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.
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)]