Rupert Brooke – The Soldier – Poetry Lecture and Analysis by Dr. Andrew Barker


Welcome. I am Dr. Andrew Barker,
and this is the Mycroft Online lecture on Rupert Brooke’s much beloved, very patriotic,
pre-First World War poem, ‘The Soldier’. Now note I say
pre-First World War here. ‘The Soldier’ is written in 1914,
and the bloody carnage of the trench warfare, the senseless waste of life,
the attendant horrors of that particular conflict have not been made apparent to
either the British public, or those who are doing the fighting,
or those who are reporting and writing on the fighting,
that hasn’t really happened at the point when Rupert Brooke
gives us this poem, ‘The Soldier’. I say this knowing full well that ‘The Soldier’ is usually associated with
the First World War poems; Rupert Brooke himself is usually associated with
the First World War poets, like Siegfried Sassoon,
Wilfred Owen, Edmund Blunden. What I submit to you is,
the date of composition of this poem and the knowledge of warfare
of the person who writes the poem, means that it is more a
pre-First World War poem, than a poem actually relevant
to the realities of the combat that took place in the First World War. The poem was originally titled, ‘The Recruit’. It wasn’t called ‘The Soldier’,
it was called ‘The Recruit’. And for me this would have made
a lot more sense as the title. It is written by someone who saw
one day’s limited combat, one day’s limited engagement
in the British retreat from Antwerp, the evacuation of Antwerp. That was the only actual combat that
Rupert Brooke was to witness during the war. Rupert Brooke himself was a
highly articulate, very handsome, very privileged, highly educated,
very sensitive young man. He wasn’t a battle-hardened war veteran
reporting on what he actually had witnessed and his on-the-spot opinions
on what warfare was actually like. He was a young man about to go to war,
and this is what he thought the experience would be like. And because Brooke never actually
experienced warfare, this means the poem itself
can be very polarising. On the one hand,
we have the idea that what he says is actually rather insulting
to the soldiers who were involved in the actual realities of combat in
that particular engagement. The guys actually fighting and dying
in the trenches during the First World War. On the other hand, is the idea that
what Brooke captures here is the specific brand of patriotism and that those
joining the military are often inclined to. The poem now, the poem today
is a very beloved poem. It is often read out at the funerals as a
eulogy for departed soldiers even to this day. And there is something in the poem
that appeals to the British character. The poem itself is
very beautifully constructed. It is a very beautiful poem, but
whether those eulogising their departed, or choosing to be eulogised with these words
fully understand the complexities of this poem,
I may question. Perhaps the simple paraphrase
of ‘The Solder’ would be, ‘if I were to die,
all I want you to think about my death is that I have died for my country,
I love my country, and therefore my death
was not a waste.’ Now, that is a simplistic paraphrase,
but it is part of the story. What I would submit to you here
is that it is not the full story. ‘The Soldier’ itself was a very popular poem
at the time when it was written. It was actually used
as a recruiting poem. It was one of those poems which would
encourage young British men to go and hurl themselves on German bayonets
for the glorification of their country. There was a war going on,
and this is the type of literature that a government wants to promote
in order to rouse an army; to gather the working men of England
behind one cause, as if they’re going to go out to war
and they know why they’re going to do it. That much about the poem
is not in doubt. The poem was – perhaps even still is –
a recruiting poem for the British, or more specifically, English military. But what is the poem actually saying? In this Mycroft Online Lecture,
I’m going to give you two different readings for the poem’s second stanza. The first one of these readings is what
we would call a post-colonial reading. And the post-colonial reading
would seek to demonstrate, indeed, would seek to prejudice,
presenting the poem as one that has absolute imperialist leanings. This would be a reading that would
concentrate as much as we can on noticing the imperialistic
leanings of the poem. The second reading I will give you
is one which sees the poem more as a love poem of a very love-struck young man;
a love poem to England, in fact. And I’ll present these arguments
as best I can for both of these type of readings, and at the end, we’ll look at which one
is the most convincing to us. And remember, the way we look at this,
what I say here, has to be justified by the actual words
Rupert Brooke wrote. So I’ll read the poem through,
and we’ll set about the line-by-line analysis of this poem. ‘The Soldier’ by Rupert Brooke. 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. It’s a beautiful-sounding sentiment,
but with the line-by-line analysis that we’re about to do,
let’s see if once we fully understand the poem, the reality of what the poem is saying
is still as beautiful to us. Now, to analyse ‘The Soldier’, the way I’ll do it,
I’ll look at the opening eight lines, the opening octet of the poem, and then
I’ll look at the final six lines later on. Rupert Brooke tells us this,
If I should die, think only this of me: That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. What he’s saying there is,
‘if I die, all I want you to think about my death is that there will be a place in another
country that will always be England’. ‘If I die, doesn’t matter,
don’t let it worry you, because there will be a place in another
country that will always be England.’ Now, we have to ask ourselves,
‘why? Why will there be a place in another country that will
always be England?’ Now, as daft as this may sound to you,
the conceit that Rupert Brooke puts across here is that the place where he dies
will always be England because he will rot into the earth there,
his corpse will rot into the earth, and because he is English,
that place is claimed as England by him rotting into the land,
rotting into the earth. The second sentence of the poem is this: There shall be in that rich earth
a richer dust concealed; Ok, the piece of earth in which he dies,
when he dies on it, will have a richer, a better piece of earth within it.
And once again, we may ask, ‘why? Why is the piece of earth on which
Richard Brooke dies going to be superior because he has died on it?’ And the answer is,
because he is an Englishman. His English corpse will rot into
that piece of earth and fertilise, make fruitful, improve the piece of earth that he dies on;
because his English corpse is superior to the
corpse of someone else. I’m not making this up,
I’m not trying to put this flippantly. This is literally what the idea
behind this part of the poem is: an English corpse is
better than another corpse. And he explains this
to us specifically, 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 what Brooke is telling us here
is that his corpse, his English corpse, will be superior as a fertiliser
because he was born in England. ‘A dust whom England bore’. He was ‘shaped, made aware’ in England,
meaning, he was educated in England. His body is a body of England’s,
it grew breathing English air, it was washed by the rivers of England,
