Rupert Brooke 1887–1915
English poet, critic, dramatist, essayist, travel writer, and journalist.
Considered England's foremost young poet at the time of his death in 1915, Brooke is best known today for his war poetry and for his personal mystique as the embodiment of idealized youth. Of the war sonnets in 1914, and Other Poems, Brooke's "The Soldier," celebrating a life gladly given in England's service, is world-renowned—hailed for its noble sentiments by many, and scorned for its naiveté by others.
One of three brothers, each of whom died before reaching age thirty, Brooke was born in Rugby, England, where his father served as a schoolmaster at Rugby School, which he attended. He composed two prize poems while at Rugby and entered King's College, Cambridge, in 1906. In 1911 he published Poems, which was regarded even by its detractors as a herald of a major talent. Brooke suffered an emotional breakdown in 1912, following a failed love affair. Brooke embarked on a trip to North America and the South Pacific in 1913. At the outbreak of World War I, he returned to England and received a commission in the Royal Navy. While preparing for the assault on Gallipoli, Turkey, Brooke died of blood poisoning aboard ship in the Aegean Sea. He was buried in an olive grove on the island of Scyros.
Brooke is best remembered for his poems influenced by the onset of World War I. Commissioned an officer in the Royal Naval Division, he completed his famed 1914 sonnets during the early stages of the war, demonstrating in them a romantic, crusading vision typical of the English civilian spirit at that time. His travel poems also have attracted critical attention. Considered one of his best sonnets, "Tiare Tahiti" was inspired by his love for one of the natives he met while visiting the South-Sea island. Another well-regarded poem is his "The Old Vicarage, Grantchester," a whimsical, sentimental revelation of his homesickness while traveling.
The idolatrous praise heaped upon Brooke following his death attracted a tremendous readership to his poetry. Often nostalgic and sentimental, his verse fueled the tragic
"young Apollo" image against which critics have struggled to assess his literary achievement. Shortly after World War I, Brooke's poetry was rejected by critics who viewed his work as little more than the idealistic musings of a pampered darling, objecting most emphatically to his war sonnets for their glorification of war and of the soldier's martyrdom. Present-day commentators, however, while acknowledging Brooke's excesses, have drawn favorable attention to his skill as a sonneteer, his gift for language, and the romantic intensity of his best verse, focusing on a renewed appreciation of Brooke's stylistic accomplishments. More importantly, however, Brooke has come to be viewed, in recognition of both the qualities and the defects of his poetry and character, as the embodiment of his age, closely reflecting the thoughts and sentiments of his pre-War generation. As such, he remains an important figure in the history of English literature.
The Collected Poems of Rupert Brooke 1915
1914, and Other Poems 1915
The Poetical Works of Rupert Brooke 1946
Other Major Works
Lithuania (drama) 1915
John Webster and the Elizabethan Drama (essay) 1916
Letters from America (travel essays) 1916
The Prose of Rupert Brooke (essays and criticism) 1956
G. Wilson Knight (essay date 1971)
SOURCE: "Rupert Brooke," in Neglected Powers: Essays on Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Literature, Barnes & Noble, 1971, pp. 293-308.
[In the following essay, Knight discusses the defining characteristics of Brooke's verse.]
Rupert Brooke belongs, not to a generation, and certainly not to posterity, but to a date: in so far as his name survives, it does so in inevitable connection with 1914. Although it was his generation—the generation of Pound and Eliot, of Joyce and Lawrence, of Epstein and Picasso and Stravinsky—that made the modern world of art, Brooke has no place among them, and consequently no living contact with the present moment. He is a poet of his time, but his time was those few first months of the First World War, when Englishmen still believed that it was sweet and proper to die for one's country, and when Brooke's war sonnets could be read without bitterness or irony.
We think of Brooke, then, as a War Poet. But quite inaccurately. In the first place, it would be more precise to call him an On-the-way-to-the-war Poet, for, with ironic appropriateness, he died of natural causes en route to the Dardanelles campaign, and the emotions that his war sonnets express are not those of a combatant, but of a recruit. The real War Poets—Owen and Sassoon and Graves and Blunden and Rosenberg—came along later, out of the trenches, and spoke with a different tone; indeed, one might say that their poems exist to contradict the ignorant nobilities of Brooke. Sassoon recalled [in Siegfried's Journey, 1945] that
while learning to be a second-lieutenant I was unable to write anything at all, with the exception of a short poem called 'Absolution', manifestly influenced by Rupert Brooke's famous sonnet-sequence. The significance of my too nobly worded lines was that they expressed the typical self-glorifying feelings of a young man about to go to the Front for the first time. The poem subsequently found favour with middle-aged reviewers; but the more I saw of the war the less noble-minded I felt about it.
Poor Brooke never got past the self-glorifying stage, because he did not get to the war.
