Reactions to the Outbreak of War


000048e2_big

So it is a hundred years since the declaration in Great Britain of war against Germany. One hundred years ago from 11pm tonight, the deadline expired that Britain had set Germany to end its invasion of Belgium and France. And as I walked the streets of London tonight, in the darkening evening, I thought back to the London of old, and a picture that seems emblematic somehow of the naiveté of the age, of ranks of men raising their hats in cheer in Trafalgar Square. And of course to Edward Grey’s apposite and prophetic words as dusk fell: “The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our lifetimes”.

I won’t rehearse a long speech of familiar lessons to be drawn from the war. To be frank, I’ve found the commemorations alienating. The art has been misjudged, the television programs unmemorable, the newspaper articles a familiar recasting of attitudes of the present in the clothes of the past. The gatherings of the heirs of the British Establishment in our finest churches, and of European leaders standing in line before great memorials, “in stately conclave met”, seem to me to be a wholly appropriate repetition of the scene of the crime.

It also seems to me that far from lighting a candle— as some have suggested– to commemorate the war dead, should we wish to make a profound or meaningful connection to those past events, an effort should be made to de-ritualise the commemoration of the war. And as an English teacher, I can fortunately say that it is books, and reading, that are the way to do this.

The First World War was, and remains, a written war. Very many of the soldiers who fought were the product of the late Victorian education acts, and they wrote home to their families about their experiences; they wrote to their friends about their experiences; they wrote poems, plays and novels about their experiences. The raw and shocking and humbling stuff of the war is already out there. If you are reading this, you are a literate person: so, if you truly want to commemorate the war, don’t follow a timetable set for you by some sentimentalising politician, but read about it, read, read, read. Read the accounts of the men themselves, read the great writings that they produced, and read history books. Don’t have your thoughts about the war predetermined by me or anyone else. Read.

You’ll be a better person– and ours will be a better world– for it.

 

Crowds cheer and wave outside Buckingham Palace on the outbreak of the First World War in 1914.

If you’re starting at Southfields Community College as a Year 12 Student on Tuesday, congratulations: you’ve read your Starter Pack! Welcome to our AS literature course. You’ve been directed here because this is the blog that we use to help prepare you for your exam at the end of the year. We’re excited to have you on board.

Before you move on to the task set for you here, why not roam around the website. Start with our Welcome page at the bottom of the ‘Recent Posts’ column you’ll find on the right– it briefly explains the subject of the course and the purpose of this blog. Check out some of the articles on Move Him Into the Sun relating to the First World War, and note how last year’s students used them to engage in discussion (‘Poppy Wars’ gives you a flavour of the kind of interesting things we find ourselves debating). Click on words and phrases in the ‘Category Cloud’ and ‘Themes, Issues and Events’ boxes to introduce yourself to some of the recurrent themes in our study of First World War literature. If you’d like, you can even ask me a question by clicking on the ‘Ask Mr. Griffiths’ tab at the top of the blog. I can’t promise you a satisfactory answer, but I’ll do my best to help you! Take a look around– see what interests you.

We’ll be using this blog throughout the year to widen our reading and search for meaning in the poetry and prose that we read, its unifying subject: the First World War.

Now, I don’t know how much you know about the First World War. I don’t know anything about the First World War! you may be thinking. I’ve made a terrible mistake! might follow on from this. Goodbye, cruel world! would almost certainly be an excessive reaction, and if you’re thinking this, I’d call a doctor. But don’t panic. I find that most people who begin the course know little about the conflict: one year a student asked me if Henry VIII was king when the war started. She ended the year with a ‘B’ and went on to write one of the best A2 essays I’ve ever read. Ignorance is no crime: and why are you doing an A-level, if not to learn?

By the end of the year you’ll know the history of the war, through the study of the many brilliant poems, books, memoirs and plays written by those effected by it. The only crime is to be incurious– or to dismiss the subject before you start. I’m not interested in the First World War! you may object. Here I quote Yoda from Star Wars: “You will be. You will be”. Why? Because there is no aspect of your life, or that of countless millions of others, that has not been affected by this conflict. You just don’t know why yet.

Off you go. Take a look around.

Back again? Excellent.

