In World War I, when news of Rupert Brooke’s death reached England, John Drinkwater wrote that there had not been a sadder loss to poetry since Shelley’s death, a judgment that seemed borne out by the sale of 58,000 copies of the COLLECTED POEMS by 1921. There was also the legend, rapidly crystallized, of the “great lover,” the handsomest Englishman of his day, famed for his charm. So much had he become the symbol of the youth of England, now decimated by the war, that the strange proposal was made to fix the church clock at Grantchester permanently at “ten to three” as a memorial to his best-loved poem. Yet of this reputation, once so splendid, little remains today, and there are few readers of his poems. The reason is to be found in the radical change that has overtaken English poetry since World War I and sent it along roads far different from those that Rupert Brooke knew.
For the literary historian, 1915 was an interestingly crucial year in English poetry: it saw the publication in England of Brooke’s COLLECTED POEMS and in America of T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” which appeared in the Chicago magazine, Poetry. So utterly unalike are Brooke’s war sonnets and Eliot’s ironic dramatic monologue that it is as difficult to reconcile their publication in the same year as to remember that Brooke was only a year older than Eliot and that, had it not been for the war, could easily have lived into the 1960’s. Brooke marked the end, as Eliot did the beginning, of a literary age.
The short-lived group known as “the Georgians” was not a poetic school as the term is understood in France; it was a loosely knit group whose members had in common only a reaction against the false medievalism of the late nineteenth century and the artificiality of the 1890’s. It was a return to actuality in subject matter and an employment of the tone and accent of natural speech. The preciocity of the generation of Wilde and Dowson had to be removed from English poetry; the vigor of the common language of men had to be restored, as Wordsworth had found necessary a century earlier. More than anything, there was need for fresh air after the incense-laden atmosphere of the Aesthetic Movement. There was a rediscovery of the beauty of the English countryside and of the sheer joy of living, after the elaborately cultivated world weariness and disillusionment of the 1890’s. The influence of France, which had been dominant in England, was cast off; there was a return to the main stream of English poetry. The Georgians were perhaps the last romantics, as they were also the last to be what we usually think of as typically English.
Brooke went through an early apprentice period during which he was much influenced by the “decadents,” particularly Dowson, an experience natural enough for a man of his generation, before he found his own voice and his own style. The late George Woodberry, in his celebrated essay that serves as an introduction to the COLLECTED POEMS, suggested that Brooke excelled in three aspects of poetry: the dramatic sonnet, the narrative idyl, and the “melange.” By the dramatic sonnet, Woodberry meant a sonnet in which “there is a tragic reversal or its equivalent”; that is, the last line of the poem suddenly reverses the mood that has been carefully built up for thirteen lines. The idyl derives from Milton’s early poems, even to the use of seven and eight-syllable rhyming couplets and glimpses of the English countryside with its flowers and trees and streams. By the “melange” Woodberry meant such poems as “The Great Lover,” in which the poet, having garnered experience, re-creates it in language without particular regard for the value of the experience. The poem is a compilation of physical objects and sensations, held together only by a slender thread of association.
There was also at work on Brooke another influence: that of the Metaphysical poets; and it may be well to remind the present generation that it was not T. S. Eliot alone who rediscovered these figures from the early seventeenth century. Brooke was much interested in them while an undergraduate at Cambridge, for he was an omnivorous reader. His most recent biographer, Christopher Hassall, has aptly pointed out that the greater influence on Brooke’s poetry came from Marvel rather than from Donne, for it was in Marvel’s poetry that gravity becomes transformed into humor and levity into seriousness. This is the tone of many of Brooke’s later poems and particularly of his famous, “The Old Vicarage, Grantchester.” Hassall maintains quite rightly that Brooke would have been wiser had he allowed the original title of “The Sentimental Exile” to remain, as it expressed more precisely...
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