The Soldier – Rupert Brooke

The Soldier

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 by 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.

NOTES

This sonnet finds a soldier speculating as he goes away to war about his possible death, which he feels should not be mourned, but understood as part of a selfless tribute to his much-loved England.

STRUCTURE: A sonnet. The sonnet form is particularly appropriate here. Sonnets are traditionally love poems. In many renaissance poems, written by the likes of Plutarch, Thomas Wyatt or the Earl of Surrey, such poems are dedicated to an idealized lover— a lover represented as having the best qualities possible. ‘The Soldier’ is indeed a love poem, written for a much-loved and idealized England.

‘The Soldier’: the poem’s voice is that of the unnamed and so anonymous soldier. This soldier therefore seems to speak not only for himself, but for other soldiers too. This is, literally, a poem about selflessness: the idealized selflessness of the soldier who sacrifices his life for his country.

“If I should die”: the opening clause may be conditional, but Brooke here reflects the contents of many letters home from soldiers to families, filled with foreboding about possible death.

“think only this of me:”: the tone of selflessness, of refusing mourning, is contained in this command to “think only this”.

“There is some corner of a foreign field that is forever England”: an image full of pathos and patriotism. The idea of an unnamed “corner of a foreign field” where the soldier will be buried speaks of the unsung and anonymous nature of death in war. Yet the notion that this small space will “forever” be part of England elevates the sacrifice the soldier makes— as if he has in a small way conquered this land. The soft alliteration here lends these opening lines a subdued tone.

“In that rich earth a richer dust concealed”: the fertile earth of the foreign field (fertile in part because of the dead beneath) has hidden within it the soldier’s body (dust). ‘Dust’ is a common literary metaphor for the body: coming as it does from the funeral oration in the Book of Common Prayer, which speaks of the body returning to the earth, “ashes to ashes, dust to dust”.

“A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,”: England here is personified as a mother; first with child, then rearing her young. The link with the mother, of course, emphasises the deep intimacy and importance of England her ‘sons’.

“gave, once, her flowers to love… to roam”: England’s abundance and pastoral beauty is emphasised here as a kind gift. Giving is an important and recurrent metaphor for Brooke when writing about soldiers sacrifice— a way of giving meaning to death by placing it in the context of a kind of social exchange.

“A body of England’s”: the soldier’s body actually belongs in a fundamental way to England; it is hers. This sense of intimate connection— of actually joining with England— is key to this poem.

“breathing English air…washed…blest…home: England is again mentioned— six times in this poem in total. By sheer repetition of the name, this poem gains patriotic intensity. Here the pleasant experience of everyday life is described as an English experience. The final mention of “home” in the octet brings us back to the tragic scene described in the first line.

“And think”: the sextet is more speculative, about life after death, about the soul rather than the body; this call to the reader to “think”, or imagine, is appropriate.

“this heart…eternal mind”: the heart here stands in for the soul; we are asked to imagine this soul after death, when “all evil” or sin has been cast off, and has become part of God himself. The soul is now “a pulse” in the mind of the greater being.

“this heart… no less / Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given”: This line refers back to the octet, where England made the soldier and his thoughts; now we are asked to imagine that equally (“no less”) the soul of the soldier gives all its accumulated thoughts of a lifetime in England to God.

“Her sights and sounds… laughter, learnt of friends;”: the soldier lists all the wonderful experiences that the soldier has gained from England. These pleasant thoughts and memories will be given back to God as the soldier becomes one with Him.

“and gentleness, in hearts at peace / Under an English heaven”: the poem ends with a startling proposition— the soldier finds rest and peace at last in heaven, but heaven has been transformed by the thoughts and memories that the soldier has given to God. This heaven is now “an English heaven”: the connection with England will remain forever unbroken. The sonnet’s turn from an idyllic or idealized vision of England to the idea of a transcendent and literally heavenly England is complete.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: This is a sophisticated patriotic response to the First World War that can be contrasted with the more xenophobic and crude patriotism of poets like Jessie Pope and Rudyard Kipling— or at least Kipling’s early responses to the war. Brooke’s characteristic blend of intellectual and emotional power is in evidence, though some may find the poem troubling: the notion of an English heaven suggests, after all, that there is something special about England, in no less eyes than those of God. Can there be, in such a time of war, such a thing as a German heaven?

Brooke is certainly aware of the dangers of projecting our own ideas and prejudices onto heaven. His amusing 1913 poem ‘Heaven’, about fish heaven, makes that clear: “of all their wish,” he declares, “There shall be no more land, say fish.” Yet he seems to rely on the force of his patriotic imagination to make an ‘English heaven’ plausible. Can we- should we- take this English heaven seriously?]

