“The Soldier” is a sonnet of two stanzas: an octet of eight lines and a sestet of six lines. It is the last in a series of five sonnets composed shortly after the outbreak of World War I. The poems are linked by theme as well as form; all reflect idealism and optimism in the face of war, expressing the idea of release through self-sacrifice that many experienced with the coming of that war. “The Soldier” is about the probable death of a soldier, but the poem has little to do with dying.
The poem celebrates an idealized vision of pastoral England and the noble qualities of her inhabitants. Brooke’s language emphasizes the universal, so that the England of the poem becomes every soldier’s home, and the dead soldier is every Englishman. The tone is uplifting and idealistic but also self-sacrificial. There is a sense of romantic inevitability about the privilege and duty of dying for one’s country. Feelings of patriotism and nationalism give nobility to that sacrifice, a sacrifice willingly crowned by death.
Forms and Devices
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 octet 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.
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 modern 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 preindustrial 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.
Themes and Meanings
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 a paean not 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 were 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 na?ve. 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.