Rupert Brooke remembered
WHAT everyone seems to remember about the poet Rupert Brooke was his extraordinary vitality. Edward Marsh, in a memoir on the poet, referred to his ``glorious enthusiasm ... I see Rupert singing at the top of his voice - with a magnificent disregard for time - the evening hymn....'' I did not know Rupert Brooke personally; he was a war casualty when I was a graduate student in Winnipeg. But from 1916 to early 1917, while doing war work in London, I heard the name of Rupert Brooke over and over again.
To the English, obviously, he was more significant than just a poet. He expressed the English will and commitment to sacrifice that was prevalent at the time. The lines from ``The Soldier,'' from a group of five sonnets titled simply ``1914''-
If I should die, think only this of me:
That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. ...
- had a special meaning to soldiers and their families.
Brooke is sometimes described as a ``Georgian'' poet, meaning that he is one of the poets included in an anthology of the best poetry written between 1912 and 1922, compiled by Sir Edward Marsh. This group included Walter de la Mare, A.E. Housman, and John Masefield.
Brooke has not slipped into obscurity. This year was the hundredth anniversary of his birth, and cultural activities relating to him have been taking place at Rugby, his old school, throughout the year. Literary prizes have been given; a symposium, a concert of Brooke's poetry set to music, and plays about the poet's life were held; next June, a statue of Brooke by Ivor Roberts-Jones will be unveiled.
Apparently Brooke's infancy and youth were marked by genuine happiness, which carried over into his nature as a poet. Even when he was a commander in the British Navy he was remembered as ebullient. Everyone who encountered him seemed to have felt his air of happiness. As a student at Rugby, he wrote effusively: ``Every hour was golden and radiant.''
Much of everything he saw and felt triggered some kind of reaction or impression and emerged as a poem or letter to a friend. Both his prose and verse were poetic.
At Rugby, he divided his time between athletics and intellectual pursuits. In his walks, he always noticed the fragrance emanating from the English gardens, and would stand quietly to listen to a bird call.
An excellent athlete and prizewinning student at Cambridge, he was a remarkable person in many ways. He once said: ``There are only three things in the world to do: one is to read poetry, another is to write poetry, and the best of all is to live poetry.''
One of the memorable events in his short life was a sea voyage to the South Pacific, via Canada and the US. Just before departure he realized that no one was coming to bid him goodbye.
Out of a sense of poetic melodrama he hired a somewhat grubby little boy named William to wave to him: ``And as we sailed away, the last object that I looked at was a small dot waving a white handkerchief - or nearly white - faithfully!''
He first traveled to the United States - ``American hospitality means that with the nice ones you can be at once on happy and intimate terms,'' he wrote to his mother - and then on to Fiji and Samoa. He wrote a number of sonnets on this voyage:
Warm perfumes like a breath of vine and tree
Drift down in the darkness. Plangent, hidden from eyes,
Somewhere an eukaleli thrills and cries
And stabs with pain the night's brown savagery. ...
But always his themes were romantic: passing youth and lost love.
When he returned to England, war had been declared, and he was offered a commission in the Royal Naval Division, Anson Battalion. He wrote later that he was actually sorry there had been no direct conflict with the enemy, but even so, the Belgian Army had been saved. ``It really was a mild experience, except for the 30-mile march through the night and the blazing city,'' he wrote afterward.
He had a few days' leave at Christmas and managed to complete the five war sonnets of ``1914.''
His ship, the Grantully Castle, departed England for the Dardanelles on Feb. 25, 1915. As he passed Spain, he wrote: ``There was something earthy in the air, and warm - like a consciousness of a presence in the dark - the wind had something Andalusian in it. ... All day I sat and strained my eyes to see over the horizon, orange groves and Moorish buildings, and dark-eyed beauties and guitars and fountains, and a golden darkness. But the curve of the world lay between us!''
He died that April, in Egypt.
Rupert Brooke has always epitomized the romantic hero: a generation of beautiful youth destroyed in World War I.
Winston Churchill, first lord of the Admiralty at the time, wrote that Brooke was ``more able to do justice to the nobility of our youth than any other.... Joyous, fearless, versatile, deeply instructed, with classic symmetry of mind and body, he was all that one would wish England's noblest sons to be in days when no sacrifice but the most precious is acceptable, and the most precious is that which is most freely proffered.''