The Soldier is a poem by famed war poet, Rupert Brooke, renowned for both his boyish good looks and for this poem. Whilst a lot of war poetry, such as ‘Dulce et Decorum est’ had a discernibly negative view, a lot of Brooke’s poetry was far more positive. It glorified the actions of men and focused on the courage shown by soldiers. That motif is evident throughout The Soldier. It was written near the start of the First World War.
This piece could almost be considered a piece of propaganda as it appears to “spin” negatives into positives. I can’t help but think that this piece inspired several songs by the musician Frank Turner. Especially his song Rivers which contains the lyrics “When I die, I hope to be, Buried out in English seas, So all that then remains of me, Will lap against these shores.” This song, like the poem, is about national pride.
Analysis of The Soldier
IF I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by the suns of home.
The poem starts off with what might be considered a sense of foreboding. Although one might think that this hints at the nature of the poem that is misleading as the poem almost espouses the idea of dying during wartime, rather than condemning it. This almost flies in the face of General Patton who once said “The object of war is not to die for your country but to make the other bastard die for his”! The opening line also provides a tone to the poem that makes it feel almost like an epistolary as if the poet is confessing in a letter or journal.
As soon as the second and third lines we see the narrator put a positive spin on his potential demise. I say “his” assuming the gender of the narrator. Unfortunately at the start of the First World War the roles of women in the military were non-existent and so it is safe to assume a narrator is a man. He talks of his death in a foreign field, this is presumably a reference to a battlefield. But rather than lamenting the notion of his own demise, he claims that it will mean there is a piece of England in that foreign country. So the suggestion here is that in some ways his death would be a victory.
Referring to his corpse as being “richer dust” is an interesting choice of words here and perhaps a reference to the phrase used during a funeral service. The classic “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” line. This idea that his body is simply made of dust isn’t necessarily totally symbolic. After all, we are primarily a carbon-based life form!
The dust metaphor continues into the fifth line where the poet talks about how that dust was formed and shaped by England. The concept that he is trying to put across is that he is the very embodiment of England, of course, the wider suggestion is that any soldier who dies for their country fulfills that same criterion. That soldiers are “shaped” by England and so when they die overseas they act almost like a seed, spreading Englishness.
The final three lines of the Octave are full of patriotic notions. They really create an image of England that is fantastic. This is done with the evocation of the natural world. Talking of flowers, the air, and rivers, these all help to create the image of England being a beautiful place. Through doing that the narrator is able to infer that a soldier can help to take the very fragments that helped to create that beauty and transport it to a foreign country. This act, if it were real, would of course be very noble.
And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
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.
As is often the case with a sonnet the second stanza approaches a new concept. In this case, it appears that the narrator is adding a further thought due to the first line. “and think this” makes it seem like he has had an epiphany.
The use of language in this stanza is really interesting. It talks of hearts and minds in an attempt to personify England. The reason for doing this is because people have a vested interest in people. If you can humanize a country you can increase its value in the eyes of people. What I mean by this is that a person probably wouldn’t justify dying for bits of rock and dirt, but for another person? Well, that could be something worth giving your life for.
Note the use of the word “eternal”. Whilst not referencing England directly its use is very deliberate, it puts the thought of eternity into your mind so you associate that with England. This poem has a sense that England will prevail, that our sovereignty is eternal.
The poem draws to its conclusion in the final tercet. Once again this is used to extol the virtues of English culture. This is made to feel very visceral by drawing on the senses. This isn’t just about how England looks, but how it sounds as well. These descriptions are almost a way to justify what was said in the first stanza.
If the first stanza is saying it’s okay to die in war because it is good for your country, the second stanza is justifying that by suggesting “look, this is what you’d be dying for, isn’t it great?”
The final line is very clever. It uses really positive language in order to infer that dying in the field of battle ends up with you being at peace. It results in you ending up in heaven. Not just any heaven though, an English heaven. Can we then infer from this that there is a suggestion that an English heaven would be superior to any other nation’s heaven? I mean most religions would suggest that all nations share one heaven! I don’t think that is what is being suggested here. Rather I think that the phrase is used to make a comparison. The suggestion being that England is the closest you can come to heaven in the mortal world.
Form and Tone
The Soldier is similar to a Petrarchan sonnet (or Italian Sonnet if you prefer.) This means it has 14 lines which are separated into stanzas. The rhyming pattern for this is not typical of a Petrarchan sonnet, which usually has a ABBAABBA CDECDE pattern. It is full of positivity and seems to glorify the idea of a person dying for their country. Due to its powerful convictions, it is a poem that remains quite popular with military enthusiasts and as such has found its way into popular culture featuring in the music of Pink Floyd and Muse and finding its way onto television screens by appearing in the TV show MASH.
About Rupert Brooke
Rupert Brooke was predominantly a war poet. Fellow poet Yeates once described him as “the handsomest young man in England” clearly that was before my birth! Unfortunately, that was a trait that Brooke took to the grave with him as he died tragically young at the age of just 27. Perhaps it is somewhat ironic that whilst he passed away whilst serving his country his death wasn’t particularly heroic. He died from sepsis caused by an infected mosquito wound.