Rupert Brooke: Patriotic poetry's perfect poster boy?

PUBLISHED: 11:00 16 November 2017

Rupert Brooke

Rupert Brooke

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In his most celebrated poems, Rupert Brooke gave a classic evocation of England. But, argues CHARLIE CONNELLY, his work has a very European context

My copy of Rupert Brooke’s 1914 And Other Poems is a third impression of the first edition that was published in June 1915.

The first run had only appeared the previous month; its instant bestseller status attributable to the poet’s death on a French hospital ship at Skyros in the Aegean Sea on April 23 and the fact that it contains his sonnet The Soldier, one of the most famous poems to emerge from the First World War, became hugely popular at the time and was recited widely at remembrance commemorations over the past week.

Its opening lines, “If I should die think only this of me:/That there’s some corner of a foreign field/That is for ever England”, are among the most famous in English literature and helped to cement the poet’s exalted place in our national consciousness.

The paper is thick and of high quality, making the book feel as if it contains twice as much as it actually does.

The edges are rough cut, the title on the spine a little scuffed. There’s a sheet of tracing paper over a photographic image of Brooke near the front, in profile, looking more like a pencil sketch than a photograph.

On the flyleaf is inscribed in faded brown fountain pen a century old message, “For dear Judith from her father and mother, July 20 1915”. I’ve no idea who Judith was but she was clearly a Brooke fan.

Pasted beneath the inscription is a sonnet, snipped carefully from a newspaper, called In Memoriam: Rupert Brooke. Attributed merely to ‘M.E.M.’ its elegiac tone is set from the very first line, “We cannot dare with eyelids wet to come,/O radiant child of song, to ring the knell/Of your brief life” and continues in similar terms through fourteen lines of how Brooke’s “spirit drifted God-ward” and the ghosts of ancient Greek and Roman poets “have woven swift your amaranthine crown”.

Folded inside the front cover is a long, yellowing obituary. I can’t tell which newspaper it’s from but it was published a week after Brooke, a commissioned officer in the Royal Naval Division, died of blood poisoning sustained from an insect bite.

Titled ‘The Soldier Poet Who Died For England’, the tribute quotes approvingly from The Soldier and concludes, “A true heir of the Elizabethans, Rupert Brooke won from the world whatever he might of song and adventure and, dying for the land he loved well, has escaped forever the chill of forgetfulness.”

Rupert Brooke was almost the perfect poster boy for glorious death in the service of the nation.

Talented and famously good looking – W.B. Yeats had described him as “the handsomest young man in England” – by coming through impeccable ranks of English privilege via Rugby School and King’s College, Cambridge, it’s no wonder he earned the devotion of the likes of Judith, who in the weeks and months after his death must have hugged close the copy of his poems that now sits on my shelf.

Brooke even warranted an obituary in the Times written by no less a figure than Winston Churchill. “He expected to die: he was willing to die for the dear England whose beauty and majesty he knew,” it read. “Joyous, fearless, versatile, deeply instructed, with classic symmetry of mind and body, ruled by high undoubting purpose, he was all that one would wish England’s noblest sons to be in the days when no sacrifice but the most precious is acceptable, and the most precious is that which is most freely proffered”.

Directly beneath the obituary was a report calling for more men to join up. The piece blamed a slackening in the number of volunteers on British victory at the Marne in the autumn of 1914 giving the impression the war was practically won (when possibly the stories coming back from the front with the wounded and soldiers on leave that life in the trenches wasn’t remotely glorious or glamorous were a larger factor).

This juxtaposition could have been coincidental but the positioning is telling. The death of Rupert Brooke at the age of 27 was the perfect illustration of a flower of English youth who’d made the ultimate sacrifice. The Soldier was the perfect poem for the times by the perfect poet for the times. He’d even died on St George’s Day.

When you visit Grantchester, the village outside Cambridge where Brooke lived at the Old Vicarage that’s now home to Jeffrey and Mary Archer, it’s possible to discern the kind of nostalgic England the men being remembered on Sunday are seen to represent. Surrounded by fields, Grantchester has a gentle feel, as if time moves more slowly there. You can still take tea at The Orchard tearooms just as Brooke did, and doze in the green canvas wooden deckchairs among the apple trees in the grounds after visiting its small museum to Brooke, understated and appealingly ramshackle.

Walking back to the village you can’t miss the parish church of St Andrew and St Mary, the subject of Brooke’s other famous line of poetry. “Stands the church clock at ten to three?/And is there honey still for tea?” and the vicarage nearby, through whose gates you can see a (frankly pretty awful) statue of the poet.

