First published in 1915, a year after the outbreak of World War I, Rupert Brooke’s “The Soldier” represents many of the patriotic and traditional ideals that characterized pre-war England. In contrast with the bloody realism that marks the poems of Brooke’s contemporary Wilfred Owen, Brooke portrays death for one’s country as a noble end and England as the noblest country for which to die.
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.
Though the horrors of mustard gas and trench warfare would soon obliterate such sentiment, “The Soldier” nonetheless expresses the tragic pride of a nation about to sacrifice a generation of young men to a conflict that, in the end, settled little. The soldier who is the speaker of the poem seeks to find redemption in that loss.
“The Soldier,” is one 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 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 forever 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.
Before the war, Brooke had been considered England’s most promising young poet, and his death was taken by many as a symbolic passing of his generation’s promise. Having lived through the suffering of twentieth-century warfare, later readers may have found Brooke’s patriotic emotions to be naive and even old-fashioned. Still, the poem’s immediacy and earnestness effectively capture a period in which war’s carnage had not yet dampened the spirits of the English people.
If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever 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 suns of home.
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.