The centenary of the Great War should cause us to reflect on the makers of our culture who went overseas and never returned, and to wonder how different that culture might have been had they not died. George Butterworth, who might even have eclipsed his friend Vaughan Williams, Edward Thomas and Wilfred Owen are the names that immediately occur. There was Patrick Shaw-Stewart, a brilliant Oxford classicist whose poem “Achilles in the Trench” (ending, in a conscious echo of the Iliad, “Stand in the trench, Achilles/Flame-capped, and shout for me”) is one of the most magnificent written about any war; and there was another English composer of stunning promise, W. Denis Browne, who died in the Dardanelles in June 1915. Six weeks before his death Browne had been one of the burial party that laid Rupert Brooke in his grave on Skyros; so had Shaw-Stewart. Browne and Brooke had been at Rugby and Cambridge together, and Brooke had, through his friendship with Eddie Marsh, Churchill’s private secretary, secured both of them commissions in the Royal Naval Division.
Rupert Brooke deserves to be on the list; but he remains a figure of controversy. He was the bright, blazing comet across the sky of Georgian poetry after the publication of his First Poems in 1911, when he was just 24. Brooke was one of the Cambridge Apostles, through which society he had come to know Eddie Marsh, who from 1912 published the Georgian poetry anthologies. He was supremely connected: Virginia Woolf, Hugh Dalton, the Asquith children, the Keyneses and the Stracheys were all in his close orbit, as were various Darwins and Raverats. As becomes a proper Edwardian, his private life was a disaster; there were homosexual and heterosexual liaisons, and men and women threw themselves at him (he was, by repute, “the handsomest man in England”). He read Classics at King’s and eventually obtained a fellowship there, secured by dissertations on John Webster and the effect of Puritanism on 17th-century drama.
He had the obligatory nervous breakdown, and with a sense of inevitability went off to the South Seas, possibly fathering a child with a native girl in Tahiti. The glamour is almost clichéd. Then he came back to England, war broke out, he joined up, and died not quite the death he had hoped: of septicaemia, following a mosquito bite, on St George’s Day 1915, aged just 27.
On Easter Sunday 1915, three weeks earlier, Dean Inge had read Brooke’s sonnet “The Soldier” in St Paul’s Cathedral. It is one of the best-known sonnets in the English canon, and one of Brooke’s biographers has suggested it is the most famous sonnet written in English in the 20th century. That is probably right. Even given the limitations of our benighted education system, most will know the first two and a half lines:
If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England.
As is the way with these things, it is not even the best of the five war sonnets: that accolade must go either to the first, “Peace” (“Now God be thanked Who has matched us with His hour/And caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping . . .”) or the third, “The Dead” (“Blow out, you bugles, over the rich Dead!”), the latter set to music especially effectively by Frank Bridge before the end of the war in a fashion that perfectly projects its diction and its sentiments. Brooke had written the sonnets upon his return from the Antwerp expedition in October 1914, the closest he ever came to action. Winston Churchill called the sequence “incomparable”: their manliness and patriotism were right up Churchill’s street.
But here lay the problem. The five sonnets certainly captured the mood of the autumn of 1914, when the young manhood of a great imperial power rushed to join the colours. The metaphors in them are of a catharsis brought by the martyrdom of death in the noblest of causes, and of a rebirth into eternal glory. It was a feeling that was already wearing off by the time of Brooke’s death, and had well and truly vanished in the aftermath of Gallipoli and the first Battle of Ypres. By the time of the Somme it had become a sick joke. This is a shame, because in sheer poetic terms the five sonnets are among the best of Brooke’s work, much of which is self-indulgent and second-rate, rocking with pretentiousness and very much young man’s music.
Writing exactly a century after Keats and Shelley, and sharing their premature end, he did not quite have their talent. One imagines that, had he lived, he would have gone down the Sassoon route of writing some rather good memoirs and have become a fixture in the salons of Bloomsbury with his other friends; and as an old man appeared in television interviews in the Fifties and Sixties. Whether he would ever have written any poetry better than we already have must be highly doubtful. There are one or two flashes of brilliance in his work-note his poem “Dining Room Tea”, in which he imagines a moment frozen in time-but they are out of the ordinary.
My grandfather lived in Grant-chester, a few houses away from Rupert Brooke, just before the Great War, and I was brought up on him as a consequence of the tenuous connection. I have never seen him so much as a war poet as a poet of the nostalgia that swamped the Edwardians in their garden paradise, in the supposedly eternal summer before 1914; and nowhere on earth was summer more eternal than in that Cambridgeshire village. “The Old Vicarage, Grantchester” may be known now just for its concluding couplet (“Stands the church clock at ten to three?/And is there honey still for tea?”), but amid the self-conscious and rather laboured humour of much of the rest of the poem there are some moments that suggest Brooke should be taken seriously as a poetic talent. After all, a man who can write
Is dawn a secret shy and cold
And sunset still a golden sea
From Haslingfield to Madingley?
cannot have been all bad.
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