The Soldier: Rupert Brooke - Summary and Critical AnalysisThe Soldier is a sonnet in which Brooke glorifies England during the First World War. He speaks in the guise of an English soldier as he is leaving home to go to war. The poem represents the patriotic ideals that characterized pre-war England. It portrays death for one’s country as a noble end and England as the noblest country for which to die.
In the first stanza (the octave of the sonnet) stanza, he talks about how his grave will be England herself, and what it should remind the listeners of England when they see the grave. In the second stanza, the sestet, he talks about this death (sacrifice for England) as redemption; he will become “a pulse in the eternal mind”. He concludes that only life will be the appropriate thing to give to his great motherland in return for all the beautiful and the great things she has given to him, and made him what he is. The soldier-speaker of the poem seeks to find redemption through sacrifice in the name of the country.
The speaker begins by addressing the reader, and speaking to them in the imperative: “think only this of me.” This sense of immediacy establishes the speaker’s romantic attitude towards death in duty. He suggests that the reader should not mourn. Whichever “corner of a foreign field” becomes his grave; it will also become “forever England”. He will have left a monument of England in a forever England”. He will have left a monument in England in a foreign land, figuratively transforming a foreign soil to England. The suggestion that English “dust” must be “richer” represents a real attitude that the people of the Victorian age actually had.
The speaker implies that England is mother to him. His love for England and his willingness to sacrifice is equivalent to a son’s love for his mother; but more than an ordinary son, he can give his life to her. The imagery in the poem is typically Georgina. The Georgian poets were known for their frequent mediations in the English countryside. England’s “flowers”, “her ways to roam”, and “English air” all represent the attitude and pride of the youth of the pre-industrial England; many readers would excuse the jingoistic them of this poem if they remember that this soldier’s bravery and sense of sacrifice is far better than the modern soldier and warfare in which there is nothing grand about killing people with automated machine guns! The soldier also has a sense of beauty of his country that is in fact a part of his identity. In the final line of the first 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 sun of home.” In the second stanza, the sestet, the physical is left behind in favor of the spiritual. If the first stanza is about the soldier’s thought of this world and England, the second is about his thoughts of heaven and England (in fact, and English heaven).
In the sestet, the soldier goes on to tell the listener what to think of him if he dies at war, but he presents a more imaginative picture of himself. He forgets the grave in the foreign country where he might die, and he begins to talk about how he will have transformed into an eternal spirit. This means that to die for England is the surest way to get a salvation: as implied in the last line, he even thinks that he will become a part of an English heaven. The heart will be transformed by death. All earthly “evil” will be shed away. Once the speaker has died, his soul will give back to England everything England has given to him- in other words, everything that the speaker has become. In the octave, the speaker describes his future grave in some far off land as a part of England; and 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 salvation, wherever he dies. Wherever he dies, his death for England will be a salvation of his soul. It is therefore the most desirable of all fates.
The images and praises of England run through both the stanzas. In the first stanza Brooke describes the soldier’s grave in a foreign land as a part of England; in the second, that actual English images abound. The sights, sounds, dreams, laughter, friends, and gentleness that England offered him during his life till this time are more than enough for him to thank England and satisfactorily go and die for her. The poet elaborates on what England has granted in the second stanza; ‘sights and sounds’ and all of his “dreams.” A “happy” England filled his life with “laughter” and “friends”, and England characterized by “peace” and “gentleness”. It is what makes English dust “richer” and what in the end guarantees “hearts at peace, under an English Heaven.”
This is a sonnet based on the two major types of the sonnet: Petrarchan or Italian and Shakespearean or English. Structurally, the poem follows the Petrarchan mode; but in its rhyme scheme, it is in the Shakespearean mode. In terms of the structure of ideas, the octave presents reflection; the sestet evaluates the reflection. The first eight lines (octave) is a reflection on the physical: the idea of the soldier’s “dust” buries in a “foreign field.” They urge the readers not to mourn this death, though they implicitly also create a sense of loss. The last six lines (sestet), however, promise redemption: “a pulse in the eternal mind…. under an English heaven”. The rhyme scheme is that of the Shakespearean sonnet: the octave and the sestet consist of three quatrains, rhyming abab cdcd efef and a final rhymed couplet gg. As in Shakespearean sonnets, the dominant meter is iambic.
SOURCE: "Rupert Brooke," in Neglected Powers: Essays on Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Literature, Barnes & Noble, 1971, pp. 293-308.
[In the following essay, Knight discusses the defining characteristics of Brooke's verse.]
Rupert Brooke belongs, not to a generation, and certainly not to posterity, but to a date: in so far as his name survives, it does so in inevitable connection with 1914. Although it was his generation—the generation of Pound and Eliot, of Joyce and Lawrence, of Epstein and Picasso and Stravinsky—that made the modern world of art, Brooke has no place among them, and consequently no living contact with the present moment. He is a poet of his time, but his time was those few first months of the First World War, when Englishmen still believed that it was sweet and proper to die for one's country, and when Brooke's war sonnets could be read without bitterness or irony.
