The Soldier by Rupert Brooke is a war sonnet which is read as a glorification of war. His early death in 1915 canonized him as an iconic hero of the first phase of World War I, who symbolized the potential of all the gifted young people destroyed by the conflict. Brooke’s personal war experience consisted of one day of limited military action with the Hood Battalion during the evacuation of Antwerp. Consequently the poem conveys highly sentimentalized themes of patriotism, romantic death, and idealism that were initially shared by many thousands of young men who blithely went into the war.
Contemplating his own death, the speaker, from the lines number 1-3, addresses the reader in the imperative: “think only this of me.” The effect is emotional, creating a sense of immediacy and establishing the speaker’s romantic attitude toward death in the line of duty. He suggests the reader should not mourn: whichever “corner of a foreign field” becomes the soldier’s grave will also become “forever England.” Thus, the soldier will not only have died for his country; he will have left a monument to it in a foreign land, figuratively transforming foreign soil to English soil.
In the lines number 4-5 the suggestion given by the speaker is that English “dust” must be “richer” than foreign “earth” might seem chauvinistic to present-day readers. Still, it represents a real attitude that compelled the English people to explore and colonize the globe throughout the Victorian age. An alternate reading might infer that the “dust” is richer simply because it is what remains of a human being. Yet in the following line the speaker suggests that the soldier, like all his countrymen, derives his very existence from England – his life, his form, and his intelligence. England is thus personified as a mother to the soldier. His love of England, and his willingness to himself for it, is equivalent to a son’s love for his mother.
Brooke, like John Masefield, is a member of the “Georgian” movement, named after King George V who ascended to England’s throne in 1910. In addition to their traditional techniques -such as the use of the sonnet form-the Georgian poets were characterized by their frequent meditations on the English countryside. The lines from 6-8 typify the Georgian view of nature’s significance. England’s “flowers,” “her ways to roam,” and “English air” all represent part of the speaker’s identity. In the final line of the stanza, nature takes on a religious significance for the speaker. He is “washed by the rivers,” suggesting the purification of baptism, and “blest by the suns of home.” This exalted language directs the reader toward the second stanza, the sestet, in which the physical is left behind in favor of the spiritual.
In the lines from 9-11 of the poem the “heart” or the spirit, as opposed to the “dust” or the body in the first stanza, is now transformed by death. All earthly “evil” is “shed away.” Here the poem takes on its major theme: once the speaker has died, his soul gives back to England everything that England has given it – in other words, everything that the speaker has become. In the octave, England is personified as a mother, bearing life. In the sestet, England takes on the role of a heavenly creator, a part of the “eternal mind” of God. In this way, dying for England gains the status of religious martyrdom. The speaker equates it to dying for God, which in religious terms promises redemption. It is therefore the most desirable of all fates.
In the lines 12-14, Brooke elaborates on more of what England has granted: “sights and sounds,” or his memories of England, and all of his “dreams.” He presents a “happy” England filled with “laughter” and “friends,” an England characterized by “peace” and “gentleness.” “Gentleness” here probably retains the archaic meaning, the qualities of chivalry and nobility. Brooke suggests that this type of “gentleness,” which requires the ultimate service to God and country, is a particularly an English quality. It is, in the poet’s view, what makes English dust “richer,” what elevates England above other countries, what makes a soldier’s sacrifice for England worthwhile, and what in the end guarantees “hearts at peace, under an English Heaven.”