The Neo-pagans: Rupert Brooke and the Ordeal of Youth
The British public school, which as everyone knows is really a private school, grew out of the grammar schools, those admirable and ancient places where an excellent formal education was given to promising children of the locality, rich and poor alike. They were charitable institutions, endowed by local merchants and gentry. The young Shakespeare attended grammar school at Stratford, of which his father, who afterward went bankrupt, had been a minor benefactor. But in the nineteenth century, amid all the strains of a new industrial society, the status and function of these schools underwent a radical change. They became upwardly mobile, in the direst sense, extracting comparatively large fees from pupils no longer local and deserving, and at the same time they strove to give themselves a new and artificial image, patriotic, clean-limbed, and high-minded.
The personality and legend of Rupert Brooke can only be properly understood in this public school setting. His father was a housemaster at Rugby, the most successful of the new model schools and the one most determinedly in competition with the much older and more impersonal foundations of Winchester and Eton. The great headmaster Thomas Arnold, father of Matthew Arnold, had imprinted the place with his own dedicated and inspiring personality. It was the scene of that Victorian classic Tom Brown’s Schooldays. It produced more administrators and servants of empire, men of integrity and serious ideals, than anywhere else. It fostered a new idea of the gentleman, and the obligations of class.
In his third novel, The Longest Journey, published in 1907, E.M. Forster gave a brilliantly terse and venomous account of the metamorphosis of an old local grammar school into one of the pretentious new places, and showed how at the time he was writing even the dynamism had gone, replaced by a cult of games and “colours” and aimless snobbishness. Forster knew: he had been at Tonbridge School, from which he had escaped to the haven of Cambridge. Kipling knew too, but he belonged to a previous generation, and in Stalky & Co. he tried to inject a new style of pseudo-iconoclasm into the business, and celebrate a vigorous breed of imperial officers who despised “the flanneled fools,” but who in their tight-lipped way were just as devoted to ideals of service and family. In the case of both writers, too, there was a powerful mother figure in the background, suggesting a region that revolt could never quite overcome, or irreverence make its own. Forster’s Mrs. Moore and Mrs. Wilcox, and Kipling’s mother in The Brushwood Boy, have a lot in common.
Rupert Brooke had a mother too, one of those angelic strong-willed matrons whose children “adore” them, and often die of it. None of her three sons reached thirty. Not her fault directly, but they had the death wish, like Peter Pan, and knew that dying was a much bigger adventure than growing up. The Great War gave them their chance, although only one was killed in action. Parker Brooke, their…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.