While “the glebe cow drooled” may be my favorite half-line of poetry ever (I exaggerate, but only a little), what I really love about Hardy’s poem is the way he inserts humor into what is, at heart, a dark and dreary poem.
After all, the theme of the poem is fairly well summed up by Parson Thirdly, who says “Instead of preaching forty year… / I wish I had stuck to pipes and beer.” After all, if the whole point of abstinence is to set a good example that’s not going to be followed, one might as well get a little enjoyment out of the deal.
I also like the humor in the early lines, where Hardy describes the way the various animals react to the great guns firing off in the English Channel, especially since I think they’re also symbolic of various groups who existed in pre-WWI Britain (or the world, for that matter).
arose the howl of wakened hounds:
The mouse let fall the altar-crumb,
The worms drew back into their mounds,
The glebe cow drooled.
I think Hardy himself was one of the wakened hounds, and this poem was a bit of his howling. He saw the portents of war–it’s not as though the hostilities that erupted after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand came out of nowhere. The major European powers had been rubbing up against each other for a long while. That there hadn’t been an open war between them in a while was as much a matter of luck as anything.
I look at the mouse who drops the altar-crumb as those people who saw war coming, but instead of raising an alarm, ran for cover so quickly that they even left behind food. These are the displaced that appear in every war. The worms are withdrawing as well, but into their mounds, ready to feed on the aftermath.
And then there’s my favorite, the glebe cow, or the cow that grazed on the land beside the parsonage. It’s drooling, completely unconcerned by what’s going on around it, and a more cynical person than me might think that Hardy was taking a shot at the Church of England by making it a glebe cow in particular. Okay, I’m that cynical, or at least I’m hopeful. Hardy was at least doubtful about the traditional role of God, and while he might not have been taking a direct shot about the Church’s role in promoting nationalism, it could certainly have been a subconscious one.
I think Hardy’s doubt about God’s presence also comes out in stanza six:
“Ha, ha. It will be warmer when
I blow the trumpet (if indeed
I ever do, for you are men,
And rest eternal sorely need).”
At the very least he’s questioning the idea of the Judgment Day, a primary doctrine in the Christian faith, and that ties in well with his theme, which is that nothing really changes for man. We’ve been “striving strong to make / red war yet redder” since the first time a proto-human discovered that you can kill prey more effectively with a rock than you can with your bare hands. Our movement toward suitcase nukes and unmanned aerial drones with missiles is simply that of better technology. No wonder Parson Thirdly sighed.
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