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.

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Comments from our users:

Saturday September 1st 2007, 9:20 AM
Comment by: Paula Z.
Further proof that the old maxim is true: those that forget the past are doomed to repeat it. This was a great, timely selection. Thanks.
Saturday September 1st 2007, 9:41 AM
Comment by: Clive V.
Those of you who've seen the movie (or the play) "The History Boys" might recognize the other Hardy poem referenced here, "Drummer Hodge." It features in a pivotal moment in the film when one of the students is reciting it for the teacher, who then uses as a jumping off point for a rumination about his own lonely life as an outsider. Yet another demonstration of Hardy's enduring power.
Saturday September 1st 2007, 9:55 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
The English had made the same mistake when fighting in the North American colonies. Their bright clothes marked them 'liveried' while the colongists clothes allowed them to slip among the trees and brush.

It's the form of fighting that goes along with the concept of 'respect one's enemy must have for our officers' which caused the English to feel contempt for colonists who shot their horsed and all too obvious officers!

Manners disappeared from wars shortly after this. Too shortly.

Saturday September 1st 2007, 11:50 AM
Comment by: J. G. K.
Very interesting selection. True today; uniformed troops are attempting to quell civil uprising by non-uniformed militants. It seems as though we never learn from history. Nation building did not work after Vietnam and it appears it is not going to work after Iraq. Political solutions are legitmate, however they imply the existence of legitimate political institutions, able to govern effectively and to command the loyalty of the population.

Thank you for the interesting read!
Saturday September 1st 2007, 4:20 PM
Comment by: Abel F.
2007 A.D. The prophet eluded to is Jesus Christ. He spoke to peace and preached of charity and unconditional love. Yet it is the bible wielding, right wing that was easily dupped into facilitating this profit-ic invasion. Near thirty-three hundred liveried patriots lie smoldering, while twenty-six thousand permanently disabled all for the profit driven lust of men in power. G.T.H.!!!

Friday September 7th 2007, 7:39 AM
Comment by: Robert W J.
It could be said that the American Colonial Militias and the Boers were the first modern guerrilla warfare fighters, whether by intent or force of circumstances, though there were "raidng parties" during the Peninsula War, as well. In the 20th Century Che Guevara and North Vietnam's General Giap wrote manuals that raised it to a craft and an art. They grasped what the Pentagon seems incapable of understanding: that the era of "win-by-massive- force" in set-piece open battles was and remains over. The guerrilla fighter is the present and the future reality of warfare.
Monday September 10th 2007, 7:24 PM
Comment by: Pamela L.
I don't mean to sound condescending, but it seems as though Hardy had a false concept of the cause for which Jesus died. I am not saying war is favorable. Indeed, it's hell on earth. I am certainly not saying that Jesus approves of the hatred and killing between countries. I am only saying that had Jesus died to end them, wars would have ceased two millennia past. Clearly, He died for something else. The poem is very good, nonetheless.
Thursday September 13th 2007, 10:44 AM
Comment by: Marie S.
Mr. Hargraves,

You made A Christmas Ghost Story an "aha" experience for me. I consider myself "poetry blind."

Here is a question deep within a preamble: Your reading of Hardy's poem brings in a great deal of factual knowledge.It appears to be necessary to study a poet and the times in which he/she lived. The question: Is the first reading of a poem mostly a left-brain experience and thereafter a function essentially of the right brain, the place where my soul seems to live?

Put more simply: How is it that someone can read a poem for the first time and "get it"?

Marie Sheley
Friday September 14th 2007, 8:49 AM
Comment by: anna S. (South Africa)Top 10 Commenter

Thanks for your comment. I think poetry -- especially when you hear it read or read it aloud (as opposed to reading it silently) -- can engage both the analytical and emotional parts of your mind. When the content of a particular poem has enough resonance to get your brain firing in this way, it can lead to sudden insights -- the kind of "aha" experience you mention, and perhaps similar to what you experience when you suddenly understand the meaning of a dream.

"Getting" a poem means different things to different people -- as is true with any good work of art. A lot of poems don't yield up their secrets as readily as other art forms, and that's why some people's eyes glaze over when you mention poetry. I find it's usually a rewarding experience to dig deeper when a poem sets off even one little spark, and for me, that was the case with "A Christmas Ghost Story." Obviously I did a bit of homework on it, and the more I learned about the circumstances of its publication -- especially Hardy's letter defending his "ghost" -- the more I found in the poem. That's really what I wanted to get across in the column -- I'm really glad it worked for you!
Wednesday September 26th 2007, 10:47 PM
Comment by: Elizabeth K.
I found "Tips for Deprived Readers" very informative. One of my time periods was eluded to and one was actually mentioned. Waiting at the doctor's office is an ideal time. Train and railroad stations also afford good reading time.

I am new to VT. I will use my down time to peruse your articles for good "whatever" tips. LOVE your daily word of the day.

Thank you, thank you.

Elizabeth Kane
Wednesday March 26th 2008, 12:12 PM
Comment by: Elizabeth S.
I loved the response from Marie Sheley - this is exactly why my students have such a hard time with poetry! The way I have explained it to them is that poetry challenges the author, and the reader, to use language with the utmost dexterity, packing meaning into the smallest possible package FOR THE PURPOSE of allowing both writer and reader to enjoy the puzzle. It is an exercise of the mind, and her evaluation of the different brain activities that are required to solve that puzzle also explains why many don't enjoy it and some can't really live without it! When I read the ascerbic Dickinson or the moody Baudelaire, unpacking the meaning of the their works gives me the opportunity to touch, for just a moment, the inner vision of another mind. How rare and thrilling!
Tuesday December 20th 2011, 6:42 PM
Comment by: Krazy

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