Thursday, May 22, 2014

Nineteen-Fourteen: The Soldier - Rupert Brooke

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is forever 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.

Written in 1915, Rupert Brooke's famous series of war sonnets, "Nineteen-Fourteen" was an immediate sensation, feeding the sense of war eagerness felt in Britain at the outset of the Great War.  To a generation that felt it lacked direction and meaning, the war was a welcome chance to embody those qualities that traditionally defined the soldier: bravery, courage, honor, the chance to lay down one's life for one's country.  The sense of void, horror, and destruction that followed from the course of that awful war had not yet set in.  These poems are marked by a happy ambition, an eagerness to be a "corner of a foreign field that is forever England."  How hard to think that in 1917, just two years later, Wilfred Owen would write, "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."

Brooke's death in 1915 during the war (not from war wound, but disease, one of war's biggest killers) galvanized his reputation as a poet of war-time, heroic solider-poet, who now lies in a little corner of England on a Greek isle.  The poem itself, while somewhat slight, captures a heroic image that the world could once believe in more or less whole-heartedly.  The Great War, and later World War II, have done much to near completely erase the western world's eagerness to die in foreign wars.

If anything, the poem's optimism and firm belief in immortality for the war dead make me sad.  More than any other war in history, World War 1 changed the attitude towards war as a place where glory and honor were found.  The artistic reaction to the war was unlike anything before or since.  Dadaism, a cultural sense of shock and loss, the feeling that art and happiness could not exist in a world where we have become such merciless brutes and killers, these replaced the simple, idyllic scene Brooke painted.  Within a few short years from this poem's publication and success, the world was so horrified by chemical death that it is very hard to imagine "laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness, in hearts at peace, under an English heaven."

Today, I feel like this poem is an artifact of innocence, of a mindset I can never fully understand.  While I have much respect for the soldiers who do risk their lives on my behalf, I cannot truly understand the happy resignation to die for one's country, I cannot imagine saying, think "That there's some corner of a foreign field that is for ever" me.  That world is lost, choked in mustard gas and later pulverized by atomic radiation.  The poem itself is not particularly substantial, but it's light rhymes and bittersweetly sunny disposition, along with the story of its remarkable author, make it worth knowing and sharing.

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