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Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 534 words.)