and blessed by the sun that shone on England, and all of those experiences
that made him an Englishman made for a corpse that will
improve the land on which he passes away. Now, there are four things
which are going on in the opening eight lines of this poem that I think it’s
worth bringing your attention to. One I quite like is the line,
‘the ways to roam’. England gave him English ways to roam. And I think we can see that
in two different ways. One is that he had English ways to roam,
‘ways’ being the highways and byways of England, and as a young man he was able to traverse
the roads, the highways and byways of England. He was able to walk around England. Certainly, that’s one way of looking at it. I think another way you could
interpret that line that’s quite nice is that he had English ways,
not as roads, but ways meaning experiences. He had English experiences to explore. So ‘ways to roam’ can mean he literally,
he had the roads of England to walk around, but it could also mean that he had
the experiences of England to explore – which he did explore – and helped made him
the person that he actually is. What I think we also need to understand
in this first stanza is this whole idea of the soldier dying and
being seen as a fertiliser. Rupert Brooke’s ‘The Soldier’ is not the
first poem to explore this particular idea. There was a – what we must call an
anti-war poem written by Thomas Hardy in 1899 called
‘Drummer Hodge’. This is a poem written some
15 years ago before ‘The Soldier’ was written, about the military,
and listen to this conceit that Thomas Hardy puts
in the poem, ‘Drummer Hodge’. They throw in Drummer Hodge, to rest
Uncoffined — just as found: His landmark is a kopje-crest
That breaks the veldt around: And foreign constellations west
Each night above his mound. Young Hodge the drummer never knew —
Fresh from his Wessex home — The meaning of the broad Karoo,
The Bush, the dusty loam, And why uprose to nightly view
Strange stars amid the gloam. What Hardy’s telling us here is that
Drummer Hodge has come from Wessex and he has died in Africa
under a foreign sky. The third stanza is the one which is especially
relevant to us when we look at this poem. The third stanza is: Yet portion of that unknown plain
Will Hodge for ever be; His homely Northern breast and brain
Grow to some Southern tree, And strange-eyed constellations reign
His stars eternally. Thomas Hardy’s problem
with Drummer Hodge’s situation is that he has been taken from Wessex
and died on the plains of Africa and that the waste of life there
is increased by the fact that this young, English boy will rot
into the sands or fields of Africa. Yet portion of that unknown plain
Will Hodge for ever be; His homely Northern breast and brain
Grow to some Southern tree, Hodge will fertilise a tree in Africa. So, for me, there seems to be in
Rupert Brooke’s highly patriotic, recruiting poem, ‘The Soldier’
an element of what we now call ‘writing back’ in the way that he opens the poem. ‘Writing back’ is to take an established narrative
and write something that questions it, or contradicts it. Rupert Brooke’s, ‘if I should die,
think only this of me:’ ‘That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England’ seems to be saying, ‘look, I don’t care
if I die in a foreign field. I’ll be proud to because
that piece of field will always be England.’ It seems to me to be writing back
against Thomas Hardy’s conceit that it is a tragedy that Drummer Hodge
will die in a foreign land, and strange-eyed constellations
will reign his stars eternally above him, he won’t know where he is. The third thing I’d like to mention
about that opening eight lines is the idea of
‘suns of home’. When Rupert Brooke tells us that
he is happy to have been- not just happy but proud and privileged
to have been raised in England, and one of the things about being
raised in England that he has always loved is the ‘suns of home’,
the English sun. Anybody who has lived in England is
likely to smirk at that particular line. And we will smirk at that line
not just because the English sun is not particularly the brightest and warmest
that we are likely to have experienced. Aside from that rather comical element,
also, it’s just factually inaccurate. The same sun shines on England,
it shines on Timbuktu or Tanzania. England can’t claim
the whole of the sun. The sun of England that he speaks of here,
that he feels very blessed by having had shone on him is the same sun
that shines on every other place on the planet. I think I can slightly redeem that line,
actually, by the over-enthusiasm that the soldier demonstrates for
all aspects of his country, it’s as if there’s
nothing bad about England. The suns that shine on England,
to the soldier, they are English suns. Ok, we know that as far as astrophysics goes,
this is literally not true. But it is indicative of the way
the soldier sees England. The suns which shone on him
when he was in England were English, there were better than
the suns of other places. And on top of that, there’s one other way
I think we can make that line quite nice. When Rupert Brooke writes,
‘blest by suns of home’, of course ‘suns’ is spelt s-u-n-s,
meaning, big burning ball of gas. But we also hear all associated words
when we hear a line in a poem. So, s-o-n-s, the ‘sons of England’
is something we also hear at the point when Rupert Brooke says,
‘he was blest by the suns of home’. And don’t we hear in that line,
England is blest by her sons, of whom the soldier
is of course one. England is blest by the sons of England,
s-o-n-s of England. That sentiment that I’m giving you there
is certainly not out of place within the rhetoric of this poem.
And we can have it both ways. Obviously, the one we can’t deny
is that Brooke is saying, he felt blessed by the
suns of England, s-u-n-s. But we can also bring into that,
if we want, s-o-n-s, the sons of England, who are the friends,
the people he grew around, the fellow soldiers who bless England
and are willing to – almost keen to – lay down their lives
for their country. The fourth thing I want to bring attention to
from this opening part of the poem is the use of the word ‘dust’. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed; A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware. Dust has a specific
biblical connotation. God, Yahweh, Jehovah,
creates Adam out of dust. He says, ‘from dust you come,
to dust you will return’. That is a specific line
from the Bible. ‘From dust you come,
to dust you will return’. That is the line that Philip Pullman
makes such wonderful use of in his ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy. But here, the use of dust rather than, say,
mud – ‘there shall be in that rich earth, a richer mud concealed’ –
and dust gives the poem a specific and unavoidable
Biblical allusion. It is not the only time that there is
a Biblical allusion in this poem. We’ll see one later with, specifically,
in hearts at peace, under an English heaven. We cannot avoid that there is a
Biblical allusion running through this poem, There shall be in that rich earth
a richer dust concealed; ‘From dust you come,
to dust you will return.’ Ok, I’ll read that opening octet through again,
so you get an idea of what’s going on in it. 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 now we come to the
final six lines of the poem. And it is from the final six lines
that I am going to get the different interpretations that I am
going to present to you. The first one of course being
this very anti-imperialist, post-colonialist reading
