Hardy wrote this poem when the First World War was at its height. The title of the poem is taken from the Old Testament. Hardy’s theme is the transience of the big events of history. They may be important for a while but are soon forgotten. On the contrary, the way of life of people is permanent.
The scenes that are contained in the poem are rural in nature, far removed from the stage of war. A farmer and his old horse, burning couch grass, a girl and her boy friend out walking … these are the sights one can see in the countryside. Dynasties can come and go, wars can be fought, won or lost but a way of life is forever.
The central idea of the poem is that the events of history are of transient importance while the way of life of people is permanent. In the rural parts of a country, life goes on in a set pattern for centuries. Wars may involve many nations at a time but the battles, victories and defeats are forgotten by people after time elapses.
In the first stanza, we see an image of a farmer ploughing his land using a horse that is old and tired. Both are half asleep and they go about their work in a slow unhurried way.
In the next stanza, the image is of the routine burning of the weed couch grass, It smoulders producing only smoke. This practice will however continue even after dynasties come and go.
Next we see a young maiden and her boy friend walking about talking in whispers. But long before their story ends, the annals of war would have faded from memory.
Wars are tumultuous events in human history. This poem however makes us see them in proper perspective. Human way of life is more permanent that memory of wars.