Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1121
Rupert Chawner Brooke was born in Rugby, England, on August 3, 1887. His father, William Parker Brooke, was a Rugby schoolmaster, an undistinguished but competent classical scholar, a person perhaps most noticeable for his very lack of noticeable traits. Rupert’s mother, Mary Ruth Cotterill, dominated the family and is often...
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- Critical Essays
Rupert Chawner Brooke was born in Rugby, England, on August 3, 1887. His father, William Parker Brooke, was a Rugby schoolmaster, an undistinguished but competent classical scholar, a person perhaps most noticeable for his very lack of noticeable traits. Rupert’s mother, Mary Ruth Cotterill, dominated the family and is often described as an organizer—energetic, efficient, strict, even domineering. One of Rupert’s brothers, Dick, died after a short illness in 1907; another, Alfred, was killed in World War I three months after Rupert’s death. Several commentators have made much of the death of a child who would have been Rupert’s older sister, implying that somehow Rupert was always affected by the notion of being a disappointing replacement for an adored and much-lamented daughter.
Rupert Brooke realized many benefits from, but at the same time was assuredly strained by, his family’s association with the British educational system. Although not unhealthy, neither was he robust, and he was heartily encouraged to develop his intellectual skills first and foremost. As a youth he exhibited a tendency to role-play, most often typified by world-weariness and grandiloquent language. His more engaging qualities included an active mind, interest if not excellence in some sports, and (to understate) a pleasing appearance that later became a significant part of his legend.
Brooke’s life at Rugby was notable for the variety of his academic, social, and even athletic interests, and for his ability to develop close friendships with interesting people, a trait that stayed with Brooke always. Many of his friends were remarkable and passionately loyal to him; even mere acquaintances could not deny intense curiosity about him. As a poet, his early works show a young man enchanted with words and full of the impulse to parody the masters. He was more enthusiastic than polished, becoming increasingly so with each English poet whose secrets he discovered, digested, and imitated. Brooke adored writing contests and seemed to delight in shocking the sensibilities of his friends and family.
As a student at King’s College, Cambridge, Brooke continued these activities, but now for the first time found real independence from his family in a stimulating and glamorous setting. In addition to his reading and writing, he now discovered the delights of political debate, the mysteries of such disciplines as psychology, and the pleasures of acting. He excitedly joined political discussions, joined the Cambridge Fabian Society, and worked diligently on its behalf. As an actor he exhibited no real talent, in spite of his ability to deliver poetic lines with great enthusiasm and a physical presence that, according to many, was spectacular. His career at Cambridge, undistinguished academically, was nevertheless solid. He cultivated still more fascinating friends, showed a preference for “modern” works, and matured as a poet. At the same time, he confessed a weary tolerance for life, an attitude that his many activities would seem to contradict.
After his formal education and before World War I, Brooke found both peace and adventure. He spent some time reading and writing in a charming setting, Grantchester, and reveled in his surroundings and leisure, a welcome relief from his school years. For excitement, Brooke embarked in 1913 to explore the Americas and the South Seas, an excursion financed by the Westminster Gazette; the newspaper had commissioned him to send back impressions of his tour. He must have enjoyed himself; the pace was hectic, and he was greeted enthusiastically and with respect by his various hosts. His articles, often supremely “British” and critical of a general lack of culture in the Americas, are nevertheless important and enjoyable, suggesting increasing powers of observation and description.
Brooke’s return to Britain was personally triumphant and satisfying. He had confessed homesickness during his travels but was little prepared for his outright joy at once again reaching British soil. His friends greeted him exuberantly, and a series of social and artistic activities kept him busy. His future, as artist, as critic, even perhaps as politician, seemed assured.
Brooke’s dreams were to be stalled, shattered, and canceled by World War I. It is a curious measure of the impact of Brooke’s work and personality that he, with limited exposure to battle, eventually dying of blood poisoning, should ultimately be accorded the lavish praise of his countrymen, who saw him as the spokesperson for a generation of heroes. With many of his friends, he had expressed early disgust for the very notion of war, but he changed attitudes quickly, voicing the desire to find high adventure while ridding the world of the Prussian menace. He joined the Artists’ Rifles, sought a commission, and eventually landed a post as a sublieutenant in the Royal Naval Division. His only significant action was to march with a brigade in relief of Antwerp, where he witnessed the realities of war. The column, however, retreated quickly after a few days of occupying trenches.
Later, Brooke’s division received its orders for the Aegean and Gallipoli. En route, Brooke contracted dysentery; his condition weakened, he would fail and seem to rally from time to time. He lingered but finally died on April 23, 1915, at the age of twenty-seven, aboard a French hospital ship, in the company of a school friend. He was buried the same day on the nearby island of Skyros, where a memorial was later raised in his honor.
