Culture House Daily

The poet who welcomed war

23 April 2014

Today, 23 April, the world celebrates the 450th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s presumed birth (and marks with less joy the date of the Bard’s death in 1616). That double date obscures another: the 99th anniversary of the death of a less celebrated Warwickshire-born literary lad, the poet Rupert Brooke.

Brooke, like many of his friends and contemporaries, died in the First World War. But unlike most of them, he perished not in action, but as a result of septicaemia from an infected insect bite to his upper lip. En route to the bloody beaches of Gallipoli, he fell ill in Egypt, died on a French hospital ship moored off the Greek island of Skyros, and – fittingly for a classically educated poet – lies buried in an isolated olive grove overlooking the wine-dark waters of the Aegean.

Eulogised in the Times by an admiring Winston Churchill as ‘one of England’s noblest sons’ and made a poster boy for the self-sacrifice of the generation of 1914, Brooke’s most famous poem, ‘The Soldier’, speaks of his coming death with the longing language of ‘The Great Lover’ that Brooke saw himself as embodying:

‘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’

Like some of Kipling’s lines, this may not be the greatest poetry, and he might well have ended by writing in a similar vein to Wilfred Owen if he had  survived a little longer, but if literary immortality means giving memorable lines to the language, Brooke has surely added his share.

Even before his demise, Brooke was a legend in his own lifetime. His striking good looks – W.B. Yeats, no less, deemed him ‘the handsomest young man in England’ – carefully cultivated carefree image (think tousled hair, perfect profile, loose shirt and bare feet treading the dew-dappled grass of his home) attracted all, or nearly all, who strayed across his orbit.

Brooke also evidently possessed that most perishable of qualities, charm, in shedfuls, if the ecstatic comments of those meeting him for the first time are to be believed. ‘I have just seen Shelley plain!’ squealed Ellery Sedgwick, editor of the Atlantic Monthly, before burbling,

‘A young man more beautiful than he I had never seen. Tall beyond the common. His loose tweeds accentuated his height and the athletic grace of his walk. His complexion was as ruddy as a young David’s. His auburn hair rippled back from the central parting, careless but perfect. I went home under the spell of it.’


His own friends were rather more cynical. The catty critic Lytton Strachey – later a bitter enemy during Brooke’s paranoid phase – ‘wasn’t particularly impressed’, branding Brooke, ‘dreadfully commonplace [and] damned literary'; while Brooke’s Cambridge contemporary Frances Cornford set out her withering view in verse:

‘A young Apollo, golden haired
Stands dreaming on the edge of strife
Magnificently unprepared
For the long littleness of life’.

Brooke’s looks and charisma made him the brightest star in the crowded firmament of Edwardian England. Together he and his mentor Eddie Marsh launched the first anthology of Georgian poetry which, controversially for the time, included a sonnet about Rupert throwing up during a Channel crossing:

‘…Retchings twist and tie me,
Old meat, good meals, brown gobbets, up I throw.’

Which is some way from the elevated patriotism of the  five sonnets written on the outbreak of war for which he is both remembered – and damned.

For Broke was a far darker star than those – like Churchill – who tried to posthumously cast him in the role of  a patriotic plaster saint fully realised. Before the war, a seemingly trivial setback in love propelled him into  a state of severe psychosis, during which he revealed himself as an anti-Semitic mysogynist, harbouring disturbing impulses of violence towards the women whose emotions he toyed with.

Brooke’s sexuality was complex: exclusively gay at Rugby where his father was a housemaster, he remained unashamedly so at Cambridge until he began to pay court to a variety of young women, sometimes simultanously, including the Fabian bluestocking Ka Cox, the four headstrong Olivier sisters (cousins of Sir Laurence), the actress Cathleen Nesbitt, the artist Phyllis Gardner,  and Elisabeth van Rysselberghe who later bore a child – strange as it may seem – to Andre Gide.

Before his death Brooke had a brief final fling with Eileen Wellesley, daughter of the Duke of Wellington (Eddie Marsh’s shocked housekeeper found her hairpins in Brooke’s bed); but the fullest and most satisfying erotic experience of his life was a Gauguinesque episode with a comely Tahitian girl whom Rupert encountered while globetrotting in the South Seas, and who probably bore him a daughter.

It is ironic that this thoroughly modern man – narcissistic, sexually confused, at once libidinous and fiercely puritanical – should have been immortalised by the five patriotic sonnets he wrote on the outbreak of war in 1914 in which he welcomed the conflict as a cleansing douche from a corrupting century of peace:

‘Now, God be thanked Who has matched us with His hour,
And caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping’

And suggested that England’s youth should fling themselves into the conflict ‘As swimmers into cleanness leaping…’

Brooke sought death as a solution to his own unresolved problems, enlisting in Churchill’s royal naval division and sailing towards Gallipoli with the certain knowledge that he was embracing his own extinction. (For if he had not suffered the fatal mosquito bite he would surely, like his pallbearers, not have survived the Dardanelles or the Somme). But by dying so appropriately he escaped from unfulfillable expectations and a celebrity that had finally become literally unbearable.

Nigel Jones’ biography Rupert Brooke: Life, Death and Myth is to be re-issued with new material in November by Head of Zeus.

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  • trace9

    Truncated, then abominated. He should have waited!

  • Raw England

    Shakespeare would vomit over the repulsive, immigrant-dominated hellhole England is now.

    Then he’d ask us, the native English youth, to wage war upon the foreign invaders with all the ferocity we could muster.

    And we would. Oh, we WOULD.

  • Kitty MLB

    I shall raise a glass to the great William Shakespeare today.
    Brooke was casually mentioned on another thread over Easter, but in a light hearted
    way with other poets.
    This article, very concise, thank you.
    May I say Brookes, a very enchantingly handsome and charismatic man ( Gay was he, a way for the Gods to torment mortal souls)
    I have read his sonnets ( but not ‘ Soon To Die’) He wrote those quite early as we
    know, never saw much combat. They say his poetry shows the enthusiasm that
    most soldiers and poets lose, and that he would have lost that enthusiasm if lived

  • Pootles

    A well-written, concise piece – thank you. It wasn’t just Brooke, of course, who welcomed the war, there were many, many others who experienced the same anticipation of a ‘swimmer into cleaness leaping’. I think Robert Wohl’s ‘Generation of 1914′ concept has a lot going for it still. But Brooke was unusual in his other attitudes and actions – R.C. Sherriff, R.H. Mottram, Edmund Blunden, Ronald Gurner, Cyril Falls and the like beng much more typical of the soldier-writers.

    • Kitty MLB

      Well said, and may I add Graves, Sassoon and Hardy to your list ( hope I am
      correct) on two of them.

      • Pootles

        Although Hardy wasn’t a ‘soldier-writer’, and Graves came in for a good deal of criticism from men like Blunden and Sassoon (good friends) for writing ‘Goodbye To All That’, which Graves admitted he’d done largely for the money. Mind you, I do rather like some of Graves’ poetry, poems like ‘The Cuirassiers of the Frontier’.

    • roger

      If he welcomed the war he got what he deserved.

      • Pootles

        It’s probably better to put things in their historical context if one wants to attempt any understanding. The world was different in the summer of 1914.

  • mikewaller

    This is a very skillful “deconstruction” but in the end points out no more than the force of the observation usually attributed to Montaigne: “No man is a hero to his valet”. After all, how would Nigel Jones fare if placed under a similar microscope?

    One thing I do very much object to is the usual rubbishing of Kipling, a poet whose feet most of the moderns are not fit to kiss!

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