Monday’s Verse, 10-19-09

Congratulaions to reader and founding member John Bradshaw for his “I can name that tune in 4 minutes” performance last week. Even though there were no rules, John did not “cheat.” No, this holder of a B.S. in chemical engineering and graduate degrees in engineering and law reached back to the late 80’s and a high school class with the esteemed Jo Kissling to recall the famous first lines of Rupert Brooke‘s (1887-1915) “The Soldier.” For his efforts, John will receive, most importantly, the eternal respect of all Monday’s Verse readers. Second, John will receive a New York City postcard, postmarked in Chicago, and signed by the editor of Monday’s Verse. Third, John will receive the $68 said editor owes him, postmarked from Pittsburgh, PA. Finally, John will probably receive some sort of home-baked foodstuff on or around the holidays this December.

So this seemed like as good a time as any to revisit the original. For the uninitiated, this is a very, very famous poem; we were all likely to have been assigned it at some point during high school. It’s short, let’s read it first:

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.

There are so many things to say about his poem. First, and most obviously, it’s a sonnet. But it’s a fun mixture of the Italian sonnet rhyme scheme (someone please jump in and explain), and the English sonnet rhyme scheme (someone please jump in and explain). How this blend affects the poem’s meaning is anyone’s guess (read: I’m not positing a thesis at the moment, but there surely are some…). And I’m not shying away from the term “meaning”–we could almost use “message”–here, because it seems rather clear, right? There are only 14 lines here, and yet the word “England” appears 4 times, and the word “English” twice. Why the repetition? And the other vocabulary: flowers, love, rivers, heart, dreams, happy, laughter, gentleness, heaven… is this a love poem?

It’s not an idle question. When I say this poem is very famous, we should also be aware that it’s famously criticized for being naive, imperialist, and jingoistic. I mean, its title is THE SOLDIER–is the juxtaposition between subject and tone jarring? From the contemporary POV, Brooke’s work has not held up as well as that of his fellow WWI poets, Sigfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen among them. The comparison is only somewhat unfair because Brooke died while the war was more or less in its infancy (on a Greek island, of blood poisoning), and before the horrors of trench warfare and shell shock really aroused the attention of the reading public (someone please fact-check me on this). This was a decisive time in English letters, and from our perspective it seems like Brooke stands on the far side of an aesthetic rift. It should come as no surprise that “The Soldier” was published shortly after his death, and that British military recruiters made convenient use of its popularity.

A biographical note: Rupert Brooke was one of that rare breed, the gentleman scholar-soldier. He was born into modest luxury and attended Cambridge. He later traveled and taught himself languages, submitting the odd “letter from abroad” to London newspapers. He certainly hung out with the right crowd: Virgina Woolf boasted of skinny-dipping with him, and WB Yeats referred to him as the handsomest young man in all of England. He gained some renown for his stately, Georgian verse before the outbreak of WWI. It is probably significant that, unlike the above-mentioned poets, Rupert Brooke served active duty in the Royal Navy during WWI, but did not see heavy combat. He was buried by his shipmates under a stone cairn, and his gravesite can still be seen on the island of Skyros.

-ed.
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