The Strange Destiny of Rupert Brooke
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 Olivier sisters, who scarcely knew what had hit her; the other and the more serious case was Katherine Cox, a plain but enchanting companion whom he had first known at Cambridge. She was a notable mother figure, full of sympathy and intelligence. “To be with her,” wrote a friend, “was like sitting in a green field of clover.” The field suddenly filled with herbivorous creatures.
Rupert was taken by Ka Cox but bewitched by his schoolgirl; Ka Cox herself ruminating after an unhappy love affair found herself overnight being violently wooed by the young painter Henry Lamb; Lytton Strachey was in love with Lamb; and James Stachey was in love with Rupert, indeed so much in love that he once suborned Harry Norton to report whether he had any male rivals. One afternoon Ka Cox and Henry Lamb disappeared for a long walk and possibly for something else. On their return, Rupert, who for some months had been in a state of sexual frustration, went off his head with jealousy, convinced himself that he was, and always had been, desperately in love with Ka, and jumped to the totally unfounded conclusion that Lytton had engineered Lamb’s intrigue with her. For months he pursued Ka with letters and tortured her and himself with lacerating meetings. No sooner had she finally succumbed and fallen deeply in love with him than he discovered that he did not love her after all and told her so.
Rupert Brooke does not come out of this well. People who do not know whether or not they are in love rarely do. John Lehmann reckons that something worse had occurred that weekend, something that was to affect his life as a poet and an intellectual. Rupert broke forever not only with Lytton Strachey but with his brother, his most intimate and loyal friend, James. Forever after he referred with loathing to Bloomsbury and all its works. He left Cambridge for London where an old Cambridge admirer and civil servant, Eddie Marsh, introduced him to two new worlds—to London literary life and the fellow Georgian poets whom Marsh was to publish, and to the beau monde.
Marsh was the young Winston Churchill’s private secretary and as such had the entrée to a particularly seductive part of London society, the Asquith clan and their Oxford acquaintance. On the day the anthology that Marsh edited, entitled Georgian Poetry, was published, the prime minister’s car waited outside the most fashionable bookshop in London to pick up a copy. That summer Rupert went cruising on the Admiralty yacht with Churchill and the Asquiths. Not good company for a poet.
Soon he was to find himself entangled with another unattainable beauty, the actress Cathleen Nesbitt. Wanting to get away from it all, he set off to America and ended up in Tahiti where he had an affair with a Tahitian girl. He came back in June 1914, took up his old friends except for James Strachey, whose views he now found intolerable, captivated those fellow poets such as Sassoon and Abercrombie who had not known him, dined with Henry James and the Duchess of Leeds…. Bad signs, thinks Mr. Lehmann. When war came, he got Churchill to wangle him into the naval brigade which that intrepid first lord of the Admiralty sent off to save Antwerp. It retired in some disorder a few days later and Rupert was whisked into Churchill’s office, as young officers to whom Churchill took a shine were in the Second World War, to tell him what went wrong and what should be done.
Before Brooke sailed on a troopship for the Dardanelles he wrote his five war sonnets, the source of both his fame and infamy. John Lehmann finds them rhetorical, shallow, full of poetical cliché, and imprecise, emotive imagery. Above all, the sonnets were intellectually vapid in that they did not prefigure the horror of war. He contrasts them unfavorably with what is arguably Brooke’s best poem, his ironical depiction of what a fish might think heaven to be were it to follow the eschatology of that singular work of Victorian poetry, Hymns Ancient and Modern. The sonnets pronounced Brooke’s gran rifutto, the denial of the values he had once held dear and the substitution for them of war hysteria and sentimentalism.
They were, however, the prelude to his canonization. Rupert Brooke died of blood poisoning after an insect bite on board ship waiting to attack the Dardanelles. But his death was trumpeted as if he had killed fifty Turks with his drawn sword before succumbing on the battlements. While he was still alive his sonnets had been praised from the pulpit by the dean of St. Paul’s. Now that he was dead Churchill wrote an elegy, Henry James a rhapsody about one who “virtually met a soldier’s death, met it in the stress of action and the all but immediate presence of the enemy,” and Eddie Marsh rushed out a memoir. The hot air expanded, the balloon of the legend rose, and Rupert Brooke disappeared from sight leaving behind as a pattern to schoolboys the poster of the heroic soldier-poet. His smart new London friends indulged their apostrophizing hearts.
