Last Updated September 5, 2023.
The poem is a kind of dialog between corpses and God. The dead are risen by the tremendous noise of cannon fire from ships at sea. This could indicate that the dead in question are navy men; at any rate, God reassures them that it is just gunnery practice and that things are "just as before" they had died—things have not changed much in the world, he says. It is "as it used to be."
The character of God is a little different from what one might expect. Rather than guiding man's movements, this God seems as annoyed by the noise as the dead are. It is as if he too is unable to control them. His joke, "Ha, ha. It will be warmer when / I blow the trumpet" (an allusion to Judgement Day) rings a bit hollow, since God himself calls into question whether that day will ever come.
The corpses have a little talk among themselves. One of them wonders "will the world ever saner be" than the one in which he died long ago (i.e., will the world ever be more rational?). Another, Parson Thirdly, regrets his life preaching, since it seems to have been in vain.
There is a sense in which the dead can be read as substitutes for people who are politically disengaged; the corpses are "helpless in such matters"; their talk is hardly elevated above idle pub chatter about the sorry state of the world, and indeed the Parson wishes he had "stuck to pipes and beer."
Another character in the poem is the poet himself, who is one of the corpses awakened by the gunfire. The poet's attitude towards events is somewhat more critical than the other characters. The poet seems to grasp the madness of war and man's thirst "to make red war yet redder," and his ironic portrayal of God as disconnected from these events suggests a critical attitude that extends beyond the other characters.
Of course, the final character is the "you" with which the poem begins, whose "great guns" have disturbed the dead. The guns do not actually belong to this person, except in the general sense that this "you" is a member of the society that produced them. In this sense, the poem recongizes that this "you" is complicit in the gunnery practice, because they have done nothing to stop it (as God says, "they do no more for Christés sake / than you who are helpless in such matters").