that I’m going to find, and the second being the reading of the poem
as the love song of a young man. The final six lines
of the poem are this: 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. The philosopher, Karl Popper makes an
interesting point on how to present an argument. He says the only way that you are
ever going to convince somebody that their argument is wrong,
is if you can make the point for their argument stronger
than they can make it. So you make their argument
as strong as you can, until you’ve got the strongest points to
support the argument that they want to make. And then, you disprove that argument
that you have just made that was stronger than any argument
that they have made. He says that if you try to
change someone’s mind on their weaker points, it won’t make any difference, because
they know the stronger arguments are still intact. So, what I am going to attempt to do here
is make the point that this is just an imperialist poem,
and I’m going to make the point from this post-colonial perspective
as aggressively as I can. This now, is the post-colonial interpretation
of the last six lines of ‘The Soldier’. And think, this heart,
all evil shed away ‘Heart’ here is synecdoche, and synecdoche
is when the part represents the whole. He’s not just saying his heart does it,
he’s saying he does it, I. I, all evil shed away.
And think, this heart, all evil shed away. There’s two ways we can look at that. Let’s look at that
the nicest way we possibly can. And think, this heart,
all evil shed away He’s saying, ‘there is no evil in my heart.
I am a very good person.’ And think, this heart,
all evil shed away Can that not also mean,
‘I kill evil people’? He is a soldier after all,
and the sentiment of a 1914 British soldier, I don’t think,
to believe that you killed evil people would be an alien sentiment to someone
engaging in military combat at that time. And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less ‘Eternal’ means lasting forever.
It’s the mind that lasts forever. Well, surely that’s god. We’ve already had the Biblical allusion,
‘from dust you come, to dust you will return’. So I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch
to see the eternal mind here as god. And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less If I want to make that sentiment sound
as brutal as I can, surely, And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind means, ‘I kill people for God’. Now, don’t believe that
that sentiment is so outrageous that a soldier in 1914
wouldn’t think it. We are around the time of what the
Americans were to call, ‘manifest destiny’. ‘Manifest destiny’ is American,
but it is the idea that God supported whatever America did,
because it was obvious that God did, because they couldn’t do it
if God didn’t support them. It was manifest,
it was their destiny. And that sentiment is not really out of place
with ideas of British colonialism. British believe it was pretty much
their destiny to go and rule things. The colonial exploit was sold
under the banner that it was bringing a civilising influence to the
peoples that it was colonising and civilising. And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less If I want to make that seem as
nice as I possibly can, it would be, ‘I have no evil in my heart,
and I work for a higher power.’ If you want to make it seem as
unpleasant as possible, you would make it say,
‘I kill people for god’. I’ll read that stanza from the start. And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given So, the things which England gave me,
I give somewhere back to other people. All of my Englishness, my English character,
my English mindset, I give that to other people. Where those people are,
we will look at in a minute. He says, ‘gives somewhere back
the thoughts by England given’. The thoughts that England gave me,
I give back to other people. And he now gives us a list of five
of the things that England has given him. Her sights and sounds;
dreams happy as her day; And laughter, learnt of friends;
and gentleness Well that’s the sights of England,
the sounds of England, the happy dreams that he had in England,
the laughter that he had with his friends in England,
and the gentleness of being English. Ok, now I think we can
sum all that up as Englishness. I think the easiest way to understand
what’s going on in that poem is to remove the things
which basically just sum up what Rupert Brooke believes
to be Englishness, which are those five things mentioned
in lines 13 and lines 12, or the last but one line
and the last but two lines. We can just take those out. If you imagine the way I have the poem written here,
at the moment, the poem reads, 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. If you remove Her sights and sounds;
dreams happy as her day; And laughter, learnt of friends;
and gentleness which is just ‘Englishness’,
cut that out, and you get this. And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven. So, what does gives somewhere back
the thoughts by England given; In hearts at peace,
under an English heaven mean? All the things England has given me,
I will give them back in hearts at peace under
an English heaven. So where are those hearts
at peace under an English heaven? The simple answer would be, England.
But are they? There’s only two places they can be –
they can be in England or not in England. If ‘the hearts at peace under an English heaven’,
if those hearts are in England, what he’s basically saying here is,
‘I am willing to die to protect the people of my home country.’ This poem is written at a time
when England owns India. It is a massive colonial power. England hadn’t been invaded since 1066. The First World War and
what that war was going to be has not happened at the time
when Rupert Brooke writes this poem. It’s only about a year away. But it hasn’t happened at the point
when he writes this poem. What this poem is, is rather than a poem
of the First World War, a poem of the expectancies
of British colonialism. I think it is indicative of the ideas
of soldiers at that point, that they were doing a civilising mission,
they were on a civilising mission to go to other countries and bring
Englishness to those countries, to create in other countries
‘hearts at peace under an English heaven’. And think, this heart,
all evil shed away ‘There’s no evil in my heart,
I work for God, and God wants me to bring Englishness to
non-English peoples.’ So that’s the post-colonial reading
of the last six lines of ‘The Soldier’. The reading that seeks to relate
the last six lines to the imperialism of its time – or of the time when the poem was constructed –
in the most aggressive way possible. And I would be loath to say
that that reading has no worth. I think that there is a lot of truth demonstrated
in the reading that I’ve just given you. But I also believe that
that reading overstates the case. And let me demonstrate why. Let’s have a look at the
opening line of that sextet, And think, this heart,
all evil shed away The way I think this line
should be interpreted is with reference to the opening line
of the poem, the opening line being, If I should die, think only this of me Meaning, ‘this is what I want you
to think about, if I die’. The sextet, the second stanza of the poem starts,
And think, this heart, all evil shed away What Rupert Brooke is saying here is,
