Verse > Rupert Brooke > Collected Poems > A Biographical Note by Margaret Lavington
Rupert Brooke (1887–1915).  Collected Poems. 1916.
Rupert Brooke: A Biographical Note
By Margaret Lavington
ANY biographical account of Rupert Brooke must of necessity be brief; yet it is well to know the facts of his romantic career, and to see him as far as may be through the eyes of those who knew him (the writer was unfortunately not of this number) in order the better to appreciate his work.   1
  He was born at Rugby on August 3, 1887, his father, William Brooke, being an assistant master at the school. Here Brooke was educated, and in 1905 won a prize for a poem called “The Bastille,” which has been described as “fine, fluent stuff.” He took a keen interest in every form of athletic sport, and played both cricket and football for the school. Though he afterwards dropped both these games, he developed as a sound tennis player, was a great walker, and found joy in swimming, like Byron and Swinburne, especially by night. He delighted in the Russian ballet and went again and again to a good Revue.   2
  In 1906 he went up to King’s College, Cambridge, where he made innumerable friends, and was considered one of the leading intellectuals of his day, among his peers being James Elroy Flecker, himself a poet of no small achievement, who died at Davos only a few months ago. Mr. Ivan Lake, the editor of the Bodleian, a contemporary at Cambridge, tells me that although the two men moved in different sets, they frequented the same literary circles. Brooke, however, seldom, if ever, spoke at the Union, but was a member of the Cambridge Fabian Society, and held the posts of Secretary and President in turn. His socialism was accompanied by a passing phase of vegetarianism, and with the ferment of youth working headily within him he could hardly escape the charge of being a crank, but “a crank, if a little thing, makes revolutions,” and Brooke’s youthful extravagances were utterly untinged with decadence. He took his classical tripos in 1909, and after spending some time as a student in Munich, returned to live near Cambridge at the Old Vicarage in “the lovely hamlet, Grantchester.” “It was there,” writes Mr. Raglan H. E. H. Somerset in a letter I am privileged to quote, “that I used to wake him on Sunday mornings to bathe in the dam above Byron’s Pool. His bedroom was always littered with books, English, French, and German, in wild disorder. About his bathing one thing stands out; time after time he would try to dive; he always failed and came absolutely flat, but seemed to like it, although it must have hurt excessively.” (This was only when he was learning. Later he became an accomplished diver.) “Then we used to go back and feed, sometimes in the Orchard and sometimes in the Old Vicarage Garden, on eggs and that particular brand of honey referred to in the ‘Grantchester’ poem. In those days he always dressed in the same way: cricket shirt and trousers and no stockings; in fact, ‘Rupert’s mobile toes’ were a subject for the admiration of his friends.”   3
  Brooke occupied himself mainly with writing. Poems, remarkable for a happy spontaneity such as characterized the work of T.E. Brown, the Manx poet, appeared in the Gownsman, the Cambridge Review, the Nation, the English Review, and the Westminster Gazette. Students of the “Problem Page” in the Saturday Westminster knew him as a brilliant competitor who infused the purely academic with the very spirit of youth.   4
  To all who knew him, the man himself was at least as important as his work. “As to his talk”—I quote again from Mr. Somerset—“he was a spendthrift. I mean that he never saved anything up as those writer fellows so often do. He was quite inconsequent and just rippled on, but was always ready to attack a careless thinker. On the other hand, he was extremely tolerant of fools, even bad poets who are the worst kind of fools—or rather the hardest to bear—but that was kindness of heart.”   5
  Of his personal appearance a good deal has been said. “One who knew him,” writing in one of the daily papers, said that “to look at, he was part of the youth of the world. He was one of the handsomest Englishmen of his time. His moods seemed to be merely a disguise for the radiance of an early summer’s day.”   6
  Mr. Edward Thomas speaks of him as “a golden young Apollo” who made friends, admires, adorers, wherever he went. “He stretched himself out, drew his fingers through his waved fair hair, laughed, talked indolently, and admired as much as he was admired.… He was tall, broad, and easy in his movements. Either he stooped, or he thrust his head forward unusually much to look at you with his steady blue eyes.”   7
  On Mr. H. W. Nevinson, who, in a fleeting editorial capacity, sent for Brooke to come and discuss his poems, he made a similar impression:
          “Suddenly he came—an astonishing apparition in any newspaper office: loose hair of deep, browny-gold; smooth, ruddy face; eyes not gray or bluish-white, but of living blue, really like the sky, and as frankly open; figure not very tall, but firm and strongly made, giving the sense of weight rather than of speed and yet so finely fashioned and healthy that it was impossible not to think of the line about ‘a pard-like spirit.’ He was dressed just in the ordinary way, except that he wore a low blue collar, and blue shirt and tie, all uncommon in those days. Evidently he did not want to be conspicuous, but the whole effect was almost ludicrously beautiful.”
