This poem deals with a kind of immortality, really. In his speculation about entering into "English heaven," the speaker alternately comforts the reader (in case they were going to grieve for his death) and subtly reassures himself of his rewards in heaven, should he be unfortunate enough to be killed in the war back here on Earth.
To that end, this poem's use of sound emphasizes that kind of cosmic continuation (returning to England in heaven, even after death) by using a ton of repetition throughout. Just like the speaker will return to England in the afterlife, we get a lot of sounds, and words, that return to us in this poem. What's that? You want proof? You can't handle the proof! Oh, sorry about that. We got carried away there for a sec. Here's some proof for you:
First up, we have alliteration, the repeated beginning sounds of words, going off all over the place here. In lines 2 and 3, we have the repeated F sound: "foreign field" and "forever." Then in lines 7 and 8, we have the B sounds: "bodies," "breathing," "by," and "blest by." Line 12 gives us "sights and sounds," line 13 has "laughter, learnt," and line 14 ends with "hearts" and "heaven." But it's not just the beginning sounds that are repeated here. Even in a very short poem like this, we have full-on words that get repeated, like "dust" (lines 4 and 5), "rich" or "richer" (4), and of course the big one: "England" or "English" (six times in just 14 lines!).
So what are all these repeated sounds doing in the poem? If you consider that the speaker is essentially imagining how, if he dies and goes to heaven, he'll get to repeat his happiest experiences from home all over again, then this strategy starts to make sense. It's interesting to note that the speaker isn't dead yet (it's hard to write poetry when you're dead, after all), but the use of sound in the poem seems to suggest the same sorts of repetition he expects if and when he does reach the pearly gates.
The Soldier. It's not "a soldier," but "the soldier," as in "the soldier, par excellence," or "the ideal soldier." That, at any rate, is what Brooke's title seems to be telling us his poem is about: a generic but ideal (or model) soldier, one who understands that he may die but also believes his death will benefit his country (England). As a result of his sacrifice, after all, "some corner of a foreign field" will be "forever England," no matter what happens.
To a certain extent, Brooke's poem reflects what many Europeans at the time would have considered an ideal soldier—one who loves his country very deeply (the words England or English occur six times in this very short poem). That soldier would also see his own death as a sacrifice that will benefit his country. And what's his reward for this sacrifice? Well, it's nothing but good times and high fives in the afterlife, that's what! The soldier's death is portrayed as not really the end, but only the beginning of a new, blissful, but (importantly) familiar life in heaven. So, this poem seems to be saying, let's all hear it for… The Soldier.
We can sum up the setting of this poem in one word for you, gang. Two syllables. Ready? Here they come: England. That's right: England from the speaker's past, England in a foreign field, heck—even England up in heaven! No matter where the speaker's mind roams (because the poem literally takes place in his mind, rather than, say, a London pub), it always finds England. Of course, for any good soldier and patriot, it's expected that home will be high up on the list of things to appreciate and think about. What's really telling about this poem, though, is the way that England so dominates our speaker's thoughts and takes over every possible setting—real or imagined. And what's not to like? We're told that it's got flowers, rivers, sun, air that's nice and breathable. Sounds like a good place to us. For the soldier, though, this setting is everything. It dominates his mind, and this poem.
The speaker of "The Soldier," is the… soldier. Need we say more? Oh. We do? Well, then. There are a few things to note about this guy, since he's pretty revealing in the way he goes about this poem. Let's take them one at a time, shall we?
When you start a poem with "If I should die," then you're already confronting a cold, hard truth that most people would rather not think about. As a solider, though, the speaker is thrust face-to-face with his own mortality, and so this poem is his way of working through that imminent possibility. (Historically, for Brooke, that possibility became a sad reality when he went off to war and died of infection not long after this poem was written.) So we feel that we must give the speaker props for dealing with reality, rather than ignoring it.