‘here is another thing I want you to think if I die’. ‘Think only this of me, and think this as well.’ Ok? If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field That is for ever England. But also think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less Gives somewhere back
the thoughts by England given Now, this very much changes the imperialist
connotations of the last line of the poem. What Rupert Brooke is saying is
‘and think, this heart, all evil shed away’, because this is another thing he wants you
to think about once he is dead. He is not telling us what he is doing
while he is still alive, as the post-colonial reading that I have just
given you would seek to demonstrate. He starts off there, ‘another thing
I want you to think about if I die is, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less ‘I have become a pulse in the eternal mind.’ He is not saying, ‘I work for God,
I do God’s will in my soldiering.’ He is saying, ‘now that I am dead,
I have become a pulse in the eternal mind. I have become one with God,
or one with Gaia’ if you want to use
a modern terminology that I quite like. ‘And think, now I’m dead,
this heart has no more evil in it’, which then suggests that he acknowledges
that the act of soldiering is an evil. There is no more evil in his heart because
he’s dead and because there’s no more soldiering. So when Brooke tells us that,
‘he gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given’, what follows is a list of
five things that he gives back to the eternal mind which came from England.
These things are: Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness, in hearts at peace,
under an English heaven. ‘Gentleness, in hearts at peace,
under an English heaven’ is one of the things
that he gives back somewhere. Even with the best will in the word,
we can’t claim that he’s not attempting to colonise the
six feet in which he dies. That piece of land in which he dies
will still be forever England, but I think it’s vastly
overstating the case to say that the poem claims that where he dies,
everywhere behind it will be a piece of England. The only piece of England that he is claiming
is the place on which he dies, which will be infused by: Her sights and sounds;
dreams happy as her day; And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven. So the English heaven that we made
such a big deal of in the post-colonial reading is merely the place where he was
when the things which will fertilise the soil of the
foreign land were given to him. I can’t help thinking that
some of this confusion comes about due to the way the stress falls
on that opening line of the sextet, And think, this heart, all evil shed away The iambic stress which it
falls on would normally be: And think, this heart, all evil shed away But that isn’t the way
that it needs to be read. It needs to be read as: And think, this heart, all evil shed away It’s quite an interesting
difference, isn’t it? If you hear the line with the
traditional iambic stress, it’s: And think, this heart, all evil shed away But no, the ‘and’ needs to be stressed
because he’s telling us that what follows is another of the things he wants you
to think about if he dies. Note, incidentally in this poem,
how often England itself is mentioned and the absolute awe with which England is
seen by the soldier of this poem. If he dies it will be for the
glorification of England, it will be a wonderful thing
for the piece of land that he dies on to have his body, blood,
and bones seep into it. If you’ve ever seen
‘Black Adder Goes Forth’, he always reminds me of
Lieutenant George in it. The guy who doesn’t seem to understand
that by the time he actually gets into the thick of the warfare,
it’s going to be absolutely awful. He seems to think at the point when he goes out there,
it’s going to be like some extended game of rugby. That England is an absolutely unimpeachable,
wonderful place he can see no wrong in it. And he is absolutely glad to lay down his life,
and feels privileged to do so for the betterment of that land. The poem itself is a sonnet. It’s a 14 line poem,
written in iambic pentameter. Iambic pentameter is a 10 syllable line
with five alternate stresses. Di-dum, di-dum, di-dum, di-dum, di-dum 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; That’s iambic pentameter
and we respond to iambic pentameter because- one of the theories is-
we are conditioned to by our mother’s heartbeat. At the point when we are born,
we’ve heard the di-dum, di-dum, di-dum, di-dum, di-dum
for nine months. So when poets put lines together in
perfect iambic pentameter, we respond to it. This being a sonnet, and an accomplished sonnet,
I think we can’t avoid the fact that this is a sonnet to England.
This is a love poem to England. The sonnet is the
go-to guy for love poetry. It’s the go-to poetic form,
if you want to write a love poem. Not all sonnets are love poems,
and not all love poems are sonnets, but the very fact that
Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets, all of which are love poems,
gives it a great deal of credibility. This particular sonnet, incidentally,
is a Petrarchan sonnet, a version of a Petrarchan sonnet. It has an octet, the first eight lines,
and a sextet, the final six lines, in the classic example of
the Petrarchan sonnet. This love poem to England was used as
a recruiting poem to get young boys to go and fight in the First World War.
And it was very successful. It was read out in Westminster Abbey,
Winston Churchill was involved in the promotion of the poem itself,
it was the poster child for the early years of that
horrific tragic conflict. It’s still possible to read this poem,
whereby the message of it is, ‘I love my country very much.
I would be willing to lay down my life for my country because of the
privileges that being English has afforded me, and I would be willing to lay down my life
to pass on those privileges to other people’. It is still possible to
read that poem in that way. My problem with it is that as a war poem,
it is not written by someone who experienced warfare. I’ll read the poem out to you now
one more time, and then I’ll read a poem by Wilfred Owen,
one of the war poets. This poem I’m going to read out
is Wilfred Owen’s ‘Dulce et decorum est’, and this is the poem by the guy who
actually experienced the horrors of warfare. So, a final reading of
Rupert Brooke’s ‘The Soldier’. 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. Rupert Brooke, 1914.
Now this is Wilfred Owen from 1918. Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge, Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge. Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind; Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind. GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!– An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time; But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.– Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning. In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning. If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in, And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin; If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs, Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,– My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory, The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori. That’s Wilfred Owen from
the very end of the war, the soldier who has actually experienced
the attendant horrors of the trench warfare. That was the Mycroft Online Lecture
on Rupert Brooke’s ‘The Soldier’. I am Dr. Andrew Barker. Thank you,
hope you enjoyed the lecture.

