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Rupert (Chawner) Brooke (1887-1915)


Promising English poet who died young in World War I. Brooke's best-known work is the sonnet sequence 1914 and Other Poems (1915), containing the famous 'The Soldier.' Poets have always glorified war, and Brooke did his best to continue the tradition, and sacrifice himself in this effort. His death made him the hero of the first phase of the war and a canonized symbol of all the gifted young people destroyed by the conflict. However, Brooke's poetry with its patriotic mood and naive enthusiasm went out of fashion as the realities of warfare were fully understood.

"If I should die, think only this of me:
That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England."

(from 'The Soldier', in New Numbers, 1915)

Rupert Brooke was born in Rugby, Warwickshire, where his father taught classics and was a housemaster at Rugby School. In his childhood Brooke immersed himself in English poetry and twice won the school poetry prize. While at King's college, Cambridge, he became friends with G.E. Moore, Lytton Strachey, Maynard Keynes, Roger Fry, and Leonard Fry, members of the future Bloomsbury Group. Brooke's father died suddenly in 1910. For a short time he was in Rugby a deputy housemaster and thereafter he lived on an allowance from his mother. In 1911 he worked on a thesis on the playwright John Webster and the Elizabethan drama, and travelled in Germany and Italy. On the contemporary literary scene he was know as a leader of a group of young "Neo-pagans", who slept outdoors, embraced a religion of nature, and swam naked – Virginia Woolf joined the swimmers in Grantchester.

However, sex was something that was not part of the fun – "We don't copulate without marriage, but we do meet in cafes, talk on buses, go on unchaperoned walks, stay with each other, give each other books, without marriage," Brooke once told to his friend. Virginia Woolf wrote later: "So much has been written of his personal beauty that to state one's own first impression of him in that respect needs some audacity, since the first impression was of a type so conventionally handsome and English as to make it inexpressive or expressive only of something that one might be inclined half-humorously to disparage. He was the type of English young manhood at its healthiest and most vigorous. Perhaps at the particular stage he had then reached, following upon the decadent phase of his first Cambridge days, he emphasized this purposely: he was consciously and defiantly pagan." (from Books and Portraits by Virginia Woolf, ed. by Mary Lyon, 1977)

Brooke's first collection of verse, Poems, came out in 1911. His work was featured in the periodical Georgian Poetry, edited by his friend, Sir Edward Marsh. Over the next twenty years, the book sold almost 100 000 copies. Brooke assembled with others the hugely successful anthology Georgian Poetry: 1911-1912. Geogians was a term generally applied to loosely linked poets, who tended to approach their subjects – often the nature or an everyday experience – with a direct, simple diction. Specifially the label refers to the poets included in the five volume anthology Georgian Poetry (1912-22). Clere Parsons (1908-31) rejected their work as "the swan-song of Victorian poetry" in 'A Plea For Better Criticism' (preface in Oxford Poetry, 1928). Critics near the Bloomsbury group accused the group of naivety; Brooke broke with Bloomsbury in 1912.

In 1911 Brooke was secretly engaged to Noel Olivier, five years his junior, the daughter of Sir Sydney Olivier. They had first met in 1908 at a Fabian Society dinner in Cambridge. The affair was for all participants frustrating and subsequently Brooke had an affair with the actress Cathleen Nesbitt. Overworked and emotionally empty, Brooke suffered a nervous breakdown. In the spring of 1912, Brooke and Katharine Cox went to Germany, where he wrote 'The Old Vicarage, Grantchester', one of his most admired poems. It has been assumed that Ka Cox bore Brooke's stillborn child. In England Brooke's thesis brought him a fellowship at King's College in 1913.

"Say, is there Beauty yet to find?
And Certainty? and Quiet kind?
Deep meadows yet, for to forget
The lies, and truths, and pain? ... Oh! yet
Stands the Church clock at ten to three?
And is there honey still for tea?"

(from 'The Old Vicarege, Grantchester', 1912)

Between the years 1913 and 1914 Brooke spent wandering in North America and the South Seas, and depicted the impressions in his Letters fron America (1916). Henry James's introduction to it was completely slashed by A.C. Benson: "After all H.J.'s pontification, R.B.'s robust letters are almost a shock. It is as if one went up to receive a sacrament in a great, dark church, and were greeted by shouts of laughter and shower of chocolate creams." Brooke spent three months on Tahiti, wrote some of his finest poems, and had an affair with a woman called Taatamata, commemorated in 'Tiare Tahiti'. In 1914 Brooke became friends with Winston Churchill and the Asquith family.

