By Dr Oliver Tearle
Previously, we chose some of the greatest war poems; now, it’s the turn of peace. Have poets written as well about peace as they have about war? Although war poetry has provided an important service (if we can call poetry a ‘service’ as such) in bringing to light the horror, tragedy, and atrocity of warfare, it’s always time to ‘give peace a chance’, and so it’s of little surprise that many poets have written about longing for peace, not knowing peace, or enjoying the sweet joys of peace.
Sir Thomas Wyatt, ‘I Find No Peace’. Wyatt (1503-42) was one of the first great English poets of the Renaissance – perhaps the very first. Although Wyatt lived through a turbulent period of English history, which included the Reformation and the Dissolution of the Monasteries, this poem finds Wyatt describing his lack of inner peace, and the turbulent emotions that rage through his mind.
I find no peace, and all my war is done.
I fear and hope. I burn and freeze like ice.
I fly above the wind, yet can I not arise;
And nought I have, and all the world I season.
That loseth nor locketh holdeth me in prison
And holdeth me not – yet can I scape no wise –
Nor letteth me live nor die at my device,
And yet of death it giveth me occasion …
George Herbert, ‘Peace’. Herbert (1593-1633) was a devotional poet, but also a metaphysical one, and his poems carry emotional power as well as intellectual ingenuity. Here, he addresses peace, which is absent from him:
Sweet Peace, where dost thou dwell? I humbly crave,
Let me once know.
I sought thee in a secret cave,
And ask’d, if Peace were there,
A hollow wind did seem to answer, No:
Go seek elsewhere …
Walt Whitman, ‘O Sun of Real Peace’. Whitman (1819-92), the American poet who really put free verse on the literary map, uses his sprawling psalmic lines to meditate on the sun as a beacon of peace in this poem:
O sun of real peace! O hastening light!
O free and extatic! O what I here, preparing, warble for!
O the sun of the world will ascend, dazzling, and take his height –
and you too, O my Ideal, will surely ascend!
O so amazing and broad – up there resplendent, darting and burning!
O vision prophetic, stagger’d with weight of light! with pouring glories …
Emily Dickinson, ‘I Many Times Thought Peace Had Come’. This short Emily Dickinson poem is brief enough to be quoted in its entirety here. It’s about the hope of peace, even when peace remains far-off:
I many times thought Peace had come
When Peace was far away—
As Wrecked Men—deem they sight the Land—
At Centre of the Sea—
And struggle slacker—but to prove
As hopelessly as I—
How many the fictitious Shores—
Before the Harbor be—
Ah, that Time could touch a form
That could show what Homer’s age
Bred to be a hero’s wage.
‘Were not all her life but storm
Would not painters paint a form
Of such noble lines,’ I said,
‘Such a delicate high head,
All that sternness amid charm,
All that sweetness amid strength?’
Ah, but peace that comes at length,
Came when Time had touched her form.
William Carlos Williams, ‘Peace on Earth’. This poem from one of America’s greatest modernist poets looks to the stars for its subject – and, specifically, the constellations. Whilst Orion’s sword glistens and the serpent writhes, all is peaceful and calm on earth. The poem, with its recurring refrain to ‘sleep safe till tomorrow’, might be thought of as a lullaby.
Sara Teasdale, ‘Peace’. Sara Teasdale (1884-1933) was an American lyric poet whose work is often overlooked in discussions of twentieth-century American poetry. Yet at its best, Teasdale’s work has a lyricism and beauty which can rival that of many poets of her time. Here she meditates on the calm that a deep peace brings:
Peace flows into me
As the tide to the pool by the shore;
It is mine forevermore,
It ebbs not back like the sea …
Rupert Brooke, ‘Peace’. The opening sonnet in the short sequence of poems Brooke wrote under the title ‘1914’, about the outbreak of the First World War, this poem reflects the jingoistic spirit that was prevalent at the beginning of that conflict: Brooke sees the war as his generation’s time to shine. Of course, the sonnet has ‘not aged well’, as we say now; but there are some who now think Brooke was being ironic in these patriotic poems, so it’s hard to tell what he himself thought. Still, the message of the poem seems to be that, paradoxically, war brings a kind of inner peace – a sense of honour and duty and self-worth – which his generation needed, in ‘a world grown old and cold and weary’. The poem offers a different take on the idea of ‘peace’ from other poems in this list, and contains the lines:
Oh! we, who have known shame, we have found release there,
Where there’s no ill, no grief, but sleep has mending,
Naught broken save this body, lost but breath;
Nothing to shake the laughing heart’s long peace there
But only agony, and that has ending;
And the worst friend and enemy is but Death.
Patrick Kavanagh, ‘Peace’. The Irish poet (and novelist) Patrick Kavanagh (1904-67) really should be more widely read outside of his native country than he is: he was a technical master of many forms and wrote beautifully about the natural world as well as the people of Ireland. In ‘Peace’, he almost seems to be channelling the spirit of the nineteenth-century nature poet John Clare.
Wendell Berry, ‘The Peace of Wild Things’. Let’s conclude this pick of classic peace poems with a more recent example, from the American poet Wendell Berry (born 1934). Although the juxtaposition of ‘peace’ with ‘wild’ in the poem’s title sounds almost contradictory, this short lyric powerfully captures the benefits of going among nature to forget out human habit of worrying or despairing about the future. Animals lack ‘forethought’ and don’t waste time worrying about the future; perhaps we can learn wisdom from them on that.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.