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Paul Willis

A Century Past "The Soldier"

Rupert Brooke and the chain of memory.

When I began teaching at Westmont College in 1988, I met a woman at church who had also taught in our English Department. Her name was Dorothy Docking, and she was very old and spry. More important, she was from England. Her brother was an automaker, she once told me. Back in the Thirties, he had asked her what they should call a brand-new model he had designed. Dorothy had just been reading The Jungle Book, by Rudyard Kipling, so she said to her brother, "Why not call it a Jaguar?"

Dorothy was good for stories like that—and for all I knew, they were true. So I shouldn't have been all that surprised when one morning, after the service, while people were out talking in the sunshine on the patio, she came up to me and said, "I know how Rupert Brooke came to write 'The Soldier.' "

"Really?" I said. For this was of genuine interest to me—of greater interest than Jaguars. "The Soldier" is a sonnet from the early months of World War I. Its blend of sheer patriotism and ethereal religious nostalgia had taken the country by storm, and the poem was read aloud from virtually every pulpit in England. Today it is usually put on display in anthologies as an example of late-Edwardian sentimentality—the straight man to the more grimly ironic war poems of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. And yet, in spite of my pacifist leanings, like thousands of others I have always admired it: "If I should die, think only this of me, / That there's some corner of a foreign field / That is forever England." It's the sort of opening you memorize without ever intending to. At that point in my life, I had never even been to England, but whenever I read or heard that poem, I was English, and wanted to live and die and be buried on behalf of the mother country.

"So how did he write it?" I asked Dorothy.

"Well," she said, "he was home on leave with several other officers, and they ...

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