  Notions of height are always comparative, and it will be noticed that Mr. Nevinson and Mr. Thomas differ in their ideas. Mr. Edward Marsh, however, Brooke’s executor and one of his closest friends—indeed the friend of all young poets—tells me that he was about six feet, so that all doubt on this minor point may be set at rest.   9
  He had been in Munich, Berlin, and in Italy, and in May, 1913, he left England again for a wander year, passing through the United States and Canada on his way to the South Seas. Perhaps some of those who met him in Boston and elsewhere will some day contribute their quota to the bright record of his life. His own letters to the Westminster Gazette, though naturally of unequal merit, were full of humorous delight in the New World. In one of his travel papers he described the city of Quebec as having “the radiance and repose of an immortal.” “That, in so many words,” wrote Mr. Walter de la Mare, “brings back his living remembrance.… With him there was a happy shining impression that he might have just come—that very moment—from another planet, one well within the solar system, but a little more like Utopia than ours.” Not even Stevenson, it would seem, excited a greater enthusiasm among his friends; and between the two men an interesting parallel might be drawn. Brooke made a pilgrimage to Stevenson’s home in Samoa, and his life in the Pacific found full and happy expression in his verse. His thoughts, however, turned longingly to England, the land “where Men with Splendid Hearts may go,” and he reappeared from the ends of the earth among his friends as apparently little changed “as one who gaily and laughingly goes to bed and gaily and laughingly comes down next morning after a perfectly refreshing sleep.”  10
  Then came the War. “Well, if Armageddon’s on,” he said, I suppose one should be there.” It was a characteristic way of putting it. He obtained a commission in the Hood Battalion of the Royal Naval Division in September, and was quickly ordered on the disastrous if heroic expedition to Antwerp. Here he had his first experience of war, lying for some days in trenches shelled by the distant German guns. Then followed a strange retreat by night along roads lit by the glare of burning towns, and swarming with pitiful crowds of Belgian refugees. Yet as Mr. Walter de la Mare said of him, when he returned from Antwerp, “Ulysses himself at the end of his voyagings was not more quietly accustomed to the shocks of novelty.”  11
  On Brooke, as on many other young men, to whom the gift of self-expression has perhaps been denied, the war had a swiftly maturing influence. Much of the impetuosity of youth fell away from him. The boy who had been rather proud of his independent views—a friend relates how at the age of twelve he sat on the platform at a pro-Boer meeting—grew suddenly, it seemed, into a man filled with the love of life indeed, but inspired most of all with the love of England. Fortunately for himself and for us, Brooke’s patriotism found passionate voice in the sonnets which are rightly given pride of place in the 1914 section of this volume. Mr. Clement Shorter, who gives us the skeleton of a bibliography that is all too brief, draws special attention to New Numbers, a quarterly publication issued in Gloucestershire, to which Brooke contributed in February, April, August, and December of last year, his fellow poets being Lascelles Abercrombie, John Drinkwater, and Wilfrid Wilson Gibson. He spent the winter in training at Blandford Camp in Dorsetshire, and sailed with the British Mediterranean Expeditionary Force on the last day of February. He had a presentiment of his death, but he went, as so many others have gone,
        “Unstumbling, unreluctant, strong, unknowing,
  Borne by a will not his, that lifts, that grows,
Sweeps out to darkness, triumphing in his goal,
  Out of the fire, out of the little room.…
—There is an end appointed, O my soul!”
He never reached the Dardanelles. He went first to Lemnos and then to Egypt. Early in April he had a touch of sunstroke from which he recovered; but he died from blood-poisoning on board a French hospital ship at Scyros on Friday, April 23rd—died for England on the day of St. Michael and Saint George. He was buried at night, by torchlight, in an olive grove about a mile inland. “If you go there,” writes Mr. Stephen Graham, “you will find a little wooden cross with just his name and the date of his birth and his death marked on it in black.” A few days later the news of his death was published in the Times with the following appreciation:
  “W.S.C.” writes: “Rupert Brooke is dead. A telegram from the Admiral at Lemnos tells us that this life has closed at the moment when it seemed to have reached its springtime. 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—more able to express their thoughts of self-surrender, and with a power to carry comfort to those who watch them so intently from afar. The voice has been swiftly stilled. Only the echoes and the memory remain; but they will linger.  13
  “During the last few months of his life, months of preparation in gallant comradeship and open air, the poet-soldier told with all the simple force of genius the sorrow of youth about to die, and the sure, triumphant consolations of a sincere and valiant spirit. He expected to die; he was willing to die for the dear England whose beauty and majesty he knew; and he advanced toward the brink in perfect serenity, with absolute conviction of the rightness of his country’s cause and a heart devoid of hate for fellowmen.  14
  “The thoughts to which he gave expression in the very few incomparable war sonnets which he has left behind will be shared by many thousands of young men moving resolutely and blithely forward into this, the hardest, the cruellest, and the least-rewarded of all the wars that men have fought. They are a whole history and revelation of Rupert Brooke himself. 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 days when no sacrifice but the most precious is acceptable, and the most precious is that which is most freely proffered.”  15
  “W.S.C.,” as many probably guessed at the time, was the Rt. Hon. Winston Spencer Churchill, a personal friend and warm admirer of the poet. Many other tributes followed, notably from an anonymous writer in the Spectator, from Mr. Walter de la Mare, Mr. Edward Thomas, Mr. Holbrook Jackson, Mr. Jack Collings Squire, Mr. James Douglas, Mr. Drinkwater, Mr. Gibson, and Mr. Lascelles Abercrombie. From most of these writers I have already quoted at some length, but space must yet be found for the last three, the surviving members of the brilliant quartette who produced New Numbers. Mr. Drinkwater wrote as follows: “There can have been no man of his years in England who had at once so impressive a personality and so inevitable an appeal to the affection of every one who knew him, while there has not been, I think, so grievous a loss to poetry since the death of Shelley. Some of us who knew him may live to be old men, but life is not likely to give us any richer memory than his; and the passion and shapely zest that are in his work will pass safely to the memory of posterity.” Mr. Wilfrid Gibson’s tribute took the form of a short poem called “The Going:”
        He’s gone.
