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"HOW SLEEP THE BRAVE" William Collins (1746) William Collins selects British soldiers killed in battle as a subject for his "How Sleep the Brave." He honors them in two simple verses composed of six lines of rhyming couplets, employing no surprises in either form or fashion. The speaker begins, "How sleep the brave who sink to rest / By all their country's wishes blest!" reminding his audience that everyone owes a great debt to the dead soldiers' courage. Collins employs sleep as the traditional symbolic reference to death, suggesting a peaceful afterlife for the soldiers. However, the verb sink guarantees the tone will not be altogether positive, as the sleep is not the choice of the dead. He employs figurative language personifying spring as having "dewy fingers cold," rather than suggesting the traditionally sunny season imbuing warmth. However, the positive imagery of dew connotes the morning, a time of rebirth, cleansing, and new beginnings and offering hope that the dead will find a new life elsewhere. He also notes that when Spring returns
She there shall dress a sweeter sod
Than Fancy's feet have ever trod.
The speaker references spring's covering the mold, or grave, with its usual blessing of flowers, which will mature in earth made sweeter than any other through the great sacrifice of the dead beneath the ground. He also seems to reflect on his own occupation as a writer dependent upon imagination, or "Fancy." In this case, even the finest imagination could not conjure a greater gift to its audience than these men have made to their fellow humans.
In the second and final verse the nature references continue, as "fairy hands" ring the death knell and "By forms unseen their dirge is sung"; one of those forms is Honor, which "comes, a pilgrim gray / To bless the turf that wraps their clay." Thus these graves will be covered by more than spring flowers; they will be attended by the Honor that the soldiers earned through their sacrifice. Honor's characterization as a pilgrim suggests that a special journey has been undertaken with a specific goal in mind. Its dress in "gray" becomes a more hopeful image than had it worn traditional black mourning garb. Finally "Freedom shall awhile repair, / To dwell a weeping hermit there!" Collins makes clear that before the living may enjoy the liberty purchased by these soldiers' deaths, they must reflect upon those bodies that proved the currency for the purchase of that liberty, offering tears for their loss.
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