“The Old Vicarage, Grantchester” was written by Brooke while in Berlin in 1912. After initially titling the poem “Home” and then “The Sentimental Exile,” the author eventually chose the name of his occasional residence near Cambridge. One of Brooke’s most famous poems, its references can be overly obscure because of the many specific Cambridge locations and English traditions to which the poem refers. Some have seen it as sentimentally nostalgic, which it is, while others have recognized its satiric and sometimes cruel humor.
Using octosyllabics—a meter often favored by Brooke—the author writes of Grantchester and other nearby villages in what has been called a seriocomic style. It is very much a poem of “place,” the place where Brooke composed the work, Berlin, and the contrast of that German world (“Here am I, sweating, sick, and hot”) with his home in England. Yet it is more than just the longing of an exile for his home, nostalgically imagined. The landscape of Cambridgeshire is reproduced in the poem, but Brooke, the academic, populates this English world with allusions and references from history and myth. He compares the countryside to a kind of Greek Arcadia, home to nymphs and fauns, and refers to such famous literary figures as Lord Byron, Geoffrey Chaucer, and Tennyson. Homesick for England, a land “Where men with Splendid Hearts may go,” it is Grantchester, in particular, that he desires.
If the poem is nostalgic and sentimental, however, it is also satiric in its treatment of the Cambridgeshire landscape. In wishing to be in Grantchester, Brooke compares its virtues with those of other nearby towns and villages. In a series of wry couplets, Brooke pokes sly fun at the inhabitants of neighboring villages, whom he contrasts with those in Grantchester. The people of Cambridge are said to be “urban, squat, and packed with guile,” while oaths—or worse—are flung at visitors to Over and Trumpington. He complains that “Ditton girls are mean and dirty,/ And there’s none in Harston under thirty,” but Grantchester is described as a place of “peace and holy quiet.” Even the residents of Grantchester, however, are not immune to Brooke’s teasing; in a line that is perhaps only half in jest, given his own bouts of depression, he adds that “when they get to feeling old,/ They up and shoot themselves, I’m told.”
Yet there is also a seriousness in the poem underneath its comedic elements. In his conclusion, Brooke asks a series of rhetorical questions:
Say, is there Beauty yet to find? And Certainty?...
(The entire section is 629 words.)