53 thoughts on “Rupert Brooke – The Soldier – Poetry Lecture and Analysis by Dr. Andrew Barker

  1. I'm a dtudent of Literature in Spain and, thank you so much, it's a great helpful to me!!

  2. One can go on listening to your lecture for ever,such a passionate way of looking at poetry.Thanks a much.

  3. I have to write a term paper comparing "The Soldier" and "Dulce et Decorum est" at the moment. Your lectures are so helpful, thanks a lot!

  4. pretty good but he missed some details and a few questionable interpretations

    "English ways" seems far more likely to just mean "English mannerisms" or "characteristics", consider that in context with his general wish to go (possibly die) somewhere far away and "roam" could refer to his "English liberties", to be contrasted with Prussian/Austrian paternal autocracy. (as perceived by Brooke)

    compare "English sun" to "sun never sets", as poetic device

    The choice of "dust" (note: Hardy also uses "dusty loam") as a way corpse/body is much earlier than Hardy. Considering the themes of military death, it's likely referencing the burial service from the Book of Common Prayer: "we therefore commit his body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust." (1662 ver.) This takes the "dust" metaphor from the frequent use of the word in the KJV (1611 version used here for historicity with the BoCP): "And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, & breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a liuing soule." (Gen. 2:7), "And Abraham answered, and said, Behold now, I haue taken vpon me to speake vnto the LORD, which am but dust and ashes." (Gen. 18:27), etc. Even the idea of bodily "dust" fertilizing the earth can be found in the KJV: "And thy seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and thou shalt spread abroad to the West, and to the East, and to the North, and to the South." (Gen. 28:14)

    However, using "mud" would also give the same Biblical allusion, though likely not as familiar to English Protestants. While the Masoretic text, Samaritan Torah, and the Septuagint all use terms that translate to "dust", the Vulgate uses "limo" ("mud", "slime"). English Vulgate translations maintain "limo": Wycliffe used "sliym" and "the Douay-Rheims uses "slime".

    Why would a "post-colonial reading" see "all evil shed away" as referring to his living heart when he just died in the previous stanza? How about his sin is shed away as he dies and ascends. (referred to as 'katharsis in Orthodox Christianity) "Pulse of the eternal mind" refers to that Brooke has ascended and united with God ('theosis' in Orthodoxy) and that a small part (a "pulse", i.e. Brooke's soul) of the Godhead thinks on England. He's giving back the thoughts, i.e. repaying the thoughts given by England to him, because he died. (which was certainly true, see Churchill's obituary for Brooke in The Times) Brooke did know enough Greek to perform The Eumenides at Cambridge and English Poets going back to Byron often had a fascination with Greek "mysticism". Theosis also influenced Protestant theology much more than Catholic: Lancelot Andrewes uses the phrase "partake His divine nature" and union with Christ ("unio cum Christo") was a key concept in Calvin's writing. So I don't think the idea that Brooke would be directly or indirectly familiar with the concepts of katharsis and theosis would be unfounded.

