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?]

The Dead

Blow out, you bugles, over the rich Dead!
There’s none of these so lonely and poor of old,
But, dying, has made us rarer gifts than gold.
These laid the world away; poured out the red
Sweet wine of youth; gave up the years to be
Of work and joy, and that unhoped serene,
That men call age; and those who would have been,
Their sons, they gave, their immortality.

Blow, bugles, blow! They brought us, for our dearth,
Holiness, lacked so long, and Love, and Pain.
Honour has come back, as a king, to earth,
And paid his subjects with a royal wage;
And Nobleness walks in our ways again;
And we have come into our heritage.

NOTES

This sonnet is a tribute to those British soldiers who died serving their country in the First World War. Brooke declares that the dead men have made the deepest sacrifice possible; but in return they have ennobled themselves and brought honour back to Britain.

STRUCTURE: A sonnet. This is a Plutarchan sonnet: note the ABBA CDDC pattern in the octet. Also note the difference in the sextet to Peace (p.162).

‘The Dead’: this poem expresses a sense of deep reverence for the sacrifice of those who have died in the war.

“Blow out, you bugles”: a bugle is a simple trumpet used in military funerals— in the British Empire, ‘The Last Post’ was played over the bodies of the dead. Note the assonance, here, that runs throughout the poem– perhaps here reminiscent of the bugles themselves.

“rich Dead!”: the highly valued dead are repeatedly referred to through metaphors of earned wealth. The opening line is a passionate call to memorialize the dead soldiers.

“None of these so lonely and poor… made us rarer gifts than gold”: Even the poorest man has, by dying for his country, given a gift more precious than gold. This paradox continues the metaphorical equation of death at war to the passing on of wealth— freely given to the people of Britain (note Brooke writes of “us”; he speaks for the nation). The line also recalls Shakespeare’s Henry V: “For he to-day that sheds his blood with me / Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile, / This day shall gentle his condition” (Act IV, scene iii). The sacrifice of death gives nobility to the poorest.

“These laid the world away”: the world is willingly laid aside.

“poured out the red / Sweet wine of youth”: in death, youth is used up, like wine decanted from a glass.

“gave up the years to be…”: the dead men’s sacrifice is vividly drawn out by Brooke as he speculatively imagines their years of “work and joy” lost; as is their “serene” time, or peaceful time, of old age. He even conjectures that the men have given up their “immortality” by not having “sons”, whom also “they gave”.

“Blow, bugles, blow!”: the repetition at the beginning of the sextet emphasises the message of remembrance that the poem insists upon.

“They brought us…Holiness…Love and Pain…”: Brooke again insists that, to a place of “dearth”— ‘lack’ or famine— the soldiers bring back the personified characters of Holiness, Love and Pain. The soldiers in fact redeem the fallen world, like Christ.

“Honour has come back, as king, to earth”: the personification continues, here with Christ-like connotations: also a suggestion of the medieval myth of ‘the return of the king’— which brings restoration and new life to the land.

“…paid his subjects with a royal wage”: the metaphor of wealth given or paid to others continues. The soldier’s personal sacrifice and ‘gift’ has now become a greater gift to a nation, personified in the figure of the king, Honour, ruling over the land.

“Nobleness walks in our ways again”: The sextet, with its evocation of knightly chivalry, develops the Shakespearian notion of new-found nobility and a ‘gentled condition’ ruling over the land, after the willing sacrifice of men’s lives. If the Octet is concerned with the soldier’s loss, the sextet is concerned with what others have gained by their death.

“we have come into our heritage”: the people of Britain have inherited a different and ennobled country, full of virtue— thanks to the soldier’s sacrifice. This closing image collapses together the two metaphorical strands in the poem— of wealth and nobility— in the suggestion of children receiving their inheritance or land from their dead father.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: This second of Brooke’s sonnets is his attempt at an exceedingly common type of war poem— the memorial poem, or poem of remembrance. It can be compared to Brooke’s other great poem of remembrance, ‘The Soldier’ (p.163); also, to the sentiments expressed in other poems like McRae’s ‘In Flanders Fields’ (p.165), Thomas’ ‘In Memoriam’ (p.179) and Owen’s ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ (p.188).]

