The Poet-Soldier as Sacrifice:
Rupert Brooke

Rupert Brooke (1887-1915)

by Jeff Seffinga

Annual TPS PoetryTALK

November 11, 2001

As a legend in the minds and hearts of the modern English people, Rupert Brooke has a place with such luminaries as T. E. Lawrence, Florence Nightingale, and Lord Byron. This legend, as we still understand him, was born in the spring of 1915, and nurtured by several powerful controlling factors. Let us discover what happened to make a jealous, moody, ill-balanced young man, a poet gifted but flawed and of uneven quality, whose Puritan upbringing often struggled against the rebellious forces expressed in the neo-paganism of his Bloomsbury friends, become the warrior-icon, the symbol of all English young manhood that perished in the fields and trenches of Europe during 1914-1918.

The first and most important of these legend-building events happened on Easter Sunday, 1915. His series of war sonnets had just been published in New Numbers, the second (and last) volume of a journal edited by two of his very good friends. The Dean of St. Paul’s had preached on a text from Isaiah and read, as illustration, the entire sonnet, “If I should die” and commented on its enthusiasm and elevated patriotism.

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

At this time England had been involved in the war for six months. The great expectations, that all her young men would march away, overcome the evildoers like St. George slaying the dragon, and come triumphantly back, had not been fulfilled. The few expeditions to the continent to show the Kaiser who was boss were unsuccessful in holding back the German forces from sweeping into Belgium. England, in this dark hour needed inspiration, something much more exalting than the rantings of the daily newspapers. Dean William R. Inge gave them Rupert Brooke as an offering to English sensibilities.

The second of these legend-building events happened less than a month later. On April 23, 1915, on a ship waiting in a harbor in the Aegean Sea to be sent to capture the Dardanelles, Constantinople, and open the Black Sea so that a route to join the Russian allies might be established, Rupert Brooke died. Eager to join friends in this great adventure, he died before tasting the horrors of battle, before the terrible tragedy that befell his comrades at Gallipoli. Unlike his contemporaries, Sassoon, Owen, Rosenberg, he never had the chance to experience and write about the real horrors of twentieth-century warfare. His resistance weakened by sunstroke suffered during recreation on a nearby Greek island, he was bitten by an insect; the innocuous bite turned into septicemia that killed him. His mates buried him on the island the day before they were sent to their own deaths.

Through his well-connected friends in London, especially Edward Marsh who was involved with such luminaries as Asquith the prime minister and Winston Churchill the first lord of the Admiralty, obituaries and tributes were published for a public who had recently devoured all the copies of his sonnets published in New Numbers. The longest, most high-flown and widely circulated commemoration was the one written by Winston Churchill: “Rupert Brooke is dead. … A voice had become audible, a note had been struck, more true, more thrilling, more able to do justice to the nobility of our youth in arms engaged in this present war, than any other. … The voice has been swiftly stilled. … He expected to die; he was willing to die for dear England … he was all that one would wish England’s noblest sons to be in days when no sacrifice but the most precious is acceptable.”

Friends as rational as D. H. Lawrence and the economist John Maynard Keynes joined in the wave of emotionalism. Henry James wept and created a virtual reality that became a foundation of the legend. “Rupert Brooke, young, happy, radiant, extraordinarily endowed and irresistibly attaching, virtually met a soldier’s death, met it in the stress of action and all but the immediate presence of the enemy.” Fed by this “great sentimental rhapsody,” the mythical character began to flourish.

Brooke left no clear instructions for the disposal of his estate. In a letter from the Aegean, he asked Edward Marsh to be his literary executor. His mother was to have and control all his manuscripts until she died. An intimate friend and fellow Fabian, Ka Cox would then come to control them. The ambiguity of these arrangements, the public interest in the poet’s work, the publication shortly thereafter of the COLLECTED POEMS with foreword by Edward Marsh continued to build the legend until it began to fade under the onslaught of modernism.

Let’s take a look at the poet and how he was shaped rather than his legend. Rupert Brooke was born August 3, 1887 at Rugby; his father was a Housemaster at the school, his mother managed the House affairs. He was the second of three sons, always the most beautiful child and his mother’s favorite; he believed she clung to him because she had wanted a girl child. Unlike other boys of his class and generation, he always lived at home during his school years, never far from the influence of his mother.

At day school and at Rugby he excelled at cricket and rugger as well as at his studies. He developed an interest in the poetry of Ernest Dowson and Algernon Swinburne, and began to write himself in imitation. He won a classical scholarship to King’s College, Cambridge.

Cambridge was an important step in his development both as a person and as a poet. His major area of study was the poetry of John Donne, John Milton, and the playwright John Webster; he became interested in theatre productions at Cambridge. He developed important friendships through the Apostles, a Cambridge secret society that included intellectuals from the London Bloomsbury set such as the Keynes brothers, Lytton Strachey, Leonard Woolf. He became a very active member of the Cambridge Fabian Society and its president for a term. All this extracurricular activity, along with his writing and social posing almost caused his failure at the end of his third year. A summer of hard application reinstated him in his course of study, a summer spent at a cottage in Grantchester writing and entertaining his London neo-pagan friends. During the next term back at Cambridge, he began at this time to publish poems in The Westchester Gazette, then in The English Review. Good examples of this early work are “Sleeping Out,” and “Blue Evening.”

The first collection of his poems was published by Sidgwick & Jackson as POEMS 1911. Because the publishers were unsure of their venture, much of the cost was covered by Rupert’s mother. Before publication there was a small controversy over a poem called “Lust.” Rupert agreed to change the title to a less Anglo-Saxon term, “Libido,” but refused to discard the reference to a woman’s “smell” in line 8. The most controversial poem in the collection was the one called “A Channel Passage.”