    Also while Brooke did not see practically any combat, it is worth remembering that 1/3 of all soldier deaths in WW1 were caused by disease, as was Brooke's. In any case, I think "Peace" is a far more telling example of the British "Augusterlebnis" than "The Soldier".

  5. Great presentation and very useful to non-English teachers and students. Thanks a lot!

  6. احتفظ بكتاب للشاعرروبرت بروك اسمه …احزان المساء ..من دموع الشموع والاضواء …والضلال ابكئيبة الخرساء

  7. The way I see this poem is that it is a poem about both colonialism and a love story to Britain. I agree that it is not the post-colonial reading as suggested above. It is not a critquie of the colonialism that critized colonialism and imperialism that tried to bury the horrors and exploits under the theory that they were providing civilization to other "uncivilized' countries. In fact, it was a love letter to Britain. The soldiers had no fear and only England at his heart, which he would teach the ways of Britishness to other colonies. This is a very patriotic poem about Britain. No wonder it was used to recurit people to join the British army. Although the poem was not opposing colonialism, we would be if we placed the poem into historical context. From this poem, we can see the British education and ideas that influenced this poem. It was all about patriotism and the pride of being a British like the British air, waters, ways of living. In fact, it was not. There were a lot of death and many societies collapsed like the Qing China.

    When reading the Dulce et Decorum est of Wilfred Owen from 1918, we can really see the difference there. As Rupert Brooke was more of a highly patriotic poet, Wilfred Owen was not. In his poem, he was critizing the war by showing the horrors and deaths brought by the war. We see the difference between the two as one could be easily identified as not having been in the battlefield and the other had been there and seen it all. We can actually feel the dangers of the war and the saddness of the soldier which he saw his comrades fall.

    I want to ask something about the poem. In the poem – "blest by suns of home", can the "suns of home" be seen as the whole British Empire as the British generally identified their counrty as "the empire on which the sun never sets", and the poet was blested with such a great empire and her colonies, which made Britiain so great?And why this poem was used as an eulogy? It was beautiful and had a lot of Biblical images but it was mainly a patriotic poem of Britain and a recuritment advertisement.

  8. For me, reading this poem as a love poem to England was more convincing. I won't deny that the poem itself or the content of the poem has some backgrounds of colonialism because we can easily see that this poem contains some sentences that show his awareness of superiority of 'Englishness'. However, I think that's not the poet wanted to reveal. I think that awareness came from his strong patriotism. Even though it may seem like glamorizing war for some people, I would say that he is expressing his love and pride as an English because of the privilege that he was given by England. We cannot say that it's just jingoism or glorification of warfare just because the poet himself was not a veteran, fighting and experiencing the awful warfare.It's a totally different poem with Dulce et Decorum est which shows an awfulness of war but since literature shows a lot of different aspects even with the same thing, I would say that it's definitely a love poem to beloved England from a privileged English young man who never experienced an awfulness or flaws of his country. Since he is showing his patriotism towards England strongly, he might want to appeal and request to other people in his country to feel the same thing as he did and to ask them to show their respect and love by joining the army and protecting England.
    I think it can also be a devoting poem for respectful soldiers at that time who would protect his country(even if the poem was written before the first war because protecting the country doesn't necessarily mean participating in warfare) and that's probably why it is still famous poem used for eulogy in the funeral for departed soldiers.

  9. Obviously, the poem is ambiguous to different readers with different background. But for me, I think it is a love poem because I do not share the same background of the English young people at that time. The first impression that this poet has given me through this poem is that he is a peaceful person. He talks about gentleness, peace and heaven. By comparing this poem to other war poems you have included in the video, the words used in this poem is more peaceful and calm to me. Moreover, you have given some background information of the poet that he has not experienced any warfares, the interpretation of looking at the poem at a love poem has become even more convincing to me.

    Still, the ambiguity of the poem is very interesting, and it can only be revealed once you read it out. Imagine that line "Suns of home" was being read in front of the crowd at the First World War period, young people would definitely be encouraged by this line and join the army, since they might have misheard that line. Before watching this video, I did not notice the use of the word 'dust' has implied biblical meanings in it and the technique used to answer to another poem at the first stanza.

    Thank you for giving us the background information of the poem, as well as reading it out with emotions that the poet really wanted to poem to be read, this helps me to understand the poem and provide another perspective for me to interpret the poem.

  10. When I read this poem, the line “blest by suns of home” particularly sounds peculiar to me for I have been to England and it was always cloudy even in summer. The poet is probably a patriot to praise England in almost everything with such superiority. However, I do not quite see this as a recruiting poem. The line “That there’s some corner of a foreign field/ That is forever England” gives a very strong certainty of victory even the war has not yet started. I would think this is a eulogy of victory if I do not know it was written before the start of WWI. Considering it was composed in 1914, I would agree with the interpretation that this is a love poem to England.