In ‘Starter for 12’  I’m going to post some links to some websites that will help you get to grips with how the First World War started. We’ll begin at the beginning, with the origins of the First World War.

The origins of the First World War are, to someone new to the subject, very difficult to grasp. The war began almost a hundred years ago, in a world very different from our own. Nations handled their foreign policies in a way that seems, well, foreign to us. People felt patriotic in a way we find hard to understand. Many welcomed the outbreak of war: they were excited by it. These things can seem very strange at a distance. Yet, as difficult as it can be, I’d like you to try and acquaint yourself with some of the explanations for how the war began. It’s going to be tough, but… let’s try and be smarter than Baldrick!

"There must've been a moment when not being a war on went away, right, and being a war on came along."

Over at FirstWorldWar.com you’ll find a good summary of the events that led up to the outbreak of World War One. Read ‘How It Began’, ‘The Causes of World War One’, ‘Archduke Ferdinand’s Assassination’ and ‘The July Crisis’. Don’t worry if it’s all too much too take in at once; but make notes to help you understand the European Alliance system that so disastrously led to war. You’ll also find two articles on the BBC website that help explain the origins of the war: the first, by Dr Gary Sheffield, argues that war with an aggressive and autocratic Germany was inevitable: a little controversial, but well argued. The second, by Dan Cruikshank, conveys the fear of German militarism that existed in Britain before the war.

I’ll ask to see the notes you’ve made from these websites in the lesson we have on Wednesday.

If you have access to Youtube, you’ll find some interesting documentaries that can give you a broad idea of what life in Britain was like before the war. The best one for our purposes is Andrew Marr’s The Making of Modern Britain: The Road to War. Watch this to understand the social tensions in Britain from 1906 to 1914: and, if you’ve got time, you might even go on to watch its follow-up, ‘The Great War’. Again, as a matter of good practice, you should make notes to help you contextualise the poetry, books and plays that you are going to read.

I will, of course, give you further information and extracts that will help explain how ‘the War to end all Wars’ began. This ‘Starter for 12’ task, however, is a crucial opportunity for you to inform yourself on how it all began– and impress us with your enthusiasm and ability to take on this, your English Literature AS level.

We begin, as we must, with history. Yet within the week we’ll be reading together some of the marvellous poetry that the terrible and momentous First World War has given us.

‘August 1914’

What in our lives is burnt
In the fire of this?
The heart’s dear granary?
The much we shall miss?

Three lives hath one life –
Iron, honey, gold.
The gold, the honey gone –
Left is the hard and cold.

Iron are our lives
Molten right through our youth.
A burnt space through ripe fields
A fair mouth’s broken tooth.

NOTES

This poem reflects on the beginning of the First World War, questioning the consequences of its destruction: Rosenberg declares that a hard and cold age of fire, iron and death has been ushered in by the war.

August 1914: Though the title refers to the first month of the war, this poem was actually written in 1916, as Rosenberg trained as a private soldier for the front line.

STRUCTURE: This is, typically for Rosenberg, a poem of precise images that are also symbols that invite broader interpretation. ‘August 1914’ offers these images and symbols in fragmentary style.

“What in our lives is burnt / In the fire of this?”: The opening stanza begins with questions— anxious wonder about the consequences of the war. Rosenberg does not shy away from questioning in his poetry, and declaring a lack of knowledge, a limited insight. “This”, of course, is the war: Rosenberg wonders what is being destroyed by its “fire”. The word has hellish or sacrificial connotations, but also literally describes the firing of bullets, mortars and shells.

“The heart’s dear granary?”: the metaphor here, comparing the heart to a granary, seems to emphasise the emotional cost of war. A granary is where grain is stored for winter; if the heart has a granary, we might suppose it is where gathered affections are stored for sustenance— but have now been consumed, by the fire of war.

“The much we shall miss?”: An image of great (“much”) personal loss. Note the alliteration here and the stress placed on these two words that signify plenty and its loss.

“Three lives hath one life—”: A cryptic statement that I must admit I find difficult, This line perhaps imagines one life having three elements— those subsequently named. Note another typical Rosenberg archaism (hath for has).