The damned ship lurched and slithered. Quiet and quick
my cold gorge rose; the long sea rolled; I knew
I must think hard of something, or be sick;
And could think hard of only one thing - you
You, you alone could hold my fancy ever!
And with you memories come, sharp pain, and dole.
Now there’s a choice - heartache or tortured liver!
A sea-sick body, or a you-sick soul!

Do I forget you? Retchings twist and tie me,
Old meat, good meals, brown gobbets, up I throw.
Do I remember? Acrid return and slimy,
The sobs and slobber of a last year’s woe. 
And still the sick ship rolls. ‘Tis hard, I tell ye,
To choose ‘twixt love and nausea, heart and belly.

Critics derided it as “shocking,” “appalling,” “disgusting.” “Startlingly unusual” was the kindest comment it drew; critics didn’t see the tongue-in-cheek humor so evident to us today. Several poems take the classical Romantic images and then turn them inside out, for instance “Menelaus and Helen,” two sonnets that mirror each other but in a startling way. The English Review and The Westminster Gazette, both of which had published his work previously, recommended the slim volume. John Buchan, in a review for the Spectator called POEMS 1911 “a book of rare and remarkable progress.”

Although this time was one of personal upheaval for Brooke his artistic endeavors were beginning to bloom. To put it in some sort of perspective, John Masefield had already published Salt Water Ballads and his Ballads and Poems; his long narrative "The Everlasting Mercy" had just appeared to critical acclaim. The poet Wilfred Gibson had recently come down from the Midlands with The Stonefolds and Daily Bread, books of poems that emphasized a new Realism and influenced Brooke and his editor/friend Edward Marsh to produce the GEORGIAN POETS anthologies that would include such significant poets as G. K. Chesterton, John Masefield, D. H. Lawrence, Walter De la Mare, among others. While working on a dissertation to win a Fellowship at Cambridge, he continued to write poetry but also developed a proficiency at criticism and journalism that helped finance a trip through America and Canada to the South Pacific. His editors at The Westminster Gazette commissioned a series of articles; Brooke, in his prose, came through as an accomplished travel writer: restrained, graceful, and with sophistication spiced by brilliant touches of humor and irony. (In his travels in Canada he was befriended by Duncan Campbell Scott.)

He traveled on to the South Sea islands, Samoa and Fiji, where he produced some of his finest pieces of journalism and some of his finest poems. There occurred a presentiment of his eventual death when, after scraping his legs on some corral while swimming, he developed blood poisoning. He was nursed by a native girl, Ta’ate Mata, to whom he became very attached and for whom he wrote what is acknowledged to be one of his finest poems, “Tiare Tahiti” with its eight syllable lines that became his most accomplished manner of expression.

Crown the hair and come away!
Hear the calling of the moon,
And the whispering scents that stray
About the idle warm lagoon. …
Spend the glittering moonlight there
Pursuing down the soundless deep
Limbs that gleam and shadowy hair
Or floating lazy, half-asleep.

In August 1914 England declared war on the Central Powers: Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire. Brooke’s friend and editor Edward Marsh held an important position with the government and was a close friend of the Asquiths and the Churchills. Several times he and Brooke dined with Winston at the Admiralty and at 10 Downing St. with the Prime Minister and his family. Rupert volunteered to join the newly formed Naval Brigades as a junior officer. In October his troops were sent to support the Belgian forces defending Antwerp. Before any fighting happened, the Belgians retreated and the British found themselves evacuating the area along with the refugees. It was in camp on the Suffolk Downs between the Antwerp and the Aegean campaigns that Rupert Brooke wrote the sequence of sonnets for which he is remembered and celebrated. This was the season of the legendary “Christmas Truce” declared by enlisted men on both sides before their officers regained control of the battlefield and the troops’ behavior.

Before we indulge in a taste of the critical assessments of Rupert Brooke, we should take another look at some of his poems. In terms of the development of his technical skills it helps to look at two poems which are really the same poem at different stages of its and his development, “The Fish” and then “Heaven.” Brooke uses fish and water imagery as a basis for meditation on life after death.

Space is no more, under the mud;
His bliss is older than the sun.
Silent and straight the waters run.
The lights, the cries, the willows dim,
And the dark tide are one with him.

- "The Fish"

One may not doubt that, somehow, Good
Shall come of Water and of Mud;
And, sure, the reverent eye must see
A purpose in Liquidity.

- "Heaven"

Another distinctive example of his continuing progress is found in the longer poem, “Grantchester,” which uses his eight syllable format to help express the nostalgia, irony, and regret.

                      … would I were
In Grantchester, in Grantchester! -
Some, it may be, can get in touch
With Nature there, or Earth, or such. …
I only know that you may lie
Day long and watch the Cambridge sky,
And flower-lulled in sleepy grass,
Hear the cool  lapse of hours pass,
Until the centuries blend and blur
In Grantchester, in Grantchester …
Stands the Church clock at ten to three?
And is there honey still for tea?

I’ll share with you just a few words gleaned from his critics, those who cared to see beyond the facile image of the warrior-poet sacrificed for the common expediency:

“the sonnets … represent him in a phase that could only have been temporary.”

“His poetry is … a repudiation of sentimentality. His death was NOT more lovely than his life.”

“the Deans and great-aunts … picture Brooke as a kind of blend of General Gordon and Lord Tennyson.”

“they never got the feeling of his being a human being at all.”

“… far from being the most talented of the Georgian group, (who) … had a certain irony and detachment of mind …, (but) a dangerous facility of language and feeling are embarrassingly evident.”

In the words of Virginia Woolf: “one turns from him not with a sense of completeness and finality, but rather to question still: what would he have been, what would he have done?”


Address by Jeff Seffinga
Hamilton, Ontario

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