If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever 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.
Sixty years later, I still remember where I was sitting when I first read it. It was printed in a book entitled “Realms of Gold”, the phrase taken from the first two lines of John Keats’ poem ” On first looking into Chapman’s Homer”.
The book was a history of English literature which we were trudging through on a weekly basis with our English teacher “Pansy” Napier, a ponsified gentleman, who managed to inspire absolutely no love of literature whatsoever, probably because he had none himself.
I was sitting three rows from the front, by the window, and for no particular reason began to read “The Soldier”. It was like being struck by lightning. I had never had such a reaction to anything like it before.
Here was a young man, who was possibly about to die and his thoughts were only on the fact that he was English and on way he had become English. Not only that, but somehow this would be preserved eternally when he was buried, or his body lost, on the battlefield.
It was the first time I had understood a poem so immediately and so thoroughly. Throughout my education in what had seen an interminably long series of English classes, we were constantly searching for the ” hidden meaning” something lurked beneath the words on the page. We had been constantly taught that poetry never actually meant what it said.
Suddenly, here in front of me, was complete contradiction of everything I had been taught in English classes.
It’s probably not the most brilliant poem that has been written but it had a formative and profoundly important influence on me. The late Betty Churcher, who was a wonderfully perceptive critic of Australian art, had a similar experience as a young girl. It was this painting Evicted by Blandford Fletcher
Some years later, after completing teacher education degree, a part-time BA getting married and the birth of our first son, Andrew, teaching, rowing in a surf boat, I completed a Master of Arts in English Literature.
Robert Graves, probably my favourite poet after Shakespeare, ends one of his poems with the line
Yet that was where it started
You can read my review of this poem in my post
You can read some of my commentary on other poets and Shakespeare on the following links