When I was on my third deployment, my father sent me a poem. He has done aid work in some pretty dangerous areas of the world, so while our circumstances were quite different, both of us had brushed up against the line of life and death a few times and related to each other’s experiences in that way. The poem he sent me was Rupert Brooke’s “Safety,” and it remains etched in my mind to this day.
By Rupert Brooke
Dear! of all happy in the hour, most blest
He who has found our hid security,
Assured in the dark tides of the world that rest,
And heard our word, ‘Who is so safe as we?’
We have found safety with all things undying,
The winds, and morning, tears of men and mirth,
The deep night, and birds singing, and clouds flying,
And sleep, and freedom, and the autumnal earth.
We have built a house that is not for Time’s throwing.
We have gained a peace unshaken by pain for ever.
War knows no power. Safe shall be my going,
Secretly armed against all death’s endeavour;
Safe though all safety’s lost; safe where men fall;
And if these poor limbs die, safest of all.
As I later discovered, Brooke was no stranger to combat. He enlisted into the British armed forces in August of 1914, just one month after the onset of the war. He was then commissioned into the Royal Navy as a sub-Lieutenant, and saw combat on the water. He participated in Antwerp Expedition in which the British aided Belgium, but ultimately lost to the Germans. Belgium lost an untold number of troops, and 33,000 were interned and 30,000 more were captured. 57 British were killed, 1,480 interned and 900 captured. By the time Brooke would have gotten to the battle, many would have known that it was already lost.
Tragically, Brooke was bitten by a mosquito earlier the next year and caught a very serious bloodstream infection called septicemia. He died that April; he was 27 years old.
He would gain attention in literary circles as being a prolific wartime poet, and his words struck a chord with many of those fighting as well as those back at home, especially in the following years of WWI. He wrote other great sonnets such as “The Soldier” which is arguably his most popular, as well as “The Dead.” His work was so inspirational that it even garnered the attention of Winston Churchill, who was the political head of the Royal Navy at the time.
Like Stephen Crane, he died at a young age but his work lives on. It is a rare balance, to find poetry in war that focuses on things other than bleak heartbreak or crushing helplessness (one thinks of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”). He integrates the raw reality of what men are doing — slaughtering each other on a massive scale — but still finds room for things like patriotism, courage, peace of mind, and other values that don’t glorify the reality of war, but simply highlights the honest optimism you might find from someone in the trenches.
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