Rupert Brooke 1915
Written during the first year of World War I, Rupert Brooke’s “The Soldier” is the last in his group of six “war sonnets,” collectively titled “1914.” Along with its companion poems, “The Soldier” represents many of the patriotic and traditional ideals that characterized prewar England, with Brooke portraying death for one’s country as a noble end and England as the noblest country for which to die. These poems made Brooke famous when they were first published in the periodical New Numbers in January of 1915, and a few months later, Dean Inge of St. Paul’s church read from them as part of his Easter Sunday sermon. “The Soldier” inspired many imitators and was, in large part, responsible for the popularity of Brooke’s 1914 and Other Poems and Collected Poems, which, combined, sold more than 300,00 copies between 1915 and 1925.
An officer in the Royal Navy, Brooke never saw action in the war. He died of a fever in the Mediterranean shortly after writing “The Soldier.” Before the war, he had been considered England’s most promising young poet, and his death was taken by many as a symbolic passing of his generation’s promise. Modern readers and critics, however, often consider Brooke’s patriotic emotions to be naive and even old-fashioned. Still, the poem’s immediacy and earnestness effectively capture a period in which the carnage of World War I had not yet dampened the spirits of the English people. Indeed, when speaking about Brooke and his poetic contributions, including “The Soldier,” shortly after the poet’s death, Winston Churchill said, “The thoughts to which he gave expression in the very few incomparable war sonnets which he has left behind will be shared by many thousands of young men moving resolutely and blithely forward into this, the hardest, the cruelest, and the least-rewarded of all the wars that men have fought.”
The middle son of three boys, Rupert Brooke was born in a well-to-do family in Rugby, Warwickshire, England, in 1887 to Parker Brooke and Ruth Cotterill. His father was a tutor and, later, a housemaster at Rugby school, which Brooke himself attended in 1901. It was at Rugby that he began writing poetry, cultivating a verse style that later became known as Georgian. Brooke was popular, extremely handsome, and an athlete, excelling both at academics and at sports. At Kings College, Cambridge, Brooke joined the Socialist-minded Fabian society, which included George Bernard Shaw, Beatrice Webb and Sidney Webb, and a group of aesthetes known as The Apostles. He also counted among his friends intellectuals and literary figures such as E. M. Forster, Maynard Keynes, Virginia Woolf, and Edward Thomas, who called Brooke “a golden young Apollo.” Brooke was also a romantic, fashioning his life as a seeker of wisdom and beauty, which he pursued in his travels to Canada, America, Hawaii, Fiji, New Zealand, and Tahiti. When World War I broke out, Brooke gained a commission, with the help of his patron, Edward Marsh, as sub-lieutenant in the Royal Naval Division then being formed. Ironically, though he is best known for his war poems, particularly “The Soldier,” Brooke saw very little combat; his total war experience consisted of one day of limited military action with the Hood Battalion during the evacuation of Antwerp. After serving briefly in Belgium, Brooke completed a short stint at a training camp in Dorsetshire, leaving to take part in the Dardenelles Campaign. He developed dysentery and blood poisoning, possibly from a mosquito bite, while onboard the ship Grantully Castle, which was bound for Gallipoli. Brooke died on April 23, 1915, and was buried on the Greek island of Skyros. Winston Churchill, then the First Lord of the Admiralty, helped to perpetuate the myth of Brooke as a “golden warrior” who died young, writing in a valedictory in The Times that Brooke was “all that one would wish England’s nobles sons to be in days when no sacrifice but the most precious is acceptable, and the most precious is that which is most freely proffered.” Brooke’s reputation as a poet, however, has steadily declined ever since his death.
If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware, 5
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to
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 10
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.
The title immediately alerts us that this poem will be about a type of person, rather than an individual. Our expectations, then, are for generalizations about soldiers. The fact that Rupert Brooke was a member of the British Royal Navy lends authenticity to his description of a British soldier’s mind-set. The first sentence, begun with the conditional “If,” asks the reader to respond to the speaker’s death in a particular way. We are given no detail about the death itself, which is telling. World War I, often called the Great War, resulted in countless casualties, including almost a million British soldiers, most of them dying in the trenches of “a foreign field.” The absence of detail, then, and the focus on life underscore the idea that dying in war for one’s country is a noble act, giving oneself for the greater good. The speaker shows no remorse, no questioning of his role; instead, he expresses a self-sacrificial, martyr-like attitude toward his death. By making his own dead body a symbol for all of England, the speaker requests that he be remembered not for any individual traits or acts but only for how he represented and continues
- A storehouse of information on Brooke and other British poets of World War I can be found at http://info.ox.ac.uk/jtap/tutorials/intro/
- See http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/Neil_Maybin/Brooke.htm for unusual and useful information about Brooke’s death and his grave on the island of Skyros.
