Honour has come back, as a king, to earth,
And paid his subjects with a royal wage;
And Nobleness walks in our ways again;
And we have come into our heri- tage,
—The Dead I.
Four years after the young poet died, a genial party gathered at his old house in Rugby to celebrate his memory. The terrible war was over; the poet’s general, a bit of a literary man himself, was in excellent form. The poet’s mother invited one of her son’s best Cambridge friends to carve the chicken; “she really did thoroughly enjoy having a houseful,” and afterwards was hostess to several hundred further guests for tea. The general unveiled a highly spiritual plaque of the poet, showing him bare-shouldered and with a misleadingly epicene expression, and said: “Like a prince he would enter a room, like a prince quite unconscious of his own royalty, and by that mere act put a spell upon everyone around him.” Twelve years later, the poet’s first book of verse had sold nearly a hundred thousand copies.
The wage certainly was royal. Yet many, and perhaps most, of those who asembled at Rugby in 1919 knew that the “heritage” which the British had so willingly accepted from Rupert Brooke involved a hopeless misconception of what Brooke had really thought and been, and the best of them persisted in pointing this out. They were hardly heeded. There had to be some meaning, some virtue, in the four-year disaster which had just taken place, and Brooke, in his last untypical sonnets, had grasped at a meaning:
…the rich Dead!
There’s none of these so lonely and poor of old,
But, dying, has made us rarer gifts than gold…
Mr. Hassall, in this biography, does not mock the need for consolation which made Brooke into something like an English Petöfi, his verse perhaps even now more commonly known than that of any poet but Shakespeare. Thousands found reason in Brooke to hope that the great failure had somehow been a success after all; men like Winston Churchill rendered solemn thanks that a poet should have come to share their view of war’s ennobling properties. The patriotic myth grew, “man into marble,” as Mr. Hassall puts it. When the ultimate reaction came, revulsion buried the true Brooke coffined inside the false.
In a way, the public was right about the verse. Tremendous fads for something new often turn out to be revivals, and Brooke’s readers correctly identified in his poetry elements which he would hardly have acknowledged: agnostic and socialist as he was, he constantly used religious categories—“God” and “Heaven” and an immortal soul—to express familiar Christian oppositions of carnal impurity to the “cleanliness” of self-denial. His language still held echoes of Hymns Ancient & Modern, his tastes outraged nobody’s prejudices, the “England” of his verse was the fabulous Eden of a million dimly remembered childhoods. There was nothing to shock, beyond some jolly, scatological things. His …