We think of Brooke, then, as a War Poet. But quite inaccurately. In the first place, it would be more precise to call him an On-the-way-to-the-war Poet, for, with ironic appropriateness, he died of natural causes en route to the Dardanelles campaign, and the emotions that his war sonnets express are not those of a combatant, but of a recruit. The real War Poets—Owen and Sassoon and Graves and Blunden and Rosenberg—came along later, out of the trenches, and spoke with a different tone; indeed, one might say that their poems exist to contradict the ignorant nobilities of Brooke. Sassoon recalled [in Siegfried's Journey, 1945] that
while learning to be a second-lieutenant I was unable to write anything at all, with the exception of a short poem called 'Absolution', manifestly influenced by Rupert Brooke's famous sonnet-sequence. The significance of my too nobly worded lines was that they expressed the typical self-glorifying feelings of a young man about to go to the Front for the first time. The poem subsequently found favour with middle-aged reviewers; but the more I saw of the war the less noble-minded I felt about it.
Poor Brooke never got past the self-glorifying stage, because he did not get to the war.
But Brooke was a would-be War Poet for only the length of those last five sonnets. Until then, through nearly a hundred poems, he had been a lyric poet of Youth, Love and Death, who developed from a Late Decadent to an Early Georgian. Most of these poems are hard going now, not because they are particularly bad, and certainly not because they are difficult, but because they are uniformly and conventionally dull; they are poems that might have been written by any of a number of mediocre pre-war poets, or by a committee of Georgians. They have no distinguishable individual voice, and this is no doubt one reason for Brooke's popularity among people who don't ordinarily read verse; his poetry sounds the way poetry should sound, because it sounds like so many poems that have already been written. Echoes of Marvell and Donne, of Shakespeare, Blake, Housman, Dowson and Yeats haunt the Collected Poems; the only ghost that is not there is Brooke's.
Almost any poem from Poems 1911 (the only book that Brooke published during his lifetime) will confirm these strictures. Take, for example, this sonnet:
Not exactly a bad poem, and far from Brooke's worst, but a poem without any distinguishable merit—the diction abstract and conventional, the images the worn poetical coinage of the past, the theme Death, the most poetical subject that Brooke knew. Out of poems like this one a list of favourite words and gestures could be made that would constitute Brooke's sense of what was poetic, and that turn up again and again, rearranged, but essentially the same: dream and gleam, heart, tears, sorrow, grey, yearning, and weary cries and sighs, and of course, everywhere, Love and Death. In a rare moment of self-criticism Brooke composed a table of contents for an imaginary anthology, to which his own contribution was to be 'Oh, Dear! Oh, Dear! A Sonnet'. This is very perceptive, for nearly half of his poems are conventional sonnets, and most of them, like 'Oh! Death will find me', say little more than 'Oh Dear!'
This body of boring verse suggests not so much a man who wanted to write a poem as a man who wanted to be a poet; or perhaps in Brooke's case a man who took poeticalness as his destiny. For if the poems are in the most conventional sense poetic, so was Brooke. No one ever looked so much like a poet as he did—not a poètemaudit, but an ideal English poet, a gentleman poet, a Rugby-and-Cambridge poet, a healthy, pink-cheeked, blond, games-playing poet. He was, as Henry Nevinson said, almost ludicrously beautiful, and with his long hair and his flowing ties he made his own beauty poetical. (Even Beatrice Webb, who was deaf to poetry and immune to a pretty face, called Brooke 'a poetic beauty', though she thought him otherwise a commonplace, conceited young man.) With such looks, great personal charm, and a modest talent, no wonder that he had such friends, that he dined with the Prime Minister and called Winston Churchill by his first name and never worked for a living. He was a Doomed Youth from the beginning, but his doom was his extravagant good fortune; as Henry James said, felicity dogged his steps.
More than any of his other admirers it was James who understood the expense of Brooke's beauty. 'Rupert expressed us all', James wrote after his death [in the preface to Letters from America, 1916] 'at the highest tide of our actuality, and was the creature of a freedom restricted only by that condition of his blinding youth, which we accept on the whole with gratitude and relief—given that I qualify the condition as dazzling even to himself. The expressive self, the 'blinding youth' became a myth in his own time. Brooke was twenty-three and scarcely known when Frances Cornford published her epigram about him:
And he remained mythical in his life and in his death. [In Letters, edited by Aldous Huxley, 1932] Even D. H. Lawrence—a man not given to classical allusion—wrote of Brooke's death that
he was slain by bright Phoebus' shaft—it was in keeping with his general sunniness—it was the real climax of his pose. I first heard of him as a Greek god under a Japanese sunshade, reading poetry in his pyjamas, at Grantchester,—at Grantchester upon the lawns where the river goes. Bright Phoebus smote him down. It is all in the saga.
But as James perceived, the myth dazzled Brooke, too. He confessed to Ka Cox that he had 'always enjoyed that healthy, serene, Apollo-golden-haired, business' and in most of his poems he allowed himself to be absorbed in it, so that the personal role and the poetic role were the same, and there is no creative tension between them. If one asks who wrote 'The Funeral of Youth' or 'The Great Lover' or 'Tiare Tahiti', the answer can only be, 'Apollo-Brooke did'.
A few poems suggest, however, that Brooke did recognize the danger of the myth to him as a poet, and that he was trying to destroy, or at least modify it by writing poems that were aggressively anti-Apollonian. His five so-called 'ugly poems' are all attempts to get beyond conventional poetic subject matter and language, to a more acrid reality. 'Channel Passage', the most noticed of these, is about seasickness and lovesickness; 'Dead Men's Love' is a vision of dead lovers kissing;...