By Dr Oliver Tearle
Rupert Brooke (1887-1915) is often considered a war poet, though he died early on in the First World War and never wrote about the gritty realities of fighting which Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, and Isaac Rosenberg described, nor did he subject the mismanagement of the war to the trenchant analysis that later poets did. ‘The Soldier’ belongs to an earlier stage in the War, when people were overall more optimistic and patriotic: the poem was read aloud in St Paul’s Cathedral in Easter 1915, shortly before Brooke’s death. The poem captures the patriotic mood. Here, then, is ‘The Soldier’, with a little analysis of its meaning and its language.
If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.
And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts of England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.
Written in November and December 1914, only a few months after the outbreak of the First World War, ‘The Soldier’ reflects the proud English spirit that led to many men enlisting in the early stages of the conflict. It takes the form of the sonnet, a form which has long been associated with English poetry, most famously with William Shakespeare – although before we get too clever and suggest the form of the poem thus reflects its patriotic English message, we should point out that the specific type of sonnet form Rupert Brooke is using is closer to the Italian than the English sonnet. (In short, English sonnets are divided into three quatrains, or four-line units, and a concluding couplet, while Italian sonnets are divided into an octave or eight-line unit, followed by a sestet, or six-line unit.)
Nevertheless, the poem does reflect the Shakespearean sonnet by rhyming ababcdcd in those first eight lines, whereas the Italian or Petrarchan sonnet rhymes abbaabba.
The patriotic message of the poem is evident in its repeated mention of ‘England’ and ‘English’ – six times in all. But a closer analysis of the poem reveals that it also offers subtler hints of its proud patriotism. For example, ‘foreign’, in the ‘foreign field’ of the second line, finds itself echoed and elongated into ‘for ever England’ in the next line, neatly bringing home the fact that, although English soldiers may die quickly and horrifically on the fields of France, the English values that led to them giving their lives for a cause – courage, pride, pluck – will last forever.
The ‘suns of home’ and idea of ‘dust’ as both the earth and the remains of the soldier (‘dust to dust’) would be grimly reworked several years later by a very different war poet, Wilfred Owen, in his poem ‘Futility’. You can read our analysis of Owen’s ‘Futility’ here (and we’ve picked Owen’s greatest poems in a separate post). Read our pick of Rupert Brooke’s five best poems here.
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.
Image: Rupert Brooke in 1915, from the 1920 edition of his Poems, Wikimedia Commons, public domain.
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Another solid favourite of mine… Thank you!