- A comprehensive site detailing Brooke’s complete military career and life as a soldier can be found at http://www.mgwebs.freeserve.co.uk/rupert%20brooke%20web/
to represent his country. The dust of his body is richer than the dirt that surrounds it because it is the dust of an Englishman.
These lines elaborate on the significance of the “rich dust” introduced in line 4. The speaker continues to represent his own body and life as “dust,” detailing how his country bore, nurtured, and “shaped” him. The “flowers,” “rivers,” and “sun” are characteristic of the British countryside where Brooke was born and raised. Together, these images create an idealized version of pastoral England, which was passing away even as Brooke wrote about it. Brooke is often classified as a Georgian poet, along with others such as Walter de la Mare, John Masefield, and Ralph Hodgson, because of his use of nature imagery and his conventional approach to description. He was also instrumental in editing the series of Georgian poetry anthologies in which he, along with these other writers, appeared. They are called “Georgian” because they wrote during the reign of King George V (1910-1936). Georgian writers have also been called neo-Romantics because of their attention to nature, both as a subject and as a catalyst for describing human experience.
The death imagined in the first stanza has now occurred. We are presented with a cleansed soul, “this heart, all evil shed away, / a pulse in the eternal mind.” The life of the soldier has been distilled to a life of goodness, and that life is owed to England. The speaker does not want others to mourn for him but to remember him by upholding the principles for which he died. He also wants others to think of him as still being alive, “A pulse in the eternal mind,” and to know that somewhere, somehow, he is returning the thoughts, sights, sounds, dreams, and laughter that England had previously given him. In the end, “The Soldier” celebrates the idea of self-sacrifice: according to the dead soldier, it is an honor to die for one’s country, and no thought should be given to personal desire, because the desire of the soldier and the desire of the country should be one.
“The Soldier” isn’t so much about war as it is about the yearning of an educated young man for a more peaceful time. At the beginning of the twentieth century, England saw increased industrialization and a continued exodus from the countryside to the cities. Brooke’s description of the natural world can be read as a longing for a time when the English could still find meaning and value in natural, not just man-made, things. The absence of imagery suggesting commerce or urban work or life, and the emphasis on earthly elements such as “air” and “sun” and “rivers,” show that, for Brooke, the heart of England resided in its land more than its economic or military might. The speaker’s declared love of his country, then, is also a yearning for an idealized place. Brooke grew up in the country in Cambridgeshire, and his associations with the natural world were strong. As a self-fashioned romantic, he considered nature almost religiously and believed that after the body was turned to “dust,” his heart would live on as “A pulse in the eternal mind.” His poem, on one level a patriotic paean to the glory of England, is, on another level, a nostalgic reminiscence of his days at Grantchester, a country town where he lived while attending Cambridge. In Grantchester, he lived with friends, camping frequently, walking barefoot, and living close to nature. His attitude during this time prompted Virginia Woolf, a friend of the Brooke
Topics for Further Study
- Make a list of concrete nouns (e.g., stars and stripes, eagle) and abstract nouns (e.g., love, loyalty) that best represent what you feel or how you think about your country. Write a poem using as many of those nouns as possible.
- Research public sentiment in the United States during the last half dozen or so international conflicts or wars in which the United States has been involved and write a short essay examining the reasons people gave for being or not being supportive.
- Imagine your own death, then write an obituary describing how you would like to be remembered.
family, to call Brooke and his cohorts “neopagans.” This nostalgia, paradoxically, also allowed Brooke to divert his attention from the very real possibility that he would die in war.
Change and Transformation
“A Soldier” expresses a death wish in which the speaker does not merely die, but rather transforms himself into something greater, retaining both the essence of his personal identity as well as a sense of a larger identity linked to nature and nation. He simultaneously wants to be remembered (“think only this of me”) and to remember what England has given him. This poem does not necessarily describe a Christian transformation, although the speaker does suggest the need to have the heart cleansed of evil before he can become part of a larger being, i.e., “the eternal mind.” But it is the “heart” and not the “soul,” a concept we more readily associate with the Judeo-Christian tradition, into which he transforms. In becoming this “pulse,” the speaker transforms into both systole and diastole, circulating the “thoughts ... sights and sounds ... dreams ... And laughter” initially received when he was in England with his friends. These memories, metaphorically the blood of his new being, are finally what constitute the transformed self.
