Rupert Brooke and Wilfred Owen were both English soldier poets of the First World War, but their poetic output was very different and reflected the chasm that separated them in terms of actual war experience. Brooke, who so famously wrote of "some corner of a foreign field / That is forever England," died in 1915 on that most English of dates, April 23rd, St George's Day and Shakespeare's birthday—but not in battle. In fact, Brooke died of a blood infection on his way to the Dardanelles before he had seen action. His poems of war reflect an attitude held by many early in the war, when thousands of young men rushed to enlist in the hope of winning glory for themselves and their country.
These two poems are an excellent pair to compare because Owen's is almost a direct challenge to Brooke's and to the naive national attitude of which it forms part. Owen was an active soldier who died in the trenches just a week before the war ended, having seen some of the thickest fighting of the war. His poem condemns those who told "the Old Lie: dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori"—it is good and sweet to die for one's country. Brooke's poem encapsulates and reiterates this "old lie." While pensive, rather than jingoistic, in its tone, the point to which Brooke continually returns is that in dying for one's country, one becomes almost part of its landscape. The man who dies in service of his country may be forever "at peace, blest by an English heaven," the "richer dust" of England living, immortal, in the bodies of its soldiers, fallen in faraway lands.
Owen's poem condemns this idea completely, showing it to be a naive imagining which does not confront the true horrors of war. The language of his poem is very different to that of Brooke's, which is at times archaic ("blest") as befits its very traditional sonnet form. Owen's soldiers "cursed through sludge," confronting the grim realities of war, with many "limp[ing] on, blood-shod," without boots, "lame," "blind," and "drunk with fatigue." Far from the peace imagined by Brooke, these soldiers have no dignity: they are like "beggars," hobbling and bent double under the weight of war. No clean deaths for these men, but "guttering, choking, drowning," "blood...gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs."
In the final stanza of the poem, Owen addresses the reader directly. His language is vivid, deliberately unpleasant: he wants us to understand the "cancer" that is war and that it is "ugly," "obscene," "vile." Anyone who had seen this, he says, "would not tell with such high zest / To children ardent for some desperate glory," the Old Lie which drove such huge levels of enlistment early in the war, and which "The Soldier" adheres to. What Owen shows us is that the idea of war as a heroic quest which can result in an honorable death is an idea that could only be propagated by those who had never known battle.