Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 520
“The Soldier” was one of five sonnets that Brooke composed shortly after the beginning of World War I and published in 1915 with the title 1914, and Other Poems. Written in two stanzas, an octet of eight lines and a sestet of six lines, it is by far his most famous poem, expressing the idealism common throughout the nations of Europe as they eagerly marched to battle in 1914 and felt by Brooke before his own death in April, 1915.
The well-known opening lines represented this romantic notion of consecration through sacrifice by showing the speaker’s transformation after death: “there’s some corner of a foreign field/ That is for ever England.” In retrospect, to others the poem came to epitomize the misguided and self-satisfied naïveté that died in the trenches of “no man’s land.” The real war of ugly and often futile death was captured not in Brooke’s work but in the poems by his English contemporaries, such as Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et decorum est.”
Yet “The Soldier” is more an elegy of sacrifice than a poem about modern war. It is true that Brooke died before going into battle, but his friendships with English statesman Winston Churchill and other high-ranking politicians had given him knowledge about the destructiveness that industry and technology would bring to the battlefield. There is nothing of that kind of war in the poem. There is also nothing about the reality of dying; the first-person narrator ignores the stench of corpses on the battlefield, instead envisioning a death that transfigures him into an idealized world.
This is not simply any world, however, for “The Soldier” is a poem about Brooke’s feelings for England, particularly the rural English countryside of Cambridgeshire. His burial place, though in some foreign land, will become a part of England, but not the England of cities and factories. It was the landscape of natural England that made and formed the poet, and he waxes lyrical about the beauties of English flowers, rivers, and sunshine, elements that have formed him in his youth.
Brooke believed that his England was worthy of sacrifice. This patriotic element in “The Soldier” reflects the strong strain of nationalism existing throughout Western civilization in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As traditional religion had become more personal and individual, nationalism and patriotism had become the religion of the public community, and “The Soldier” reflects those passions. In the second stanza, Brooke refers to “the eternal mind,” a Platonic reference, where the dust of the narrator had become a mere “pulse,” but a pulse that
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.
Brooke’s soldier—as Brooke himself—was eagerly willing to sacrifice everything, even his life, for the Eden of England. It struck a strong chord in the early days of World War I. By the end of the war in 1918, with ten million dead, other poets were striking other chords, less idealistic, less self-sacrificing, and less patriotic.
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