Analysis

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Last Updated on June 15, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 599

Rupert Brooke’s “The Soldier” is a patriotic, idealistic war poem written from the perspective of the eponymous soldier. In the poem, the soldier contemplates his own death and the value of a life given to one’s country. The poem is particularly poignant because it was published in 1915 during World War I, just weeks before Brooke died. Brooke at the time was serving in the British army, although he had yet to see combat.

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In the opening line of the poem, beginning “If I should die,” the speaker accepts that there is a real possibility that he may die during the war. This line immediately establishes a tone of stoic bravery. The speaker then says that if he should die fighting for his country, he, and others who might mourn for him, should take comfort in the idea that there will be “some corner of a foreign field / That is for ever England.” He refers to his imagined dead body as “a richer dust” beneath the dust of the earth. The implication is that a patriotic death is something one should be proud of, rather than something one should mourn for.

In the second half of the first stanza, the speaker nostalgically reflects on the beauty of his country. He recalls “breathing English air” and washing in “the rivers, blest by suns of home.” He also says that he was “shaped” in England, implying that he owes everything to and belongs to England, and thus he has a responsibility to fight and if necessary die for England. These lines are especially poignant if we remember that Brooke died not long after writing this poem and so never saw England again.

In the second stanza, the speaker imagines what might happen to him after his death. He imagines that he will become a “pulse in the eternal mind” and that the “sights and sounds; dreams . . . laughter . . . and gentleness” of England will leave his consciousness and return to the country from which they came. In this way he imagines that his spirit will rest “at peace, under an English heaven.”

The second stanza is rich with language connoting happiness and innocence. We have “dreams happy,” “laughter,” “hearts at peace,” and “an English heaven,” for example. The speaker is really trying to emphasize the idea that a patriotic death should not be considered as a death to be mourned but rather as an act of patriotism to be celebrated. The first line of the stanza describes a “heart [with] all evil shed away.” This image is almost baptismal and suggests that a patriotic death will wash away all evil from one’s heart so that one can be born again, in this instance, as a spirit which returns home to England.

Throughout the poem, the speaker presents a very idealized picture of England, and Brooke creates a soft, lilting rhythm to echo and compound this idyllic image. He writes, for example, in iambic pentameter, meaning that every line has ten syllables and every second syllable is stressed. For example: “If I should die, think only this of me.” This repeated pattern throughout the poem creates a gentle rhythm. Also, because the final syllable of each line is stressed, the poem is also written with a rising meter, which lends itself to a rising, upbeat intonation. Therefore, although the subject matter of the poem is ostensibly sad, it is nonetheless written as a positive, stoically joyful poem about the poet’s love for his country. This is reflected also in the fact that Brooke chose to write the poem as a sonnet.

The Poem

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 430

“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.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 516

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 urban, modern world of early twentieth century Britain.

Brooke’s rural images might also be seen as an intentional contrast to the horrors of modern warfare. Brooke had no experience in battle, but as a member of the upper-middle classes, acquainted with such politicians as Winston Churchill (then head of the Admiralty), he must have known the destruction that industry and technology would bring to the war. The rural images of a preindustrial England evoked in the poem may represent a deliberate denial of the barbed wire and machine guns of no-man’s-land.

Brooke uses the melodic effects of assonance and alliteration throughout “The Soldier.” He repeats the long i sound in “I” and “die” in the first line and the short e in “for ever England” in the third. Examples of alliteration are even more abundant, among them the repeated f in “foreign field,” the play on “rich” and “richer” in the fourth line, the sonorous b, s, and r sounds of the seventh and eighth lines, and the s, d, l, and h sounds in the last three lines. He also reinforces his patriotic theme by repeating the words “England” and “English” on six occasions in the poem’s fourteen lines.

Critics have also noted the use of what is sometimes called “high” diction by many writers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Brooke’s “The Soldier” exemplifies this choice of language. Rather than discussing dead bodies, he uses the word “dust”; instead of the battlefield or the front, “field” suffices; “heaven” is preferred to sky. Perhaps his most famous use of such diction comes from another of his poems, “The Dead,” also printed in 1914 and Other Poems: “the red/ Sweet wine of youth” becomes a euphemism for blood. This selection of alternative words reflects the revived interest in the chivalry of the Middle Ages which had become so common among the educated classes, again in reaction to the wrenching transformation caused by the industrial revolution.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 534

Brooke’s “The Soldier” is one of the most often quoted of the many poems which were written during World War I, a war that affected a significant number of poets, particularly from Great Britain. Brooke’s poems were among the first, but he was later joined by Edmund Blunden, Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon, Isaac Rosenberg, and Wilfred Owen. All responded to the challenge and trauma engendered by the “Great War,” though in disparate ways.

“The Soldier” is less a war poem than an elegy on sacrifice. The subject is ostensibly war, and the speaker is a soldier, but there is nothing in the poem that suggests warfare as such. Instead, the poem justifies the soldier’s willing sacrifice on “a foreign field,” an explanation that has more to do with idealized concepts about oneself and one’s country than the causes of war. There is nothing about the enemy or fighting, and only one direct reference to death, at the very beginning of the poem. Even this reference is softened by the qualifying “if,” although the rest of the poem assumes that the speaker will indeed die.

What one should sacrifice himself for is his country, underscored by the constant use of “England” or “English” throughout the poem. This reflects the strong sense of nationalism endemic throughout Western civilization in the early twentieth century. As traditional religious feelings lost their impact upon some sections of society, nationalism became, for many, a new religion worthy of worship and commitment.

Yet “The Soldier” is a paean not to the England of Brooke’s day so much as to the ideal of a pastoral England. This nostalgic vision excluded the present, in which factories and cities had become the norm. Brooke’s poem is an elegy on nature and the transcendent values of the natural world, as manifested in the English landscape.

The poem is also about escape—not only from the ugly industrialism and urbanization which disgusted Brooke, but also from the frustrations of personal life. To die can be a release, and to die in a noble cause justifies the self’s sacrifice. Brooke was not unique: Many in 1914 saw the war as a release from lives stultified by personal and societal obstacles.

Brooke’s idealism did not long survive him. He enlisted in the military, but before he could see action in battle he died of infection in the spring of 1915. The war went on, and the number of deaths multiplied—there were sixty thousand British casualties, for example, at the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916. For other poets, the war lost its allure and death its nobility; in Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est,” to die for one’s country became an obscenity. In that context, Brooke’s “The Soldier” appeared only naïve. His idealism was replaced by a world without ideals; his love of his English countryside gave way to a lost generation. Nevertheless, the search for transcendent meaning in life and the commitment to a noble cause have been recurring themes throughout human history; perhaps ultimately “The Soldier” is less a poem praising war and patriotism than it is a quest for personal identity.

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