Friday 11 June 2021


As you may remember, if you are (as you should of course be) a regular reader of my posts, I have been learning a poem a week for the last few months. It has been an interesting and fruitful exercise in many ways: not least remembering how we learn things by heart - and how satisfying that can be.

This week, I learned Rupert Brooke's sonnet: The Soldier. You know, the one that begins: 
    If I should die, think only this of me:
        That there’s some corner of a foreign field
    That is for ever England.

It is, of course, very out of fashion these days - we are much more in sympathy with Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon of course, and with good reason.  So it is fair to say that I started with a degree of antipathy towards it.  But I decided to learn it anyway.

And as so often happens, as I learned it, I grew to like it rather more. It is easy to be critical, and to talk of his naivety and so forth. But there is a genuine poignancy to it; and more than that, there is something important, I think, in being able to enter the imaginative and emotional world of someone who is starting from a very different viewpoint than we do ourselves. 

In fact, in terms of valuing difference, or diversity, I think that is an essential skill, and (it occurs to me) not one that all those who champion EDI always demonstrate.

I think it was CS Lewis (someone else rather out of fashion, I think) who wrote in one of his essays that, if forced to choose between reading only old books, or only new ones, he would choose the old. His point was not that the old books were likely to be better than the new; but rather that if they did contain errors or assumptions that were incorrect, those would be far more obvious to a modern reader; whereas the errors and assumptions in new books might be nearly invisible, as we breathe a more similar cultural air to the writers.

And in Brooke's poem, of course, there is a terrible naivety about the horrors of war; and a degree of sentimentality about his love of England. But there is no jingoism.  And that made me think about patriotism: something else that is very unfashionable. Of course jingoism and xenophobia are dreadful; but then so is anything at the extreme. And I think some risk going to the opposite extreme at the moment of hating our own country and our heritage, with as blind a prejudice as the xenophobe hates other people's. 

Which leads me (as so often) to think how wise Aristotle was in his formulation of the notion of virtue, as a mid-point between excesses.  So we should love our family - not because it is better than other families, but because it is ours; and in due moderation; and likewise our home town, our football team, our country, and so on. In each of these there is something loveable, and it is, perhaps, ingratitude to fail to recognise that - and that would take us to one of the extremes Aristotle would counsel against. But always, that love should be tempered by an appropriate humility and criticality, lest we go to the other extreme.

And for all its sentimentality, I am enjoying Brooke's poem more than I thought I should:

            And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
                        In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.


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