Wednesday 3 June 2015

Death of a War Poet: Rupert Brooke 23 April 1915

I apologise that during the General Election I missed three centenaries of war poets. These will now appear on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday of this week.

Rupert Brooke is one of the best known of the English War Poets, not just amongst those who died but also those who survived.

He was born in Rugby on the 3rd August 1887 the second of Rugby School schoolmaster William Parker Brooke. He travelled Europe and wrote a thesis John Webster and the Elizabethan Drama which earned him a place at King's College, Cambridge to read Classics. While up at Cambridge he became a member of the Cambridge Apostles, was elected President of the Cambridge University Fabian Society and formed the Marlowe Society drama club.

He made friends with the Bloomsbury group of writers some admired his talent, others his boyish good looks, which had allegedly prompted the Irish poet W.B. Yeats to describe him as the "handsomest young man in England". But he was also part of other literary groups the Georgian Poets and the Dymock Group. He also spent some time from 1910 until the outbreak of war renting rooms in the Old Vicarage, Grantchester (now the home of Jeffrey Archer).

He published his first volume of poetry Poems in 1911. Along with his friend Edward Marsh the following year he compiled an anthology Georgian Poetry 1911-12. Marsh was to draw another friend Winston Churchill to the literary talent of his friend Brooke. Just before he died his final volume of poems in his lifetime 1914, and Other Poems (1915) was published. It was based on his five sonnets Peace, Safety, The Dead, The Dead, The Soldier which formed his rally cry to the nation.

In 1912 he suffered what a Harley Street doctor described as a "severe mental breakdown", following three serious relationship breakdowns in the previous five years with the actress Cathleen Nesbitt, his engagement to Noël Olivier and Katherine Laird Cox. But he was widely travelled having spent time in Munich in 1911 to improve his German, and two further visits before the outbreak of war. But he also travelled to USA, Canada and the South Pacific for a year from May 1913. His stay in Tahiti produced some of his best poetry as well as allegedly a daughter with a local woman Taatamata.

Shortly after his return from his trip War was declared, Brooke used his friendship with Churchill to be granted a commission into a new unit of the Royal Naval Division an amphibious unit. He took part in the Antwerp Expedition in October 1914. In February 1915 he set sail with the British Mediterranean Expeditionary Froce bound for Gallipoli. However, Brooke developed sepsis from an infected mosquito bite. He died at 4:46pm on St George's Day, 23 April 1915, which of course is also Shakespeare's birthday on a hospital ship moored in a bay of the Greek Island of Skyros in the Aegean Sea. The expeditionary force had orders to set sail immediately so the Cambridge classics graduate was buried in an olive grove on the island at 11pm.

At his graveside were his close friend William Denis Browne the composer, pianist and music critic (who would die on 4 June at Gallipoli),  fellow poet Patrick Shaw-Stewart (who will feature later in this series) and the Prime Minister's son Arthur Asquith who would be wounded out of action having his leg amputate in January 1918 after being wounded on 17 December 1917 with the rank of Brigadier-General.

His younger brother 2nd Lt. William Alfred Cotterill Brooke of the 8th Battalion London Regiment (Post Office Rifles) was to be killed in action near Le Rutoire Farm, France on 14th June 1915, he had only joined his Battalion in France on 25 May.

Rupert Chawner Brooke 3 Aug 1887 Rugby, Warwickshire, England - 23 Apr 1915 Skyros, GreeceSee also: The other poets who died in the war.

Rather than quote his 1914 poems here are two more that sum up the war. The second a fragment was written in the final week of his life.

The Funeral of Youth: Threnody

The day that YOUTH had died,
There came to his grave-side,
In decent mourning, from the country's ends,
Those scatter'd friends
Who had lived the boon companions of his prime,
And laughed with him and sung with him and wasted,
In feast and wine and many-crown'd carouse,
The days and nights and dawnings of the time
When YOUTH kept open house,
Nor left untasted
Aught of his high emprise and ventures dear,
No quest of his unshar'd --
All these, with loitering feet and sad head bar'd,
Followed their old friend's bier.
FOLLY went first,
With muffled bells and coxcomb still revers'd;
And after trod the bearers, hat in hand --
LAUGHTER, most hoarse, and Captain PRIDE with tanned
And martial face all grim, and fussy JOY,
Who had to catch a train, and LUST, poor, snivelling boy;
These bore the dear departed.
Behind them, broken-hearted,
Came GRIEF, so noisy a widow, that all said,
"Had he but wed
Her elder sister SORROW, in her stead!"
And by her, trying to soothe her all the time,
The fatherless children, COLOUR, TUNE, and RHYME
(The sweet lad RHYME), ran all-uncomprehending.
Then, at the way's sad ending,
Round the raw grave they stay'd. Old WISDOM read,
In mumbling tone, the Service for the Dead.
There stood ROMANCE,
The furrowing tears had mark'd her rouged cheek;
Poor old CONCEIT, his wonder unassuaged;
And shabby, ill-dress'd GENEROSITY;
And ARGUMENT, too full of woe to speak;
PASSION, grown portly, something middle-aged;
And FRIENDSHIP -- not a minute older, she;
IMPATIENCE, ever taking out his watch;
FAITH, who was deaf, and had to lean, to catch
Old WISDOM's endless drone.
BEAUTY was there,
Pale in her black; dry-eyed; she stood alone.
Poor maz'd IMAGINATION; FANCY wild;
ARDOUR, the sunlight on his greying hair;
CONTENTMENT, who had known YOUTH as a child
And never seen him since. And SPRING came too,
Dancing over the tombs, and brought him flowers --
She did not stay for long.
And TRUTH, and GRACE, and all the merry crew,
The laughing WINDS and RIVERS, and lithe HOURS;
And HOPE, the dewy-eyed; and sorrowing SONG; --
Yes, with much woe and mourning general,
At dead YOUTH's funeral,
Even these were met once more together, all,
Who erst the fair and living YOUTH did know;
All, except only LOVE. LOVE had died long ago.


I strayed about the deck, an hour, to-night
Under a cloudy moonless sky; and peeped
In at the windows, watched my friends at table,
Or playing cards, or standing in the doorway,
Or coming out into the darkness. Still

No one could see me.

                                     I would have thought of them
-Heedless, within a week of battle - in pity,
Pride in their strength and in the weight and firmness
And link'd beauty of bodies, and pity that
This gay machine of splendour 'ld soon be broken,
Thought little of, pashed, scattered ...

                                                          Only, always,

I could but see them - against the lamplights - pass
Like coloured shadows, thinner than filmy glass,
Slight bubble, fainter than the wave's faint light,
That broke to phosphorus out in the night,
Perishing things and strange ghosts - soon to die
To other ghosts - this one, or that, or I.

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