I do not understand.
I only know
That, as he turned to go
And waved his hand,
In his young eyes a sudden glory shone,
And I was dazzled by a sunset glow—
And he was gone.
  Mr. Lascelles Abercrombie, now perhaps the greatest of our younger poets and a warm personal friend of Brooke’s, wrote at greater length:  17
  “‘And the worst friend and enemy is but Death’ … ‘And if these poor limbs die, safest of all.’ So ended two of the five sonnets, with the common title ‘1914,’ which Rupert Brooke wrote while he was training, between the Antwerp expedition and sailing for the Ægean. These sonnets are incomparably the finest utterance of English poetry concerning the Great War. We knew the splendid promise of Rupert Brooke’s earlier poetry; these sonnets are the brief perfection of his achievement. They are much more than that: they are among the few supreme utterances of English patriotism. It was natural, perhaps, that they should leave all else that has been written about the war so far behind. It is not so much that they are the work of a talent scarcely, in its own way, to be equalled to-day; it was much more that they were the work of a poet who had for his material the feeling that he was giving up everything to fight for England—the feeling, I think, that he was giving his life for England. Reading these five sonnets now, it seems as if he had in them written his own epitaph. I believe he thought so himself; a few words he said in my last talk with him makes me believe that—now. At any rate, the history of literature, so full of Fate’s exquisite ironies, has nothing more poignantly ironic, and nothing at the same time more beautifully appropriate, than the publication of Rupert Brooke’s noble sonnet-sequence, ‘1914,’ a few swift weeks before the death they had imagined, and had already made lovely. Each one of these five sonnets faces, in a quiet exultation, the thought of death, of death for England; and understands, as seldom even English poetry has understood, the unspeakable beauty of the thought:
        “These laid the world away; poured out the red
Sweet wine of youth; gave up the years to be
  Of work and joy, and that unhoped serene
  That men call age; and those who would have been,
Their sons, they gave—their immortality.
I am strangely mistaken if the accent of the noblest English poetry does not speak to us in those lines. And again:
        “If I should die, think only this of me:
  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, breathing English air,
  Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.
  “This—this music, this beauty, this courage—was Rupert Brooke. But it is, we may be sure, his immortality. It is not yet tolerable to speak of personal loss. The name seemed to stand for a magical vitality that must be safe—safe! Yes, ‘and if these poor limbs die, safest of all!’ What poetry has lost in him cannot be judged by any one who has not read those last sonnets, now his farewell to England and the world. I am not underrating the rest of his work. There was an intellectual keenness and brightness in it, a fire of imagery and (in the best sense) wit, the like of which had not been known, or known only in snatches, in our literature since the best days of the later Elizabethans. And it was all penetrated by a mastering passion, the most elemental of all passions—the passion for life. ‘I have been so great a lover,’ he cries, and artfully leads us on to think he means the usual passion of a young poet’s career. But it is just life he loves, and not in any abstract sense, but all the infinite little familiar details of life catalogued with delighted jest. This was profoundly sincere: no one ever loved life more wholly or more minutely. And he celebrated his love exquisitely, often unforgettably, through all his earlier poetry, getting further intensity from a long sojourn in the South Seas. But this passion for life had never had seriously to fight for its rights and joys. Like all great lovers of life, he had pleased himself with the thought of death and after death: not insincerely, by any means, but simply because this gave a finer relish to the sense of being alive. Platonism, which offers delightful games for such subtle wit as his, he especially liked to play with. It was one more element in the life of here and now, the life of mortal thought and sense and spirit, infinitely varying and by him infinitely loved. And then came 1914; and his passion for life had suddenly to face the thought of voluntary death. But there was no struggle; for instantly the passion for life became one with the will to die—and now it has become death itself. But first Rupert Brooke had told the world once more how the passion for beautiful life may reach its highest passion and most radiant beauty when it is the determination to die.”


London, October, 1915.



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