The outbreak of World War I interrupted Brooke's career as a writer. He was commissioned in Churchill's Royal Navy Division, and joined the Dardanelles expedition. Brooke did not see any action. He died of septicemia as a result of a mosquito bite – or according to some sources of food poisoning – on a hospital ship off Scyros on April 23, 1915. Brooke was buried on the island. Henry James mourned Brooke's early death and the poet's legend was further solidified when Winston Churchill produced his own contribution to it with an obituary text.

Brooke's appeal began to wane after the acrid poems of Wilfred Owen (1893-1918), who was machine-gunned to death, and Siegfried Sassoon's visions of "the hell where youth and laugher go". In France as a by-product of the war, writers returning home from the trenches created such artistic and literary movements as Dada and Surrealism and in England T.S. Eliot expressed his feeling of meaningless in The Waste Land. Brooke's chivalry was permanently outdated. He never lived to see the end of the war, and his poetic stature was frozen for a long period in such lines as "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." (in 1914 and Other Poems, 1915) Nowadays Brooke is chiefly valued for his lighter verse, for the Tahiti poems, and for a few sonnets. James Strachey, a friend from childhood on, once said: "Rupert wasn't nearly so nice as people now imagine; but he was a great deal cleverer." (in Friends and Apostles: The Correspondence of Rupert Brooke and James Strachey 1905-1914, ed. by Keith Hale; 1998)

For further reading: British poets of the Great War: Brooke, Rosenberg, Thomas: A Documentary Volume, edited by Patrick Quinn (2000); Rupert Brooke: Life, Death & Myth by Nigel H. Jones (1999); Rupert Brooke by William E. Laskowski (1994); The Neo-Pagans by P. Delany (1987); Rupert Brooke by J. Lehman (1980); Rupert Brooke by R.B. Persall (1979); Rupert Brooke by V. Woolf and G. Keynes (1978); Rubert Brooke: A Biography by Christopher Vernon Hassall (1964); A Bibliography of Rupert Brooke by G. Keynes (1959); Red Wine of Youth by A. Stringer (1948); Men and Memories by A.C. Benson (1924); Rupert Brooke and the Intellectual Imagination by Walter de la Mare (1919).

Selected works:

  • The Pyramids, 1904
  • The Bastille, 1905
  • Puritanism in the Early English Drama, 1910
  • Poems, 1911
  • The Old Vicarage, Grantchester, 1912
  • The Authorship of the Latter Apius and Virginia, 1913
  • 1914 and Other Poems, 1915 (includes 'The Soldier')
  • The Collected Poems of Rupert Brooke, 1915 (with an introduction by George Edward Woodberry and a biographical note by Margaret Lavington)
  • John Webster And The Elizabethan Drama , 1915
  • Lithuania: A Drama in One Act, 1915
  • Letters from America, 1916 (with a preface by Henry James)
  • Selected Poems, 1917
  • The Collected Poems of Rupert Brooke, 1918
  • Lithuania, 1922
  • A Letter to the Editor of the Poetry Review, 1929
  • Complete Poems, 1932
  • Twenty Poems, 1935
  • The Poetical Works of Rupert Brooke, 1946 (edited by Geoffrey Keynes)
  • Democracy and the Arts, 1946 (with a preface by Geoffrey Keynes)
  • The Poetical Works, 1949
  • Poems of Rupert Brooke, 1952
  • The Prose of Rupert Brooke, 1956 (ed. by G. Hassall)
  • The Letters of Rupert Brooke, 1968 (chosen and edited by Geoffrey Keynes)
  • Rupert Brooke: A Reappraisal and Selection From His Writings, Some Hitherto Unpublished, 1971 (edited by Timothy Rogers)
  • Letters from Rupert Brooke to His Publisher, 1911-1914, 1975
  • Rupert Brooke in Canada, 1978 (edited Sandra Martin and Roger Hall)
  • The Poems of Rupert Brooke, 1987
  • Song of Love: The Letters of Rupert Brooke and Noel Olivier, 1991 (edited by Pippa Harris) 
  • If I Should Die, 1996
  • The Irregular Verses of Rupert Brooke, 1997 (arranged with commentary by Peter Miller) 
  • Friends and Apostles: The Correspondence of Rupert Brooke and James Strachey, 1905-1914, 1998 (edited by Keith Hale)
  • Two Plays, 1999
  • Rupert Brooke & Wilfred Owen, 2002 (selected by George Walter)
  • Letters from America: Travels in the USA and Canada, 2007 (foreword by Benjamin Markovits; afterword by Henry James)

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