Brooke’s poem was famous (and later infamous) for its expression of patriotism. The speaker’s unflinching acceptance of his possible death and the way by which he assigns meaning to it, all underscore his unquestioning pride in his country and his devotion to it. He equates his very body with England in the first stanza, stating that the earth in which it is buried is richer because of his nationality. Even the speaker’s thoughts are “by England given,” and the sky his corpse lies beneath is “an English Heaven.” Extreme patriotism, where one not only loves and is devoted to one’s nation, but also holds that nation as better and more important than any other, is called nationalism. Nationalism ran rampant in the Western world at the beginning of the twentieth century and was a primary cause of World War I. Ironically, it was the language of nationalism that both the attacked countries (England, France, Russia) and the attacking countries (Germany and the Hapsburg Empire) used in justifying their actions.
“The Soldier” borrows from both the Italian, or Petrarchan, sonnet tradition and the Elizabethan, or Shakespearean, tradition. Like a Petrarchan sonnet, Brooke’s poem is divided into two main parts, the octave and the sestet. However, Brooke’s octave is rhymed in the Elizabethan tradition, ababcdcd, while his sestet follows the Petrarchan rhyme scheme, efgefg. He also departs from the traditional thematic relationships between the two parts of the sonnet. Whereas, traditionally, the octave states a problem or describes a situation and the sestet offers a resolution, Brooke’s poem presents the same situation in both parts with little variation, asking the reader to imagine the death of a soldier in a particular way.
Along with its iambic pentameter lines and rhyme schemes, “The Soldier” utilizes formal diction, including euphemisms, to describe horrific scenes: instead of “body-strewn trenches” or “graveyards,” Brooke refers to “some corner of a foreign field”; instead of “corpse,” Brooke uses the word “dust.” These word choices embody a “gentlemanly” attitude toward the brute facts of war and serve to distance the speaker from the war’s action.
Compare & Contrast
- 1914: Serbian nationalists murder Archduke Francis Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo, which leads to the outbreak of World War I. Serb-led drives to unify Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina (all under the Austro-Hungarian monarchy) with Serbia and Montenegro are a major cause of the war.
1918: In the aftermath of World War I, the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes is proclaimed. In 1929, it takes the name Yugoslavia.
1990: The first multiparty elections are held in the six republics of the former Yugoslavia. Slobodan Milosevic elected Serbian President.
1991: Following months of talks among six republics, Slovenia and Croatia declare independence.
1996: The Dayton Peace Accord ends four years of open warfare in the former Yugoslavia. Sarajevo, which withstood a 1,395-day siege, becomes the united capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina. During the conflict, more than 10,000 people were killed in Sarajevo.
- 1914: The British government authorizes the Bank of England to issue money in excess of the statutory limit.
Today: To bring economic stability to Europe and to develop their position as a single market, European countries agree to adopt a common currency, the Eurodollar.
- 1915: Wireless telephone service is first established.
Today: World Wide Web enthusiasts boast that in a few years wireless internet video telephone calls will be commonplace.
Many late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century British poets chose this approach in writing about unpleasant subjects, as it showed the education of the speaker/writer and his own (assumed) mastery over them. The poem’s repetition of the words “English” or “England” also underscore the theme of nationalism. The soldier’s body is England’s body, it is “breathing English air,” and even the heaven (sky) it lies under is English.
In 1914, the year Brooke wrote “The Soldier,” Europe was in tumult. That year Serbian nationalists murdered the heir to the throne of the Hapsburg (Austro-Hungarian) Empire, Archduke Francis Ferdinand, and his wife in Sarajevo, touching off World War I. The war pitted Russia, England, and France against Germany and the Hapsburg Empire. On September 14, the First Battle of the Aisne began trench warfare, which was to define the primary way that human life would be lost during the war.
