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Rupert Brooke (1887-1915)

Published onMar 07, 2024
Rupert Brooke (1887-1915)

Rupert Brooke



Used by permission of the Poetry Foundation

Few writers have provoked as much excessive praise and scornful condemnation as English poet Rupert Brooke. Handsome, charming, and talented, Brooke was a national hero even before his death in 1915 at the age of 27. His poetry, with its unabashed patriotism and graceful lyricism, was revered in a country that was yet to feel the devastating effects of two world wars. Brooke's early death only solidified his image as "a golden-haired, blue-eyed English Adonis," as Doris L. Eder notes in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, and among those who lauded him after his death were writers Virginia Woolf and Henry James and British statesman Winston Churchill. In the decades after World War I, however, critics reacted against the Brooke legend by calling his verse foolishly naive and sentimental. Despite such extreme opinions, most contemporary observers agree that Brooke—though only a minor poet—occupies a secure place in English literature as a representative of the mood and character of England before World War I.

Brooke's early years were typical of virtually every English boy who was a member of a well-to-do family. He attended a prestigious boarding school—Rugby, where his father was a headmaster—studied Latin and Greek, and began to write poetry. It was taken for granted that Brooke would go on to one of the great English universities, and accordingly he entered Cambridge in 1906.

During his three years at Cambridge, Brooke became a visible figure in English intellectual circles, counting among his acquaintances Virginia Woolf, writer Lytton Strachey, economist John Maynard Keynes and his brother Geoffrey (later to become Brooke's bibliographer), and poet William Butler Yeats. Brooke also continued to write poetry, although his poems from this period are, as Eder comments, "highly derivative, facile literary exercises." In The Neo-Pagans: Rupert Brooke and the Ordeal of Youth, Paul Delany gives an example of Brooke's verse from his Cambridge years. Written in 1909, "The Voice," like most of his early poetry, dwells on the themes of love and nature: "Safe in the magic of my woods / I lay, and watched the dying light / ... The three that I loved, together grew / One, in the hour of knowing, / Night, and the woods, and you." Although his early work is thought to be of little significance, Brooke by this time was considered a serious though unaccomplished poet. In addition, he was an increasingly conspicuous figure in literary circles—a fame fueled without doubt by his charm and good looks.

Between his graduation from Cambridge in 1909 and the start of World War I in 1914, Brooke spent most of his time writing and traveling. His poetry during this period, which still emphasized the themes of love and nature, resembled that of most of the poets of his generation, including D.H. Lawrence, John Drinkwater, and Walter de la Mare. These poets came to be known as Georgian poets (named after England's king at the time); their verse reflects an idealistic preoccupation with rural, youthful motifs. In fact, Brooke and many of his friends enjoyed spending time in the countryside, bathing nude in local streams and sleeping on the ground; such activities earned them the nickname "neo-pagans." Eder points out that "Georgian verse now seems faded and pseudo-pastoral, a poetry of suburbia written by city dwellers celebrating cozy weekends in flower-wreathed country cottages." At the time, though, such poetry was fashionable and respected, and the first collection of poems by these writers, Georgian Poetry, 1911-1912, was extremely successful.

"The Old Vicarage, Grantchester" was Brooke's contribution to Georgian Poetry, and it remains one of his most popular poems. Grantchester is a small village near Cambridge where Brooke lived for a time after 1909. Brooke, however, wrote the poem later in a cafe in Germany. The poem's nostalgia for an England far away—"And laughs the immortal river still / Under the mill, under the mill / ... Stands the Church clock at ten to three / And is there honey still for tea?," as quoted by Delany in The Neo-Pagans—reflects "patriotism and homesickness at their most endearing," writes Eder. After Brooke's death, Henry James wrote that the poem was "booked for immortality." Christopher Hassall, in his introduction to The Prose of Rupert Brooke, offers a perhaps more realistic analysis when he comments that "The Old Vicarage, Grantchester"—though one of Brooke's most personal and original statements—is nonetheless a "lightweight poem."