“Iron, honey, gold.”: Another example of Rosenberg favouring the common noun over adjectives. Here the things named have a number of different associations that the reader may apply to them: Iron’s hard and cold nature, the sweetness and preserving power of honey, the preciousness of gold. Any number of valid interpretations can be made as to why these three substances are peculiarly inherent to a human life.

“The gold, the honey gone— / Left is the hard and cold.”: The references to gold and honey here are to me suggestive of a narrative common in human religion and myth— the story of man’s degeneration from an original paradisal state of absolute happiness, a “golden” age. Hesiod, an ancient Greek writer, described these Ages of Man as beginning with the Golden Age, moving then through the Silver, Bronze, Heroic then Iron Age. Each stage (besides the Heroic) traces a gradual fall from a higher state, until in the Iron Age man has become unjust, dishonest and tyrannical. “Gold” here might refer to that paradisal state, while “honey” seems to have more Biblical associations of plenitude, health and preciousness (Canaan is the “land of milk and honey”). August 1914, Rosenberg may be suggesting, is ushering the “hard and cold” Age of Iron, defined by callousness and cruelty.

“Iron are our lives / Molten right through our youth.”: The critic Bernard Bergonzi, writing about Rosenberg, refers to the “multiple associations of his images” which “can be construed both literally and figuratively” (p.109). Here is an example of this. Figuratively—which means a transformation of the world in language— “Iron are our lives” suggests the “hard and cold” nature of the struggle for life alluded to in the previous stanza. This metaphorical element of iron is then transformed, as we read on, into “molten” iron, or heat. This heated iron suggests the misplaced passion of the young men fighting, but also a fluid spirit of Iron within the young, in an Age of Iron. We can also read these words literally, however: because molten iron literally is flying right through the bodies of young men on the battlefield, as burning fragments of shrapnel pierce their skin.

“A burnt space through ripe fields,”: at harvest time in France in August 1914 there will have been many burnt fields, but this line can also, of course, be read figuratively. The  destroyed crops allude, of course, to the loss of young men’s lives, razing their “ripe” potential; yet the ripe fields also seem to recall the “heart’s granary” of the first stanza, and the emotional devastation that war has brought with it.

“A fair mouth’s broken tooth.”: the disturbing image of violence done to beauty closes the poem. Again this line can be read figuratively (a fine civilization is being thoughtlessly destroyed) or literally (the faces of handsome young men are being smashed in). Note the fragmentary nature of the sentences in this last stanza, its difficult syntax: and the striking nature of this fragmentation.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: ‘August 1914’ begs to be compared to other poems that also consider the beginning of the war and its transformative effects. Within the anthology, all those poems welcoming the war at the start of the selection stand in contrast to this poem— Brooke’s sonnets, for example, or Asquith’s The Volunteer. Other poems which reflect on the change that the war brings, such as Larkin’s MCMXIV are relevant, as are poems like Hardy’s In Time of the Breaking of Nations, which purport to offer a longer view. And, of course, in its unflinching condemnation of the effects of the war, ‘August 1914’ can be compared (or contrasted) to the protest poems which Sassoon wrote.]

‘On Receiving News of the War’

Snow is a strange white word.
No ice or frost
Has asked of bud or bird
For Winter’s cost.

Yet ice and frost and snow
From earth to sky
This Summer land doth know.
No man knows why.

In all men’s hearts it is.
Some spirit old
Hath turned with malign kiss
Our lives to mould.

Red fangs have torn His face.
God’s blood is shed.
He mourns from His lone place
His children dead.

O! ancient crimson curse!
Corrode, consume.
Give back this universe
Its pristine bloom.

NOTES

This poem describes Rosenberg’s reaction to the outbreak of the First World War, conveying the poet’s sense of anxious foreboding of the horrors ahead through a series of symbols of life, death and rebirth.