A year before the war, in 1913, Brooke had been awarded a fellowship to King’s College, but he chose to travel—to America and Canada, among other countries—instead, writing columns and essays about his travels for newspapers in England. For Brooke, leaving the country was also a welcome respite from many of the personal problems he was having with both the men and women in his life. Travel, for those who could afford it, was a popular form of escape for the English from a more rapidly encroaching industrialization and a society that was slowly losing its religious faith and whose colonial powers were being challenged. Brooke returned from his travels in June of 1914 and immediately attempted to enlist in the military, another form of escape for young men uncertain of Britain’s future and unsure of their own. After unsuccessfully attempting to secure a position as a correspondent, Brooke won a commission in the Royal Naval Division, with help from his patron, Edward Marsh. One of Brooke’s first assignments was to help the navy hold the Channel ports. He wound up, however, helping civilians evacuate from Antwerp as German shells rained down upon them. His next assignment, coming after the Christmas holidays (which he spent back in England composing the war sonnets), was with the Hood battalion, whose mission was to take back Constantinople from the Turks and open up Black Sea ports for the Russians. This was part of the Gallipoli campaign, a campaign Brooke might very well have died in had he not died, of fever, along the way.
Though he was one of the first to gain widespread acclaim for his writing, Brooke was only one of many British war poets during World War I. However, unlike Brooke’s poems, which expressed a die-hard, patriotic attitude at the beginning of the war, the poetry of Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, and Isaac Rosenberg (the latter two of whom died in the war) questioned this attitude and the willingness with which so many soldiers marched to their deaths. Sassoon, himself already an established poet during the war, helped to publish Owen’s poetry after the war in 1920. The two had met during the war in the sanatorium. Sassoon made it out alive; unfortunately, Owen returned to the front and was killed shortly thereafter. Up until Owen, Sassoon, and Rosenberg, war poetry had often taken glory and heroism as its subjects. Owen, Sassoon, and Rosenberg introduced the modern subjects of bitterness, cynicism, and pity.
Although “The Soldier” initially met with critical acclaim and widespread popularity, in the years following World War I, many critics challenged the poem as mawkishly self-indulgent. They accused the late poet of having come to romantic conclusions about war without having fought at the front or having seen any of war’s real consequences. Writing in Rupert Brooke: His Life and His Legend, John Lehmann quotes a letter written by one of Brooke’s contemporaries, poet Charles Sorley, who criticized Brooke for viewing the war as a “highly intense, remarkable, and sacrificial exploit.” Lehmann himself writes that “today, it is difficult not to feel that [“The Soldier”] is riddled with sentimentality and narcissistic fantasy.” In his Heroes’ Twilight: A Study of the Literature of the Great War, Bernard Bergonzi comments that “The Soldier” is “an insistently self-regarding performance” and adds that the poem leaves it unclear “whether the poet is praising England or himself.”
Edward A. McCourt, in an article for Dalhousie Review, questions Brooke’s ongoing significance. “Traditional patriotism has largely ceased to be an inspirational force,” McCourt claims. “Hence ... the reader of to-day ... finds little in Brooke that is of importance to the present generation.” Brooke biographer William Laskowski maintains, however, that it is impossible to judge Brooke’s war poems without taking into account the public mood at the time of their publication, saying that “in many senses [their reception] mirrors the history of the transformations of attitudes toward World War I.” And Lehmann admits that “The Soldier” is an “eloquent and skillful” poem and that “the movement of the argument and the tone are both flawless.” Lehmann argues that even the present-day reader can recognize “how in the anxious, emotional mood of the early months of the war it could bring tears to any sensitive eye.”
Bruce Meyer is the director of the creative writing program at the University of Toronto. He has taught at several Canadian universities and is the author of three collections of poetry. In the following essay, Meyer looks beyond the harsh characterization of “The Soldier” as political rhetoric and instead considers the poem, more positively, in the context of Brooke’s version of “Englandism.”
Of the many poems written during World War I, Rupert Brooke’s “The Soldier” ranks as one of the most quoted. It is, in many respects, an idealized poem, a sonnet that fails to embrace the horrific realities that were World War I. It is a poem written from the perspective of one who had not seen those realities. It is not to be condemned because it fails to live up to the great and painfully truthful poems of the First World War, such as Wilfred Owen’s “Anthem for Doomed Youth” or “Strange Meeting.” It contains none of the nightmarish observations that Charles Hamilton Sorley recorded in his line “When I see millions of the mouthless dead” or that Frank Prewett supplied in his offhand chronicle of the aftermath of a bombardment: “I put my hand in the breast / Of the first met / His heart thumped, stopped / And I pulled my hand out wet.” Brooke’s poem is an idealized love poem to his country, a sonnet that discourses almost as if in the same vein as Thomas Gray on the nature of death, sacrifice, and national moral values.
