “Strange-eyed” is an odd modifier: if the constellations do, in fact, “reign” over Drummer Hodge, we may as well imagine that they “see” him (their organs of sight the stars that peer down like the estranging eyes of a stranger). But the constellations not only “see” with strange eyes (insofar as we grant, however fancifully, that they “reign,” have agency, dispose of earthly affairs—dispose of the affairs even of earthly monarchs—and so on). These constellations are, and have always been, seen with eyes strange to Northern colonists—the eyes of an ancient people (not English, not “Onkay”) for whom the Southern stars gathered themselves into familiar, nameable arrays, above the broad Karoo. The Khoikhoi, the San, the Bantu, the Sotho-Tswana: men and women who, neither strangers nor strange-eyed, certainly did eye the strange Europeans who came to estrange them from the land they knew, from the 17th century on. Sometimes they cut the white men to pieces. More often they wound up, as Hardy knew, as uncoffined as poor Drummer Hodge—thrown in as found.
“Hodge,” as I noted, and as the OED tells us, was a stock, often condescending epithet for a rustic. Hardy acknowledges the fact, and also shows us how the men so characterized come into their own, on closer acquaintance, in the following passage from Tess of the d’Urbervilles:
The longer [Angel] Clare resided [at the dairy-farm] the less objection had he to his company, and the more did he like to share quarters with them in common. Much to his surprise took, indeed, a real delight in their companionship. The conventional farm-folk of his imagination—personified in the newspaper-press by the pitiable dummy known as Hodge—were obliterated after a few days’ residence. At close quarters no Hodge was to be seen. At first, it is true, when Clare’s intelligence was fresh from a contrasting society, these friends with whom he now hobnobbed seemed a little strange. Sitting down as a level member of the dairyman’s household seemed at the outset an undignified proceeding. The ideas, the modes, the surroundings, appeared retrogressive and unmeaning. But with living on there, day after day, the acute sojourner became conscious of a new aspect in the spectacle. Without any objective change whatever, variety had taken the place of monotonousness. His host and his host’s household, his men and his maids, as they became intimately known to Clare, began to differentiate themselves as in a chemical process. The thought of Pascal’s was brought home to him: ‘A mesure qu’on a plus d’esprit, on trouve qu’il y a plus d’hommes originaux. Les gens du commun ne trouvent pas de différence entre les hommes.’ The typical and unvarying Hodge ceased to exist. He had been disintegrated into a number of varied fellow-creatures—beings of many minds, beings infinite in difference; some happy, many serene, a few depressed, one here and there bright even to genius, some stupid, others wanton, others austere; some mutely Miltonic, some potentially Cromwellian—into men who had private views of each other, as he had of his friends; who could applaud or condemn each other, amuse or sadden themselves by the contemplation of each other’s foibles or vices; men every one of whom walked in his own individual way the road to dusty death.
Drummer Hodge, of course, is never really individuated; for that matter, the poem bearing his name ends by imagining his physical dissolution. But readers encountering Drummer Hodge may nonetheless find that the “typical and unvarying Hodge” ceases to exist for them, just as he does for urbane Angel Clare at Talbothays. Hardy summons up (so to speak) the possible man behind the epithet: what he’d harbored, never to be “coffined,” in his “homely breast.” What a shame that the death a young drummer boy on the veldt, “fresh from his Wessex home,” must occasion that transformation.
At close quarters no “Hodge” is ever seen as such. The better sort of war poetry makes sure of that.
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† One of the books Hardy read while writing The Dynasts, G.H. Gifford’s History of the Wars Occasioned by the French Revolution, from the commencement of Hostilities in 1792 to the End of the Year 1816 (London, 1817), devotes a number of pages to the Cape of Good Hope, hotly contested ground during the wars. The following describes an English expedition dating from 1796: “The invasion of the Cape of Good Hope was undertaken, partly with a view of preventing the French from obtaining possession of it, and partly for the purpose of securing an intermediate station between Europe and the rich and numerous acquisitions of Great Britain in the east.” Gifford, of course, also recounts the Baird expedition.
†† Norman Page provides a concise review of Hardy’s interest in the Second Boer War in his Oxford Reader’s Companion to Thomas Hardy.
N.B.: For other pages within The Era of Casual Fridays devoted to Hardy’s poetry, click here. Tim Kendall maintains the best site devoted to war poetry generally; you’ll find that here. Here is a site devoted entirely to Hardy’s engagement with the Boer War. For a BBC article on “Britain’s Shame,” commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Boer War, click here. For the Boer perspective, click here. For a site offering links to articles providing a number of perspectives on the war (and to some documents dating from the war itself), click here.