Rupert Chawner Brooke wrote some of the most romantic and insightful poems of the early twentieth century. Though he lived only 27 years, he is among the most beloved of English poets, having written in the fifth part "The Soldier" of his sonnet sequence 1914, shortly before his death in the Aegean during World War I, in which he proclaimed the sentiment that would shortly grace his own tomb in Greece:
If I should die, think only this
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,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.
And think, this heart, all evil shed
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.
I first discovered Rupert Brooke in highschool, noticing some supressed giggling amongst a group of girls sitting next to me in my literature class. When I turned to discover what had elicited such an outburst, I was rewarded with the sight of our English text opened to a page much later in the book than we had yet progressed in our classwork, a page which was gloriously illustrated with a portrait of the undeniably handsome poet Rupert Brooke. It was about a year before I took the time to find out more about the man and his poetry (something which I don't think any of those other girls ever bothered to do...), but when I did, I was pleased to discover that his writing was as entrancing as his image, and that his life was even more intriguing.
"A young Apollo, golden-haired,
Stands dreaming on the verge of strife,
For the long littleness of life."
These lines were written by Frances Cornford for Brooke. W.B. Yeats called him "the most handsome man in England." Virginia Woolf described him as " . . .all that could be kind and interesting, substantial and good-hearted . . . he had such a gift with people, and such sanity and force . . ."
short life, Brooke did indeed demonstrate that gift with people,
becoming friends with Woolf, E.M. Forster, Winston Churchill, and a
large group of intellectuals and writers which Woolf named "the
Neo-Pagans". Included in this group were the daughters of a well-known
English family of free-thinkers, the Oliviers (yes, actor Lawrence
was related). The group worked to live up to those free-thinking
ideals, among which was intellectual-equality for women, going on
co-ed campouts (unheard-of at the time for "well brought up"
young people) and even bathing together.
This was a significant change for him, having been raised in a conservative household, at the school his parents ran, amongst the other boys who were there to study. What freedoms he later enjoyed amongst the Neo-Pagans were briefly tasted in the upper floors of the dormatory, where romantic intrigue amongst the boys was the norm, despite the overbearing presence of his parents. By the time he'd entered Cambridge, he had admassed the collection of friends and companions who were the Neo-Pagans.
With his charisma and beauty, Rupert became a point of contention among several of the women, as his tremendous love for young Noel Olivier inspired some of his most romantic poems, but their relationship was stormy (reflecting the changable nature of his own inner-self) and further complicated by the affection held for him by another of the Neo-Pagan women, Ka Cox.
Here is my favorite amongst his poems, one written for Noel:
When the white flame in us is gone,
And we that lost the world's delight
Stiffen in darkness, left alone
To crumble in our separate night;
When your swift hair is quiet in death,
And through the lips corruption thrust
Has stilled the labour of my breath --
When we are dust, when we are dust! --
Not dead, not undesirous yet,
Still sentient, still unsatisfied,
We'll ride the air, and shine, and flit,
Around the places where we died,
And dance as dust before the sun,
And light of foot, and unconfined,
Hurry from road to road, and run
About the errands of the wind.
And every mote, on earth or air,
Will speed and gleam, down later days,
And like a secret pilgrim fare
By eager and invisible ways,
Nor ever rest, nor ever lie,
Till, beyond thinking, out of view,
One mote of all the dust that's I
Shall meet one atom that was you.
Then in some garden hushed from wind,
Warm in a sunset's afterglow,
The lovers in the flowers will find
A sweet and strange unquiet grow
Upon the peace; and, past desiring,
So high a beauty in the air,
And such a light, and such a quiring,
And such a radiant ecstasy there,
They'll know not if it's fire, or dew,
Or out of earth, or in the height,
Singing, or flame, or scent, or hue,
Or two that pass, in light, to light,
Out of the garden, higher, higher. . . .
But in that instant they shall learn
The shattering ecstasy of our fire,
And the weak passionless hearts will burn
And faint in that amazing glow,
Until the darkness close above;
And they will know -- poor fools, they'll know! --
One moment, what it is to love.
years spent writing amazingly romantic poetry and letters for Noel,
their romantic relationship ended, leaving a more cynical Brooke
looking for a new focus. He became even more interested in politics,
becoming increasingly conservative in his ideals and increasingly
distant from the liberal ideals the Neo-Pagans had espoused in their
youth. He finally sought a dramatic change, fleeing to Tahiti, where
he wrote some immensely romantic and sensual for a Tahitian girl (who
was later rumored to have borne his child...).
He eventually returned to England, engrossed in the furvor over the early events of World War I, and adamant that he wanted to fight in the war. After being refused permission to join the war by friend Winston Churchill, he enlisted, and thus he came to the Aegean in 1915, where he soon took ill of sunstroke, followed by blood-poisoning, and died, having seen little of the war he'd been so determined to join.
Along the way, he'd written dozens of poems, including so many tremendously romantic pieces, as well as the patriotic sonnet "The Soldier", which became his epitaph.
While Brooke is well-known in England, if just for that poem and the patriotic martyrdom that his subsequent death represented, he is virtually unknown in the rest of the world. And, indeed most of those who may know his poetry know little of his life, which is, in my opinion, at least as interesting. He was tormented by early sexual experiments with other men, torn apart by his love for Noel Oliver, complicated by his relationship with Ka Cox, occaisionally suicidal for any number of reasons, and reactionary in his turn to conservative politics and ideals. All of these things fed his poetic muse, leaving behind him at his death, a tremendous body of poetical work which speaks to things we have all experienced in our own lives.
To learn more about this fascinating man and his writing, I highly suggest a book called The Neo-Pagans by Paul Delany, which covers the whole story with some great pictures and insights. There are a number of fine collections of his writings available as well, from reprints of his poetical collections to collections and commentary on his prose, including a book on the letters between Brooke and Noel Olivier, edited by Olivier's grandaughter, Pippa Harris. If you like good, old books, I've found looking for older (even first editions!) of his works and those about him to be an exciting pursuit worthy of any book-lover. He also has an amazing web-presence, fueled in large part by the drive to make fine literature available on the Internet. You can find some of his poems and more information on him at the websites below.
The Collected Poems of Rupert Brooke from Bibliofind
Untermeyer, Louis, ed. 1920. Modern British Poetry: Rupert Brooke
Selected Poetry of Rupert Brooke (1887-1915)
Rupert Brooke from Dorset Books
Rupert Brooke from Emory University
The Collected Poems of Rupert Brooke, Contents from Teachersoft
Collected Poems of Rupert Brooke from Bibliomania
Index of /Library/poetry/brooke/
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