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Rupert Brooke’s poem “Peace” and Wilfred Owen’s poem “Futility” are strikingly different works, even though both were written in response to World War I. Brooke’s poem celebrates war as an opportunity for heroism and as an alternative to a decadent peace. In contrast, Owen’s poem emphasizes the real costs of war – the real losses of individual soldiers in combat. Brooke presents death in largely abstract terms; Owen presents death in highly vivid and memorable phrasing.
Brooke’s poem opens by thanking God for allowing the speaker’s generation to participate in a great war. God has thus “wakened us from sleeping” (2). Soldiers fighting in war are like “swimmers into cleanness leaping” (5), while those who evade service are “sick hearts that honour could not move” (6) and are merely “half-men” (7). On the battlefield,
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. (10-14)
Owen’s poem titled “Futility” could hardly be more different. Whereas “Peace” describes death very vaguely and minimizes its significance, “Futility” focuses vividly on a particularly corpse, “Full-nerved, still warm” (11). Whereas “Peace” depicts pre-war England as a decadent place, “Futility” emphasizes the actual charms of a bucolic pre-war existence (2-4). While Brooke speaks of no individual soldier, Owen presents us with the striking history of a particular person whose different phases of life are precisely detailed. Brooke’s poem expresses contempt for the “half-men” who evade war; Owen’s poem expresses both sympathy and empathy for the corpse the speaker sees lying before him. Brooke’s speaker thanks God for war and speaks on behalf of his fellow eager soldiers; Owen’s poem laments one dead man who symbolizes millions, and it addresses other soldiers who have to handle the corpse of a fallen comrade.
Interestingly, in both poems sleep is a major motif. In Brooke’s poem, the speaker’s generation has been symbolically awakened from a metaphorical sleep by the call of war. In Owen’s poem, the dead man who has literally been awakened by the sun many times in the past will now never awake again. His awakenings are in the permanent past.
The tone of Brooke’s poem is propagandistic, both in its celebration of war and in its attack on cowards at home. The tone of Owen’s poem is elegiac and meditative, especially in the second stanza, which raises very large questions about the meaning of any human life (if indeed any meaning really exists). Brooke’s speaker is confident and ready to convince others; Owen’s speaker is thoughtful, literally full of questions, and not at all sure how those questions should be answered.
It should be stressed that Brooke’s poem was written in 1914, before the full horrors of the war had become fully apparent, whereas Owen’s poem was written in 1918, by which time the sheer brutality and senselessness of World War I was obvious to practically everyone. Brooke’s poem seems naïve, and it is; Owen’s poem seems rooted in painful personal experience, as indeed it was.
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