By David F. Beer
3 August 1887— 23 April 1915
|Rupert Brooke as a New Officer|
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. Sonnet 5, 1914
Rupert Brooke should have died a different death.
He was admired and loved by so many, idolized and adored for his poetry and good looks, and often placed on a pedestal worthy of a Greek god. The Irish poet W B. Yeats called him “the most handsome man in Britain". His poems published under the title 1914 and Other Poems included a photo of him with bare shoulders and flowing hair, designed to make many a woman (and man) sigh. His six ‘1914’ sonnets, written a few months before he died, included his best-known one, “The Soldier". This poem was read from the pulpit by Dean Inge in St. Paul’s on Easter Sunday 1915, with the comment that “such enthusiasm of a pure and elevated patriotism had never found a nobler expression". When both poem and comment were repeated in The Times, Rupert Brooke’s image as Britain’s ideal handsome young warrior was sealed. A week or so later he was dead.
To conform to his image Brooke should have died heroically, perhaps leading his men in overtaking an impossible enemy gun emplacement or as the last man standing as their trench gave way to overwhelming odds. Instead, Rupert Brooke died on his way to Gallipoli aboard a French hospital ship anchored off the island of Skyros. He had been taken there from the transport ship Grantully Castle due to the severe swelling of an infected mosquito bite on his lip, and the official cause of death was septicemia, or blood poisoning. His friends buried him in an olive grove on Skyros.
This tragic but scarcely heroic death nevertheless not only brought grief and mourning to his many admirers, but also gave birth to a mythos which quickly grew up around Rupert Brooke. His early wartime poems were found to express exactly what the public wanted to hear as the war began: idealism, patriotic fervor, and romantic sacrifice. As the first of the war poets, Brooke was seen in the words of Bernard Bergonzi, author of Heroes’ Twilight, as “a quintessential young Englishman; one of the fairest of the nation’s sons; a ritual sacrifice offered as evidence of the justice of the cause for which England fought”. (p. 41)
Brooke was born in 1887 into a privileged family and was adored by his mother. He attended Rugby where he became a head prefect and captain of the rugby team. At Cambridge University he studied Classics and moved in intellectual circles. In spite of some active homosexual leanings he became temporarily engaged to one woman and later had a turbulent love affair with another. He was increasingly infatuated with socialism and paganism, showed signs of some emotional instability, and on occasion came close to a nervous breakdown. He became increasingly narcissistic, even petulant, but his looks often saved him. One friend declared of Brooke that “This is exactly what Adonis must have looked like in the eyes of Aphrodite". He traveled to America and the South Seas and spent a year in Germany trying to learn German, but when war broke out in August 1914 he enlisted in the Royal Naval Reserve and saw some brief action at Antwerp in October 1914. With the start of the Gallipoli offensive he transferred to the Hood Battalion and was shipped out. He died on St George’s Day, 23 April 23 1915.
His first book of poems, simply entitled Poems, had been published in London in 1911. Although showing some promise, Brooke remained noted more for his good looks than for his poetry. While in Germany however, in 1912, he wrote "The Old Vicarage, Grantchester", which later became one of his best-known works. It’s a long poem of a homesick exile which concludes with this couplet:
“Stands the Church clock at ten to three?
And is there honey still for tea?”
Apart from ‘Grantchester,’ much of Brooke’s poetry was considered somewhat lacking in skill and maturity. He himself admitted that the five sonnets that finally gave him his fame were “in the rough…five camp-children". Yet they were the opening poems in 1914 and Other Poems, published by his friend Edward Marsh and rushed into print a month after his death, eventually selling some 250,000 copies. The five sonnets, which soon became famous, are as follows: 1. "Peace" (Now, God be thanked Who has matched us with His hour); 2. "Safety" (Dear! Of all happy in the hour, most blest); 3. "The Dead" (Blow out, you bugles, over the rich Dead); 4. "The Dead" (These hearts were woven of human joys and cares); and 5. "The Soldier"—quoted in full above. All five are well worth reading, both for the sentiment expressed and for an understanding of why Brooke was so popular and adored in the opening months of the war. Had he lived longer and experienced some of the horrors other war poets did, it’s likely that he would have come to see the war as they did. A Rupert Brooke in 1918 might also have regretted the welcoming words he had written on the outbreak of war in 1914:
Now God be thanked Who has matched us with his Hour,
And caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping,
With hand made sure, clear eye, and sharpened power,
To turn, as swimmers into cleanness leaping… ("Peace" ll. 1-4)
The Collected Poems of Rupert Brooke was published in 1915, with the sonnets finally in their rightful chronological position following his early poems. The book was issued again in 1920, 1924, 1932, and as recently as 2008, with The Complete Poems of Rupert Brooke appearing in 1932. Several excellent biographies have been written, including Paul Delaney’s Fatal Glamour: The Life of Rupert Brooke, published in March of this year. As with Diana, Princess of Wales, the legend still lives, and an active Rupert Brooke Society exists in the UK (www.rupertbrooke.com). The society organizes tours to Brooke’s grave on Skyros and to the old vicarage at Grantchester. Today they will be visiting Skyros.