Isaac Rosenberg: Born in 1890, Isaac Rosenberg was a working class Jew who grew up in East London, the son of Russian émigrés. A talented artist, Rosenberg was nonetheless forced to leave school at the age of 14 because of his parents’ poverty (such an early end to education was typical, even encouraged for working class children at this time). He was indentured to a Fleet Street engraver and attended evening classes at Birkbeck College until some wealthy patrons clubbed together to enable him to attend Slade School of Fine Art. He completed his studies there in 1914, but moved in June to Cape Town, South Africa, due to illness. He was here when the Great War began. Rosenberg moved back to London in 1915 and joined up, primarily to provide money for his family. He was in France by early 1916 as a private soldier; like David Jones and Ivor Gurney (and in contrast to many of the most famous soldier poets) Rosenberg experienced the war not as an officer but in the ranks. Posted in France with the Kings Own Lancaster Regiment, Rosenberg was eventually sent to the Somme, where he was shot by a sniper at dawn on the 1st of April, 1918.

On Receiving News of the War: At the beginning of the First World War— and until he returned to England in March 1915— Isaac Rosenberg was living in South Africa. Suffering from chronic bronchitis in early 1914, he was told by his doctor to move to warmer climes. He relocated to Cape Town, where his sister lived. It was from here that he heard of war breaking out in Europe.

STRUCTURE: A precise and very regularly constructed poem, comprising five quatrains of simple, alternating rhyme (ABAB). Iambic trimeter (the six syllable lines, A, of three feet— hence trimeter) is followed by Iambic dimeter (the four syllable lines, B, of two feet— dimeter). This pared down, simple verse recalls the kind of verse structure that William Blake favoured in his ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’: see ‘The Fly’ for an example of Iambic dimeter at work.

“Snow is a strange white word;”: As war is declared it is high summer in Europe, but it is winter in Cape Town, which is in the Southern Hemisphere. This is obviously a striking thing for a European like Rosenberg: snow remains alien to those in South Africa. The perplexing absence of the signs of winter chime with the poet’s alienation in Cape Town from events in Europe. Note in this first line we find the alliteration that is a strong feature of this poem.

“No ice or frost / Have asked of bud or bird / For Winter’s cost.”: in a European winter flowering plants die and birds migrate southwards. No such “cost” occurs in South Africa. This is a literal reading, of course: but underlying Rosenberg’s first verse is a metaphorical comparison of ‘Winter’ in Europe and Cape Town. Winter, of course, heralds death, just as war does. Winter is come in Cape Town, and metaphorically so in Europe: with inevitability death is on its way; yet in neither land is the cost of war yet felt. The assonance here— the repetition of long ‘O’ sounds, which persists throughout the poem— give this opening a soft and later, cumulatively, a mournful tone.

“Yet ice and frost and snow / From earth to sky / This Summer land doth know,”: The simple language typical of the poem is especially in evidence in this second verse. Common nouns are favoured instead of ‘poetic’ description. Rosenberg describes the arrival of the news of war as the arrival of “ice”, “frost” and “snow”. In choosing to describe the arrival of news of the war like this, Rosenberg lets mysterious things stand in for and symbolise events, rather describe the situation at length. The deliberately simple description gives the poem a feeling of being stripped down to essential images, a feature of Rosenberg’s writing. The “Summer land” is South Africa: its Winter is a summer to Rosenberg.

“No man knows why.”: the essential mystery behind the news— why has war erupted so strangely, even in this foreign land— is insisted on in this line. This seems to suggest that the meaning of the momentous news is impossible to know.

“In all men’s hearts it is.”: The poet begins to contemplate human motivation and the nature of the human soul. What is ‘it’ that is in all men’s hearts? Evil? Sin? What is it that causes the recurrent wars and murder in human history?

“Some spirit old / Hath turned with malign kiss / Our lives to mould.”: despite the fact that Rosenberg was Jewish, the suggestion that there is an ancient spirit of evil in man is to a European readership a particularly Christian (specifically Augustinian) one. The doctrine of Original Sin posits the idea that all humans after Adam are ‘fallen’ and, born sinful, require the redemption of Christ. The notion of a malign (or ‘evil’) kiss is also recognizably Christian: Judas of course betrayed Jesus to the Romans with a kiss. For Jewish people the personification of evil is not as pointed as in Christianity— it is not Satan who is responsible for evil but the errors of man: this too could be called a “spirit old”. The fungal (“mould”) nature of this spirit of malignity emphasises a sense slow decay rather than active evil, a spirit of entropy and death. Note another archaism here (earlier Rosenberg uses the old word “doth”)— an echo of Blake, perhaps.