“The Soldier” is the final poem in a series of sonnets Brooke titled “1914.” The poems in “1914” were meant to be meditations and reflections on the outbreak of the war that many claimed would be over by Christmas. The six poems—“The Treasure,” “Peace,” “Safety,” “The Dead,” another poem also titled “The Dead,” and “The Soldier”—were meant to study, through the sonnet form, the reason why Englishmen should join the fight. In what amounts to an incomplete “crown” of sonnets (a series of usually seven such poems that study a relationship between a person and an object of affection), Brooke tries to probe the meaning of the war. The problem for the entire “1914” series is that the war really hadn’t happened yet. The reasons for the fight, especially in August of 1914 when Brooke began the sequence, were still rather vague and hazy; in fact, Belgium had just been invaded, but he doesn’t mention that country or its predicament. What Brooke, rather naively, seems to think the fighting is about is the preservation of the English way of life.
In “The Treasure,” for example, Brooke uses the mother-and-child relationship, the quiet that comes from such tenderness and the bond of love between them, as the focus for his discourse. It is almost as if Brooke is waving good-bye to the Edwardian pastoral innocence and calm that made the years leading up to 1914 so idyllic. In “The Treasure,” the children of this motherly figure are “asleep.” In the following poem, “Peace,” the children are “wakened from us sleeping” and are given a “sure, clear eye, and sharpened power.” Brooke hopes that there is “Nothing to shake the laughing heart’s long peace,” yet he knows that the “enemy is Death.” At this juncture, the reader realizes that what the sequence is building is an extended conceit where the awakened children are the flower of English youth and the caring and tender mother is England.
Just as the child is always part of its mother, so the youth who becomes a soldier “is for ever England.” “The Soldier,” in what is often mistaken as nationalist, warmongering rhetoric, is drawing upon the concept of “Englandism,” an identification of the value of England as a moral force in the world. What is English is somehow both apart and above the norm of what one usually sees in the
What Do I Read Next?
- Christopher Hassall’s authorized 1972 biography of Brooke is comprehensive, scholarly, and detailed. This is a must read for anyone interested in Brooke’s life.
- Brooke’s Collected Poems (1922) includes an intriguing introduction by poet Gavin Ewart and a passionate memoir written by friend and patron Edward Marsh shortly after Brooke’s death.
- Paul Fussell’s study of language, modernism, and World War I, The Great War and Modern Memory, theorizes that a more pervasive irony was one of the results of the First World War. Fussell sees Brooke’s reputation as a war poet as being perhaps one of the greatest ironies, as Brooke saw almost no war action and wrote only a handful of poems about war. Fussell also examines a host of words that entered the English language in the aftermath of World War I.
- For an understanding of America’s relationship to Great Britain during World War I read Ross Gregory’s 1972 study, The Origins of American Intervention in the First World War.
world. “The Soldier” echoes John of Gaunt’s deathbed “This England” speech from Shake-speare’s Richard II and, by allusion, draws on the traditions that were practiced by Blake in his poem “Jerusalem”—a poem that, in itself, draws upon the extended Arthurian myth articulated by Geoffrey of Monmouth in The History of the Kings of England (1135). In that work, one of the prime sources for both English legend and early English history, Monmouth outlines the story of how Joseph of Arimathea came to England with the young Christ and returns to “the sceptred isle” (Shakespeare’s phrase in the mouth of John of Gaunt) with the Holy Grail after the crucifixion. This is the mythic tradition at the root of Englandism. It forms the basis for Blake’s lyric and even finds its way into contemporary cinema in such films as Chariots of Fire and Hope and Glory. The fact that the soldier’s grave
“Brooke’s poem is an idealized love poem to his country, a sonnet that discourses ... on the nature of death, sacrifice, and national moral values.”
in Brooke’s poem is “for ever England” is not jingoistic war rhetoric but the assertion of the persona’s context in a much broader, richer, and even timeless tradition of mythopoeia.