"The Old Vicarage, Grantchester" was written in mid-1912, one of the most turbulent periods in Brooke's life. According to Delany, Brooke had experienced a sexual crisis—confusion about homosexual impulses and frustration caused by the rejections of a woman with whom he was in love. In early 1912, these tensions culminated in a nervous breakdown. Brooke spent several months in rehabilitation, during which he was not allowed to write poetry. By summer, though, he had recovered enough to travel to Germany, a trip that marked the beginning of almost three years of constant travel. In May of 1913, he traveled to the United States, where he spent four months before sailing to the South Pacific. Of the seven months that Brooke stayed in the Pacific, three were spent in Tahiti, where, as Delany states, he wrote "the best of his poems, and [experienced] probably the most unbroken happiness of his life."

Several of the poems that Brooke wrote during this period are considered to be among his most effective, including "Tiare Tahiti" and "The Great Lover." Delany notes that the first poem's inspiration was a woman called "Taatamata," whom Brooke met and became intimate with in Tahiti. Not surprisingly, the poem is a love poem, a tribute to an exotic land and carefree love: "Hasten, hand in human hand, / Down the dark, the flowered way, / ... And in the water's soft caress, / Wash the mind of foolishness, / Mamua, until the day." "The Great Lover" is a list "of the hundred and one everyday things that gave [the poet] joy," writes A.C. Ward in Twentieth-Century Literature: 1901-1950. "He invested this domestic catalogue with significance and beauty, and turned the commonplace into the strangely new," praises Ward. Similarly, John Lehmann in Rupert Brooke: His Life and His Legend remarks on "the precise and vivid images with which in The Great Lover [Brooke] enumerates the concrete things that evoke his love in recollection."

Despite the apparent happiness that Brooke found in Tahiti, he decided to return to England in the spring of 1914. Within a few months of his return, World War I began. Like most men of his age and class, Brooke immediately volunteered for service in the war. He joined the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve; the group's first destination was Antwerp, Belgium, where it stayed through the beginning of 1915. The area around Antwerp was not volatile at this time, though, and the Reserve saw no military action during its entire stay in Belgium. The lull in fighting turned into a fruitful period for Brooke, for it was then that he produced his best-known poetry, the group of five war sonnets titled "Nineteen Fourteen."

Written during late 1914, these sonnets express the hopeful idealism and enthusiasm with which Britain entered the war. In the first sonnet, "Peace," Brooke rejoices in the feeling that the war is a welcome relief to a generation for whom life had been empty and void of meaning. As quoted by Bernard Bergonzi in Heroes' Twilight: A Study of the Literature of the Great War, Brooke wrote: "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, / Glad from a world grown old and cold and weary." In the second sonnet, "Safety," Brooke continues to revel in the coming of war by comparing death to a shelter that protects its refugees from the horrors of life.

The third and fourth sonnets are both titled "The Dead," but it is the second of the two that has enjoyed more popularity and more critical acclaim. In this fourth sonnet, Brooke again paints death as a positive, pristine state. For Brooke, death is like an infinite frost that "leaves a white / Unbroken glory, a gathered radiance, / A width, a shining peace, under the night," as quoted by Eder. Finally, Brooke ends the sonnet sequence with "The Soldier," his most famous and most openly patriotic poem. He imagines his own death, but rather than conveying sadness or fear at such an event, he accepts it as an opportunity to make a noble sacrifice by dying for his country. As quoted by Delany, Brooke wrote: "If I should die, think only this of me, / That there's some corner of a foreign field / That is forever England."