Peace

Now, God be thanked Who has matched us with His hour,
And caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping,
With hand made sure, clear eye, and sharpened power,
To turn, as swimmers into cleanness leaping,
Glad from a world grown old and cold and weary,
Leave the sick hearts that honour could not move,
And half-men, and their dirty songs and dreary,
And all the little emptiness of love!

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.

NOTES

This sonnet celebrates what Brooke feels is his generation’s great fortune to be born to fight in the First World War. He argues that it is a joy to be young and fit and able to fight for good in a world full of corrupt, cowardly men. He declares that the war has given the young a sense of freedom, and that to die in battle is a blessing to the proud and patriotic.

STRUCTURE: This is a sonnet— as are all the selections from Brooke’s work in Stallworthy’s collection. The sonnet is a 14 line poem that is traditionally written about love. It has two parts (sometimes divided into two stanzas): the octet (or first 8 lines) and sextet (the final 6 lines). The octet traditionally argues a position or describes a situation or setting. Then what is known as ‘the turn’ occurs: a change of argument, mood, position or perspective that makes us reconsider the subject. The rhyme structure of sonnets varies within the fourteen-line, octet / sextet model. Traditionally, the sonnet has two main rhyming variants: of the pattern ABBA ABBA CDE CDE (the Petrarchan Sonnet) or ABAB CDCD EFEF GG (the Shakespearian Sonnet). The organization of the sextet varies quite wildly in the Petrarchan Sonnet; the Shakespearian sonnet always ends in a rhyming couplet, rounding off the poem.

Rupert Brooke: Rupert Brooke was a young and handsome man from a highly privileged background who wrote a number of idealized and extremely popular sonnets about war. Going to Rugby public school and then to university at Cambridge, he had a great talent for sport, theatre and literature, and was considered by his peers to be a leading light of his generation, destined for great things. Brooke joined the army on the outbreak of war, but never actually saw action— he died in April 1915, developing sepsis on a journey across the Mediterranean towards Gallipoli in Southern Turkey.

‘Peace’: this poem, with its pleasure in soldiering and masculine militarism, could be as logically entitled War as Peace. Yet Brooke’s message is that war in the world has brought inner peace to the combatants, who now know their duty and purpose in life.

“Now, God be thanked…wakened us from sleeping”: This is a poem of thanks that Brooke lives at a time (“His hour”— ‘God’s hour’) when the young (the time has “caught our youth”) will be able to fight for right. The young have been awakened to the task they have in hand.

“With…sharpened power”: all qualities of the fit, youthful body, ready for war.

“as swimmers into cleanness leaping…”: A paradoxical image, comparing going to war as an act that cleanses the participants, like a dip in a pool or river. The metaphor of swimmers “leaping” also suggests playfulness— war is a pleasure as well as a rite of passage.

“Glad from a world grown old and cold and weary”: the youthfulness of the participants is contrasted with the metaphorical description of the world as “old”: the old world is incapable of continuing, Brooke suggests— it is ready for death.

“Leave the sick hearts that honour could not move”: Those who do not do their duty to go and fight for their country have “sick hearts”. A key opposition in this poem is between youth and age; another is between healthy bodies and ill or unfit bodies. Those who do not fight are physically (“sick”) and morally (“hearts”) degenerate.

“And half-men…”: Brooke continues his disparaging rhetoric: those who do not fight are not men. There is an interesting connection here with the poetry of Pope (‘Who’s for the Game?’) and the public school ethic of muscular Christianity, which taught that those born to rule (at home and abroad) must be fit of heart and soul.

“…and their dirty songs…and all the little emptiness of love!”: Brooke’s world is a world of men and masculine pursuits. Sex and women are dangerous to this value system: they threaten the purity of men. Brooke was, ultimately a youthful and naïve ex-public schoolboy who had seen little of the world. He was still troubled by his break up with an important girlfriend at the time of writing this, which may explain the mean tone.

“Oh! we, who have known shame, we have found release there,”: The beginning of the sextet turns from the grim corruption of the past to the “release” war brings. The tone is emphatic— “Oh!”

“Where there’s no ill, no grief, but sleep has mending”: the paradox implicit in the title— in war we find peace— is developed here. Brooke suggests that in war nothing can happen that the peace of sleep cannot make better: no sickness or loss that is not compensated for.

