Hardy’s Christmas Ghost

Angelique Richardson

Thomas Hardy’s poem ‘A Christmas Ghost-Story’ was published in the Westminster Gazette in December 1899, two months after the start of the Second Anglo-Boer War. The ghost is that of a soldier, and the poem emphasises his unknown nationality:

South of the Line, inland from far Durban,
There lies – be he or not your countryman –
A fellow-mortal. Riddled are his bones,
But ’mid the breeze his puzzled phantom moans

When the Daily Chronicle accused Hardy of peddling pacifism, he spent much of Christmas Day writing a riposte to the editor, reminding him that the soldier’s ghost in his story now had ‘no physical frame’; ‘his views are no longer local, nations are all one to him; his country is not bounded by seas, but is co-extensive with the globe itself.’ He concluded:

Thus I venture to think that the phantom of a slain soldier, neither British nor Boer, but a composite, typical phantom, may consistently be made to regret on or about Christmas Eve (when even the beasts of the field kneel, according to a tradition of my childhood) the battles of his life and war in general.

As a child, I thought that the unknown soldier’s country was also unknown, and considered it extraordinarily wonderful that a stateless subject was commemorated in Westminster Abbey.

Hardy and his wife both strongly opposed the imperial war in South Africa. ‘The Boers fight for homes & liberties,’ Emma Hardy wrote. ‘We fight for the Transvaal Funds, diamonds, & gold!’ The British confined more than a hundred thousand Boers, mostly women and children, and more than a hundred thousand Black Africans in racially segregated concentration camps. Nearly 28,000 people died in the Boer camps; more than 22,000 of them were children under sixteen. The record-keeping was less precise in the Black concentration camps but estimates exceed 20,000, of whom more than 80 per cent were children.

In November 1902, six months after the war ended with the Boers’ defeat, Harper’s Weekly published Hardy’s poem ‘The Man He Killed’: ‘I shot him dead because –/Because he was my foe.’ Repeating ‘because’ as the speaker stumbles to find rhyme or reason, a neat ‘just so’ follows, the singsong nursery rhyme belying both the brutality and meaninglessness of the killing: ‘Just so: my foe of course he was.’ But the matter-of-fact disavowal shores up the reverse. In any other circumstance the speaker would have sat down for a drink with the man he killed.

On the brink of the First World War, the speaker of Hardy’s poem ‘His Country’ (1913) journeys from Wessex to the other side of the world and beyond, till he has ‘traced the whole terrestrial round/Homing the other side’. At the end he asks:

Whom have I to fight,
And whom have I to dare,
And whom to weaken, crush, and blight?

He has earlier perceived that ‘all the men I looked upon/Had heart strings fellow-made.’ The image contrasts starkly with Theresa May’s remark at the Tory Party Conference in 2016, that ‘if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.’

Hardy’s radical universalism punctuates his work. In 1917 he wrote to the secretary of the Royal Society of Literature:

That nothing effectual will be accomplished in the cause of Peace till the sentiment of Patriotism be freed from the narrow meaning attaching to it in the past (still upheld by Junkers and Jingoists) and be extended to the whole globe.
On the other hand, that the sentiment of Foreignness – if the sense of a contrast be really rhetorically necessary – attach only to other planets and their inhabitants, if any.
I may add that I have been writing in advocacy of those views for the last twenty years.

Hardy’s friend Siegfried Sassoon – his father was of Jewish and Iraqi Indian descent and his mother was an Anglo-Catholic Germanophile who gave him his German name – had good reason to reject the idea that conflict was inevitable or desirable. He began writing to Hardy in January 1916, a few months before the Battle of the Somme. Wounded in 1917, he sent his famous statement of protest first to Hardy. Published by Sylvia Pankhurst in her newspaper, The Workers’ Dreadnought, on 28 July, it was read out in the House of Commons by a Labour MP two days later and printed in the Times the next day.

‘I am a soldier,’ Sassoon wrote, ‘convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that the war upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation has now become a war of aggression and conquest.’ He was sent to Craiglockhart, a military psychiatric hospital in Edinburgh, in lieu of being court-martialled. After the war, Sassoon joined the Labour Party and lectured on pacifism, becoming literary editor of the Daily Herald, ‘the new labour paper’, as he referred to it in a letter to Hardy. In February 1922 Florence Hardy told Sassoon that she had heard Hardy say, ‘in a loud & clear voice’: ‘I wrote my poems for men like Siegfried Sassoon.’ Sassoon selected his poem ‘The Dug-Out’ for the tribute book from a younger generation of poets that he presented to Hardy in October 1919.

The manuscript of ‘The Dug-Out’, Siegfried Sassoon’s contribution to the tribute book presented to Thomas Hardy in October 1919.

Image © Dorset History Centre

‘And There Was a Great Calm’, Hardy’s poem ‘On the Signing of the Armistice, 11 Nov. 1918’, refuses any vainglorious end to the war, which for the traumatised continued long after the fighting was over: ‘There was peace on earth, and silence in the sky;/Some could, some could not, shake off misery.’ And the ‘pensive Spirit of Pity’ still has no answer to its ‘whispered’, repeated question: ‘Why?’

Refaat Alareer taught English literature at the Islamic University of Gaza. He was also a poet and editor. We were going to work together on the Hardy’s Global Correspondents project: the last time I heard from him he had been discussing ‘The Oxen’ (‘If someone said on Christmas Eve,/Come; see the oxen kneel’) with his students. He was killed in an airstrike on 7 December.


  • 22 December 2023 at 11:11am
    James says:
    I'd just like to thank you for this blog. Reflective content, moving poetry and a devastating end.

  • 22 December 2023 at 2:10pm
    C Burdett says:
    Thomas Hardy on the grotesque horror of national conflict and war, making poetry sing in outrage at the destruction and waste. The terrible things he lived through - including the 1914 war- brought to our own moment in a final paragraph that feels like a punch in the face. Very powerful.

  • 22 December 2023 at 5:02pm
    steve kay says:
    Very moving, and thank you.