But Brooke was a would-be War Poet for only the length of those last five sonnets. Until then, through nearly a hundred poems, he had been a lyric poet of Youth, Love and Death, who developed from a Late Decadent to an Early Georgian. Most of these poems are hard going now, not because they are particularly bad, and certainly not because they are difficult, but because they are uniformly and conventionally dull; they are poems that might have been written by any of a number of mediocre pre-war poets, or by a committee of Georgians. They have no distinguishable individual voice, and this is no doubt one reason for Brooke's popularity among people who don't ordinarily read verse; his poetry sounds the way poetry should sound, because it sounds like so many poems that have already been written. Echoes of Marvell and Donne, of Shakespeare, Blake, Housman, Dowson and Yeats haunt the Collected Poems; the only ghost that is not there is Brooke's.
Almost any poem from Poems 1911 (the only book that Brooke published during his lifetime) will confirm these strictures. Take, for example, this sonnet:
Not exactly a bad poem, and far from Brooke's worst, but a poem without any distinguishable merit—the diction abstract and conventional, the images the worn poetical coinage of the past, the theme Death, the most poetical subject that Brooke knew. Out of poems like this one a list of favourite words and gestures could be made that would constitute Brooke's sense of what was poetic, and that turn up again and again, rearranged, but essentially the same: dream and gleam, heart, tears, sorrow, grey, yearning, and weary cries and sighs, and of course, everywhere, Love and Death. In a rare moment of self-criticism Brooke composed a table of contents for an imaginary anthology, to which his own contribution was to be 'Oh, Dear! Oh, Dear! A Sonnet'. This is very perceptive, for nearly half of his poems are conventional sonnets, and most of them, like 'Oh! Death will find me', say little more than 'Oh Dear!'
This body of boring verse suggests not so much a man who wanted to write a poem as a man who wanted to be a poet; or perhaps in Brooke's case a man who took poeticalness as his destiny. For if the poems are in the most conventional sense poetic, so was Brooke. No one ever looked so much like a poet as he did—not a poète maudit, but an ideal English poet, a gentleman poet, a Rugby-and-Cambridge poet, a healthy, pink-cheeked, blond, games-playing poet. He was, as Henry Nevinson said, almost ludicrously beautiful, and with his long hair and his flowing ties he made his own beauty poetical. (Even Beatrice Webb, who was deaf to poetry and immune to a pretty face, called Brooke 'a poetic beauty', though she thought him otherwise a commonplace, conceited young man.) With such looks, great personal charm, and a modest talent, no wonder that he had such friends, that he dined with the Prime Minister and called Winston Churchill by his first name and never worked for a living. He was a Doomed Youth from the beginning, but his doom was his extravagant good fortune; as Henry James said, felicity dogged his steps.
More than any of his other admirers it was James who understood the expense of Brooke's beauty. 'Rupert expressed us all', James wrote after his death [in the preface to Letters from America, 1916] 'at the highest tide of our actuality, and was the creature of a freedom restricted only by that condition of his blinding youth, which we accept on the whole with gratitude and relief—given that I qualify the condition as dazzling even to himself. The expressive self, the 'blinding youth' became a myth in his own time. Brooke was twenty-three and scarcely known when Frances Cornford published her epigram about him:
And he remained mythical in his life and in his death. [In Letters, edited by Aldous Huxley, 1932] Even D. H. Lawrence—a man not given to classical allusion—wrote of Brooke's death that
he was slain by bright Phoebus' shaft—it was in keeping with his general sunniness—it was the real climax of his pose. I first heard of him as a Greek god under a Japanese sunshade, reading poetry in his pyjamas, at Grantchester,—at Grantchester upon the lawns where the river goes. Bright Phoebus smote him down. It is all in the saga.
But as James perceived, the myth dazzled Brooke, too. He confessed to Ka Cox that he had 'always enjoyed that healthy, serene, Apollo-golden-haired, business' and in most of his poems he allowed himself to be absorbed in it, so that the personal role and the poetic role were the same, and there is no creative tension between them. If one asks who wrote 'The Funeral of Youth' or 'The Great Lover' or 'Tiare Tahiti', the answer can only be, 'Apollo-Brooke did'.
A few poems suggest, however, that Brooke did recognize the danger of the myth to him as a poet, and that he was trying to destroy, or at least modify it by writing poems that were aggressively anti-Apollonian. His five so-called 'ugly poems' are all attempts to get beyond conventional poetic subject matter and language, to a more acrid reality. 'Channel Passage', the most noticed of these, is about seasickness and lovesickness; 'Dead Men's Love' is a vision of dead lovers kissing;...
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Samuel Hynes (essay date 1972)
SOURCE: "Rupert Brooke," in Edwardian Occasions: Essays on English Writing in the Early Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press, 1972, pp. 144-52.
[In the following essay, Hynes offers a mixed assessment of Brooke's poetry.]
On the mention of Brooke's name we think first either of his five war sonnets or of the famous bare-shouldered photograph by S. Schell, used for the 1915 collection of his Poems and the original of the plaque in Rugby Chapel by Havard Thomas, whose version is in the National Portrait Gallery, where copies are sold. I shall indicate a relation between Brooke's poetry and this portrait, called by Christopher Hassall in his biography...
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Derek Stanford (essay date 1975)
SOURCE: "How Bad was Rupert Brooke?" in Books & Bookmen, Vol. 20, No. 235, April, 1975, pp. 64-6.
