The Strange Destiny of Rupert Brooke
by John Lehmann
Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 178 pp., $12.95
Rupert Brooke is like a skiff on the sea of English poetry, falling farther and farther astern until he becomes a mere speck tossing on the waves, and it looks as though he will fade from sight. Yet, like Chatterton or Cory, long after being passed by, he still remains visible. Everything has conspired to sink him. The most publicized of the Georgian poets, he with his poetic style was swamped by the wash of the revolution in prosody. Ten years after he was dead the clever undergraduates were no longer reading him; they had surrendered their minds to Eliot.
Nor was that all. In those deflationary days there were Georgian poets still honored, but they were Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, who had pilloried patriotism and the heroics of the 1914 war. Brooke’s patriotic sonnets welcoming the war as a cleansing of the spirit and an awakening from the nightmare of Edwardian cynicism into the pure light of service to one’s country were detested by the young. They believed that cynicism was a most necessary antidote to such pernicious nonsense and pacifism the true heroic attitude.
John Lehmann has filed a third charge against Brooke. To him Brooke was a renegade. The story, which he tells extremely well, is this. Rupert Brooke was a young man of immense promise. He emancipated himself from his conventional public-school background—his father was a housemaster at Rugby—and became in 1906, his first year at King’s College, Cambridge, a leading light among the undergraduates. He helped to found with Justin Brooke (no relation) the famous Marlowe Society (which was later to transform the speaking of verse on the English stage) and dazzled everyone in sight with his staggering good looks.
But although through his friendship with James Strachey and Geoffrey Keynes, the younger brother of Maynard Keynes, he was friends with Bloomsbury, he did not ape them. He set a new fashion at King’s in preferring the company of girls, he and his friends tramping twenty miles a day. He bathed naked with Virginia Stephen in Byron’s pool. Good form and correct dress meant nothing to him. Indeed he became a socialist, having been converted by the Webbs’ Minority Report to Fabianism. When he took over the Cambridge branch of the society membership boomed. He may not have won Beatrice Webb’s approval when she met him at a Fabian summer school—she considered him inadequately humble—but he won everyone else’s approval: the Darwins and Cornfords among the Cambridge families were his particular friends. Ardent, attractive, spontaneous if temperamental, he was working for the fellowship he was to win at King’s on the then avant-garde topic of Webster’s plays, when all was suddenly to change.
The climacteric, according to John Lehmann, came at a weekend in Dorset in 1911. Rupert was at that time entangled with two girls. One was a schoolgirl when she cast her spell over him, the youngest of the …