“Red fangs have torn His face. / God’s blood is shed.”: ‘He’ is God. The image is an incredibly powerful, even shocking one. God, here, is very far from the one of mainstream Christian theology— omnipotent (all-powerful), omnipresent (everywhere), a spiritual rather than physical entity. Here, God has been attacked: and he sheds blood. The implication here is perhaps that God’s blood is that of those who will die in the war; but the image is uncompromising, and emphasises the power of evil, and the vulnerability of God. The use of a short end-stopped statement emphasises this (end-stopping is when a line of verse ends in a full stop).

“He mourns from His lone place / His children dead.”: Again, an image of God that is far away from the speculations of mainstream Christian theology. The image of God here is of a deity distraught, alone and removed, who mourns the death of “his children”. The unorthodox Jewish Kaballah may have provided a source for this image of God in the concept of tzimtzum, in which God by an act of will in creation contracts and withdraws from the world so that it may exist. The nature of this speculation, which explains how evil can exist in a world made by a good God, is highly unsettling.

“O! Ancient crimson curse! / Corrode, consume.”: the interjection, “O!” emphasises the emotional weight of Rosenberg’s final (desperate) appeal. Is this a cry of pain, or horror? The language here— an “Ancient crimson curse”— clearly recalls William Blake’s ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’ (particularly ‘The Sick Rose’, which also perhaps influenced Rosenberg’s ‘A Worm Fed On the Heart of Corinth’). The “crimson curse” seems here to be that same “spirit old”; so that here Rosenberg seems to imagine the coming conflict as a kind of spiritual purging of evil that will act like water (“corrode”) or fire (“consume”) on man’s evil. Note the harsh insistence of the alliteration.

“Give back this universe / Its pristine bloom.”: The poem ends with a cosmic- spiritual perspective on human events; the coming suffering of men is placed at the very heart of the universe. The poet prays for a world renewed and returned to its original state, like to a spotless (pristine) flower. The image again recalls Blake’s ‘The Sick Rose’ (beginning, “O Rose, thou art sick!”), but also that poem’s companion in the Songs, ‘The Blossom’, which uses a flower bloom as a symbol of joy and regeneration. There is some consolation, even in the bleak vision of the world falling once again to war at the end of this poem. Rosenberg began his poem with a wintry word, “snow”: yet with this word “bloom”, he ends with a suggestion of spring— and possible renewal.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: This poem can be nicely compared to many of the poems written at the beginning of the war which actively seem to have welcomed the fighting. As we have seen, Rosenberg both abhors the beginning of war, and hopes dimly for some sense of renewal that will come from it. Brooke’s enthusiastic ‘Peace’ provides a powerful contrast of tone. Stylistically, I think Edward Thomas’ simple yet profound poems ‘In Memoriam (Easter 1915)’ and ‘The Cherry Trees’ are interesting to compare with Rosenberg’s symbolic style with their ideas of loss and renewal, though Thomas is precise and realist where Rosenberg is more mythical and deliberately ambiguous.]

The Volunteer

Here lies a clerk who half his life had spent
Toiling at ledgers in a city grey,
Thinking that so his days would drift away
With no lance broken in life’s tournament
Yet ever ‘twixt the books and his bright eyes
The gleaming eagles of the legions came,
And horsemen, charging under phantom skies,
Went thundering past beneath the oriflamme.

And now those waiting dreams are satisfied
From twilight to the halls of dawn he went;
His lance is broken; but he lies content
With that high hour, in which he lived and died.
And falling thus, he wants no recompense,
Who found his battle in the last resort
Nor needs he any hearse to bear him hence,
Who goes to join the men of Agincourt.

NOTES

This poem tells the story of an office worker who has died in battle on the front. Once he was a frustrated clerk living a boring life, living out his heroic fantasies through books. Dying for his country he finds true satisfaction, having lived out his heroic dreams. Asquith wrote this poem in 1912 when working as a lawyer in the City [many thanks to the excellent blog Great War Fiction for correcting my own previous error and therefore an erroneous reading].

STRUCTURE: Written in a rather rigid iambic pentameter— obviously attempting a high-flown, elevated style— this is comprised of two octet stanzas of the same rhyme scheme, ABBACDCD.

