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Sermon preached on Easter Day (5 April 2015) by the Very Reverend David Ison, Dean
The Very Reverend David Ison looks at The Soldier, the poem of Rupert Brooke mentioned in the Dean of St Paul's Easter Day sermon of 1915.
100 years and one day ago, on Easter Day the 4th of April 1915, my predecessor Dean William Inge read from the pulpit of St Paul’s a hitherto
obscure poem by Rupert Brooke entitled ‘The Soldier’, one of only five war sonnets Brooke was to write. Rupert Brooke was a complex and intriguing
star of his generation, a published writer and poet, described by the poet Yeats as ‘the handsomest young man in England’, and a protégé of Winston
Churchill who wrote part of Brooke’s obituary in The Times.
Brooke had joined the Naval Reserve in the autumn of 1914, experienced one day of armed conflict in Belgium, and was travelling to fight against the Turks in April 1915 as Inge was preaching: a mosquito bite turned to blood poisoning and he died at sea on St George’s Day 23rd April at the age of 27, less than three weeks after his poem achieved national recognition, and was buried on the Greek island of Skyros.
The poem came out of the early mood of romanticism about the Great War, a mood which turned with trench warfare and conscription into awareness of the horror and waste of armed conflict on an industrial scale, a horror which Brooke himself did not experience.
In his sermon, Dean Inge acknowledged Brooke’s nobly expressed patriotism, but contrasted his neo-pagan view of death with the more solid hope which Inge drew from chapter 29 of the book of Isaiah. With classic understatement, Inge said that the poem ‘fell somewhat short of Isaiah’s vision and still more of the Christian hope’. A report on the sermon was published in The Times the following day, and began by noting that Dean Inge had a severe cold and so preached rather briefly – sorry I haven’t got a cold – and that at the beginning of the sermon a man got up and started shouting protests against the war, and was quickly taken outside – hopefully today will be more sedate.
Rupert Brooke’s mother sent him a copy of the Times article: he is reported to have read it on his deathbed and remarked that he was sorry that Inge did not think him quite as good as Isaiah.
Rupert Brooke is still remembered – indeed, it’s the Rupert Brooke Society that pointed out this anniversary to me, as we continue engaging with the centenary of the First World War. And his poem continues to feed into our tradition of remembrance of the sacrifice of those killed in war, a tradition which was renewed here three weeks ago as we remembered the experiences of those who served in Afghanistan and their loved ones. The poem fits with our own materialistic age, emphasising the Englishness of the body and the dust that lies fallen in foreign soil, with a vague hope of being a thought somewhere in the eternal mind. This is the poem:
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 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.
There’s a longing in Brooke’s poem which touches a chord for those who die for their country, away from home, hoping that the joys of the country they love might not be lost in vain: a romantic vulnerability which has yet to face the suffering and cost of war.
Brooke’s vision was indeed far short of the Christian hope of resurrection; and yet, as one might expect in a young man formed in a Christian society, he was looking in the right direction. The Christian hope of resurrection is not romantic, but it is physical; it’s hope for the very renewal of dust and ashes, and an embodied heaven, which is not just English but for all.
The two scripture readings this morning are about first and second creation. In the passage from Genesis 1 at the beginning of the Bible, God creates humanity and gives us dominion over this wonderful world: a dominion which has been warped and twisted into domination and oppression, war and exploitation.
But St Paul has a different take on creation. He looks at the world through Jesus Christ, the one who comes to share with us the greatness of God’s love. Jesus died and rose, not that we might be remembered when we’re gone, but that we might have a living relationship now and for ever with God. Be reconciled to God as friends of Jesus Christ, says Paul, and through Christ be friends with those who would otherwise be our enemies.
For the disciples of Jesus and for Paul and for Christians ever since, the transformation of the body of Jesus Christ has been the promise of the new creation: a heaven made earthy, a re-creation which comes only through embracing the reality and sorrow of death, and not by romanticising it, a renewal which is not sentimental but which comes from the power of loving relationship to heal and transform.
IF I should die, think only this of me: / That there's some corner of a foreign field / That is forever England.
Moving words, but not enough. We are made to be more than a passing thought. Rupert Brooke’s grave lies still on the island of Skyros, remembered because of those who thought and think him famous. There are further millions of English soldiers, sailors, missionaries and colonial administrators in marked and unmarked graves around the world, nearly all of whom are gone and forgotten and unremembered by us, and who made perhaps little mark upon the world. And there is that great human company that has lived and died before us across the globe. But God remembers them still, as God knows and loves each one of us.
The dead, and we who are not yet dead, are not kept alive by our poetry or fame, or by the memories of the living. As Dean Inge noted in his sermon, the Christian hope of resurrection is not impersonal: it’s based in our loving friendship with God, the God who knows and loves us, and who in Christ seeks to reconcile all creation, and make new, not only England, but us and all the world.