“Naught broken save this body, lost but breath”: Brooke’s rhetoric diminishes the sense of personal loss felt in war. The safety of the self is a small thing next to the peace of mind brought by fighting.

“the laughing heart”: the soldier’s heart laughs and is happy— unlike the sick heart of the non-combatant. It finds “long peace” in war— it is here that the meaning of the ‘Peace’ of the title is made explicit.

“Only agony, and that has ending”: Brooke even shrugs of the idea that “agony” could disturb a soldier’s peace of heart, because it is ended by death. These are certainly questionable sentiments— could this poem have been written by someone who saw the horrors of action, the maiming and agony of the Western Front?

“And the worst friend and enemy is but Death.” Death (personified here: a common technique in religious and war poetry) is both friend and enemy to the soldier— death will end life, but it will also bring peaceful “release”.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: Brooke is a giant of the poetry of the First World War. Stallworthy chooses to use three of Brooke’s five famous sonnets in this selection, beginning with a poem that brilliantly expresses the fervour and excitement of a young man going off to war. The poem stands alongside other poems full of heady excitement at the prospect of battle: ‘The Volunteer’ by Herbert Asquith (p.163) and ‘Into Battle’ by Julian Grenfell (p.164). It also contrasts strongly with poems that recount the horrors of war on the Western Front, such as Owen’s Dulce et Decorum Est (p.188)]

Brooke is not a fashionable poet, however. Let’s stop to think about why.

W.B. Yeats, perhaps the greatest of all Irish poets, once said something scandalous about Wilfred Owen. Yeats left Owen out of the Oxford Book of Modern Verse that he compiled in 1935, because he disliked what he saw as Owen’s mix of grim realism and sentimentality. Yeats declared that Owen was “all blood, dirt, and sucked sugar stick”. He also said that Owen’s poetry was poor because it described the “passive” suffering of soldiers. Owen was, in effect, in love with miserable agony. As disappointing as such an opinion is, it’s cheering, I think, to find that even geniuses are capable of the odd critical slip-up, here and there. Yeats, one of the greatest poets of the Twentieth Century, was also turned down for an academic post once because he misspelt the word ‘professor’ on his application.

Rupert Brooke made it into Yeats’ anthology, however. His poetry chimed with the older man, who even before the First World War had admitted the young poet into his circle of friends.

Today, it might seem baffling that Owen would get the boot, and Brooke find inclusion. Brooke can seem, by comparison with Owen, all sucked sugar stick– without even the blood and dirt.

The truth is, something happened, something fundamental changed about the Western world between 1914 and 1918. It didn’t leave Brooke’s world behind– his brand of intense patriotism and fellow-feeling was and remains popular. A century of well-reported technological mass warfare, however, has meant most people’s feelings about war and patriotism today are inevitably more guarded and ambivalent than the sentiments we find in Brooke’s emotive poetry. The sympathies of those living in the second half of the twentieth century have mostly been with Owen’s coughing and disabled soldiers, rather than Brooke’s dutiful and sainted dead.

Knowing this however, the worst thing to do  would be dismiss Brooke and his work. This is a thing you have to be careful about as a reader and critic: sometimes you’ll miss what others love about a writer because of your own attitude or prejudices.

What is clear about Brooke is that he is part of a long, long tradition of poets who see war as the ultimate testing ground for young men. He is a poet who reflects many of the attitudes of his time– of his class, his nation, men in general– and who continues to speak for some today. His poems have fine heights (“If I should die…”) to match queasy lows (his talk of “sick hearts” and “half-men”). He remains well worth reading.

Looking online, there is a thoughtful short page on Rupert Brooke’s life and achievement at Harry Rusche’s Lost Poets website: the critical perspective on Brooke that you can find there from Charles Sorely is very interesting.

Another biographical sketch can be found here, looking at the ‘doomed’ life of Brooke and his method of composing his poems.

That excellent WWI resource, The First World War Digital Archive has a brief bio and links to a number of Brooke’s poems, annotated.

There’s a neat little webpage about Brooke’s grave on the Greek island of Skyros that gives lots of interesting information about his life and death.

To see another side of Brooke, check out the Guardian Books Blog entry about his poem ‘Heaven’– included on the page– an amusing poem about where fish may go when they die.

Finally, you can find online a copy of Rupert Brooke’s obituary in The Times— written by none other than Winston Churchill.