The Soldier, the first of the sonnets to achieve fame, is still probably the most famous of the group, a poem that has become one of the standard pieces of patriotic rhetoric in English literature. “If I should die, think only this of me,” it begins; the speaker will die, it is to be understood, and the poem goes on to describe what will become of this soldier after his death.
The life of the soldier has been distilled to a life of goodness, and that life is owed to England. The speaker does not want others to mourn for him but to remember him by upholding the principles for which he died.
The body of the soldier, whom “England bore, shaped, made-aware,” becomes dust, an English dust, enriching the foreign dust in which it is buried, so that “there’s some corner of a foreign field/That is for ever England.” The poem is Platonic rather than Christian, for the soldier’s body does not await resurrection but becomes “A pulse in the eternal mind” that “Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given.” The thoughts of England that the poet gives the reader are deliberately vague; they do not evoke actual images of the country but a series of positive emotional states: “dreams happy as her day;/And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness.” In the very stanza, the narrator makes his own dead body a symbol for all of England, the speaker requests that he be remembered not for any individual traits or acts but only for how he represented and continues to represent his country. The dust of his body is richer than the dirt that surrounds it because it is the dust of an Englishman.
The death imagined in the first stanza occurs in the last stanza. We are presented with a cleansed soul, “this heart, all evil shed away,/a pulse in the eternal mind.” The life of the soldier has been distilled to a life of goodness, and that life is owed to England. The speaker does not want others to mourn for him but to remember him by upholding the principles for which he died. He also wants others to think of him as still being alive, “A pulse in the eternal mind,” and to know that somewhere, somehow, he is returning the thoughts, sights, sounds, dreams, and laughter that England had previously given him. In the end, “The Soldier” celebrates the idea of self-sacrifice: according to the dead soldier, it is an honor to die for one’s country, and no thought should be given to personal desire, because the desire of the soldier and the desire of the country should be one.