  11. Agreed with others, this poem can be interpreted as a love poem, a propaganda or a poem about the dedication of a soldier. I guess for a person from ex-colonies, this poem shows a very jingoism and very kamikaze-like. By referring himself as a fertilizer, he dehumanizing himself as a tool for England, and death itself was something pure, not gruesome, bloody like in reality. With all the biblical connotations, maybe they could also lead to the monarchy, as they also claimed to have the Divine Right given by God, so the suns, aside from the "sons", maybe it can also imply blest by the royalty. Also before knowing the dust's biblical connotation, I at first thought it means the soldier was at first nothing but dust as in something insignificant and dirty, but it was becoming one of the Royal Army and under God's command (essentially joining a Holy War as-if), making their "all evil shed away".

  12. It is very romantic to say that his body will rot in some other place and that place will be a place of England. Death usually brings people in pain and sorrow but in this poem death seems to offer closure — which works quite well as propaganda. Also, the original title "The Recruit" also has less romantic element compared to "The Soldier", I think the poem might be renamed to hide its propagandistic nature as "The Soldier" seems to care for the individual endeavor one offers to the country, whereas "The Recruit" objectifies noble Englishmen as weapon and resources .

    However, I do not think Rupert Brooke wrote this poem with full intention to ask Englishmen to join the army, but to express what he believed as noble and righteous. He represents the general English men and women at 1910s who believed going to war could make the world a better place and Englishness was the best quality in the world. He is one of the victims to believe what the government wants people to believe in, I use the word "victim" because he is fooled, lied to, cheated on by the superficial picture the English authority put in front on him, making him think that his death was a glorious attempt to beautify the world. Brooke died in 1915, which is the beginning of the first world war. He could not have guessed how long the war would last or what effect could it have. It is the young ideal versus reality.

  13. Through reading this highly patriotic poem, it is shocking to see how the poet ,someone privileged and well-educated, expresses his pre-war idealism in the poem. He didn't write about the brutal or bloody combats, but about Englishness, nature and religion, it is a sign where consciousness of the realities of the war is yet to develop.

    I think the poet has a passive character under strong influence of his homeland. He receives everything imposed on him “bore, shaped, made aware, washed and blest” by England-which I deduce as upper class values adopted by the aristocracy. For the biblical connotation, it maybe used to describe how powerful England was at the time by how England shape and made aware of something as insignificant as dust-just like God created the first human.

    Although the poem a solider died in foreign land, it is hard to imagine he died in a battle field around dead bodies. It is important for the poet to die as an English man, and this identity is made through his love of his country. His love is pure, everlasting and noble, as a reason he made his request of remembrance at the start of the poem. And this poem help reminding us of the importance of national identities and pride in wars nowadays.

  14. It seems like a poem about war, but actually it can be a love poem. The line “Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam.” This line evokes the image of a beautiful lady who is cherishing and caressing the man. On the other hand, symbolism plays an important role in this poem, for example, ''and laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness.” we all know that the land does not laugh and is not gentle obviously, and actually he is trying to tell us that, England is a awesome place.

  15. Before the war period, many British people believed that the war could bring them better lives. I think it is normal that as a youngster, Brooke had a strong sentiment on his home country as this is where he was born and raised. The uniqueness of being an English is also promoted till now, it is a kind of imperialism that they always believe themselves as the most privileged ones, and this sentiment is being taken advantage of when it's to recruit soldiers. For example in Hong Kong, some younger generation will tend to be more violent and aggressive when talking about politics, I think this sense of protecting their own city is similar to how the teens reacted during Brooke's time.

    But besides the hot-blooded side of this poem, I can also see many romanticised parts. The repeated use of 'England' and 'English' are to remind the audience of their identity and responsibilities as citizens. And the way he used words with positive image like 'love', 'blest', 'suns', 'home', 'happy', are to evoke emotions of the readers.

  16. I like the way that this poem can be interpreted in several perspectives. Between the lines, Rupert Brooke is convincing the young soldiers that their possible death will make tribute to his home country and will never be a waste: It is an honour to die for one's country. While at the same time, I am surprised that Brooke acknowledges the evilness of soldiering which involves killing, when one dies, "all evil shed away", yet he is supposed to convince others.

  17. From my knowledge, Rupert Brooke had not experienced even a day of front-line combat. Rather, he died from a mosquito bite infection en route to one and was buried in an olive grove on the island of Skyros. It’s ironic that he should die this way when all he wanted was fighting a glorious battle for his country, as expressed in this poem, written a year before he set sail for war.

    Indeed, The Soldier is very idealistic about war. But I am not convinced that it has everything to do with Brooke’s ‘imperialist leanings’, or the contemporaries’ failure to recognize the potential scale of a general war and the possible heavy casualties involved in it. I am more inclined instead to think his idealism, or optimism if you like, has to do with his, as well as his contemporaries’, desire for war, which was glorified as heroic and manly in the early 1900s and offered escape from the so many problems besetting their country around that time – problems creating from modernity such as social disparity and moral and physical degeneracy as a result of urbanization and industrialization. Unable to find solutions at home, the British, especially the educated elites, looked to war as a panacea for these problems. Brooke, as the president of the Fabien Society that promoted a moral reconstruction of society according to socialist principles, was one of them for sure. In addition to that, Brooke and so many other elite Britons wanted a war from the bottom of their hearts without a fear for death because they were brought up on heroic classics such as Peter Pan, which promotes the idea that ‘to die would be an awfully big adventure’; and were fuelled by the 20th century Futurist movement, whose followers such as the painter Marinetti regarded mass destruction of modern war as ‘the world’s only hygiene’.

