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Rupert Brooke’s sonnet titled “Peace” bears some resemblance to the speech in William Shakespeare’s play Henry V in which Henry prepares his men for their battle against the French at Agincourt. Brooke’s poem thanks God for giving him and men of his generation the opportunity to face the challenge of fighting in World War I. God has “caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping” (2) – that is, from the slumber of a pre-war “world grown old and cold and weary” (5). The sonnet expresses disdain for those who oppose the war or refuse to serve, who are called
the sick hearts that honour could not move,
And half-men, [with] their dirty songs and dreary . . . (6-7)
The sestet (last six lines) of the sonnet present the battlefield as a place where emotional peace can be achieved, and where agony is only temporary and Death is both an enemy and a friend.
The tone of Brooke’s poem was probably intended to seem lofty and heroic but has struck many readers as unrealistic and naïve. The form of the poem – a sonnet – has struck many readers as too small, neat, and conventional a form for a war poem (unless that poem is itself fairly conventional in its sentiments, as this one possibly is). The experiences in Brooke’s poem have struck many readers as imagined and idealized rather than real. The imagery has been regarded by many readers as too abstract to do real justice to the grim realities of war.
Henry’s “St. Crispin Day’s speech” in Henry V is a famously patriotic and inspiring piece of oratory, but it seems far more rooted in the actual experiences of war than does Brooke’s sonnet. Its tone is often realistic; its imagery is often blunt and unblinking, and the fact that it is part of a long play (rather than being an isolated sonnet) means that it is immensely colored by its larger context, which also often stresses the grimness and moral dilemmas resulting from war. Henry’s speech, for instance, continually alludes to those who are wounded and scarred (a population who seem mostly non-existent in Brooke’s sonnet, where men are either alive or dead, not surviving afterwards with permanent scars). A surprising number of lines in Henry’s speech are devoted to the years after the war has ended and the men are back at home – times and places not really mentioned in Brooke’s sonnet. We know, too, of course, that Henry and his men have already been in battle and know the ugly effects of warfare. Henry thus seems to have earned the right to use the kind of language he uses here, whereas the speaker of Brooke’s sonnet, patriotic though he is, can sound naïve and immature – as if he is, in a sense, “talking through his hat.”
It should be remembered, of course, the Brooke wrote this poem in 1914, the very first year of the war, not in 1918, when the full horror of the conflict had become apparent to almost everyone.
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