Brooke’s memory, however, lived on, sometimes in ways that were flattering and meaningful, other times in ways that were distorted and tasteless. The poet who wrote with conviction about fair England and the soldier’s duty and privilege to serve was mourned and eulogized by many, not the least of whom was Winston Churchill, who had recognized the value of Brooke’s verse. Beyond his work, there were other matters, more difficult to pinpoint but significant nevertheless, that contributed to his fame. His background, his education, and even his dashing good looks (he was called the “fair-haired Apollo,” to his embarrassment) represented what was best about “the Empire,” and much of the British approach to this war was intimately involved, of course, with “the Empire” and all it implied. It is too bad, in a way, that this fine poet and remarkable person has had to bear these burdens, for the excessive publicity obscures what is best about his work and life. Paul Fussell has rightly called World War I an “ironic” war; by that he means that the gestures and ideals of the participants appear almost ludicrous in the context of the brutal efficiency of the new century. There is much that is ironic about World War I’s most famous poet, too, for today Brooke is often admired, often condemned, but in both cases, usually for the wrong reasons.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 811
Rupert Chawner Brooke was born in Rugby, England, on August 3, 1887. His father, William Parker Brooke, was an instructor of classics at Rugby School, one of the most prestigious of England’s public schools, but it was Mary Ruth Cotterill, Rupert’s mother, who dominated the family. Young Brooke, the middle child among three brothers, attended Rugby School, playing cricket and football, excelling in English, winning prizes for his poetry, and becoming Head Boy. Many of his contemporaries were attracted to his personality; others noted his tall, blond physique, reminiscent of a young Apollo.
From Rugby, Brooke entered King’s College, Cambridge, where, under the influence of more modern writers and intellectuals, he abandoned some of the Decadent fin de siècle postures found in his earlier poetry. He also made friends among some of England’s most famous political and artistic families: the Asquiths, Darwins, Oliviers, and Stracheys. Freed from the day-to-day influence of his family, he joined the socialist Fabian Society and university dramatic groups; he also began writing for the Cambridge Review, a university journal with a national reputation. During his Cambridge years, from 1906 to 1909, he wrote at least sixty poems, about a third of which were printed in his first volume of poetry, Poems, in 1911.
Failure to receive a first-class degree and the complications of emotional exhaustion prompted Brooke to leave Cambridge for the small village of Grantchester, just a few miles distant but far enough from the attractions of the university city. His friends and acquaintances congregated around him there, and his time at the Old Vicarage, his principal residence in Grantchester, assumed almost mythic proportions, although he lived there principally for only two years. In addition to his poetry, Brooke became an accomplished literary critic; he particularly admired Robert Browning and John Donne, and although always opposing free verse, he praised the poetry of Ezra Pound. He also wrote a dissertation on the Elizabethan dramatist John Webster. Virginia Woolf, a friend, noted Brooke’s wide literary knowledge and disciplined work habits.
Poems included fifty poems from both his younger years and after his university days. The volume was widely reviewed and well received, considering that it was the author’s first book. In early 1912, however, Brooke suffered a breakdown, compounded by both personal and professional considerations. His literary career, his dependency on his changing circle of acquaintances, his relationship with his mother, and his other emotional attachments led him to fear that he was becoming insane. Nevertheless, during this period he wrote one of his most famous poems, “The Old Vicarage, Grantchester.” By the end of the year, apparently recovered, he was again engaged in several literary projects.
In 1913, Brooke traveled to Canada, the United States, and the islands of the South Pacific. Initially, his response to the culture of the Western Hemisphere was mainly dismissive, but the California cities of San Francisco and Berkeley pleased him, and his three months in Tahiti led to some of his best love poems. He had also begun working with Edward Marsh on the first of a series of anthologies of modern poets. Known as “Georgian Poetry,” the first volume appeared in 1913. Later, the term came to denote a certain artificial vacuousness, but the initial volume included, in addition to poems by Brooke, work by D. H. Lawrence, John Masefield, Robert Graves, Isaac Rosenberg, and Siegfried Sassoon.
By the time of Brooke’s return to England in the spring of 1914, his circle included not only his university friendships at Cambridge and Grantchester but also the major writers and artists of the day. In addition, he was on close terms with the prime minister, Herbert Asquith, and Winston Churchill, first lord of the admiralty. Still young, his future seemed bright as a poet or literary critic, even perchance a politician. On the day after his twenty-seventh birthday, however, Great Britain entered World War I, and Brooke soon sought an officer’s commission. During the winter of 1914-1915, he wrote a series of sonnets on the war, published in 1914, and Other Poems (1915), in which he idealized sacrificing one’s life for one’s country. Many of his contemporaries had already gone to the Western Front, where thousands were dying in what came to be called “no man’s land,” and in early 1915 Brooke’s Royal Naval Division was ordered to take part in the Dardanelles campaign against Turkey, Germany’s ally. In spite of Brooke’s robust appearance, his health had always been problematic, and before his unit entered combat he became ill with fever and died on a hospital ship in the Aegean Sea on April 23, 1915, England’s St. George’s Day. Even before his death, his poem “The Soldier” had been read during services in Westminster Abbey. Churchill wrote of Brooke’s death and sacrifice in Brooke’s obituary in The Times of London. Brooke’s apotheosis had begun.