The Soldier

I went to a poetry reading last night. It was a war poetry reading: Voices from the Great War. Afterwards I bought a book of Poetry of the First World War.

One of the famous poems that was recited was The Soldier, by Rupert Brooke, which begins:

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.

It’s an unashamedly pro-British, pro-English poem of a sort that nobody could write today. For these days you’re not supposed to be pro-British or pro-English. Being English is like smoking: a nasty habit you’re supposed to quit. These days you’re supposed to forget that you’re British or English. You’re also supposed to forget that you’re French or Spanish or anything else. You’re supposed to be a citizen of a world in which all the borders between states have dissolved completely away.

But back when Rupert Brooke wrote it, there was a British Empire, and Britain had the most powerful fleet in the world, and Britannia really did Rule The Waves, and people like Rupert Brooke were proud of it. And that’s all gone too.

Nevertheless, as I listened to the poem being recited, I couldn’t help but think that most of those present were the direct descendants of Rupert Brooke. For we also were bodies of England’s, and we were actually breathing English air, and maybe right now being slightly too blest by suns of home.

The sort of slightly jingoistic poetry of Rupert Brooke was soon replaced by much darker poetry, as the Great War dragged on. The last lines of Wilfred Owen’s Dulce Et Decorum Est:

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Nobody will understand the Latin, which means: “It is sweet and right to die for your country.” For Rupert Brooke this was a truth, but for Wilfred Owen it was a lie.

Both poets died during the Great War. And Rupert Brooke now lies in a lone grave in the corner of a foreign field: a richer dust concealed in the rich dust of the Greek island of Skyros. And Wilfred Owen lies in Ors Communal Cemetery in Flanders, shot dead a week before the war ended, his parents informed of his death on the day Armistice was declared, when everyone else was celebrating.

Both poets are still relevant today. For Rupert Brooke’s patriotism is now renascent everywhere. Donald Trump is an unashamed American patriot, and it’s precisely this that his enemies most detest. And Nigel Farage is an English patriot. And Marine Le Pen is a French patriot. The patriots are taking back their countries. But Wilfred Owen can still speak for all those sick of nationalism and jingoism and flags.

And there are a lot of England flags about these days. It’s rather fashionable for cars to sport the cross of St George on either side. It’s because England is still in the World Cup, having beaten Colombia on penalties, and due next to play Sweden. For the World Cup provides the opportunity for almost everyone to get a bit nationalistic or patriotic.

It’s unusual for me to attend any cultural event these days. I don’t watch movies. I don’t see plays or attend concerts. I don’t even watch TV, or read newspapers. I attended the war poetry reading because I see myself as a soldier fighting in a very different war, a spiritual war: the War on Smoking. I might even attempt a variant on Rupert Brooke’s lines:

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s a bloke outside an English pub
Who is for ever smoking. There shall be
On that rich earth a richer ash discarded;
An ash whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam;
A body of England’s, breathing English smoke,
Washed by lager, blest by suns of home.

Needs more work, obviously.

About Frank Davis

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16 Responses to The Soldier

  1. Fredrik Eich says:

    In a sense , the former British Empire from the perspective of those outside of it is still very much alive and kicking. It is also noteworthy that it is the former British Empire which seems to be the main driver of the war on smokers.

  2. Mark Jarratt, Canberra, Australia says:

    You should get out more Frank. Not that you seem to lack literacy, or daily inspiration… 👏

  3. waltc says:

    Great stuff, Frank. The war poems that remain with me are Matthew Arnold’s “On Dover Beach” and Auden’s “Septemner 1,1939.”

  4. Dmitry Kosyrev says:

    Funny, but I have to thank Britain (and the US under the wrong people), and the West in general, for an amazing surge of Russian patriotism. The moment they began to press us with ridiculous accusations, one after another, sanction us for God knows what else, my country mobilised itself and became very patriotic, sometimes too patriotic (harassing a tiny pro-Western minority).
    And, you know, it feels good to be Russian and live in a country proud of itself and respecting itself.
    I wish I could help turning that patriotic tide against TC in Russia and out of it. I try, anyway.

    • Frank Davis says:

      Perhaps you could point out how many illustrious Russians were smokers, and how many of their enemies weren’t.

      • RdM says:

        Well I’ll start off…

        Mikhail Afanasyevich Bulgakov is certainly a favourite author of mine…

      • RdM says:

        Perhaps you could point out how many illustrious Russians were smokers, and how many of their enemies weren’t.

        Bit of a snide (sarcastic, smart?) comment, isn’t that?
        WTF is that irrelevance about?

        Something “personal’?
        But you haven’t even met, in person.

        Well, except via video…
        So it seems even more weird, such a pointed comment.

        Let’s mellow out …

        Or was it rather just a reflection on the usual illustrations of smokers vs non-smokers in power, cliches, Churchill,Hitler, and so on?

        Still seeming a bit strange.
        Perhaps you could clarify?

        Personally, I found Dmitry Kosyrev’s comment perfectly reasonable.

        • Frank Davis says:

          Nothing snide at all in my comment. I have exchanged many emails with Dmitry. And I’ve even read two of his books. And I was hoping that he’d visit sometime this year, although alas that is not to be.

        • RdM says:

          Apologies; I obviously got off on the wrong foot there!

    • RdM says:

      I’ve enjoyed reading quite a few Russian authors in translation, from older classics to modern, and am even now searching through my reading history to establish that.

      I had already searched our library for your name, no result.

      If you’d like to post details of some of your works, titles, author, iSBN number details –
      I would be very happy to ask my local library to buy some copies.
      As a member, I can do this. So can others.

      Take the chance! Publish details!

      It worked for Walt Cody. I read, I recommended, they bought some.

      So please list whatever you might have published, others might promote.

      If not yet published, work on that!

      Thanks otherwise for your great thoughtful and erudite posts.

  5. Lepercolonist says:

    Even though the First World War was not as destructive as WW2 it seemed more brutal for those in the trenches. Very nice essay, Frank.

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