What mistakenly can be read for sentimental nationalism and moribund self-prophetic sacrifice in the poem (“If I should die think only this of me”) is, in reality, the martyrdom aspect of Englandism. On one hand, Englandism is a pastoral ideal, a bucolic vision of a “demi-paradise.” On the other hand, however, it is the full-blown system of temporal pastoralism where a dead youth (Milton’s Lycidas) and a martyred saint (St. Alban or St. George) cause a profound absence in nature that must be grieved and fraught with the need for solace. Like the martyr saints in Christian hagiology, the soldier is purified, like Sir Galahad, before he offers himself as a lamb to the slaughter (“And think, this heart, all evil shed away”). In this aspect of Englandism, the champion, the willing victim who nobly gives his life for his country, is seen not just as the embodiment of England (“a body of England’s”) but also as a moral extension of all that is right in the universe (“an English heaven”) and morally manifested in the rightest possible place imaginable—England. That is why Brooke places the dead soldier “under an English heaven.” He is not necessarily saying that God is English. What he is saying is that the best example of Godliness is evident in England and that his motherland, the mother of the earlier sonnets in the sequence, is a reflection of heaven. It is high praise for one’s nation, but that is exactly the line taken by John of Gaunt in his famous speech and the perception that lies just one step beyond Milton’s “Lycidas” and A. E. Housman’s dead runner in ‘To An Athlete Dying Young”; the only alteration is that the dead pastoral hero is a representative of the national ethic.
Brooke chooses to couch his ruminations in the sonnet form, that very gentlemanly, meditative, and refined upper-class form of poetry. The sonnet, one need not be reminded, is a discursive form of poetry. It is not a lyric; yet the situation Brooke is discussing in the poem does not call for singing but rather for examination, argument, and thought. The sacrifice that is about to take place is an act of passion, not an act of reason. The sonnet, with its presentation of a problem or consideration in the octave, and its pursuit of a solution in the sestet, is ideally matched to Brooke’s discourse. “The Soldier” is not a song but a supposition. It begins with that very Kiplingesque word, “If” and then imagines what the consequences would be in a cause-and-effect structure. The opening octave is that of a regular English or Shakespearean sonnet, with its alternating rhyme. The problem is, essentially, as the poem’s form suggests, an English problem. The solution is even more English. Brooke draws on the Miltonic sestet to finish the poem and to provide the conclusion with its efg efg rhyme scheme. One has to question why he would vary the form in the final six lines, but the answer is quite simple: Milton used his sestet for the consideration of holy or spiritual matters. The repeating trios are, in fact, little Trinities of rhetoric. Rather than maintain the alternating rhyme, the pair of trios raises the poem above the level of a physical concern and into the realm of a spiritual matter. This effect in the cause-and-effect structure that Brooke establishes is a matter not of this world but of “heaven.” “Heaven,” as the poem has suggested, is not just a place in the sky where God resides, but another little slice of potential Englishness. If the grave is English because it contains the physical remains of the English martyr, then why should heaven not be English if it contains the spiritual remains of that same pastoral hero?
It is easy to see why critics of World War I poetry, such as Paul Fussell, have given Brooke’s poem (and John McCrae’s “In Flanders’ Field”) a royal thumbs down. It is easy to mistake this sonnet as a piece of political rhetoric and to overlook the much broader traditions that such poems draw upon. The problem with “The Soldier” and how it is read today by critics and poetry readers is, in many ways, the sad result of how Rupert Brooke played out his role in the First World War. After Brooke’s death, “The Soldier” was taken up as a banner by a jingoistic public eager to find mythic meaning in the slaughter of youth that was taking place all over Europe. Brooke did not help matters. As Edward Marsh points out in his “Memoir” of Brooke, the young warrior-poet/Hugh Grant look-alike died on St. George’s Day (April 23)—the feast of the soldier martyr who happens to be the patron saint of England. April 23 is also the most literary day in the English calendar: it is reputedly the day of Shakespeare’s birth and the day of both Tennyson and Wordsworth’s deaths. It is the one day that somehow seems to embody “Englandism.” As poems go, “The Soldier” suffers from its smaller context—from the death of Brooke, its timing, its war. What should be remembered is its broader context, the attempt of the poet to position his experience in a very broad mythic and literary context, and to develop and implement an extended metaphor that the poet needed to address his world.
Source: Bruce Meyer, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale Group, 2000.
Chris Semansky’s most recent collection of poems, Blindsided, has been published by 26 Books of Portland, Oregon. In the following essay Semansky examines “The Soldier” as an example of sentimental literature.