The "Nineteen Fourteen" sonnets were immediately famous. On Easter Sunday in 1915, the dean of St. Paul's Cathedral in London, William Ralph Inge, read aloud "The Soldier." Brooke's death three weeks later insured that his name would always be intertwined with the war sonnets, and with "The Soldier" in particular. As A.C. Ward comments, "The Soldier" "became the one poem inseparably linked with Rupert Brooke's name. It is, for all time, his epitaph—beautiful and tranquil." The events surrounding Brooke's death were a significant factor in the success of "Nineteen Fourteen." In February of 1915, Brooke had been ordered to sail to the Dardanelles—a strait between Europe and Turkey—for the Gallipoli campaign that would begin that spring. During the journey, however, Brooke contracted blood poisoning from an insect bite; he died on April 23 on a ship in the Aegean Sea and was buried in an olive grove on the Greek island of Skyros. Such a death and burial, notes Delany, fueled the myth that the handsome poet had provoked the wrath of angry, jealous gods. "Rupert's death was first reported as caused by sunstroke," writes Delany, "and had not Phoebus Apollo, the golden-haired god of poetry, struck down Marsyas for boasting that he could sing as well as the god?" Furthermore, Brooke died in a part of the world long associated with another famous English poet, Lord Byron. As Delany says, "Now another Cambridge poet, who had loved to swim in Byron's Pool, had shared Byron's fate."

Brooke's death was felt throughout his country; Eder states that "all England mourned the poet-soldier's death." In his tribute to Brooke for the London Times as quoted by Delany, Winston Churchill praised Brooke's "classic symmetry of mind and body." "He was all that one would wish England's noblest sons to be," added Churchill, "in days when no sacrifice but the most precious is acceptable." Since the war was still in its early stages, such sentiment could still be cherished. After the staggering number of deaths that the English incurred during the trench warfare of 1916 and 1917, however, such patriotic feeling was viewed—like Brooke's poetry—as foolish and naive. As John Lehmann comments, "What soldier, who had experienced the meaningless horror and foulness of the Western Front stalemate in 1916 and 1917, could think of it as a place to greet 'as swimmers into cleanness leaping' or as a welcome relief 'from a world grown old and cold and weary'?"

A more realistic poetry grew out of the war's latter stages and supplanted Brooke's verse as the most important literary expression of the war. Poets such as Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, and Robert Graves captured the terror and tragedy of modern warfare; next to their poetry, Brooke's war sonnets seem "sentimental and unrealistic," notes Lehmann. For several decades after his death Brooke's poetry—though always popular—was dismissed by critics responding both to the consequences of two world wars and to the pessimistic poetry that dominated the age, of which T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land is the prime example. But more recent critics, while admitting that Brooke's poetry lacks depth, maintain that his verse does have significance. In Rupert Brooke: The Man and the Poet, Robert Brainard Pearsall does not deny the "slightness in mass and idea" of Brooke's work but avers that "all technical criticism droops before the fact that his verse was lyrical, charming, and companionable." Other critics, including Eder and Edward A. McCourt, argue that Brooke's poetry—especially the "Nineteen Fourteen" sequence—is important as a barometer of England between 1910 and 1915. As Eder states, "Brooke's war sonnets perfectly captured the mood of the moment."


“The Dead”

Blow out, you bugles, over the rich Dead! 

      There’s none of these so lonely and poor of old, 

      But, dying, has made us rarer gifts than gold. 

These laid the world away; poured out the red 

Sweet wine of youth; gave up the years to be 

      Of work and joy, and that unhoped serene, 

      That men call age; and those who would have been, 

Their sons, they gave, their immortality. 


Blow, bugles, blow! They brought us, for our dearth, 

      Holiness, lacked so long, and Love, and Pain, 

Honour has come back, as a king, to earth, 

      And paid his subjects with a royal wage; 

And Nobleness walks in our ways again; 

      And we have come into our heritage.


“The Dead”

These hearts were woven of human joys and cares, 

      Washed marvellously with sorrow, swift to mirth. 

The years had given them kindness. Dawn was theirs, 

      And sunset, and the colours of the earth. 

These had seen movement, and heard music; known 

      Slumber and waking; loved; gone proudly friended; 

Felt the quick stir of wonder; sat alone; 

      Touched flowers and furs and cheeks. All this is ended. 


