Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Rupert Brooke's "The Soldier"

Many years back, I haunted used bookstores. Maybe it was the smell; all used bookstores smelled (and smell) exactly alike -- old paper, mold, mustiness. I generally looked for anything by G.K. Chesterton, poetry, old mysteries and speeches.

I was close to being a full-time speechwriter at the time, and I would look and generally find old books and textbooks from the 19th and early 20th centuries on speaking, elocution, rhetoric, and topical collections of speeches. Once I picked up a speech textbook from the 1960s -- precisely the one I had in my speech and debate class when I was a sophomore in high school. In a single moment, it all came back -- speech and debate tournaments, my speech teacher Mr. Summers and his bassett hound Clobule (the dog went with us to tournaments), standing up in class and giving speeches. Yes, I bought the book. It was 60 cents. I still have it.

Today, I was looking for a book on my shelf at work and spotted The Collected Poems of Rupert Brooke, another one of those used bookstore finds. I first read Brooke during my high school senior English class, when the focus was the literature of Britain. Freshman year we did grammar and what was then called rhetoric; sophomore year was world literature; junior year was American literature; and senior year was British literature.

The curriculum was designed by someone who clearly believed that students ascended to British literature. Miss Shorey, my teacher, saw British literature as the gateway to heaven. Much to her chagrin, the school board required us to read one major, non-British work of world literature that year, and I chose Don Quixote by Cervantes -- but that's a story for another day. But it was mostly British that we read -- Beowulf (sort of British), Chaucer, Shakespeare and the Elizabethans, Milton, the Romantics and the Victorians, the moderns -- all of it, or at least a good representative sample of all of it. Miss Shorey required us to memorize one Shakespeare soliloquy, "because every educated person can recite at least one soliloquy by Shakespeare." Memorize we did, and recite we did. I still remember the dagger speech from Hamlet -- and Rupert Brooke, whose poetry made perfect sense to me in 1968 and 1969 at the height of the Vietnam War.

I'd forgotten I had brought Brooke's poetry to work. I opened the small volume, published in 1926. Brooke was born in 1887 and died in 1915 during the Dardanelles campaign of World War I. (If you're cinematically inclined, think of the movie "Gallipoli" with Mel Gibson.) Brooke didn't die from a battle injury but from an infection from an insect bite -- a reminder of the time when more soldiers died of disease than battle wounds. He was buried on the Aegean island of Skyros.

Brooke is best remembered for two poems that people associated with the Great War, "The Dead" and this one:

The Soldier

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 the 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
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

All I can say is -- lovely.

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