Two Sonnets by Rupert Brooke: The Dead and The Soldier
During World War I, it was a popular thing for college-educated sons of wealthy and middle class families to enthusiastically enlist to fight for their countries. Rupert Brooke, one of England’s best and brightest, was born in Rugby in Warwickshire on August 3, 1887, the son of a schoolmaster and the middle of three sons who, by the time he signed up for World War I, was already a well-known figure for his writing talent, handsome looks, and love life. You can see by his picture that he would not have been out-of-place on the cover of GQ Magazine.
In 1914 Brooke joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve as a temporary Sub-Lieutenant. After taking part in some war action in Antwerp, he sailed with the British Mediterranean Expeditionary Force in February 1915. While in the Aegean Sea he was bitten by a poisonous mosquito and died in a French hospital ship in a bay off the Greek island of Skyros on April 23, 1915. He was 27.
A collection of his poetry, including his five famous war sonnets, was published as 1914 & Other Poems in May 1915. Unlike many of his fellow war poets, I Brooke seemed to maintain a more positive heroic conception of dying in war, concentrating on the sacrifice and the glory. It sounds like he did not see the worst of it, and perhaps was able to die with his ideals more in tact than some of the more disillusioned poets such as Wilfred Owen. His friend William Denis Browne was with him when he died and wrote:
“…I sat with Rupert. At 4 o’clock he became weaker, and at 4.46 he died, with the sun shining all round his cabin, and the cool sea-breeze blowing through the door and the shaded windows. No one could have wished for a quieter or a calmer end than in that lovely bay, shielded by the mountains and fragrant with sage and thyme.”
Here are two of his sonnets. I chose “The Dead” because it expresses the idea that the impact of a young man in war goes far beyond the one individual life. “The Soldier” is quite a famous poem in England. I don’t think I have read anything that puts a more beautiful spin on death in war.
1914 III: The Dead
Blow out, you bugles, over the rich Dead!
There’s none of these so lonely and poor of old,
But, dying, has made us rarer gifts than gold.
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.
Blow, bugles, blow! They brought us, for our dearth,
Holiness, lacked so long, and Love, and Pain.
Honour has come back, as a king, to earth,
And paid his subjects with a royal wage;
And Nobleness walks in our ways again;
And we have come into our heritage.
1914 V: 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.
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Rupert Brooke. In Wikipedia. Retrieved May 28, 2014, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rupert_Brooke