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...
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