But not everyone was taken in. His Cambridge friends looked sadly into the sky, indignant that they were being asked to mourn a Rupert who never existed; and Virginia Woolf, who did not much admire his poetry but who was fond of him, took Marsh to task for sentimentalizing someone who was “the most restless, complex, and analytic of human beings,” and to whose friends it had scarcely mattered whether he wrote poetry or not. For the next twenty years those friends tried to explain to the sardonic young what it was that, despite the sonnets, had made Rupert so magnetic: they did not have much success. Had Rupert remained true to his Cambridge ideals they would have had more.
Or would they? John Lehmann’s thesis is so pat as to appear to be irrefutable. Curiously enough, Lehmann too was a handsome Cambridge poet—and a famous oar; he too had his hard times with the avaricious Leonard Woolf in Bloomsbury at the Hogarth Press; he too had to take a stand during the left-wing politics of the Thirties, yet decided to remain a publisher and shepherd his young writers into the world. He had threaded his way through the malignancy of London literary life and had not been mesmerized by duchesses or queens. On the contrary, like a true Spenserian knight, he remained faithful to the quest to hunt not the Blatant Beast but that elusive maiden, talent in writing. Why could not Rupert Brooke?
Certainly one reason was that Brooke could not make up his mind what he was. It is a state of mind not unknown when people are in their twenties. Was he a scholar, was he a poet, was he a socialist, was he a man of action? Impossible to tell. Whom did he love? He never could be certain. John Lehmann gave his allegiance with hardly a second thought to a way of life which Brooke’s generation made popular: to live for, by, and off art. Brooke was drawn powerfully to this way of life, but he drew back. Had he good reasons?
In the story he tells so well John Lehmann perhaps fails to depict just how seductive, perhaps too seductive, the college Brooke went to in Cambridge was. King’s College resembled an imago released after centuries of larva-like existence, when the college was virtually closed to anyone who was not an Etonian. In the mid-Victorian reforms of the ancient universities King’s willingly threw itself open to all comers, and the first undergraduate to be admitted from a school other than Eton was in fact Rupert Brooke’s own father. By the time Rupert went there the comme il faut, High Anglican, decorous Etonians such as A.C. Benson had ceased to be the arbiters of the college. Indeed, Etonians, such as the spirited if absurd figure Oscar Browning, had led the opposition. An intelligent freshman was more likely to fall under the spell of that splendidly subversive figure, Wedd, who had been E.M. Forster’s mentor, or of Lowes Dickinson, another emancipator; or there was Pigou, the youngest professor of economics in the kingdom, a prominent free trader and Liberal. Keynes was at that time working in the India Office and writing his dissertation for the fellowship he would get, but his contemporary J.T. Sheppard, a protégé of Browning, was yet another young don who spent his time with the young.
Spending time with the young was what King’s dons were famous for. In the old days when an Etonian scholar automatically, on a vacancy arising, became a scholar and later, if he wished, a Fellow of King’s, the Fellows inevitably knew the undergraduates and treated them as equals, if a little lower down in the hierarchy of age. That tradition was now to flourish and, as a result, King’s began to be known for something else. Intense friendships between bachelor dons and undergraduates roused less comment than they would today if only for the reason that Englishmen of the upper classes lived between the ages of eight and twenty-one in a cloister of prep school, public school, and college. Such friendships could be romantic and were nearly always innocent. Even so, they could cause scandal, if they became flamboyant. Oscar Browning, to his intense indignation, had been required to give up his house at Eton because of his affection for the young George Curzon; and although Sheppard would not have laid a finger on an undergraduate, he used to announce his infatuations to the world at large and, using the arguments in Principia Ethica, spent hours trying to persuade Strachey that to fall in love with an unenlightened rowing Blue was not in itself evidence of a bad state of mind.
But the dons were teachers as well as guides, philosophers, and friends. The best of them taught outside the subject—not just the subtleties of Greek and Latin grammar or the narrative of history, but the political and moral ideas which emerged from the texts. The great thing at King’s was to be doing something new, learning something new, thinking something new.
Some of the undergraduates were less inhibited than their elders. Between the two wars King’s became somewhat notorious. (When Sheppard was head of the college a graduate student from Yale was commended to him in the Thirties for entry to King’s, the letter ending: “He is comely withal.” The neophyte was accordingly installed in a room above Sheppard’s drawing room: he turned out not only to play the gramophone incessantly, but to be uniquely hideous.) Alfred Brooke, Rupert’s delightful younger brother, who was also to be killed in the war, was undeniably promiscuous, and Lehmann documents an instance when Rupert yielded to the mood of the moment and went to bed with a charmer. His good looks made him intensely admired. Hugh Dalton, the future Labour chancellor of the exchequer, was among those languorous with love for him.