    I didn’t know the poem was originally called ‘The Recruit’. But the knowledge of this only confirms my reading of this poem – that it is not a recruiting, or propagandist poem. Britain did not have conscription before 1916. In other words, soldiers before that – Brooke included – were voluntary recruits. I believe the ‘recruit’, and later the ‘soldier’ in the title refers to none other than Brooke himself; and that he’s using this poem to reflect his feverish excitement of going to war – an excitement that was shared by many of his fellow Britons.

    If the poem is less about promoting ‘a civilising mission’ and more about an expedition for a way out of the problems stemming from modernity, then we should have little difficulty in decoding the pronounced religious elements in the concluding sestet. Would one with hopes of a grand empire on earth in mind envisioning a more graceful afterlife in heaven? I should think not. I believe what Brooke is trying to say in the poem is that when (if) he dies he would be in a better place – in heaven – where ‘all evil’, the decadence of modern society, would ‘shed away’; and the things being taken away – ‘Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day; And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness’ – all the great attributes of Britain before her decay, would be given back; and his heart would eventually find peace again.

  18. Throughout the poem, the poet repeatedly mentions “England” by name – six times in all. The patriotic message of the poem is quite obvious as the poet portrays death for one’s motherland as a noble end. Though the poem is written in the pre-war period, it is not about war. Rather, it is about England. The poet expresses that his love for England is equivalent to a son’s love for his mother. Added, I think the poet is highly optimistic and patriotic since he believes that the English value and the pride of being an English which offer them courage and pluck will last forever.

  19. Thanks for your teaching! In my opinion, this sonnet is quite special because most of the sonnets that I've heard before are usually about love or the one the poet loves. This one reminds me of love also but it's the love to the poet's country: the idea of patriotism. Combining the historical background of Robert Brooke and the era that he is in, it is not too difficult to understand why he has such a yearning to terminate all evils as United Kingdom is the most powerful country of the world in that period of time. Those biblical allusion that he uses in the sonnet can probably prove that he has faith in Catholic idea of Manifest Destiny which is a kind of catalyst to boost him to such high level of patriotism. When he writes this sonnet, he is still a young folk. It is no wonder that he would think that by killing all evils in the world we could make a better place. It is quite crestfallen to know that he died so young because of the infection. If he could be through the coming European War, I can assume that he would have a totally different perspective of the idea of Manifest Destiny that he tries to praise in the sonnet.

  20. Can you help me understand the poem called "God made the country" by william cowper..thank you

  21. Rubbish !!! -well mostly anyway. your alternative interpretations/assumptions are absurd. I'm sure RB wrote what he meant – and it was "suns" not "sons" nor was it meant to be implied thus. And that rot about rotting, superiority, religion etc is also rubbish. You're coming from a 21st Century post-imperialism perspective, ignoring the context of those times and of the personality and experiences of RB himself. You surely could not have the biography of RB by Keynes.

  22. RB – was ever the "sentimental exile" – he travelled extensively but always viewed England as the most special place. This old BBC documentary (linked below) gives some insights as to his true character – and clues to the drives/inspirations for some of his poems. In particular his literal love of English soil.
    Rupert Brooke – So Great a Lover – BBC Documentary 1982
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lNLagc7Khlg

  23. my grandma is 85 with borderline alzheimer's. She loves Rupert Brooke so I put this lecture on for her and she loves it

  24. my grandma is 85 with borderline alzheimers. She loves Rupert Brooke so I put this on for her, and she loves it

  25. I'm going to present a presentation about the analysis of this poem on Monday; this lecture is really wonderfully useful for me. THANK YOU

  26. Quite a few problems here with this interpretation, but let me address just one as an example. The line “all evil shed away” would have been a mystery to no one reading this poem in 1914, and yet that meaning completely escapes Andrew here. The line does not refer to England, nor is the line a commentary exclusively on the business of soldiering (although we shouldn’t exclude that).
    “All evil shed away” refers to the universal fallen nature of mankind, which one escapes in death upon reunion with Christ. This is basic Christian teaching, and the line would have been written and understood that way in America as well as England as well as in Pretoria.
    The poem inescapably reminds the Christian reader about the destination that awaits those who hear the call of Christ-like sacrificial love. I’m reminded of a speech one colonel gave to his troops departing for battle. He reminds the troops that at home they have problems such as racial strife and other things that separate them. All that, he says,will disappear on the battlefield, the implication being that they are about to put their lives down for one another. Then he says to these men who are about to die on foreign soil, “some say we’re leaving home,” and then he shakes his head no, “we’re going to What home was always meant to be.”
    Putting aside my last aside, Andrew has missed something fundamental to both the poet and to his readers at the time thisnpoem was written. There are other examples as well.

  27. Dr. Barker seems to fail to make the case for British Exceptionalism that he regrettably confused with American Manifest Destiny.

  28. Which dentist do you go to? I really adore your teeth

  29. Sir please give a analysis on "Now the leaves are falling fast" a poem by W.H Auden. I really enjoyed ur lecture.Became huge fan of urs(Indian)

  30. For fucks sake mate I’ve got to watch this for my English homework and take notes why the fuck does it have to be so long :/

  31. The fact that i am a distance mode student. So we only need to go and give the exams. Your lecture sir really satisfy my urge .

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