Kevin Saving on

'The Soldier' 
by Rupert Brooke 
(1887-1915)
 
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, blessed by the 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.
 
Never robust, Rupert Chawner Brooke - though from childhood a keen sportsman, swimmer and walker - was frequently laid low by the slightest ailment (perhaps as a result of a defective immune-system). Second son of a Rugby public school housemaster, Brooke, blessed with a classical profile and a striking mane of red/gold hair, was always destined to be the cynosure. His friends and acquaintances read like a Who's Who of early twentieth century Georgian glitterati: H.G.Wells, E.M.Forster, Henry James, Virginia Woolf, Francis Cornford, Augustus John, Lytton Strachey, (the Fabians) Sidney and Beatrice Webb, Edward Thomas, Walter de la Mare, John Maynard Keynes, George Mallory (the Everest mountaineer), Hugh Dalton, Winston Churchill, the Asquiths - Brooke knew them all.
  After a prize-littered Rugby schooling (in his father's house, 'School Field'), Brooke won a scholarship to King's College, Cambridge, where his uncle, Alan, was Dean. He first drew the attention of his soon-to-be patron, the senior civil servant - and literary insider - Sir Edward Marsh, when 'starring' in a college play - as a herald with a non-speaking part. In 1910 he took a disappointing 'Second' in the Classical Tripos, and in the December of the following year privately published his first collection, Poems. He had his 'digs' during this period in The Old Vicarage, Grantchester.
  Always something of a restless soul, Brooke embarked on a succession of travels after an ill-fated love-affair with a Miss 'Ka' Cox. His various peregrinations would embrace France, Germany, the United States, Canada, Fiji, New Zealand and Tahiti (where he is said to have fathered a daughter to a native girl). In 1914 he returned home to an 'England' (never 'Britain') about to be engulfed in war and, pulling strings, was commissioned as a Sub-Lieutenant in the Royal Naval Division (R.N.V.R.). His admirer, W.L.S. Churchill, was First Lord of the Admiralty. Involved in the five day defence of Antwerp (October 1914) as a platoon Commander, Brooke seems not to have seen action, though he would certainly have heard the sound of guns fired in anger: the chateau in which he'd slept the previous night was hit by shellfire and he lost some of his kit and papers. After their ignominious retreat from Belgium, Brooke's unit returned to Dover, but the well-connected poet was soon to wangle a transfer to 'Hood' Battalion (commanded by Bernard Freyburg, Churchill's 'salamander') based at Blandford Camp, Dorset. Here, in primitive conditions exacerbated by noxious fumes from the coke stoves, Brooke wrote most of his sequence of five sonnets, '1914', of which 'The Soldier' is the last. On Christmas night, surrounded by the sounds of drunken revelry, he commenced the poem with which he is always most associated, using the working-title of 'The Recruit'.
  'The Soldier' was completed whilst Brooke was staying in Walmer Castle, Kent, ('among all those Field Marshalls') at the behest of Violet Asquith, the Prime Minister's daughter, in early January 1915. Hilaire Belloc's narration of a fictional journey across Sussex (The Four Men, which Brooke had read in 1912) was the inspiration behind the sonnet:
 
  He does not die that can bequeath
  Some influence to the land he knows
  Or dares, persistent, interwreath
  Love permanent with the wild hedgerows;
  He does not die, but still remains
  Substantiate with his darling plains.
 
A manuscript of Brooke's poem still exists written in his neat hand on lined paper headed 'Hood Battalion, 2nd Naval Brigade, Blandford, Dorset'. It was not its author's personal favourite of the sequence: this remained 'The Dead II'. It utilises an idiosyncratic rhyme-scheme comprised of a Shakepearean Octave (ababcdcd) and a 'Petrachan' Sestet (efgefg).
  '1914' was first published in the month of its completion, January 1915, in New Numbers. On the 4th April, Dean Inge, of St. Paul's, read 'The Soldier' as part of his Easter Sunday sermon: The Times printed it the next day. This same month (April 23rd, 'St. George's Day') Rupert Brooke was to die of septicaemia on board the French hospital ship, Duguay-Trouin. Part of the allied expedition to The Dardinelles, he'd contracted first heat-stroke and then infection from an insect-bite on his lip. Though the sole recipient of the attentions of a team of twelve surgeons, he would breathe his last during the afternoon - two days before the Gallipoli landings - and be interred on the nearby island of Skyros, once the mythical playground of Achilles. His olive-grove burial-site (which is 'for ever England') is now neighboured by Greek naval emplacements.
 
Further reading:
Brooke, R., Poetical Works, Faber (1946).
Holt, T. & Holt, V., Poets of the Great War, Leo Cooper (1999).
Keyes, G., Letters of Rupert Brooke, Faber (1968).
Read, M., Forever England, the Life of Rupert Brooke, Mainstream (1997).

Kevin Saving © 2008