Brooke’s poem The Old Vicarage, Grantchester, written in 1912 and also included in 1914 And Other Poems, is an almost archetypal evocation of England that has nostalgia dripping through it like butter on a hot crumpet. It’s almost a checklist of a kind of UKIP wet dream of England (although Brooke became more conservative in the last year or two of his life, for many years he was an active Fabian socialist), one that namechecks Chaucer, Byron and Tennyson, chestnuts and bosky meadows, vicars and curates, rivers and mills. There’s even the odd sly dig at the Hun.

Yet there is also a subversive undercurrent to the poem, a wryness that’s often missed by those holding it up with their union flag and dimpled jug of ale. He lists and often dismisses local villages – “And Ditton girls are mean and dirty/And there’s no-one in Harston under thirty” – all of which pale in comparison to Grantchester, where “They love the Good, they worship Truth/ They laugh uproariously in Youth”. The pay-off, however, is that “when they get to feeling old,/ They up and shoot themselves, I’m told”.

I have a theory that The Old Vicarage, Grantchester, for all its beautiful imagery and evocations of rural England, may have been composed tongue-in-cheek. Although its sentiments are sincere I believe there’s more to it than a wistful longing for a pastoral idyll. The reason, for me, lies in Europe.

The poem’s subtitle is Café des Westens, Berlin, 1912. Brooke spent quite a bit of time in Germany, a few months in Munich early in 1911, ostensibly to learn German, and then three months in Berlin the following year, partly intended as an unofficial honeymoon with one of the several women with whom he was involved (Brooke was almost heroically randy: one of his tricks to impress women was to plunge naked into the freezing water of Byron’s Pool in Grantchester and surface brandishing an instant erection).

His views on Germany and the Germans were distinctly mixed. In Munich he’d written to one of his paramours of his host nation, “They’re soft. That is all. Very nice, but soft. It comes out in their books and everywhere. Their grasp is of a fat hand”.

Later on the same trip, during which he attended performances of Wagner’s Ring cycle and the premiere of Der Rosenkavalier by Richard Strauss, he expanded on German softness in another letter.

“I have sampled and sought out German culture,” he wrote. “It has changed all my political views. I am wildly in favour of nineteen new Dreadnoughts. German culture must never, never prevail. The Germans are nice and well meaning, and they try, but they are soft. Oh, they are soft.”

Germany at the time was getting noticeably stronger. There was a naval arms race with Britain going on, hence Brooke’s reference to Dreadnought warships, and German industry was burgeoning, a potential treading on British toes which may explain his apparent determination to portray the Germans as soft.

The Café des Westens on Kurfurstendamm, where he composed his poem, was long established as the epicentre of German bohemianism. German cabaret had begun there in 1901 and when Brooke patronised the café it was a hotbed of German expressionists; artists and writers changing the face of German culture packed around the tables arguing, debating, flirting and creating.

Mainstream Berlin, with its sternly Prussian outlook, disapproved heartily and the café was denounced regularly in the media for, in one writer’s opinion, “turning west Berlin into a swamp”. It was known colloquially as ‘Café Grössenwahn’ which roughly means ‘Café Megalomania’.

Brooke couldn’t keep away, returning daily and writing home of how the café was “thronged by all the intellectuals, advanced temperamental geniuses and so forth. Long-haired and extraordinarily clothed people sit round little tables and shout”.

All around him he would hear conversations by people finding new ways to express art, music and literature. The Expressionists eschewed the literal, seeking to portray an emotional experience through their art and literature rather than simply describing reality.

Is it possible that Brooke, at once fascinated and appalled by what he saw in Germany, wrote The Old Vicarage, Grantchester, as a response to this new avant-garde in which he was immersed yet remained outside? Is there a streak of satire running through the poem? Are we not meant to take it literally after all? He was very deliberate in identifying where the poem was written and it would have seemed a tremendous wheeze to sit quietly writing about honey for tea and bosky English meadows as the boundaries of artistic experimentation were pushed out around him in loud German voices. Was it all some kind of patriotic in-joke?

There is still a café on the site of the Café des Westens but today it’s an ugly 1950s rotunda above a branch of SuperDry on a noisy traffic intersection. The original 19th century building that housed the café on its ground floor is long gone, destroyed during the bombardment of Berlin in April 1945, 30 years almost to the day after Brooke’s death.

There is no doubting the sincerity of Brooke’s patriotism, nor the willing with which he went off to fight. Fate decreed that he never made it to the actual fighting but instead he left behind some of the most affecting poetry of the conflict, arguably a greater contribution than anything he might have produced on the battlefield. With both his most famous poems Brooke somehow tapped into the national psyche in a way that resounds today as it did in 1915 when Judith faithfully pasted in the newspaper tributes to her book. Indeed, when I hold it with the spine flat and let go of the covers, it always falls open at The Soldier.

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