‘Booked for immortality’ – let’s remember Rupert Brooke as he really was

BY Harry Cluff   /  30 May 2020

Rupert Brooke’s reputation has limped on since the end of the First World War under accusations of naivety, insignificance, decadence and jingoism. His detractors often emphasise the excited tone of his output at the commencement of the war (“Now God be thanked who has matched us with this hour”), however, these criticisms belie the true character of this eloquent and original poet. He was not the foppish and overly patriotic nincompoop some school teachers would have us believe; indeed, he was something entirely opposed to the image we have of him now.

Rupert Brooke was the son of the Headmaster of Rugby School. He won a scholarship to King’s College Cambridge, gained admittance to the Apostles, an elite academic society, and was elected President of the Cambridge Fabians. He wrote satirical lyrics lampooning Christianity, campaigned for reforms to the ineffective Poor Law and in an atmosphere reminiscent of a Californian hippie commune, regularly went skinny-dipping. He was an unorthodox figure who refused to be immured by the impositions of English tradition, a refusal which prompted Virginia Woolf to describe him as a “neo-pagan”.

This supposed war-mongering poster-boy of British imperialism was in fact a socialist, an atheist and an active bisexual who enjoyed the companionship of Germans and the thrill of visiting exotic places. His posthumous characterisation – that of a rakish Rossetti-like figure sprawled supine across the verdant lawns of Cambridge – was not endorsed by his contemporaries. Siegfried Sassoon, who did spend his youth idly, said: “His idea of adventure was to go half across the world and write vividly about it, while mine was to go somewhere in Warwickshire and gallop after a pack of hounds.”

His talent for friendship turned the heads of many illustrious figures, from Woolf and Sassoon to non-literary giants such as the mountaineer George Mallory, the economist John Maynard Keynes and Winston Churchill. He enjoyed the company of many disparate groups, from the Dymock poets to the Bloomsbury Group to George Bernard Shaw’s society of London socialists.

A prolific lover, he suffered great despair over the failures of several of his romantic liaisons. The disappointments of love finally came to an end during a stay on the island of Tahiti. After falling ill, he was nursed by a local woman called Mamua. They shared a brief but full affair which moved him to mention her on his death bed. It is even rumoured that he fathered a daughter with her.

In 1913 he experienced a severe nervous breakdown and the advent of war meant he could turn his attentions away from his fruitless introspections towards the challenges of the external world.

He was present at the siege of Antwerp and witnessed the refugee crisis in Belgium. The sight of civilian casualties convinced him that Britain had to engage to the utmost of its abilities. Though he recognised the new age of “incessant mechanical slaughter”, he believed Prussian militarism had to be stopped. He died before he could play any meaningful part in the chaos which was yet to come. Aboard a ship on the Aegean, he succumbed to sepsis and was buried on the nearby island of Skyros at the age of 27.

Before the war his romantic verse was widely read and loved. However, the war sonnets he wrote in 1914 are his most famous poems. The opening lines of The Soldier (“If I should die, think only this of me…”) are some of the most quoted lines of poetry in the English language.

Seemingly traditional and ostensibly formal, in actual fact his sonnets were structural innovations. He combined the styles of Shakespeare and Petrarch to produce something entirely new. These fusions of sturdy forms became a granite base on which he could extol the graces of his favourite virtues. He became a member of the Georgian poets, a group which included DH Lawrence, WH Davies and John Masefield. Their interests were primarily rural, romantic and at times almost mystical, but their fame was forgotten once Eliot and Pound became fashionable.

In 1912 Brooke wrote The Old Vicarage, Granchester. This archetypal English poem was actually written in Germany when sadness and homesickness saturated his thoughts. In it he expresses nostalgia for his river-side Cambridge home where he’d swim in the green waters of the Cam and sleep on soft lawns under the stars. After his death Henry James said it was “booked for immortality”. Its mellifluous ease and force of feeling elevates his observations from mere clichés into eloquent acclamations, investing itself in the memory of the reader forever.

His most abnormal work is often considered his best. Tiare Tahiti was written in 1914 while he was travelling through the South Pacific. Tonally oscillating between casual conversation and the rigours of octosyllabic rhyme, it is a beautiful love poem that evokes Platonic forms to describe a divine state of being.

His final and most passionate reflection on the nature of love is his poem The Great Lover. It has the sound and appearance of a traditional lyric (“I have been so great a lover/ have filled my days with the splendour of love’s praise”), but it flows free of exact stress and measure, relying on couplets to spine its physique.

Brooke’s first book sold over 100,000 copies and ran to 37 editions. He produced some of the most tender and musical love poetry of the last century and lived a varied and adventurous life. Had he lived to see the blood of the First World War flood and drown his generation, he might have surpassed Sassoon’s satire or made more than Owen’s melancholia. He might have entered post-war politics and cut a fine figure on the Labour frontbenches. He may even have embraced the radical modernism of Eliot and Pound and contributed to their cause. Unfortunately, his life was a small time, but in that small time most greatly lived this Star of England.


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