‘The Volunteer’: this poem praises the noble death of a volunteer who chose to go and fight for Britain.

Herbert Asquith: Herbert Asquith was the son of the liberal British Prime Minister of the same name who led Britain from 1910-16.

“Here lies a clerk”: the poem begins in the style of an epitaph for a clerk, or office worker.

“toiling at ledgers in a city grey”: the office worker’s life is boring and undemanding: as grey as the city.

“…no lance broken in life’s tournament…”: a picturesque metaphor for seeing action in war: medieval tournaments saw knights riding and fighting against one another for the approval of the king. A lance broken would mean defeat for the knight. The metaphor reflects the kind of romantic literature that the clerk obviously reads for amusement; the adventures of the Knights of the Round Table, and so on.

“ever ‘twixt the books… The gleaming eagles of the legions came ”: the clerk’s imagination goes wild while reading the boring ledger books. Images of marching Roman legions distract him and so come ’twixt, or between the ledgers and his “bright eyes”.

“horsemen… went thundering past beneath the oriflamme”: the Oriflamme was the red battle standard (flag) of the French King’s army. This is another reference to the Romantic medieval fantasies of the clerk.

“And now those waiting dreams are satisfied…”: the second stanza is concerned with the fulfillment of the clerk’s heroic fantasies on the field of battle.

“twilight to the gleaming halls of dawn”: the half-lit spaces of the office are compared with the “gleaming halls” of the afterlife. The imagery of light and luxury expresses the contrast.

“His lance is broken: but he lies content…”: The imagery here is of a knight defeated in a tournament. A lance was a long, large spear that the knight would bear as he rode on his horse. The broken lance means defeat in the tournament (in a curiously phallic image): by this euphemistic metaphor, the clerk has died in battle, but is happy (“content”).

“Falling thus he wants no recompense”: dying in this pleasing way, he needs no other compensation for losing his life.

“Nor need he any hearse…Who goes to join the men of Agincourt”: No hearse (funeral car) is needed because the clerk lives on in name and glory. He is elevated to a place among the greatest historical heroes that have died in France for England: the men of Henry V, who though outnumbered defeated the French army on French soil at the Battle of Agincourt.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: The naive style of this poem means that it can be usefully compared with the work of Pope. This poem can also be compared with the attitudes expressed in Kipling’s epitaph, ‘Ex-Clerk’ (p.214). As a mixture of patriotism, some little social snobbery and old-fashioned Romantic fantasy, it is a fascinating snapshot of the attitudes of some prior to the beginning of the war. The poem also references the great patriotic work of Shakespeare, Henry V: which retells the story of the victories of Henry V in France, which includes the Battle of Agincourt.]

The Soldier

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

NOTES

This sonnet finds a soldier speculating as he goes away to war about his possible death, which he feels should not be mourned, but understood as part of a selfless tribute to his much-loved England.

STRUCTURE: A sonnet. The sonnet form is particularly appropriate here. Sonnets are traditionally love poems. In many renaissance poems, written by the likes of Plutarch, Thomas Wyatt or the Earl of Surrey, such poems are dedicated to an idealized lover— a lover represented as having the best qualities possible. ‘The Soldier’ is indeed a love poem, written for a much-loved and idealized England.

‘The Soldier’: the poem’s voice is that of the unnamed and so anonymous soldier. This soldier therefore seems to speak not only for himself, but for other soldiers too. This is, literally, a poem about selflessness: the idealized selflessness of the soldier who sacrifices his life for his country.

“If I should die”: the opening clause may be conditional, but Brooke here reflects the contents of many letters home from soldiers to families, filled with foreboding about possible death.

“think only this of me:”: the tone of selflessness, of refusing mourning, is contained in this command to “think only this”.

“There is some corner of a foreign field that is forever England”: an image full of pathos and patriotism. The idea of an unnamed “corner of a foreign field” where the soldier will be buried speaks of the unsung and anonymous nature of death in war. Yet the notion that this small space will “forever” be part of England elevates the sacrifice the soldier makes— as if he has in a small way conquered this land. The soft alliteration here lends these opening lines a subdued tone.

