“The Soldier” is a sonnet of two stanzas: an octet of eight lines and a sestet of six lines. It is the last in a series of five sonnets composed shortly after the outbreak of World War I. The poems are linked by theme as well as form; all reflect idealism and optimism in the face of war, expressing the idea of release through self-sacrifice that many experienced with the coming of that war. “The Soldier” is about the probable death of a soldier, but the poem has little to do with dying.
The first stanza establishes the situation. The first-person speaker requests that “If I should die, think only this of me:/ That there’s some corner of a foreign field/ That is for ever England.” Even in the war’s earliest stages there was the realization that the battles would result in death for at least some of the combatants. The pain of dying or the physical degradation of death are totally absent, however; the references that follow are all to life. Brooke asserts that where his body is eventually buried, “a richer dust [will be] concealed.” The dust of his body is richer than that surrounding it because he was a part of his country. The England that Brooke describes exhibits the characteristics of the rural countryside—in particular, a tranquil landscape like that of his native Cambridgeshire. The “English air,” the flowers, rivers, roads, paths, and “suns of home” all define what the narrator claims that his country gave to and forged in him.
The second stanza assumes the speaker’s death; however, death itself is absent: The conditional “if” of the first stanza has simply happened. As a result, the speaker has become transfigured: “this heart, all evil shed away,/ A pulse in the eternal mind.” In his death, the narrator returns something of what England gave to him as he “gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given.” The references are again to life, not death: “dreams happy as her day,” “laughter,” and “hearts at peace, under an English heaven.”
The poem celebrates an idealized vision of pastoral England and the noble qualities of her inhabitants. Brooke’s language emphasizes the universal, so that the England of the poem becomes every soldier’s home, and the dead soldier is every Englishman. The tone is uplifting and idealistic but also self-sacrificial. There is a sense of romantic inevitability about the privilege and duty of dying for one’s country. Feelings of patriotism and nationalism give nobility to that sacrifice, a sacrifice willingly crowned by death.
In “The Soldier,” Brooke demonstrates his mastery of the sonnet, using the classic form to heighten the decorum and idealization conveyed by the poem. The long iambic pentameter lines and disciplined rhyme scheme enhance the poem’s formal tone. Interestingly, Brooke uses the form originally borrowed from the Italian Renaissance poet Petrarch rather than the modified one popularized by William Shakespeare, who converted the octet and sestet of the Petrarchan sonnet into the three quatrains and couplet of the English sonnet. The advantage is that the Italian sonnet’s sestet allows a more leisurely, fully developed concluding statement.
The imagery of the poem revolves around the generalities of the idealized English countryside. Brooke, in the first stanza, makes use of a litany of scenes from nature: “her flowers to love, her ways to roam,/breathing English air,/ Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.” The images are almost placid in feeling, conveying a sense of Edenic escape. Brooke and many of his generation in the years before the war attempted to distance themselves from what they perceived as the corrupting influences of the too...
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