The good-looking and unintelligent often wear a puzzled expression as they grow older: they cannot understand why they are no longer courted and cherished. The good-looking and clever often get the reputation of being difficult: they are irritated by their admirers’ trying to mold them into an image of their own making. Beneath the spontaneity and high spirits of Brooke’s letters you can hear a note of irritability in being got at to do something, to be something, which he had not chosen. No doubt, most unreasonable. Did he not belong to one of the most stimulating academic societies in his day, which welcomed him, and did he not have everything a young man needs—friends, lovers, the freedom to do congenial work, and money enough to travel and meet his Spartan needs? Why did he have to sneer in his war sonnets at the little emptiness of love and at sick hearts that honor would not move?
We might as well ask why it was in the 1960s and 1970s that the younger generation in America and Europe, at a time when they, in Harold Macmillan’s condescending phrase “had never had it so good,” suddenly concluded that their consumer society with full employment was corrupt, class-ridden, hypocritical about equality between the races, the sexes, the classes, and the generations, and that its institutions did not deserve respect. Emotions much less widespread but not dissimilar troubled the generation in Europe before 1914. “When war broke out over Europe,” wrote Robert Wohl in The Generation of 1914, his excellent analysis of those young men, “it was interpreted by intellectuals as an hour of redemption, a rite of purification, a chance, perhaps the last, to escape from a sinking and declining civilization.” Ortega thought a new reality was to be born. To some of the most gifted of that generation—Henri de Montherlant, Jacques Rivière, Alain-Fournier, Fritz Unruh, Ernst Jünger, Gramsci—friendship was not enough, they wanted comradeship; love was not enough, they wanted expiation; the atomized individual working in a selfish and vulgar society was inadequate, he should be transformed into a citizen in an organic society. In them Rousseau was born again.
Such revolts beget their own particular sentimentalities and symbols which after a bit sound hollow. Rupert Brooke and his contemporaries took their symbols from the classics. It seemed fitting to them that Brooke should be buried on Skyros, the island where Achilles was hidden in boyhood, and that a fellow poet, Patrick Shaw-Stewart, should invoke the shade of Homer’s hero when he was about to land in the Dardanelles: “Stand in the trench, Achilles, Flame-capped and shout for me.” Today these young men seem to us to be striking attitudes. Of course, the war sonnets are flatulent. A near contemporary at King’s pointed out that when Brooke spoke about the sacrifice proffered by his generation it was rhetoric. Those who joined the armed forces performed a voluntary act which, if they had not performed it, would in their eyes have covered them forever with unendurable shame.
Brooke clearly was in a fine muddle about his feelings. But then war is a fine muddle. In both world wars many Englishmen disliked being the ally of the tyrant and enemy of freedom—Russia. In both world wars England was right to defy Germany’s contempt for the rule of law and her bid for hegemony: on that issue Bloomsbury, which was pacifist, was wrong and Brooke was right, and it is comprehensible that Brooke thought of them as sick hearts. Even Keynes snapped at Strachey, who enjoyed needling him about his equivocal attitude to serving the state in the treasury. Nor is it too hard to understand that he got irritated by the analysis of the state of minds in love, and the exact delineation of feeling, or the precise assessment of the intellectual, as distinct from the academic, merit in a thesis. Delectable as life in a Cambridge college can be, there comes a time when a man can grow weary of the deliberations of the window box committee at King’s.
It is not true, as Lehmann suggests, that Brooke wholly renounced his past. To the end he kept up with his Cambridge friends and was as loyal to them as to those in the Asquith circle with whom he was serving in the naval brigade. But he found, as people often do at a crisis in their country’s fortunes, that, as those who have read Aristotle could argue, public virtue is as important as private virtue. It is certainly more difficult to attain. What is clear is that he discovered that the demands of friendship and the tangles of love and the trade-offs and falsities of literary London were inadequate and too tempting a refuge from concern about the quality of life. It was not his puritan streak or the shadow of his formidable mother that stopped him from marrying Ka Cox or having an affair with Cathleen Nesbitt, then at the height of her beauty and start of her long theatrical career. It was the sense of what was fitting and just, of the duties he owed to other people and to a morality which he was trying to piece together. He may have wanted to waft others away on patriotic wings, as H.G. Wells did, but to the end he retained his power of self-criticism and satire. That was what his close friends cherished long after he was dead and the legend had crumbled into dust.