We're quite fond of choral singing in the Lounge, whether we're on the giving or the receiving end of it. For those like us who are obliged to spend most of the day sitting in front of a computer screen, group singing is an excellent antidote: a fully engaging activity that does not require light-emitting diodes, printed circuits, a high-speed internet connection, or even manual dexterity.

A poem set to music that we performed recently has left a lasting mark, and since the Lounge's Poetry Corner has been gathering dust all these months, it seemed like a good time to reconvene there and share the poem, with the benefit of the Visual Thesaurus. The setting of a poem to music seems to us a validation of both the poet and the poem: it is proof that the poet's words spoke convincingly enough, across continents and generations, sometimes even across languages, to inspire another artist to creativity.

Our poem is from Thomas Hardy, the mainly 19th-century English writer who is perhaps better known for his novels. The title of the poem is "A Christmas Ghost Story" -- a title that seems quite remote from the subject as the poem begins:

South of the Line, inland from far Durban

There is nothing in this line to suggest that we are not watching the National Geographic Channel, with its evocation of British Empire in its glory. "The Line" is a term for the equator that grew out of seafaring, and Durban was one of the great outposts of Empire, a busy seaport founded by British soldiers in the 19th century. But when Hardy's poem was first published -- two days before Christmas in 1899 -- Britain had just entered into the second Boer War. Hardy's poem followed immediately on some particularly disastrous weeks for the British in their military adventure, and so the mention of Durban was probably enough to clue up Hardy's first readers that a change of tone was imminent. The poem continues

A mouldering soldier lies -- your countryman.
Awry and doubled up are his grey bones,

The words we have linked to the Thesaurus underscore a feature of war that we often overlook today: at the turn of the 20th century there was no technology to facilitate the timely return of remains to the bereaved, who were often in anguish at the fact that their loved one had died far away, in a place unfamiliar to them, and probably without the benefit of proper care or burial.

The "ghost" of Hardy's poem is this very solider and he is introduced next:

And on the breeze his puzzled phantom moans
Nightly to clear Canopus:

The appearance in the poem of this unfamiliar star of the Southern skies further emphasizes the alien environment that is the soldier's fate: to spend eternity gazing at unfamiliar skies while wondering what went wrong. The remainder of the poem consists of the dead soldier's lament. Like most poems, this one works best if read from beginning to end and that's where we'll leave it, after a little more in the way of background.

Hardy took some flak for publishing this poem: after it appeared, a newspaper editorial denounced him for presenting an unpatriotic soldier whose whiney sentiments did not reflect those of the majority of the soldiers, or of the British people. Britain began the Second Boer War in a flurry of flag-waving and cocky self-assurance about their military superiority, but the war quickly became less popular at home as British casualties mounted horribly and unexpectedly. The parameters of victory became increasingly difficult to define -- as is often the case when a uniformed, invading army battles a widely dispersed field of insurgents defending their own territory.

Hardy could have written a poem to boost the flagging confidence of his nation in the war -- something that would have been a little more "on message" with the government's vision, and certainly more consistent with Christmas cheer -- but he called it as he saw it, and that is what we count on poets to do. Now, more than 100 years later, Hardy's poem still has a lot to say. He is our own talking ghost: a reminder of a time when poets spoke out on the great issues of the day, and when the public paid attention to them.

The links to the thesaurus open up wordmaps that illuminate some of Hardy's interesting word choices in this short and powerful poem:

South of the Line, inland from far Durban,
A mouldering soldier lies - your countryman.
Awry and doubled up are his grey bones,
And on the breeze his puzzled phantom moans
Nightly to clear Canopus: "I would know
By whom and when the All-Earth-gladdening Law
Of Peace, brought in by that Man Crucified,
Was ruled to be inept, and set aside?
And what of logic or of truth appears
In tacking "Anno Domini" to the years?
Near twenty-hundred liveried thus have hied,
But tarries yet the Cause for which He died.

Hardy wrote an eloquent letter rebutting the editorial attack on him, which is reprinted in a collection of his prose. You can read it here (the passage is on pages 157-158, in case the link only brings up the title page; scroll to about the middle of the book):


Another poem of Hardy's that treats similar themes is "Drummer Hodge":


Here's a link to a picture of Brits and Boers, along with the poem, that may give a clue to Hardy's use of the word "liveried": it was a feature of the Boer Wars that British soldiers in their uniforms were easily recognizable as standout targets. The Boers, on the other hand, wore their everyday clothes and slipped seamlessly in and out of the civilian population.


Interestingly, several online versions of this poem in place of "liveried" have "livened." This substitution is probably wrong and makes line 11 of the poem parse completely differently, but still gives a valid and thought-provoking reading.

There are two choral settings of "A Christmas Ghost Story." We sang the one by Mr. Garth Baxter:


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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.