This poem analysis of ‘How Sleep the Brave’ is divided into three parts – context, rhyme scheme and rhetorical devices, and title.
Context: ‘How Sleep the Brave’ was written in the year 1916. All students having any knowledge of modern history know that the First World War went on between 1914 and 1918. Hence, this poem was written midway through the war. England had already incurred heavy losses in terms of human lives by this point in the war. Most of the men who had been killed were in their prime. This demoralised the people of England, and they had started questioning what the war would achieve. They knew that the gains would go only to a handful of people who were at the top of the administrative ladder of the country, but that this gain would come only at the cost of the lives of common people. Many war poets had also written realistically of the horrific experiences of soldiers in the trenches, and stopped glorifying war as a result. However, de la Mare goes against the grain to deliver a message of both patriotism and hope in ‘How Sleep the Brave’. He says that the English must be inspired by the deaths of their young soldiers, and continue their war efforts in order to secure victory. De la Mare’s logic is this – if so many young men have lost their lives, let their lives not have been lost in vain.
Rhyme Scheme and Rhetorical Devices: Walter de la Mare is well known for his use of overtly simple rhyme schemes, and in this respect, ‘How Sleep the Brave’ is no exception. Here de la Mare follows the same pattern in every stanza, that is, ABAB. However, this childish rhyme scheme belies the rather heavy content of the poem.
This poem explanation would be incomplete without mentioning the skilful use of the rhetorical devices of apostrophe and personification by de la Mare. Apostrophe is a mode of address using the first person with which poets often summon up the image of a listener in their individual poems. In ‘How Sleep the Brave’, de la Mare addresses the entire poem to the nation of England and its people. Hence he uses a phrase like “sweet England” in the very first line of the poem.
Personification is marked by the use of capital letters, and it is used endows a non-living thing, or an abstract noun with the ability to perform human actions. In this poem, de la Mare personifies the abstract noun ‘Danger’ to conjure up the image of a fear-inducing man calling all the young soldiers to come near him, and embrace death as a consequence of their encounter with him.
Title: This part of the poem explanation focuses on how the title of de la Mare’s ‘How Sleep the Brave’ is a very strategic one. Nowhere in the poem does this line occur, and this fact can lead readers to ask why de la Mare chose such a title. In examining the title closely, we find that the poet has used an inverted sentence here. Instead of writing ‘How the Brave Sleep’, he has written ‘How Sleep the Brave’. This we can attribute to the poetic license that all poets exercise over their use of unusual diction. Next, we come to de la Mare’s use of the word “sleep”. Not only in the title, but also in the rest of the poem, de la Mare has avoided using words like “death”, or “the dead”. Using such words would have given his poem the touch of realism that was being utilized by other war poets of the time (such as Wilfred Owen) to question the futility of war, that resulted in the loss of innocent lives. Therefore, by strategically avoiding that realism, de la Mare is able to preach the opposite message – that war is glorious, and the young soldiers who have sacrificed their lives in war have done so willingly. Lastly, we must focus on the word “brave” in the title of ‘How Sleep the Brave’. Even though de la Mare calls the soldiers brave in the title, he shows them being scared at the prospect of death in the second stanza of the poem. This may seem contradictory but in fact de la Mare is making an important statement here – he is saying that the young soldiers have faced their fear and conquered it, and the rest of England must follow suit if they are to gain victory in battle. Hence, the title (though it seems incongruous at first) is an important part of the poem, and cannot be ignored in any reading of ‘How Sleep the Brave’.