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17 thoughts on “The Soldier – Rupert Brooke”

  1. There is more personification in this poem because Brooke sees England as a woman. Brooke writes that the dead soldiers gain “hearts at peace, under an English heaven.” Brooke uses positive imagery: “hearts at peace” suggests that the dead are happy and proud to have served their country.

  2. ‘The soldier’ by Rupert Brooke is a very emotional sonnet: the fact that it is a sonnet shows, I think, the love that the fighting men had for England. The poem speaks for the majority of the soldiers at that time and how their love for England made them who they were. ‘If i should die’ was probably a much used line during World War One when the men were writing their last few letters to their families. I think the poem shows great respect for the soldiers.

  3. I think one of the reasons Brooke was so popular is undoubtedly that his poems caught the mood of the time– not simply that his poems were tremendously patriotic, but that he also caught the voice of the soldier as both strong, but vulnerable. Bereaved families must have read a sonnet like ‘The Soldier’ and found it comforting.

    What do you think of the tone of the poem? Do you find it an uplifting poem, Toni?

  4. This poem is one of the best poems I have enjoyed reading. Personification is used throughout the majority of this sonnet England is personified to be a woman.” A dust, whom England bore, shaped, made aware,” England here is personified to be a mother. Brooke does this because wants us to feel the connection that we have between our mother. If we put our self in this situation we would be fighting to protect our mother. This sonnet is about Brooks love for England and that he is willing to do anything in his power to save ‘her’. “In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.”

  5. This poem is a lie. A real poem about the war is ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ by Wilfed Owen. Rupert Brooke never had to face war, Wilfred Owen did and knew what it was like. This poem is an insult to soldiers!

    1. ‘Lie’ is a very strong word, Dave. Brooke in fact did see action in September 1914– even if he didn’t fight– near Antwerp and Ostend in Belgium. He watched the Belgian refugees stream past his division as he marched up to the line, and the chateau his men was stationed at was shelled. I’d hazard that’s closer to military action than you and I have seen.

      1. I agree that ‘Lie’ is a strong word to be using, it is up to the poet to write what he believes or wants to, whether it contrasts your beliefs on what war is like. Brooke did not happen to see action until after he had written the poem, about a year later. In fact, this poem actually contributed to him being sent off to war, with the backing of Winston Churchill. This poem was written in the very early stages of the First World War, before many people had experienced war on this scale, including Brooke. I doubt he would have realized the grim reality of it all until he was actually sent off.

    2. There’s nothing in this poem that can be called a lie. It expresses the belief and sentiments that so many thousands of young men felt and shared at the beginning of the Great War. If Owen’s experience as a soldier lends his work more credibility, so should this beautifully crafted sonnet be read in its context; it is the work of a talented young poet whose naivete had not yet been jaded by the horrors of war.

  6. I think that Brooke’s poem is very idealistic, especially when one compares it with C. H. Sorley’s stark Sonnet (‘Millions of the Mouthless Dead’) as I have to! But doubtless many families found it comforting to read. Although idealistic, in a way, I feel this poem is an attempt to console everyone at home and it doesn’t have an altogether happy feel about it. After all, I don’t think anyone could be totally happy with the constant thought of death hanging over them! Between the two, though, I find I prefer Sorley’s sonnet to Brooke’s.

  7. I am reading this poem in South Africa, and I find the idea of an ‘English heaven’ particularly ironic given our colonial history, and the role that British soldiers played in explanding the influence of the ‘motherland’ at the expense of indigenous cultures all over Africa and beyond.

    Thank you for your very insightful analysis of the poem.

    1. An interesting comment: you seem to be proposing that there is a kind of spirit of nationalism in this poem, and a pride in the soldier, that any reader can identify with?

  8. I personally prefer Dulce et Decorum est by Wilfred Owen because he went to war properly, on the front line so he knew what it was really like. I find that his poem gives a more graphic image of war, and a historically accurate one.

    1. no Rupert really did love England that much and he was not forced by the government or by any newspaper to write this as pro war propaganda.

      1. While he may not have been forced, he was no doubt influenced by the war posters and propaganda that was embracing English society at the time. Further, Brooke really shouldn’t be classified as a war poet, strictly speaking, he doesn’t fall within the same depth as Sassoon or Owen. And understandably so, he died so young, without having seen much (if any combat) so is simply by way of lack of experience, unable to produce such seething works as Dulce Et Decorum Est. Brooke can be regarded as a Georgian poet – with his nationalistic ideology represented in how he presents his England, or even Romantic with his use of diction.

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