George Henry Boker’s writing explores his opinion about the war, specifically the Civil War, and the role individuals had to play within it. While he’s less commonly read today than other war-time poets, his sonnets are generally considered to be some of the best American poems of the period.
‘Sonnet’ by George Henry Boker is a poem about a soldier’s willingness to do his duty to his country and leave his family during a war.
The poem begins with the speaker questioning their “Brave comrade” about who and what he left behind to go and fight. The soldier left behind a great deal. He speaks about his family and his home. He also explains how painful this separation was, comparing it to someone losing their soul as they walk into hell.
When asked why he was willing to suffer this way, the soldier says that duty compelled him to. He wanted to fulfill his duty and therefore set aside those he loved for a time. He ends his thoughts by comparing himself to Abraham.
Throughout ‘Sonnet,’ the poet engages with themes of war and duty. The fourteen lines celebrate a soldier’s sacrifice. He was willing to leave his family and do his duty to his country. This may lead to his death in a conflict, likely during the Civil War, but he’s willing to face it. This doesn’t mean it’s not painful, though. The sorrow he experiences and expresses only makes his willingness to do his duty even more impressive. This was what the initial speaker, who is also a soldier, was hoping to emphasize through his questioning.
Structure and Form
‘Sonnet’ by George Henry Boker is a fourteen-line sonnet that conforms to the pattern of a Petrarchan or Italian sonnet. This means it follows a rhyme scheme of ABBAABBA in the first eight lines, also known as at the octave. The following six lines rhyme: CDCCDC. This is one of the most common patterns in the second half of a Petrarchan sonnet. The sonnet also uses iambic pentameter, the most common metrical pattern used in sonnets and in all English-language verse. The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the poem, but there are a few moments in which it shifts and changes. This might mean that some lines start with stressed syllables rather than unstressed syllables.
Throughout this poem, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Caesura: can be seen when the poet inserts a pause into the middle of a line. For example, “Brave comrade, answer! When you joined the war” and “Had you no pang or struggle? “Yes; I bore.”
- Alliteration: occurs when the poet uses the same consonant sounds at the beginning of words. For example, “pain” and “parting” in line six and “sought” and “strife” in line fourteen.
- Simile: seen through a comparison between two things using “like” or “as.” For example, in the second quatrain when the writer pens: “Yes; I bore / Such pain on parting as at hell’s gate rends / The entering soul.” The simile is further extended into the next line.
Brave comrade, answer! When you joined the war,
What left you? “Wife and children, wealth and friends,
A storied home whose ancient roof-tree bends
Above such thoughts as love tells o’er and o’er.”
In the first lines of ‘Sonnet,’ the speaker begins by directing their words to a soldier, someone who has left his life and family behind. He calls this man “Brave comrade” and commands him to “answer” the following questions. The speaker wants to know why he “joined the war” and what he left at home when he did so. It’s clear from these first lines that the speaker is attempting to hold the “Brave comrade” up as an example. He’s done his duty and faced death, he’s also left behind a great deal he cared about. This includes his family and his home, a place he loves a great deal. There, he can surround himself with love, but he willingly stepped away from it.
Had you no pang or struggle? “Yes; I bore
Such pain on parting as at hell’s gate rends
The entering soul, when from its grasp ascends
The last faint virtue which on earth it wore.”
The speaker asks the soldier if he struggled with this decision at all. Here, he’s alluding to the fact that all soldiers have something they’ve left behind and a tough decision to face. This man left it bravely and bore the suffering.
The soldier compares his pain upon leaving his family to what it would feel like to have one’s soul torn away from them, losing their “last faint virtue” as they enter into hell. He lost something fundamental to his character when he went to war, but he knew he had to do it. There is a transition between the first eight lines of the poem and the final six. The speaker has gotten the basic information they need and now gets to the heart of their point.
You loved your home, your kindred, children, wife;
You loathed yet plunged into war’s bloody whirl!—
What urged you? “Duty! Something more than life.
That which made Abraham bare the priestly knife,
And Isaac kneel, or that young Hebrew girl
Who sought her father coming from the strife.”
The speaker wants to know why they left everything behind they loved so dearly. If it was that painful, why did they do it? The soldier responds directly without hesitation. He tells the speaker and anyone listening that he did so because it was his “Duty!” He was called to battle just as Abraham did God’s bidding and offered up his son Isaac as a sacrifice. By comparing these two things, the soldier is once again showing how life-changing and difficult this choice was. But, he didn’t hesitate to do what was asked of him.
This allusion also draws a comparison between the country he’s fighting for and God. Both he and Abraham were called to duty by a power greater than themselves.
Boker wrote ‘Sonnet’ as a way of celebrating the sacrifices soldiers make every day when they leave their families behind and risk their lives. They step into the fray, unsure if they’re ever going to see the places and people they love again.
The tone is determined and dedicated on the part of the soldier who was more than willing to do his duty. The main speaker who starts the poem takes a questioning and reverential tone as he celebrates the soldier’s ability to do his duty.
The mood is patriotic and courageous. Readers are meant to walk away feeling inspired by the poet’s narrative and his character’s bravery. Boker may have wanted readers to better understand the sacrifices soldiers make and be willing to make sacrifices themselves.
Both of the speakers in ‘Sonnet’ appear to be soldiers. The fact that the initial speaker can order the “Brave comrade” to the speaker and tell his story suggests that he’s in a position of power. Plus, the use of the word “comrade” also suggests he’s a soldier.
‘Sonnet’ was written in the mid-late 1800s. The poet spent time overseas on diplomatic missions and, in 1864, wrote Poems of War, inspired by the Civil War and his thoughts on the conflict.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Sonnet’ should also consider reading some related poems. For example:
- ‘For the Union Dead’ by Robert Lowell – explores the past and the present society and changing idealism.
- ‘Untitled Poem’ by George Henry Boker – another Civil War poem that expresses the effects war had on the American people.
- ‘Long, too Long America’ by Walt Whitman – a nationalistic poem that urges the countrymen to stand by America during trying times, specifically the Civil War.