“The Soldier,” an example of sentimental literature, is a poem that functioned to elicit public sympathy and support for British troops during a very difficult period in World War I. Written while Brooke was on leave during Christmas of 1914, and published along with a handful of other Brooke war sonnets in the magazine New Numbers in January of 1915, “The Soldier” was subsequently read by the Dean of St. Paul’s church as part of his Easter Sunday service in April of 1915. Brooke already had a budding poetic reputation, having been part of a circle of intellectuals, politicians, and writers that included Virginia Woolfe, Lytton Strachey, Violet Asquith, G. K. Chesterton, Henry James, John Masefield, William Butler Yeats, Bernard Shaw, James Barrie, Edward Marsh, and Winston Churchill, then the First Lord of the Admiralty. The reading of Brooke’s poem helped to solidify his reputation and to create an idealized image of the young British soldier in the public imagination. This image was part of the representation that poet Wilfred Owen later referred to as the “old Lie” in his poem “Dulce et Decorum Est.”
Sentimental literature uses clichés and commonplace phrases or images to appeal to the feelings of readers—generally, feelings to which they are often already predisposed. Hallmark cards, for example, invariably use sentimental “verse,” as does much genre writing, such as romance novels.There is nothing inherently wrong with sentimental literature; such writing often has the best chance of appealing to the broadest range and largest number of people. Many Hollywood movies work on the same principle, in that the most successful films recycle the same plots and themes because they have been successful before. Brooke’s poem was well received because it asked its readers to do something that they were already prepared to do: honor the soldiers who were fighting and dying for their country. Just a few months before Dean Inge read Brooke’s poem in church, Britain was bombed for the first time, and in February, Germany announced that British waters were a “war zone.” British emotion ran high as the country was now under siege, and patriotic and nationalist sentiment was strong. Brooke’s poem did not employ any elaborate conceits or difficult rhetorical strategies, but was fairly straightforward in its expressed love of England. The speaker did not ask readers to mourn for him or to pity him, but, in the spirit of self-sacrifice, asked only that he be remembered for being English:
If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England....
Such uncomplicated loyalty to the motherland appealed to British readers, and the issue of the journal in which “The Soldier” and Brooke’s other war sonnets appeared, New Numbers, quickly sold out. Adding to the poems’ appeal was Brooke’s own reputation. He had already published a collection of poetry, Poems, in 1911 and assisted Edward Marsh in editing the popular anthology Georgian Poetry in 1913. His image as a golden-haired, athletic, Tatented Adonis was well established, especially with the literati of British society. That he should also be fighting for his country only added to his appeal. Remarking on the poem’s capacity to work on the emotions, biographer John Lehmann observed: “The movement of the argument and the tone are both flawless, and one can easily see how in the anxious, emotional mood of the early months of the war it could bring tears to a sensitive eye.” However, Lehmann also acknowledged in Rupert Brooke, His Life and His Legend that timing had much to do with the poem’s initial reception, saying that “looked at dispassionately today, it is difficult not to feel that it is riddled with sentimentality and narcissistic fantasy, whatever he may have meant in imagining himself ‘a pulse in the eternal mind’ purified of all unworthy thought and feeling.”
Lehmann’s point about timing is another way of saying that what’s schmaltz today may have been gold yesterday. The definition of cliché, after all, is a word or phrase that has lost its freshness or vigor through overuse. Brooke’s schmaltziness, however, is also based on his overuse of abstractions. But abstractions were also more tolerated in Brooke’s day than they are today, close to a century later, when a poem’s success is largely measured on its capacity to effectively marshal concrete imagery. Abstractions are words that denote attributes of a person or thing. For example, when Brooke writes, “And think, this heart, all evil shed away,” he uses the word “evil” in an abstract sense, because he is not naming how his heart is evil or providing an instance of its evilness. We cannot see his evilness; we are only told that it has been so. If he were to make this sentence concrete, he would provide a description of the attribute of evilness that allows readers to see, hear, touch, or feel it. He would have the image appeal to our senses. For example, if he had written, “And think, this heart, which desires to bayonet each German soldier / until they scream, their blood gushing from their hearts ...,” he would be using concrete imagery that we can (imaginatively) experience with our senses. Choosing the language of abstraction, however, also enables Brooke to be representative—to write for all soldiers.
