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 octave 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.
Brooke observes the sonnet (14 lines of iambic pentameter, divided into an octave and sestet). However, the octave follows the Shakespearean rhyme scheme ababcdcd, while the sestet follows the Petrarchan efgefg. He also deviates slightly from the traditional thematic divisions where the octave and sestet state or express a question or predicament and its resolution, respectively. In “The Soldier” the octave and sestet both enjoin the reader to conceptualize the blissful death of the fallen soldier. This romantic vision of death combines the ideas of spiritual purification and resurrection, Neo-pagan immortalizing of fallen epic warriors, and anglicizing a foreign soil by adding the dust of dead English soldiers to it, under the overarching theme of the superiority of English heritage and personal loyalty to it.
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 modem 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 pre-industrial 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.
(Source: Masterplots II: Poetry Series © 1992)