Thursday, 5 August 2010

Rupert Brooke: 'Peace'

Away on a research trip, I missed Rupert Brooke's birthday on 3 August, so I offer belatedly his sonnet, 'Peace', by way of recompense. At his best, Brooke was a superb poet, despite the common travesty of his work as foolishly innocent. This was a man who, after all, had fought in the defeat at Antwerp, and witnessed the devastating effects on the civilian population. His sense of duty was born out of experience of suffering and of watching others suffer, not out of ignorance.

Brooke's five sonnets titled '1914', beginning with 'Peace' and ending with 'The Soldier', are acts of persuasion and explication, and as such, their first audience is Brooke himself. More powerfully than any of his fellow soldier-poets, Brooke accounts for his decision to enlist. Compare, on a similar theme, Edward Thomas's revealingly muddled 'This is no case of petty right or wrong', or Wilfred Owen's grand (and nonsensical) self-portrayal as a 'conscientious objector with a very seared conscience'. Brooke's own verse is also marred by rhetorical afflatus, but we hear its faults clearly because we are unwilling to share its assumptions. The vast majority of his contemporaries had no such problem. Brooke's poems were far more popular among soldiers, throughout the war and for decades afterwards, than were those of dissenters like Owen and Sassoon.

Brooke wrote 'Peace' in late 1914 after the evacuation of Antwerp.


Now, God be thanked Who has matched us with His hour,
  And caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping,
With hand made sure, clear eye, and sharpened power,
  To turn, as swimmers into cleanness leaping,
Glad from a world grown old and cold and weary,
  Leave the sick hearts that honour could not move,
And half-men, and their dirty songs and dreary,
  And all the little emptiness of love!

Oh! we, who have known shame, we have found release there,
  Where there's no ill, no grief, but sleep has mending,
    Naught broken save this body, lost but breath;
Nothing to shake the laughing heart's long peace there
  But only agony, and that has ending;
    And the worst friend and enemy is but Death.


  1. Evacuating Antwerp, you say? Sounds as though he's also whistling past the graveyard en route. Frozen youth and Death's release to be preferred? To what, exactly... the dishonour of retreat or defeat? Pshaw. The language is too fancy and dandified, and thus not convincing. I may just lack the historical knowledge to appreciate his experience--unless this is a totally ironic posture, Tim, that your words do not support--but I'd choose the "world grown old and cold and weary" and "the little emptiness of love." I think most soldiers would too.

  2. You might well criticise Brooke for being high-falutin', Ed. He is. But just as God has matched us with His hour, so Brooke has matched the language to the occasion. He has seen what is at stake.

    I think that there's an echo --- however distant --- in that phrase 'the little emptiness of love'. It reminds me of Shakespeare's 'The expense of spirit in a waste of shame / Is lust in action'. Brooke wants a different and better sense of 'action' than the petit mort can provide, and he uses Shakespeare's 'shame' in the next line. The poem argues for Mars over Venus, swords over ploughshares, so it's part of a long tradition, no matter how unsympathetic it may seem to our own age.

  3. Tim, have you ever noticed how criticism of the "1914" sonnets so often takes the form of a moralistic ad hominem against Brooke?

    His letters show that he was neither a glib propagandist nor a pitiful naif. After Antwerp especially, he saw fighting to liberate Belgium as a belated source of meaning in his own life. Brooke was also ready to pay the price for his idealism - as so very ironically he did.

  4. Yes, I agree, Jonathan. The consensus view, of course, is that anyone who does not think like Owen and Sassoon is ignorant, even though that criticism happens to encompass most of the poets and almost all the soldiers.

  5. "Moralistic," eh? What about those of us who would accept practically any social/political position provided the poem expressing it were worthy of analysis and praise? I certainly hope the other four sonnets are more convincing and less mere lock-step patriotic, not to mention boring. Oh, and how was his eventual death so very ironic given his willingness to fight and die? One must do more than simply claim Death before dishonour--or that Shakespearean "shame" you found somewhere. (Seems a big stretch since Brooke's one word might be borrowed from hundreds of other literary sources, if borrowed at all.) Not to mention your hearing that impossibly distant "echo," which lacks words, sounds, images, attitude, and maybe intent in common. My ears may be plugged with righteous (make that lefteous) indignation, but surely the long tradition has been better served. I welcome any recommendations. ("Isn't it grand, boys, to be bloody well dead?")

  6. We can argue for ever about the 'echo'. I think that there is a shared attitude and a shared word, as well as a shared literary form.

    I don't mean to sound like a cheerleader for Brooke, but before he is dismissed as 'boring', we would need to account for his extraordinary popularity among the rank-and-file as well as among significant poets. There are dissenters like Gurney and Sorley, but even they do Brooke the compliment of reacting against him. (Gurney, for example, writes a series of sonnets as a 'counterblast' to Brooke.) And 'Peace' has at least one phrase --- 'swimmers into cleanness leaping' --- which has entered not-quite-common parlance.

  7. To me the most striking later reference to 'Peace' is to be found in the opening sequence of Anthony Asquith's film version of Ernest Raymond's 'Tell England'(British Instructional, 1931). Asquith's brother had been one of Brooke's pall-bearers and was himself killed to his mother's immense distress. She, with her marriage in tatters, then became intensely devoted to her youngest son (Anthony) and it is in the river, beside the house she purchased to be near to Anthony's school (he came home at weekends), that the 'enactment' of the opening image of the "swimmers into cleanness leaping" is set. As to Brooke's sources, personal and literary, many views are possible and arguable, yet for all the poem's emotional power it is hard not to shudder at the grossly inappropriate trace of the notions of war as "the great hygene of nations", which, whatever Brooke's sources may have been, can be found in ultra-rightwing nationalist discourse in England, in Germany and in France in the decades before the war.

  8. I hope I'm not too late to add a comment. This poem always reminds me of Rilke's phrase "Endlich, ein Gott". Although Rilke attributes the thought to other people (the young men going to war), whereas Brooke seems to be speaking for himself even though he says "us", there is plenty of evidence that many young men, in both England (and colonies) and Germany, felt that the war gave them something worthwhile to do. We have to remember, too, that that "ultra-rightwing nationalist discourse" Nigel talks about worked its effect because, in Eric Hobsbawm's words in a slightly different context, it was "broadcasting on a wavelength to which the public was ready to tune in." (And given the acclaim Margaret Thatcher won as a result of her clean little war against Argentina, and other evidence of the popularity of politicians who favour war, I don't think we can confidently dismiss the attitude as out of date.)

  9. any contemporary writers of his time who influenced Brooke? what style he predominantly uses in his works?