It was also the representative nature of the poem to which later poets and critics objected. As the war continued and British soldiers continued to die in horrible and often senseless battles, the idealism of Brooke’s poem grew less and less enchanting. Indeed, Wilfred Owen’s poem “Dulce et Decorum Est,” written two years after Brooke’s and after Owen himself had seen considerable combat, came to be considered the real index of a soldier’s experience. The success of Owen’s poem was due primarily to two reasons: 1) it was initially published after the war (1920), and the full brunt of human loss had sunk in; and 2) it was composed of concrete imagery, which allowed readers to visualize the horror. The first four lines show us a soldier’s experience, instead of telling us what it was like:
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
These images allow us to inhabit the mind and body of the soldier, to feel his weariness and his hopelessness. We can see the soldiers tramping through the mud and feel the straining of their congested lungs. We can do this because we believe that the speaker of the poem has experienced the things that he describes. Owen’s poem, an indictment of the senselessness of war and the premodern sentiment that Brooke expresses of dying in glory for one’s country, resonated with readers, soldiers and citizens alike, because it matched their understanding and experience of the war. His last lines of the poem, “The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est / Pro patria mori,” (“It is sweet and becoming to die for one’s country”) can be read, then, as a rebuttal both to Brooke’s naivete about the physical realities of war and about the loyalties that one should have to one’s country. It is ironically fitting, in a way, that Brooke, a member of the privileged classes who grew up with almost every advantage, should write a poem representative of a soldier’s experience when he saw so little of the war (only one day of actual combat, when he helped in the evacuation of Antwerp). That he relied on abstractions and clichés to carry the weight of the poems makes sense if we read the poem in this light. But it doesn’t make the poem any better.
Source: Chris Semansky, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale Group, 2000.
Abrams, M. H., ed., The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Volume 2, fifth edition, New York: W. W. Norton, 1986.
Bergonzi, Bernard, “Poets I: Brooke, Grenfell, Sorley,” in Heroes’ Twilight: A Study of the Literature of the Great War, Constable, 1965, pp. 32-59.
Fussell, Paul, The Great War and Modern Memory, (reissued edition), London: Oxford University Press, 1989.
Harris, Pippa, Song of Love: The Letters of Rupert Brooke and Noel Harris, New York: Crown Publishers, 1991.
Hastings, Michael, The Handsomest Young Man in England: Rupert Brooke, London: Michael Joseph, 1967.
Horowitz, David A., Peter N. Carroll, and David D. Lee, eds., On the Edge: A New History of 20th-century America, Los Angeles: West Publishing Co., 1990.
Keynes, Geoffrey, A Bibliography of Rupert Brooke, London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1954.
Laskowski, William E., Rupert Brooke, Twayne Publishers, 1994.
Lehmann, John, Rupert Brook: His Life and His Legend, London: Weidenfield & Nicolson, 1980, 178 p.
McCourt, Edward A., “Rupert Brooke: A Re-Appraisal,” in Dalhousie Review Vol. 24, No. 2, July 1944, pp. 148-56.
Pearsall, Robert Brainard, Rupert Brooke: The Man and the Poet, Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1974.
Rogers, Timothy, ed., Georgian Poetry 1911-1922: The Critical Heritage, New York: Routledge, 1977.
Rogers, Timothy, Rupert Brooke: A Reappraisal and Selection from his Writings, Some Hitherto Unpublished, New York: Barnes & Noble, 1971.
Stallworthy, Jon, ed., The Oxford Book of War Poetry, London: Oxford University Press, 1984.
Stringer, Arthur, Red Wine of Youth, Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1948.
Delany, Paul, The Neo-Pagans: Rupert Brooke and the Ordeal of Youth, New York: Free Press, 1987.
This book examines Brooke’s life in the context of his social and romantic relationships between 1908 and 1911. It includes a look at the historical and ideological forces that influenced Brooke.
Boyhood friends, English poet Rupert Brooke and James Strachey, who was to become the primary English translator of the works of Sigmund Freud, were at Cambridge when they fell in love. This collection of letters sheds new light on theories of Brooke’s often debated sexuality.
Lehmann, John, Rupert Brooke, His Life and His Legend, London: Weidenfield & Nicolson, 1980.
A good short biography of Brooke. Lehmann treats Brooke’s breakdown in 1911, after a failed relationship, as a pivotal point in the poet’s life and examines how it changed him.
Read, Mike, Forever England: The Life of Rupert Brooke, Edinburgh: Mainstream Publishing Co., 1997.
In this biography, Read details the links between Brooke’s tangled life and his published poems and essays. Read tells Brooke’s story mostly through anecdotes. This is a good book to read to get a sense of the texture of Brooke’s life.