In the Time of "The Breaking of Nations" Analysis by Thomas Hardy

‘In time of “The Breaking of Nations” is a war poem, but a war poem written from
the perspective of one at home rather than one in a ‘foreign field’ amongst the

In the Time of the Breaking of Nations Analysis by Thomas Hardy

This simple yet elegant poem was written by Thomas Hardy for a conservative
paper, the Saturday Review, in January 1916. Hardy was asked to write a
heartening poem at a time when public opinion was turning towards war and he
had done justice to it by molding the poem in the same way as asked for.
This poem is typical of a certain pastoral or rural views of humanity’s rightful to
place in Nature- a view opposed the mechanized horror of man’s present wars.
Pastoral scenes and the depiction of rural life were popular before First World
War, and the peace and contentment found there, the space for thought and
refugee, and the nostalgia felt there for a lost England means Nature is a subject
matter that runs throughout most of the poetry of the First World War.
The structure of the poem comprises of three alternative rhyming quatrains
ABAB. The lines are short as we read. There is enjambment here, but the running
over of meaning from line to line in fact shows the reader down as she attempts
to build picture.
The title is an allusion to the Bible and the Old Testament, and more specifically to
Jeremiah 51:20: ‘Thou art my battle axe and weapons of war: for with thee will I
break in pieces the nations, and with thee will I destroy kingdoms’. In other
words, Hardy’s poem is written in the times of such ‘breaking of nations’- in a
time of war. Hardy’s biblical assumption suggests that war has always been a part
of human history: such ‘breaking of nations’ as that been seen across Europe
during the First World War is nothing new, and although it seems monotonous
and horrendous now, while people are living through it, in the grand scenes of
things it will make little difference.
This poem can interestingly be compared to a very similar poem in theme and
contrast ‘As the Team’s Head Brass’ by Edward Thomas.
Indeed, if we summarize the three stanzas of this short poem, we see that this is
exactly the meaning of Hardy’s poem.

The first stanza matter-of- factly focuses on ‘a man harrowing clods’ i.e. using an implement to break up clods of earth. Rather than wielding the battle axe of the book of Jeremiah, this man is using an agricultural tool to perform a very different ‘breaking’ of the earth. There is something almost dreamlike about the man’s ‘slow silent walk’ and his ‘old horse that stumbles and nods/ Half asleep’.

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The second stanza, like the first, begins with the offhand word ‘only’: this is all,
nothing to see here. There is ‘thin smoke without the flame’ coming up from the
‘heaps of couch grass’ (a common weed like grass), an unremarkable sight that
will endure the current tumult of the war and outlast the ‘Dynasties’ or royal and
imperial houses that currently wage war on each other.

The third and final stanza focuses on a young woman and her male lover, who
pass this rural scene, whispering. The details of this war will be forgotten before
the ‘story’ embodied by the man and woman- i.e. love- has died. Love in short,
will outlast war.

Hardy’s point in depicting these everyday sights and occurrences is to highlight
that, humble though they are, they have lasted a long time and will last. We might
say that these stanzas represent, respectively, the qualities of work, nature and
love, all of which are more powerful than the short lived effects of war. Hardy
emphasizes their impressive pedigree through using language which suggests
they are age old, almost timeless: the horse in the first stanza is ‘old’ and rather
than a man and woman courting in the final stanza it is a ‘maid and her wight’, an
almost medieval choice of words for two twentieth-century lovers.
‘In time of “The Breaking of Nations” is a war poem, but a war poem written from
the perspective of one at home rather than one in a ‘foreign field’ amongst the
fighting. Hardy’s evocation of a pastoral way of life unchanged for centuries was
designed to console those living through the terrifying and rapid upheaval of the
First World War. As a close analysis of the poem shows the qualities he chose to
emphasize- work, nature, love – are the things that will endure. The war will not.
‘In times of “The Breaking of Nations” is worth comparing with Edward Thomas’s
classic poem ‘As the Team’s Head Brass’, also written during the First World War,
and also written from the perspective of being ‘back home’ rather than in the


The poem has a markedly anti-war tone. It points to the fact that the emotions
and sentiments involved in wars, nation-building and nation-breaking are
irrelevant in the continuing human saga of love, birth and death. The actions of
the huge cast of human characters, from Napoleon down to the common soldiers
of Wessex are subject to the ‘Immanent Will’. “In Time of the Breaking of
Nations” also shows that the creators of wars and dynasties are not free. Here
‘Immanent Will’ is being suggested by the unstoppable march of time.
This is the poem where Hardy denounces the heroics of war and dynasties against
the background of human life’s eternal flow. During Hardy’s lifetime, there were
two major wars which moved him much. The Boer War in South Africa and the
First World War prompted Hardy to write some of his distinguished war poems.
Hardy gave up all kinds of patriotic jingoism. In these poems, he avoids
sentimentality and diminishes the prestige of war by placing the events of war in
a universal perspective of cosmic dimension. Hardy’s treatment of war was varied
and he was extremely versatile in discovering appropriate poetic forms for the
expression of his views.

Theme and Central Idea

The central theme of the poem is the dialectic between creation and destruction.
There are two ideas in the poem which relate to this theme: one, the idea of
alternating cycle of creation and destruction; two, the notion of concurrence of
destruction and creation. Besides, there are biblical allusions in the poem. The
allusions help us understand the central theme in a very efficient manner.



Abhishek is a marketing research and social media consultant who developed a keen interest in blogging. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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