(Poem #280) 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.
Patriotism seems to be somewhat unfashionable nowadays. This is particularly true with respect to war poetry, where patriotism often seems to be conflated with jingoism, and spurned by the poet. Nor, in a way, is this altogether wrong - the two World Wars (and, to a large extent, the poets who served as their scribes and witnesses, embedding them in the racial memory) have done a great deal towards deromanticising war, and exposing a sheltered populace to its grim realities. This inevitably gives today's poem a slightly old-fashioned flavour - the poet is not, perhaps, glorifying war, but he certainly understands the motivations that would encourage young men to 'throw their lives away', and is not afraid of pronouncing them valid. To quote Margaret Lavington's wonderful biographical note (see end), Each one of these five sonnets faces, in a quiet exultation, the thought of death, of death for England; and understands, as seldom even English poetry has understood, the unspeakable beauty of the thought: "These laid the world away; poured out the red Sweet wine of youth; gave up the years to be Of work and joy, and that unhoped serene That men call age; and those who would have been, Their sons, they gave -- their immortality. It is interesting to compare Brooke's poem with what is perhaps my favourite war poem, Yeats' "An Irish Airman Foresees His Death". While at one level the attitudes are diametrically opposed ("those that I guard, I do not love", says Yeats' airman, dismissing patriotism as a game he's opted out of), on a deeper level they are very similar - there is the same sense of tension, the premonition of death and the deeply personal drive to go to war anyway, so that the net effect is one not of fear but of a quiet exhilaration - tinged with sadness, perhaps, but never with regret. m. Links: Yeats' poem is at poem #32 Margaret Lavington's biography is too long to include, so I'll merely point to it: http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Delphi/7086/brookebionote.htm And Bob Blair has a nice writeup on one of Brooke's other poems, The Chilterns, a lot of which is relevant to The Soldier as well: http://www.geocities.com/~bblair/990803.htm