Summary and Analysis
“Peace,” by the English poet Rupert Brooke (1887-1915), is one of the most famous (or, in the eyes of some, even infamous) poems to emerge from World War I. Sigfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, two of the other best-known soldier-poets of this era, eventually wrote works extremely critical of the conflict, but Brooke’s poems, including “Peace,” reflect the early idealism and (some would say) naiveté that characterized the first stages of the war. Brooke, a member of the Royal Navy, died (from an infection) too early to witness the full horrors of trench combat; we can only wonder what he might have written if he had lived at least a few more years. In any case, “Peace” should be taken on its own terms rather than being read with retrospective irony. Poems such as “Peace” reflect the attitudes felt by many young men during the first year or so of the hostilities.
“Peace” is a sonnet, a kind of poem often associated with expressions of love and therefore somewhat appropriate to a work that begins by showing love of God and one’s military comrades. Interestingly, the poem mocks “all the little emptiness” of merely romantic “love” (8), implying that there are higher, nobler kinds of affection than simple flirtations and ephemeral wooings.
The poem begins almost as a public prayer might begin: “Now, God be thanked” (1). By using iambic rhythm in this phrase (a kind of rhythm in which even syllables are accented but odd syllables are not), the speaker places heavy stress on the two key words (“God” and “thanked”). Much of the poem, in fact, uses iambic meter, which is often thought to be closest to the rhythms of actual speech in English. Likewise, the poem is also made accessible by its relatively simple diction (or choice of words). None of the words in this work would confuse most readers. Both in rhythm and in diction, then, the sonnet seems designed to be as easy as possible to follow and understand. Only in its syntax (or sentence structure) is the octave of the sonnet (its first eight lines) somewhat complex. The octave consists of one long, unfolding sentence comprising 71 words. By managing to keep such a long sentence under relatively clear control, Brooke demonstrates part of his skill as a poet.
As the opening line of the sonnet makes clear, the speaker presents himself as speaking not only for himself but also for many other servicemen. He adopts the role of spokesman for his generation—or at least for those of his generation who eagerly welcome military duty. He implies that before the arrival of the war, many young people were merely “sleeping” (2). They were not fully awake to the higher purposes of life. By creating them to live during this period of warfare, God “caught” them—not in the sense of entrapping them or tricking them, but rather in the sense of catching someone who is falling. Many people in fact regarded the war as a moral crusade against a barbaric enemy. By permitting him and his comrades to serve in the war (the speaker implies), God has given them the chance to lead worthy and meaningful lives. By serving in the military, they are also serving God.
Perhaps with the intent of actually inspiring the very dedication he describes, the speaker depicts himself and his comrades as full of youthful strength and energy (3)—an energy resembling, perhaps, the kind of divine energy implied by most of the heavily accented verbs of lines 1-2. The speaker and his comrades are like “swimmers into cleanness leaping” (4), an image that suggests a kind of baptism that is simultaneously athletic, moral, and spiritual. These young men have turned away gladly “from a world grown old and cold and weary” (5)—a rhetorically effective line that uses the technique known as polysyndeton (or repeated conjunctions) to give maximum metrical weight to each of the stressed adjectives. The echo of “old” in “cold” also gives this list of adjectives unusual force,...
(The entire section is 1,288 words.)