In Hardy’s “Drummer Hodge,” the tone of the poem is hard to decipher. At times the speaker seems to be talking about a hopelessly naive boy who got in over his head in predictable ways; at other times, he is clearly upset about what happened and looking for somebody to blame. How should we read the speaker’s engagement with the subject of this slain drummer? One way of answering this question is to consider who the audience of the poem is, which we can really only arrive at by considering the diction of the poem. Because the speaker discusses places and names that Hodge himself never knew or understood, we can be pretty sure his readership had that same knowledge — therefore, the things that escape the speaker’s knowledge that Hodge does know (including what it means to die for a conflict you were sympathetically duped into fighting) are all the more ironic.
In terms of diction, “throw” in line one is a pretty rough verb for a burial: usually we lay or lower a body into a grave. In line two, Hodge is buried “just as found,” meaning they don’t change his bloody clothes or wipe off his face or follow any of the normal obsequies performed on the dead. This makes me suspect that “rest” in line one is ambiguous: that they have laid him to rest in the sense of shoveling dirt quickly over his corpse, but his body is not at rest because his unceremonious burial is missing the closure that English funerals impart.
There is also a major discrepancy between the Afrikaans words in this poem young Hodge would not have known about before the war (“kopje crest,” “veldt,” “Karoo,” “the Bush”) but that British middle-class readers would know well from the three Boer Wars and their domination of the newspaper headlines for a decade. In the same way, I can tell you that Afghanistan has cities like Jalalabad and Kabul, and its main crop is heroin poppies, even though I never expected to learn that kind of thing, because of the aftermath of 9/11 and the United States involvement there militarily. The fact that Hodge didn’t know any of these words is both a marker of his rusticity and his youth; or perhaps he’s a provincial rube; the diction doesn’t actually resolve the tone, but I do think it helps us link the speaker to his audience in terms of their familiarity with world politics and the British Empire’s overseas interests.
In the second and third stanzas Hodge’s innocence is compounded by ironic juxtapositions: he was “Fresh from his Wessex home,” meaning he had only recently arrived in South Africa, but of course is no longer fresh since he is rotting underground. His freshness also jars with the “dusty loam” he now inhabits and is being transformed into; in the same way, Hardy takes pains to contrast “his homely Northern breast and brain” with the “Southern tree” that is growing out of and being fertilized by his remains.
Hodge doesn’t, or shouldn’t belong there, and perhaps the conversion of English drummer into African landscape is unnaturally sped up by the cavalier way in which his body was dumped into a hole. And his “homely” self (however ugly) also conjures for us a vision of how out of place his grave actually is, or at least how strange it is for him to find this mound as his final destination. For now he actually is Africa; there’s no distinction to be made between him and the rest of the loam/veldt/mound/tree. And the constellations overhead, which are far from the sets of stars he usually sees, are no longer foreign to him. It’s only to the uncomprehending, detached speaker that the stars still look “strange-eyed” – Hodge no longer has eyes, and no longer can claim a home. It’s the speaker, then, who is made restless by the example of Hodge’s overseas fate, and who can’t get over the boy’s loss.