Rupert Brooke: if you saw him, you'd probably say he looks younger than he is. He was sort of boyish, meaning he always kind of looked like a teenager, even in his late twenties. He was good-looking, too. The famous poet William Butler Yeats once said that Rupert Brooke was the "handsomest young man in England." Brooke, as is no doubt clear from the fact the Yeats noticed him, was also something of a literary celebrity.
He was friends with a group of writers known as the Bloomsbury Group, a very loose-knit group of artists and intellectuals that lived in the Bloomsbury area of London ("members" included Virginia Woolf, John Maynard Keynes, E.M. Forster, and Lytton Strachey). Brooke was also associated with several cliques, most notably the Dymock Poets (a group of poets that lived near the village of Dymock and included Robert Frost and Edward Thomas) and the Georgian Poets (a group of poets who all published poetry in a series of five anthologies entitled Georgian Poetry, named after King George V of England).
In 1914, Brooke penned a series of sonnets that he very cleverly titled… 1914, the fateful year in which World War I broke out (this was a really bloody and destructive war that ended up claiming the lives of some 20 million people). The sonnets first appeared in a periodical called New Numbers in January of 1915, but it was Brooke's 1915 collection, entitled 1914 & Other Poems, that really brought them to the public's attention.
Brooke's 1914 sonnets display only a limited awareness of the potential consequences the Great War would have—two of them are titled "The Dead." Our poem, "The Soldier," begins by talking about the soldier's possible death, but the manner in which these poems explore death is not what we might expect. Indeed, it is not so much a gruesome death on the battlefield or in a trench (a very common theme in much World War I poetry) that preoccupies Brooke as it is the blissful afterlife that soldiers will get to experience when they die. To die in battle for one's country is noble—even honorable—in Brooke's sonnets, but especially so in "The Soldier."
Alas, Brooke eventually had the chance to embody his poem to its fullest. Brooke himself died while serving in the Royal Navy in 1915. A mosquito bite became infected, and he died of sepsis in April of 1915—a solider, a poet, no more.
Nearly 20 million dead or missing on both sides, another 20 million wounded, and a world that would never be the same. Yup. We think that's a good way to summarize World War I. Now, you might be thinking, Rupert Brooke is often classified as a World War I poet, and yet there is no trace of this horror in "The Soldier." Okay, sure, the poem talks about death pretty explicitly, but it isn't exactly very gruesome or anything. In fact, the entire second half of the poem, is about a very peaceful afterlife, an "English heaven." It sounds like a brand of perfume!
So why should you care about an old war and an older poem? Well, it's a perfect example of the "before photo" of how folks feel before they commit themselves to the violence of war. Rupert Brooke wrote "The Soldier" in 1914, just as World War I was about to begin. To cut him some slack, there is no way he could have known what course the war would take, and how horrible it would be. As a matter of fact, nobody could have foreseen just how bad things would get for everyone.
At the beginning of the war, many people in many countries were still quite idealistic, even naïve, about warfare—dying in battle while claiming new land for one's country was still seen as a noble, even heroic thing. The massive death that machine guns, mustard gas, and disease would inflict on millions of young European soldiers was as far from the general public's consciousness as just about anything could be. The simple fact was that wars had never been as bad as World War I was to be.
And that's kind of the point. Brooke's poem reflects this pre-war perspective and is an important counterpoint to much World War I poetry. (The poems of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, among others, often emphasize the senselessness of the Great War and the tragic deaths many young soldiers suffered.) As such, it gives us some great insight into how people can romanticize war when they haven't yet experienced it. The destruction of this pre-war idealism was almost as significant for Europe as the destruction of so many young lives. For us, Brooke's poem is an important reminder of how we can talk our way into unspeakable horrors with so many beautiful words. So be on the lookout!