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.
Rupert Brooke (1887 – 1915)
The 25th of April is ANZAC Day in Australia. It is a very special day of commemoration associated with Australian and New Zealand troops involved in the Gallipoli landings of WW1. And last week it was announced by Biden that the US would be withdrawing all troops from Afghanistan by 9/11 this year. The end of twenty years of involvement against terrorism in that country.
So here is a war poem involving peace in war. It is the first of a sequence of five war sonnets. Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, two other well respected WW1 poets, eventually wrote works extremely critical of the conflict. But Brooke’s poems reflect the early idealism. The war captured the adventurous spirit of the youth fuelled by the recruitment of the day. And Brooke’s poem reflects the attitudes of many young men during the first years of hostilities. Brooke never experienced the horror side of trench warfare. He served in the Royal Navy and died from an infection caused by a mosquito bite on his way to Gallipoli.
Considering the context of this poem and the notion of muscular Christianity. From the Literary Criticism by Robert Means –
Begun and practiced at Rugby where Brooke was born and raised, “muscular Christianity” was a late-Victorian public-school notion of cleansing and test of manhood afforded by getting out of doors and getting in the game.
Brooke was a product of “muscular Christianity”; a pre- war poet, expressing the pre-war sentiment of cleansing just as poets as diverse as Robert Graves and Isaac Rosenberg wrote poetry in the early days of the war that celebrated this image of the “Happy Warrior.” Even Siegfried Sassoon’s early poems display this idea of spiritual cleansing afforded by the war, for example his aptly titled ‘Absolution’:
The anguish of the earth absolves our eyes Till beauty shines in all that we can see. War is our scourge; yet war has made us wise, And, fighting for our freedom, we are free.
So, the octet stresses the hope that going to war would provide something of a cleanliness akin to diving into a swimming pool. Brooke’s personal life had come to something of a hiatus and he was looking for an alternative to the life he had been leading. He had been associated with the Bloomsbury Set and you can clearly see from the last lines of the octet that he hits out against their reluctance to get involved – ‘Leave the sick hearts that honour could not move’.
As Robert Means comments the sextet is all about ‘Peace’ as a declaration of self- realization and self-determination. It is the soldier’s lot to die but it is an acceptable cost and death the worst friend.
Somewhat of an irony in that Brooke finds peace by going to war. I guess it is not easy to find ‘personal peace’ given the job of a soldier.