What is the poem "How Sleep the Brave" by William Collins about?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The surface meaning of the poem is to honor those who have given “the ultimate sacrifice” to their nation.  The imagery in the poem reflects this notion of death and sacrifice and the honor paid to such individuals: “dewy fingers cold,”  the fairies with whose hands “their knell is rung,” and “their dirge” being sung by “forms unseen.”  The relationship between both those who have given the ultimate sacrifice and those who honor them is seen throughout the poem.  The poem ends with on an elegiac note: “To dwell, a weeping hermit there.”  The 2 stanza poem, consisting of six lines each, has an alternating line rhyme scheme.  “Rest” goes with “blest” and this pattern is continued throughout the poem.  The symbolic meaning lies in the honoring of those who have perished giving their lives for a nation and its freedom.  The tone of the poem is quite mournful, paying homage and respect to those that have past and understanding that there is a certain amount of stoicism involved in such a reality.  The mood or overall feeling of the poem is somber, only enhanced by images of remembrance through items associated with funerals (“knell,” “dirge”, “sweeter sod,” and “turf that wraps their clay.”)  The overall appreciation of the poem is contingent on how individuals perceive military deaths.  It seems that the poem enhances the idea that any soldier who pays this “ultimate sacrifice” is worthy of honoring and remembrance.

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