There are waters blown by changing winds to laughter 

And lit by the rich skies, all day. And after, 

      Frost, with a gesture, stays the waves that dance 

And wandering loveliness. He leaves a white 

      Unbroken glory, a gathered radiance, 

A width, a shining peace, under the night.


“The Great Lover”

I have been so great a lover: filled my days

So proudly with the splendour of Love's praise,

The pain, the calm, and the astonishment,

Desire illimitable, and still content,

And all dear names men use, to cheat despair,

For the perplexed and viewless streams that bear

Our hearts at random down the dark of life.

Now, ere the unthinking silence on that strife

Steals down, I would cheat drowsy Death so far,

My night shall be remembered for a star

That outshone all the suns of all men's days.

Shall I not crown them with immortal praise

Whom I have loved, who have given me, dared with me

High secrets, and in darkness knelt to see

The inenarrable godhead of delight?

Love is a flame:—we have beaconed the world's night.

A city:—and we have built it, these and I.

An emperor:—we have taught the world to die.

So, for their sakes I loved, ere I go hence,

And the high cause of Love's magnificence,

And to keep loyalties young, I'll write those names

Golden for ever, eagles, crying flames,

And set them as a banner, that men may know,

To dare the generations, burn, and blow

Out on the wind of Time, shining and streaming . . . .


These I have loved:

                                              White plates and cups, clean-gleaming,

Ringed with blue lines; and feathery, faery dust;

Wet roofs, beneath the lamp-light; the strong crust

Of friendly bread; and many-tasting food;

Rainbows; and the blue bitter smoke of wood;

And radiant raindrops couching in cool flowers;

And flowers themselves, that sway through sunny hours,

Dreaming of moths that drink them under the moon;

Then, the cool kindliness of sheets, that soon

Smooth away trouble; and the rough male kiss

Of blankets; grainy wood; live hair that is

Shining and free; blue-massing clouds; the keen

Unpassioned beauty of a great machine;

The benison of hot water; furs to touch;

The good smell of old clothes; and other such—

The comfortable smell of friendly fingers,

Hair's fragrance, and the musty reek that lingers

About dead leaves and last year's ferns. . . .

                                                      Dear names,

And thousand other throng to me! Royal flames;

Sweet water's dimpling laugh from tap or spring;

Holes in the ground; and voices that do sing;

Voices in laughter, too; and body's pain,

Soon turned to peace; and the deep-panting train;

Firm sands; the little dulling edge of foam

That browns and dwindles as the wave goes home;

And washen stones, gay for an hour; the cold

Graveness of iron; moist black earthen mould;

Sleep; and high places; footprints in the dew;

And oaks; and brown horse-chestnuts, glossy-new;

And new-peeled sticks; and shining pools on grass;—

All these have been my loves. And these shall pass,

Whatever passes not, in the great hour,

Nor all my passion, all my prayers, have power

To hold them with me through the gate of Death.

They'll play deserter, turn with the traitor breath,

Break the high bond we made, and sell Love's trust

And sacramented covenant to the dust.

——Oh, never a doubt but, somewhere, I shall wake,

And give what's left of love again, and make

New friends, now strangers. . . .

                                            But the best I've known

Stays here, and changes, breaks, grows old, is blown

About the winds of the world, and fades from brains

Of living men, and dies.

Nothing remains.

                             O dear my loves, O faithless, once again

This one last gift I give: that after men

Shall know, and later lovers, far-removed,

Praise you, 'All these were lovely'; say, 'He loved.'



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, 

Glad from a world grown old and cold and weary; 

      Leave the sick hearts that honor could not move, 

And half-men, and their dirty songs and dreary, 

      And all the little emptiness of love! 

Oh! we, who have known shame, we have found release there, 

      Where there’s no ill, no grief, but sleep has mending, 

            Naught broken save this body, lost but breath; 

Nothing to shake the laughing heart’s long peace there, 

      But only agony, and that has ending; 

            And the worst friend and enemy is but Death.


“The Soldier”

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.

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