Rupert Chawner Brooke was born at Rugby in 1887 and educated at Rugby School and King’s College Cambridge. He worked with Edward Marsh on the first ‘Georgian Anthology’, a collection of poetry that was considered ‘realistic’ and bringing new ‘strength and beauty’ to poetry. It has since been described as ‘insular’, unimaginative’ and ‘often concerned with the pleasant aspects of England, unaware of or indifferent to realities’ Roberts (1998,p390). Brooke travelled for a time in Germany, and following a nervous breakdown, went on an extended tour taking in Canada, America Fiji, New Zealand and Tahiti. On his return to England, Brooke was undecided on what course of action to take. He eventually joined the navy. He was a witness to the siege of Antwerp and wrote his five sonnets, called 1914, after seeing the refugees and the devastation the war created. He had a deeply troubled personality and was often assailed by suicidal thoughts, this could in some way explain his idea that death was not such a bad thing, and dying for England made it even more palatable. He was taken ill with a mosquito bite that turned septic and died near the Greek Island of Skyros, where he is buried. Shortly before Brooke’s death his poem ‘The Soldier’ was read from the pulpit at St Paul’s and afterwards quoted in the Times. News of his death was seized upon by the propagandists of the day, and in a glowing obituary the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill said, “…A voice had become audible, a note had been struck, more true, more thrilling, more able to do justice to the nobility of our youth in arms engaged in this present war than any other, more able to express their thoughts of self-surrender, and with a power to carry comfort to those who watch them so intently from afar. The voice has been softly stilled…” Roberts (1998 p72) and The Times, 26 April 1915.
Because of Brooke’s value as a propaganda tool his poetry was held up as a shining example of the gloriousness of dying for England.
Although the two poems, Dulce et Decorum Est and The Soldier, are about the
Great War, the war to end all wars, they could not be more different in style. The graphic, punchy lines of Owen versus the flowery prose of Brooke make comparisons very difficult. My own view of war is much more in tune with Owen and I find myself quite annoyed that Brooke’s poems were used for such distasteful propaganda. Had Brooke lived to experience the full horror of trench warfare, one wonders would he have still held the same patriotic ideals.
Wilfred Owen uses powerful similes in his description of the vital young men appearing “like old beggars under sacks”; “coughing like hags”and the line “towards our distant sleep” which could refer to resting from the march, or eternal rest in death. The metaphorical description of the men “marching asleep” and limping “blood- shod” bring home the terrible conditions endured by the soldiers.
In contrast Rupert Brooke’s poem seems almost peaceful, it describes, with the lines “ in that rich earth a richer dust conceal’d; a dust whom England bore” how having a flower of England buried beneath it will somehow enrich the foreign field. The rather pompous idea that ‘everything English must be good’, seemed to be a sort of rallying call, a justification of the war, if the English are in it, it must be just. The final line of the first verse infers that even the sun is special in England, “blest by suns of home”, or it could mean ‘sons’ of home, either way it encourages the thought that everything English is special.
Brooke’s poems have been associated with the idealistic attitudes prevalent in the years leading up to 1914 and the outbreak of war, in this sense, his poetry is actually pre-war, unlike Owen’s verse, which is during the war, and speaks less of ideals and more of realism.
Wilfred Owen wrote to his mother “Here is a gas poem, done yesterday…the famous Latin tag (from Horace, odes, III, ii.13) means of course It is sweet and meet to die for one’s country. Sweet! And Decorous!” Stallworthy (2000, p117) The title is ironic, as Owen found nothing either ‘sweet’ or ‘decorous’ in the process of death. It is widely accepted that the person referred to in the line “My friend…” is Jessie Pope, Owen despised the propagandist poetry which Pope was associated with, Jessie Pope’s War Poems (1915) and Simple Rhymes for Stirring Times (1916). Stallworthy (2000 p118) give some clue as to the tone of the books. The quote from Horace at the end of Owen’s poem does more to sum up his feelings for the war than anything else. When taken in context, and with the irony he intended, the words are a powerful reminder that war is ugly and not at all decorous. The final lines of Brooke’s poem are almost happy or gay; they speak of ‘laughter’ and’ hearts at peace’ and once again, a reference to England, this time ‘an English heaven’. The horror and devastation of being involved in the ‘Great War’ would surely have left ‘hearts at peace’ anything but peaceful.
Wilfred Owen describes the war as a nightmare, a nightmare that comes back to haunt him. He invites the reader to see the nightmare through his eyes in the hope that the sight would prevent the old tales of gallant death and noble sacrifice. If soldiers go to war they should be armed with truth and not myth, at least they would then die honestly.
In conclusion, it has to be said that I started writing this with a deep dislike for Rupert Brooke’s poem, however, after studying the poem and the comments from his contemporaries, I have realised that it is not so much the poem I dislike, rather how it was used.
Wilfred Owens place in the history of war poetry is now established, he ranks among the best and his poems are as poignant today as they were then.