Of course, the way that the speaker deals with the threat of death is hardly realistic. He imagines a kind of heaven that will be just the like home, full of the same thoughts, sights, sounds, and even dreams of his native land. Now, you could say that this makes our speaker a real patriot (more on that soon), but you could also make the case that he's sort of deluding himself. Sure, it'd be nice to imagine heaven as a place exactly like your favorite place, but think about that for a second. Isn't doing so just imagining that you're current experiences will go on forever, despite death? Isn't this just an elaborate form of denial, then?
Another way to read the speaker's "English heaven," though, is just to see it as a natural extension of his love of country. We mean, dude is big into England. He celebrates his upbringing there, promises to claim more land for it in the war, and portrays heaven as nothing more than the same pubs and fishmongers that he knows from High Street. In other words, he's saying that England will go on forever—both in terms of earthly conquest, and in terms of heavenly immortality.
This patriotism, then, is part of what ultimately blinds the speaker to the very real, impending horror of World War I. While we have to cut Brooke some slack for not being able to tell what was to come when he wrote "The Soldier," his speaker is a great example of the kind of naïve, overly-romantic, and jingoistic thinking that could send millions of people into armed conflict against each other.
"The Soldier" isn't too difficult of a poem, if we do say so ourselves. There aren't any of those super-crazy, old-school words that sometimes make poems difficult. At times, though, it can be kind of a pain to figure out just what exactly Brooke means. For example, all that stuff about "pulse in the eternal mind" is kind of a curve-ball, and in fact, the last six lines of the poem are sort of tricky. But that's because they are so abstract at first. By line 14, it becomes clear that the speaker is talking about heaven, so the preceding lines can be figured out. Nothing too crazy other than that, folks.
Rupert Brooke is often criticized for not being realistic about war. To put it another way, his poetry—and the war sonnets in particular, of which "The Soldier" is one of the most famous—is idealistic.
In "The Soldier," for example, the speaker says nothing about the horrors of war. The mass murder of millions of young soldiers over inconsequential plots of land, for example, is nowhere mentioned or even hinted at in Brooke's poem. Instead, the speaker suggests that dying on the battlefield while claiming more land for one's country is a noble, a heroic, even an ideal way to go out.
Moreover, the poem says nothing about the gaping void the soldier's death will leave in the lives of his friends and family. All we get is a description of a peaceful death that leads the soldier to an even more blissful "English heaven." The realities of war—death, sadness, loss, you name it—are not to be found in "The Soldier," or Brooke's work in general. You'll have to look elsewhere for that stuff.
What we've got here, gang, is a sonnet. And that means a few things as far as form and meter are concerned. Let's start with the overall form of the poem, shall we? We shall. So check it out: like any sonnet, "The Soldier" has 14 lines. Now, most sonnets are subdivided into two groups: the first eight lines (called the octave) and the last six lines (the sestet). In general, the octave introduces a problem which is then resolved in the sestet. What's more, the ninth line of a sonnet (i.e., the first line of the sestet) is called the "turn" or "volta" because this is where the poem usually starts to shift gears.
In the case of the "The Soldier," for example, the first 8 lines of the poem discuss the possibility of the soldier dying and reflect on the role England has played in his development. In the ninth line, the speaker imagines what it will be like in heaven (hint: like, totally super-awesome), and thus shifts or "turns" the direction of the poem away from the earth and toward an afterlife in the sky.
So that's how the poem is organized in terms of general structure, but how about line for line? Well, just like the good sonnet that it is, "The Soldier" is written in a metrical form called iambic pentameter. If that sounds familiar to you, that's probably because it's the most common meter in English poetry. If you've read any Shakespeare, you've run into this rhythm a time or two, even if you weren't aware of it at the time.
