Brooke’s “The Soldier” is one of the most often quoted of the many poems which were written during World War I, a war that affected a significant number of poets, particularly from Great Britain. Brooke’s poems were among the first, but he was later joined by Edmund Blunden, Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon, Isaac Rosenberg, and Wilfred Owen. All responded to the challenge and trauma engendered by the “Great War,” though in disparate ways.
“The Soldier” is less a war poem than an elegy on sacrifice. The subject is ostensibly war, and the speaker is a soldier, but there is nothing in the poem that suggests warfare as such. Instead, the poem justifies the soldier’s willing sacrifice on “a foreign field,” an explanation that has more to do with idealized concepts about oneself and one’s country than the causes of war. There is nothing about the enemy or fighting, and only one direct reference to death, at the very beginning of the poem. Even this reference is softened by the qualifying “if,” although the rest of the poem assumes that the speaker will indeed die. What one should sacrifice himself for is his country, underscored by the constant use of “England” or “English” throughout the poem. This reflects the strong sense of nationalism endemic throughout Western civilization in the early twentieth century. As traditional religious feelings lost their impact upon some sections of society, nationalism became, for many, a new religion worthy of worship and commitment.
Yet “The Soldier” is not a paean to the England of Brooke’s day so much as to the ideal of a pastoral England. This nostalgic vision excluded the present, in which factories and cities had become the norm. Brooke’s poem is an elegy on nature and the transcendent values of the natural world, as manifested in the English landscape.
The poem is also about escape-not only from the ugly industrialism and urbanization which disgusted Brooke, but also from the frustrations of personal life. To die can be a release, and to die in a noble cause justifies the self’s sacrifice. Brooke was not unique: Many in 1914 saw the war as a release from lives stultified by personal and societal obstacles.
Brooke’s idealism did not long survive him. He enlisted in the military, but before he could see action in battle, he died of infection in the spring of 1915. The war went on, and the number of deaths multiplied-there was sixty thousand British casualties, for example, at the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916. For other poets, the war lost its allure and death its nobility; in Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est,” to die for one’s country became an obscenity. In that context, Brooke’s “The Soldier” appeared only naive. His idealism was replaced by a world without ideals; his love of his English countryside gave way to a lost generation. Nevertheless, the search for transcendent meaning in life and the commitment to a noble cause have been recurring themes throughout human history; perhaps ultimately “The Soldier” is less a poem praising war and patriotism than it is a quest for personal identity.
(Source: Masterplots II: Poetry Series © 1992)