“In that rich earth a richer dust concealed”: the fertile earth of the foreign field (fertile in part because of the dead beneath) has hidden within it the soldier’s body (dust). ‘Dust’ is a common literary metaphor for the body: coming as it does from the funeral oration in the Book of Common Prayer, which speaks of the body returning to the earth, “ashes to ashes, dust to dust”.

“A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,”: England here is personified as a mother; first with child, then rearing her young. The link with the mother, of course, emphasises the deep intimacy and importance of England her ‘sons’.

“gave, once, her flowers to love… to roam”: England’s abundance and pastoral beauty is emphasised here as a kind gift. Giving is an important and recurrent metaphor for Brooke when writing about soldiers sacrifice— a way of giving meaning to death by placing it in the context of a kind of social exchange.

“A body of England’s”: the soldier’s body actually belongs in a fundamental way to England; it is hers. This sense of intimate connection— of actually joining with England— is key to this poem.

“breathing English air…washed…blest…home: England is again mentioned— six times in this poem in total. By sheer repetition of the name, this poem gains patriotic intensity. Here the pleasant experience of everyday life is described as an English experience. The final mention of “home” in the octet brings us back to the tragic scene described in the first line.

“And think”: the sextet is more speculative, about life after death, about the soul rather than the body; this call to the reader to “think”, or imagine, is appropriate.

“this heart…eternal mind”: the heart here stands in for the soul; we are asked to imagine this soul after death, when “all evil” or sin has been cast off, and has become part of God himself. The soul is now “a pulse” in the mind of the greater being.

“this heart… no less / Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given”: This line refers back to the octet, where England made the soldier and his thoughts; now we are asked to imagine that equally (“no less”) the soul of the soldier gives all its accumulated thoughts of a lifetime in England to God.

“Her sights and sounds… laughter, learnt of friends;”: the soldier lists all the wonderful experiences that the soldier has gained from England. These pleasant thoughts and memories will be given back to God as the soldier becomes one with Him.

“and gentleness, in hearts at peace / Under an English heaven”: the poem ends with a startling proposition— the soldier finds rest and peace at last in heaven, but heaven has been transformed by the thoughts and memories that the soldier has given to God. This heaven is now “an English heaven”: the connection with England will remain forever unbroken. The sonnet’s turn from an idyllic or idealized vision of England to the idea of a transcendent and literally heavenly England is complete.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: This is a sophisticated patriotic response to the First World War that can be contrasted with the more xenophobic and crude patriotism of poets like Jessie Pope and Rudyard Kipling— or at least Kipling’s early responses to the war. Brooke’s characteristic blend of intellectual and emotional power is in evidence, though some may find the poem troubling: the notion of an English heaven suggests, after all, that there is something special about England, in no less eyes than those of God. Can there be, in such a time of war, such a thing as a German heaven?

Brooke is certainly aware of the dangers of projecting our own ideas and prejudices onto heaven. His amusing 1913 poem ‘Heaven’, about fish heaven, makes that clear: “of all their wish,” he declares, “There shall be no more land, say fish.” Yet he seems to rely on the force of his patriotic imagination to make an ‘English heaven’ plausible. Can we- should we- take this English heaven seriously?]

Peace

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.

NOTES

This sonnet celebrates what Brooke feels is his generation’s great fortune to be born to fight in the First World War. He argues that it is a joy to be young and fit and able to fight for good in a world full of corrupt, cowardly men. He declares that the war has given the young a sense of freedom, and that to die in battle is a blessing to the proud and patriotic.

STRUCTURE: This is a sonnet— as are all the selections from Brooke’s work in Stallworthy’s collection. The sonnet is a 14 line poem that is traditionally written about love. It has two parts (sometimes divided into two stanzas): the octet (or first 8 lines) and sextet (the final 6 lines). The octet traditionally argues a position or describes a situation or setting. Then what is known as ‘the turn’ occurs: a change of argument, mood, position or perspective that makes us reconsider the subject. The rhyme structure of sonnets varies within the fourteen-line, octet / sextet model. Traditionally, the sonnet has two main rhyming variants: of the pattern ABBA ABBA CDE CDE (the Petrarchan Sonnet) or ABAB CDCD EFEF GG (the Shakespearian Sonnet). The organization of the sextet varies quite wildly in the Petrarchan Sonnet; the Shakespearian sonnet always ends in a rhyming couplet, rounding off the poem.

