The Soldier

THE SOLDIER by Rupert Brooke

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

This weekend I received an unexpected email from a young girl asking about a local literary event. In it, she said she was “awfully inspired by poetry.” It was a sweet note, and it touched me. How often in this cynical, crazy, increasingly chaotic world of publishing do we remember what it was like to be young and moved by words?

I’m grateful to this young lady for reminding me.

I am not a poet, but today I want to share my favorite poem: Rupert Brooke’s The Soldier. Rupert Brooke was a gifted artist best known for the war sonnets he wrote during World War 1. He was also so physically beautiful, he was once called “the handsomest young man in England.” You can judge for yourself.

Rupert Brooke was 27 when he was commissioned into the Royal Navy. He served less than a year, from August 1914 to April 1915, when he succumbed to sepsis after an insect bite became infected. He died on a hospital ship moored in the Aegean Sea and was buried in Greece.  His gravesite remains there to this day, but he is included in the World War 1 poets honored on a memorial slab in Westminster Abbey.

Why am I offering a crash course on Rupert Brooke this morning? Because Friday is Armistice Day—Veterans Day in the U.S, Remembrance Day in other countries—a holiday commemorating the end of the first world war.

It has been said that the world lost its innocence during World War 1. I believe this. In February of this year, the last remaining U.S. World War 1 veteran died. Frank Buckles served as an ambulance driver near the front lines in Europe. In World War 2, he spent three years as a civilian POW in the Japanese-held Philippines.

In his latter years, he advocated for the establishment of a World War 1 memorial in Washington, D.C. Frank Buckles was 105 when he died. He was buried at Arlington Cemetery with full military honors.

World War I brought modern warfare to the world. With it came words and phrases that added to our historical and cultural language: No Man’s Land. Big Bertha. Over There. “Lafayette, we are here.” Doughboy. Trench warfare. Blimp. Shell shock. Mustard gas. Flanders Field. The Great War. Whiz-bang. Joystick. Pillbox. Storm trooper. Tank. The Big Push. Tommy. Flying Ace. Eleventh Hour. The War to End All Wars.

It also brought a body of artistic work that, in my mind, has never been fully appreciated. That may change. This past year, the play War Horse, based on a children’s novel about a horse drafted into service during the Great War, blew away audiences with its moving story and creative use of puppetry. A movie by the same name will be release in the spring.

So in addition to the poetry of Rupert Brooke, I’d like to recommend the following works set during or about World War I. These are some of my favorites. Please add your own:

After the Dancing Days by Margaret Rostkowski

War Horse by Michael Murpurgo

All Quiet on the Western Front  by Erich Maria Remarque

The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford

The Inspector Ian Rutledge novels by Charles Todd

A Very Long Engagement by Sebastien Japrisot

Death of a Hero by Richard Aldington

War Game by Michael Foreman

Lord of the Nutcracker Men by Iain Lawrence

Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks

Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo

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