The Soldier – British & American Literature

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.

Author Rupert Brooke

Summary and Analysis


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.


The speaker informs his audience what to think should he die. He tells them only to consider that a portion of some foreign field will be “forever England” as a result of his death. The soldier, who was raised and nurtured by his country, England, will be buried in the earth. After he dies, the soldier will go to a peaceful, English heaven, where he will re-experience all his English memories. Good times! Right?

Lines 1-3

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

  • If he dies, the speaker wants people to only think one thing: that there is some “corner” in a foreign country that is “forever England.” Hmm. How can a “foreign field” be “forever England”? 
  • If the speaker gets killed in battle and is buried in the field, that spot will be English, in the sense that English bones will be buried there “forever.”
  • Even if the speaker isn’t buried in the field, presumably some of his blood would get mixed in with the soil (gross), which also make the field “English,” in a way.
  • The speaker also means that if he dies on the battlefield, that piece of land will be “claimed” by England. Wars are sometimes fought, after all, over land.
  • Most of Brooke’s poetry is about World War I, so it’s a safe bet that the “foreign field” here is probably somewhere in continental Europe.
  • But who is the speaker addressing? His friends? His parents? The reader? His fellow soldiers? Let’s read on…
  • But! Before we do, a quick rhythm alert! It looks like… yup! We’ve already got some iambic pentameter on our hands here.

Lines 3-4

[…] There shall be 
     In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;

  • The speaker further describes his death. If he dies, a human body—his body—will be buried in the “earth.”
  • “Dust” here refers to the remains of a human body. In many funeral services, the presider will say something to the effect of “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”
  • In normal speech we might say “there shall be a richer dust concealed in that rich earth,” but this is poetry. Poets love to play with word order. (This order also helps to preserve the poem’s iambic pentameter.
  • Notice, too, that the word “concealed” is delayed until the very end of the sentence. Concealed refers to burial so perhaps the speaker is avoiding talking about his own, ultimate fate.
  • Perhaps he is trying to hold our attention until the very end of the line.
  • “Rich” refers to the quality of the soil. The “richer dust” is the dead soldier, who is more important—”richer”—than just some plot of land.
  • Another way to look at this is that the dead soldier might also be “richer dust” because he is English, and thus better or “richer” than the land in which he is buried.
  • While we gather that the speaker is talking about himself, he doesn’t explicitly identify himself with the dust. He doesn’t say “my richer dust,” that is. It’s almost like he’s trying to avoid thinking too much about his own death and is imagining the death of some generic, unnamed person.

Lines 5-6

A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
     Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,

  • The speaker tells us more about that “dust.”
  • England gave birth do it (“bore”), “shaped” it, made it “aware.” England also allowed it to “roam” her “ways” and gave it her “flowers to love.” Basically, England here plays the role of the dust’s—the soldier’s—mother. (Something to think about for later: why there is so much emphasis on the country-as-parent rather than on the “real” mother?)
  • The second line here can be paraphrased as follows: “England once gave this dust her flowers to love and gave it her ways to roam.” 
  • But how do you give dust a gift? Don’t forget that dust here still means (checking the title…) The Soldier. 
  • Dust is an interesting word, though. On the one hand, it refers to soil, and points to the soldier’s Englishness. He is one with the dust—the land.
  • On the other hand, the “dust” refers to the dead body, or even the cremated ashes of the dead body. In a way, the speaker is not really talking about a person anymore, just a corpse.

Lines 7-8

A body of England’s, breathing English air,
     Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

  • The speaker reminds us that this dust was a “body of England’s” that really experienced all England had to offer: air, rivers, sun—the works!
  • “Breathing English air” is strange, since it’s in present tense. Is the soldier still breathing the air, even though he is dead? Does he die and still imagine he is breathing it? Or, is “breathing English air” just a metaphor for the soldier’s Englishness? You know how some people say that the live, eat, and breathe [fill in their favorite thing (like football or model trains) here]? Well, he’s so English, he breathes it!

Line 9

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,

  • We’ve reached the ninth line of the poem, the beginning of the sestet. (The last six lines of a sonnet is called a “sestet”; the first eight are the “octave.”
  • Usually, at this point in a sonnet, the poem starts to shift gears or offer a resolution to problems posed in the octave.
  • The speaker turns to his addressee again and implores him to “think” (consider, we might say these days) that the soldier’s heart “shed away” all the bad stuff of life.
  • What does this mean? It sounds like the speaker is emphasizing the soldier’s goodness, the fact that he eliminated (shed, like old skin-ew) all evil from his life.
  • Did the first 8 lines pose a problem? Are we getting a resolution here? Or does the poem seem to follow the same tack as before? Let’s keep reading…

Lines 10-11

     A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
          Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;

  • Come again? A pulse in the eternal mind? What’s the deal here, Rupert?!
  • Well, let’s think. The “eternal mind” probably refers to something like the idea of God. The speaker seems to be saying that, when the soldier goes to heaven, he will become part of that larger, unending being and perhaps re-experience, in the form of a “pulse,” all the thoughts “by England given.”
  • This probably means that he will re-experience everything he once knew of England—of home—after he dies. So, he’s got that going for him.
  • The speaker says “gives back.” Does this mean his thoughts were taken away? Likely, he means that, during some interval between death and heaven, he will not be thinking or conscious, so he’ll get his thoughts back once he gets to the Big Man’s house.

Lines 12-13

Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
     And laughter, learnt of friends;

  • We learn more about what the soldier will experience in heaven. It’s almost like he’s going to an England in the sky! Celebrate good times!
  • What will be there when he arrives? Well, the “eternal mind” features the same sights, sounds, and dreams that the soldier enjoyed back in the earthly version of England. There will also be the laughter the solider “learnt of [i.e., from] friends.” Plus: cake! Oh wait—
  • In any case, the speaker paints a very joyous, peaceful picture of life after death that will be much like his happiest times spent in England.

Lines 13-14

[…] and gentleness,
          In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

  • This place sounds like a blast. There will also be “gentleness” in the hearts of those who get into this “English heaven.” And why shouldn’t there be? Their hearts are “at “peace.” 
  • This idea of an English heaven is intriguing, though. Do you need a passport? Maybe there are different heavens for different people, and the soldier in this poem will go to an English heaven, as opposed to a German heaven, or a French one. In any case, we know his afterlife will be filled with the familiar comforts of home. Yay for him!