Rupert Brooke: Rupert Brooke was a young and handsome man from a highly privileged background who wrote a number of idealized and extremely popular sonnets about war. Going to Rugby public school and then to university at Cambridge, he had a great talent for sport, theatre and literature, and was considered by his peers to be a leading light of his generation, destined for great things. Brooke joined the army on the outbreak of war, but never actually saw action— he died in April 1915, developing sepsis on a journey across the Mediterranean towards Gallipoli in Southern Turkey.

‘Peace’: this poem, with its pleasure in soldiering and masculine militarism, could be as logically entitled War as Peace. Yet Brooke’s message is that war in the world has brought inner peace to the combatants, who now know their duty and purpose in life.

“Now, God be thanked…wakened us from sleeping”: This is a poem of thanks that Brooke lives at a time (“His hour”— ‘God’s hour’) when the young (the time has “caught our youth”) will be able to fight for right. The young have been awakened to the task they have in hand.

“With…sharpened power”: all qualities of the fit, youthful body, ready for war.

“as swimmers into cleanness leaping…”: A paradoxical image, comparing going to war as an act that cleanses the participants, like a dip in a pool or river. The metaphor of swimmers “leaping” also suggests playfulness— war is a pleasure as well as a rite of passage.

“Glad from a world grown old and cold and weary”: the youthfulness of the participants is contrasted with the metaphorical description of the world as “old”: the old world is incapable of continuing, Brooke suggests— it is ready for death.

“Leave the sick hearts that honour could not move”: Those who do not do their duty to go and fight for their country have “sick hearts”. A key opposition in this poem is between youth and age; another is between healthy bodies and ill or unfit bodies. Those who do not fight are physically (“sick”) and morally (“hearts”) degenerate.

“And half-men…”: Brooke continues his disparaging rhetoric: those who do not fight are not men. There is an interesting connection here with the poetry of Pope (‘Who’s for the Game?’) and the public school ethic of muscular Christianity, which taught that those born to rule (at home and abroad) must be fit of heart and soul.

“…and their dirty songs…and all the little emptiness of love!”: Brooke’s world is a world of men and masculine pursuits. Sex and women are dangerous to this value system: they threaten the purity of men. Brooke was, ultimately a youthful and naïve ex-public schoolboy who had seen little of the world. He was still troubled by his break up with an important girlfriend at the time of writing this, which may explain the mean tone.

“Oh! we, who have known shame, we have found release there,”: The beginning of the sextet turns from the grim corruption of the past to the “release” war brings. The tone is emphatic— “Oh!”

“Where there’s no ill, no grief, but sleep has mending”: the paradox implicit in the title— in war we find peace— is developed here. Brooke suggests that in war nothing can happen that the peace of sleep cannot make better: no sickness or loss that is not compensated for.

“Naught broken save this body, lost but breath”: Brooke’s rhetoric diminishes the sense of personal loss felt in war. The safety of the self is a small thing next to the peace of mind brought by fighting.

“the laughing heart”: the soldier’s heart laughs and is happy— unlike the sick heart of the non-combatant. It finds “long peace” in war— it is here that the meaning of the ‘Peace’ of the title is made explicit.

“Only agony, and that has ending”: Brooke even shrugs of the idea that “agony” could disturb a soldier’s peace of heart, because it is ended by death. These are certainly questionable sentiments— could this poem have been written by someone who saw the horrors of action, the maiming and agony of the Western Front?

“And the worst friend and enemy is but Death.” Death (personified here: a common technique in religious and war poetry) is both friend and enemy to the soldier— death will end life, but it will also bring peaceful “release”.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: Brooke is a giant of the poetry of the First World War. Stallworthy chooses to use three of Brooke’s five famous sonnets in this selection, beginning with a poem that brilliantly expresses the fervour and excitement of a young man going off to war. The poem stands alongside other poems full of heady excitement at the prospect of battle: ‘The Volunteer’ by Herbert Asquith (p.163) and ‘Into Battle’ by Julian Grenfell (p.164). It also contrasts strongly with poems that recount the horrors of war on the Western Front, such as Owen’s Dulce et Decorum Est (p.188)]

Next Page »