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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 were spending a few days on someone's estate. One morning they agreed to split up and wander the grounds separately so that each one could write a poem. In the evening, when they got back together, they would read their poems aloud and decide which one was best."

Dorothy paused for effect. "So that's what they did. And that evening, it was decided that Rupert had written the best poem."

I pictured this. A handful of young officers returned from the battles of Antwerp, before the trenches had become truly entrenched, before they had diseased the European soul—and yet, no doubt, a horrible enough place in which to live and fight and die. And suddenly these few soldiers are walking the manicured grounds of a British manor house, men of leisure and privilege again, loitering among sweeping lawns and shrubbery and birdsong, in what Rupert Brooke decides to call "forever England," reveling in "her flowers to love, her ways to roam," and thinking of his corporal self as "A body of England's, breathing English air, / Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home."

It was perhaps December when he wrote these lines, a few days on either side of that first Christmas in the trenches, so I doubt if there were many flowers to be loved at the time, much less rivers one would want to be washed in (though Virginia Woolf, who adored his very handsome features, boasted that at Cambridge she had once gone skinny-dipping by moonlight with Rupert Brooke). But these fragrant blossoms and swimmable streams were certainly available to his memory and imagination, and now here they were—immortalized.

So I asked Dorothy, "How did you learn this?"

She gave me a knowing, self-satisfied smile. "His mother told me."

And that was the real punch line, of course, the one she had been waiting for. What struck me, though, was not so much her personal connection to this piece of the past, but the fact of the connection at all. It wasn't that long ago, I thought. For some reason, I had regarded World War I as almost ancient history. Quite obviously, it was not.

I can't find any mention of this friendly poetry contest in any of the biographies of Rupert Brooke that I have consulted. Some say he wrote "The Soldier" around Christmastime in the muddy training camp of Blandford in Dorsetshire. One says he completed it on a late Christmas holiday at his family home in Rugby. Another says he wrote it over New Year's on a visit to Walmer Castle in Kent, to which he had gained an invitation through Violet Asquith, the daughter of the Prime Minister. And yet another says that while his men were in training at Blandford, Brooke took several intervals of sick leave at Lady Wimborne's country manor at nearby Canford, and that is where he may have written "The Soldier" and other of his celebrated war sonnets. If Dorothy's story is accurate, Canford seems to me the most likely place for him to have been in the company of his fellow officers.

But who is to say? It is more than possible that the poem took shape over several days and weeks, in several different locations. Brooke once compared his composing process to that of "developing photographs," a phrase which suggests a rather slow and painstaking method of writing. A proud and grieving mother, however, might choose to think otherwise.

For all biographers do concur that four months after he wrote "The Soldier," Rupert Brooke died of infection and dysentery on a troop ship in the Mediterranean. He was 27 years old. His remains were hastily buried on the island of Skyros in Greece, for the ship was en route to the slaughtering grounds of Gallipoli, where many others aboard would perish. Brooke's 1914 and Other Poems was published in June 1915, the same month in which his younger brother was killed in France. Over the next ten years, this volume and his later Collected Poems sold 300,000 copies.

I write this on a December day in California in 2014. Dorothy Docking has long since passed away, buried no doubt in some corner of that foreign field otherwise known as the Santa Barbara Cemetery. I think of the thousands and millions who died in the horrors of the Great War, a war that is still within our chain of modern memory: a soldier, a mother, a friend, an acquaintance. And what I thought on the morning Dorothy told me her tale I now think again. Though a century has passed since Rupert Brooke wrote "The Soldier," it wasn't that long ago.

Paul J. Willis is professor of English at Westmont College.

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