[In the following essay, Stanford traces the decline of Brooke's literary reputation.]
Even to have framed this question fifty years ago would have appeared a blasphemy. Rupert Brooke was still our national sacrificial object; our dear dead Anglo-Saxon Apollo. Only one year after his death, in her book Studies of Contemporary Poets (1916), Mary Sturgen identified him with England. 'In him … was manifested the poetic spirit of the race, warm with human passion and sane with laughter.' He had not died on 23 April—Shakespeare's birthday and St George's...
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Derek Stanford (essay date 1975)
SOURCE: "How Bad was Rupert Brooke? Part 2" in Books & Bookmen, Vol. 20, No. 8, May, 1975, pp. 50-1.
[In the following essay, published as the second installment of Stanford's essay, he deems Brooke's poetry important during his time, but not in the realm of contemporary literature.]
In Rupert Brooke: Four Poems Sir Geoffrey Keynes remarks on the poet's tendency to preserve any small scrap or draft of a poem. The two factors behind this retention were, he believes, laziness (making disposal too troublesome a business) or vanity (inducing thoughts of posthumous fame). Just how well, one might ask, were these conceits of immortality justified?
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Allen Walker Read (essay date 1982)
SOURCE: "Onomastic Devices in the Poetry of Rupert Brooke," in Literary Onomastics Studies, Vol. IX, 1982, pp. 183-208.
[In the following essay, Read explores the diversity and use of place names in Brooke's poetry.]
My interest in the subject of Rupert Brooke's use of place names has arisen from the great diversity of opinion concerning his famous sonnet entitled, "The Soldier." When I was coming into young manhood, in the early 1920s, in the aftermath of World War I (or "The Great War," as its usual name then was), Rupert Brooke's reputation was extremely high. Most people thrilled to his lines:
But in the next decade, the 1930s, when the pacifist...
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Jon Stallworthy (essay date 1990)
SOURCE: "Who Was Rupert Brooke?" in Critical Survey, Vol. 2, No. 2, 1990, pp. 185-93.
[In the following essay, Stallworthy challenges the prevailing impression of Brooke as a tormented poet.]
This may seem an odd question to ask on a poet's hundredth birthday, but it was one asked by his oldest friend forty years after his death. Geoffrey Keynes, having selected and edited his letters, had just sent a set of proofs to each of his fellow literary trustees and to a few of Brooke's other friends. To his consternation, several responded with horror, saying in effect: 'The letters to me show the real Rupert, but his posturing in the others distorts the portrait out...
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Paul Moeyes (essay date 1991)
SOURCE: "Georgian Poetry's False Dawn," in Neophilologus, Vol. LXXV, No. 3, July, 1991, pp. 456-69.
[In the following essay, Moeyes discusses Brooke's place in literary history, asserting that he "is a transitional figure, entering a new age for which he was not prepared."]
Rupert Brooke is regarded as one of the leading lights among the Georgian Poets, the group of poets Edward Marsh anthologised in his five volumes of Georgian Poetry (1911-1922). The Georgians have largely been ignored since the moment they went out of fashion in the mid-1920s, mainly because the Modernists labelled them reactionary, but more recent criticism has convincingly shown that they...
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William D. Laskowski (essay date 1994)
SOURCE: "Brooke's Poetry," in Rupert Brooke, Twayne Publishers, 1994, pp. 31-63.
[In the following essay, Laskowski provides a thematic and stylistic analysis of Brooke's verse.]
Readers of Geoffrey Keynes's edition of The Poetical Works of Brooke, initially published in 1946, will be immediately struck by Keynes's unusual arrangement of the poems in reverse chronological order, with the exception of some fragments Brooke wrote en route to the Dardanelles in 1915. In his edition Keynes has added 38 previously unpublished poems to the 82 originally included in Poems (1911) and 1914 and Other Poems, some of them of little intrinsic merit or interest,...
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Clive Bloom (essay date 1995)
SOURCE: "The Falling House that Never Falls: Rupert Brooke and Literary Taste," in British Poetry, 1900-50: Aspects of Tradition, edited by Gary Day and Brian Docherty, St. Martin's Press, 1995, pp. 37-47.
[In the following essay, Bloom argues that Brooke should be perceived as a modernist poet and urges a reassessment of his work.]
'Rupert Brooke's poetry remains a firm favourite with readers and listeners alike': such might be the opinion of the popular poetry radio programmes broadcast by BBC Radio 4 or, perhaps, the comments in the introduction to yet another anthology of the slim collected works (with a selection of letters added for good measure). Brooke's...
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Delany, Paul. The Neo-pagans: Rupert Brooke and the Ordeal of Youth. New York: Free Press, 1987, 270 p.
Chronicles the story of Brooke and his friends, and examines Brooke's poetical philosophy.
Hassall, Christopher. Rupert Brooke: A Biography. Salem, N.H.: Faber & Faber, 1964, 556 p.
Definitive biography on the English poet.
Hastings, Michael. Handsomest Young Man in England: Rupert Brooke. London: Joseph, 1967, 240 p.
Provides a biographical account of the poet....
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