So what does iambic pentameter even mean? You see, every line of iambic pentameter contains five (pent- is the prefix that means five) iambs. Now, an iamb is a two-syllable pair that consists of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. (Said out loud it sounds like this: da-DUM. "Allow," for example, is an iamb.) Not satisfied? You want an example? Well, okay then! Just peep line 9:
And think, this heart, all evil shed away.
Now, not every line in the poem scans as perfectly as this one does (what would be the fun in that?). Take line 8 as an example:
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.
You'll notice that this line begins with a stressed syllable, rather than an unstressed syllable. (In the poetry biz, a syllable pair that contains a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable is called a trochee.) It sure seems like the speaker really wants to emphasize that word "washed," doesn't it? Small substitutions like this are fairly common in poetry, so just be on the lookout for any metrical oddities. Any time a pattern is established, then broken, those breaks are designed to catch a reader's eye for emphasis (or catch their ear, as in this case).
But why use a sonnet to begin with? Brooke has his choice of any form of poem—or no form, even—but he went with this set-up. We think, though, that a sonnet is just a peachy choice. After all, the poem is celebrating patriotism and English-ness, and there aren't too many other forms of poetry more closely associated with England than the sonnet. And yet… this poem isn't exactly, 100% in the English style.
Let's roll it back for second. There are in fact many different types of sonnets, but the two most common are the Petrarchan sonnet (named after the famous Italian sonneteer Francesco Petrarca) and the Shakespearean (or English) sonnet. The major difference between these two types is the rhyme scheme. The octave of a Petrarchan sonnet generally follows this form: ABBAABBA, where each letter represents one particular end rhyme for that line. In this case, line 1 (A) would rhyme with lines 4, 5, and 8, while the sestet could take several forms (CDECDE and CDCDCD being the most popular).
The English sonnet, in contrast, has a rhyme scheme of ABABCDCD EFEFGG (the final two, rhyming lines are known as a heroic couplet, bee-tee-dubs). Now, we're telling you all this stuff about rhymes because Brooke's poem combines elements of both the Petrarchan and the Shakespearean sonnet. The octave is like an English sonnet, and its rhyme scheme is ABABCDCD. The sestet, however, takes the form of a Petrarchan sonnet and has a rhyme scheme of EFGEFG.
So now for the big question: why did Brooke use two different types of sonnet in the poem—one historically associated with England, and one with Italy? It may have something to do with the politics of the looming war, we think. It's not that England and Italy were fighting yet (that didn't happen really until World War II). But England was about to enter a conflict that began (and would be fought) on the European continent. In joining these two sonnet forms together, then, Brooke's poem is in a way enacting the kind of English-European fusion that was to come (only through arms this time, not words).
The word "England" or "English" occurs six times in this poem. That's a lot for a poem that is only 14 lines! In this poem England is like a mother to the soldier; she gave birth to him, nourished him, made him who he is. But England is also immortal. Even though, in death, the soldier must leave England, it's only for a little while. When he dies, the soldier will go to a heaven that's just like the England he left behind on Earth. Sweet deal!
There's a lot of nature in this poem. Fields, dust, flowers, rivers, suns—it's all over the place. The relationship between the speaker and the natural world is very close, even harmonious. When he dies, he returns to the earth (as dust). Moreover, as a child, he was "washed" and "blest" by the rivers and sun of his homeland (England). When he dies, his heaven will look like the England he knew as a child—including its natural characteristics.
When you die, you go to heaven, which will be like paradise. That, at any rate, is what the second half of "The Soldier" tells us. Better than paradise, in fact, heaven for the soldier will be just like England! (We wonder if the angels fly on the left side of the clouds.) If the soldier dies fighting for his country, it won't be so bad, because he will get to go "home." His heaven apparently will be chock full of memories of England—her "sights and sounds," and a whole lot of other good stuff. Like figgy pudding.
"The Soldier" imagines a soldier dying for his country on the battlefield, and then going to a peaceful, heavenly afterlife. This is a serious, sometimes somber, poem in which sex would just be out of place. It's rated G, friends.