Tuesday, June 17, 2014

"If I should die..."

In August we will reach the hundredth anniversary of the beginning of World War I. "The Age of the Warrior Poet" is Paul Johnson's review of Some Desperate Glory: The First World War the Poets Knew, a collection of poems by British soldiers composed during and just after that war. Among the 95 poems collected are selections from Rupert Brooke, Julian Grenfell, Wilfred Owen, and Siegfried Sassoon including some that Johnson considers "among the best short poems in our language."
I would rate Brooke the best of the war poets, and "The Soldier" the finest of his productions. This is probably what most people would have said in 1918, and marks the point at which the wheel comes full circle. His reputation dominated the war years and remained high some time after. Brooke died from an insect bite on the way to the Dardanelles, and his end, like Byron's, was somehow rendered more poignant by his failure to find the scene of battle, and perish heroically. Brooke died on April 23, 1915, in time for Dean Inge of St Paul's to preach an Easter Sermon, in which he read "The Soldier" to an immense and hushed congregation. This was interrupted by a man standing up and protesting against the war, an incident which gave the occasion a heightened mood of drama and helped, as it were, to canonise the poet. Brooke had been buried, on Skyros, the night he died. An obituary appeared in The Times, which applauded his "incomparable war sonnets", his courage, and the nobility of his sacrifice. ....Within a month of Brookes's death, his battalion had lost 11 of its 15 officers, and of the five men who had piled stones on his grave at Skyros, only two were alive when the war ended. .... [more]
"The Soldier" by Rupert Brooke, Christmas, 1914

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 conceal'd;
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.
Wash'd 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.
The Age of the Warrior Poet | Standpoint