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 father, was a weak man held up by the system and by a wife who—it was said—sent him out at night to collect horse droppings off the roads for her rose garden. An honorable activity, one would have thought, if he had been allowed to do it openly, and in the day.

Rupert’s second name, Chawner, was in honor of one of his mother’s ancestors, a fanatical Roundhead. Rupert was the second son and she wanted a girl; but he was delicate and became her favorite anyway. Ironically he was named after Prince Rupert, the Roundheads’ stoutest adversary. In the splendid photography of mother and younger sons discovered by Dr. Delany she looks like a cavalry commander herself, poised for a charge she could never lead. Rupert inherited her eager profile.

He also inherited his father’s weakness. As Delany brilliantly shows, he suffered from all his friends assuming he had an unbeatable hand—brains, poetic talent, ravishing looks, admiration enough to make him “a future Prime Minister”—while inside he was all timidity, cold self-hatred, and self-distrust. Not an uncommon modern dilemma, perhaps; and perhaps one that has always been with us, but that has now been more precisely diagnosed by the modern consciousness. Rupert could hardly have been invented by a novelist, as Scott Fitzgerald invented Gatsby, out of himself and his own keen sense of the age. He was not interesting enough for that, although to friends and contemporaries he seemed so achieved a character that there could be no latency in him for a novelist to sense and to exploit. Delany is going over familiar ground, but he does it so well and with so much detached humor and understanding that he makes the situation of Brooke and his circle smaller, more sympathetic, more natural, less of a fable to be revered once and now derided. He makes them seem, in Auden’s phrase, “silly like us.” If none of them look very nice in retrospect, that is something we can hardly afford to feel superior about: time is not likely to deal with us any better, if it bothers to do so at all.


The term “Neo-pagans” was coined by Virginia Woolf. Standing with one foot in Bloomsbury, with its more sophisticated and metropolitan atmosphere, she gave a quizzical glance at the young men and women, many from Cambridge like her brother and his friends, who preferred a more bracing and open-air existence. She was even prepared to join them on occasion. Under Brooke’s tutelage she bathed naked at Byron’s pool by Grantchester, where Brooke enjoyed showing off his party trick to the company: jumping into the river and emerging with an instant erection. But there was nothing priapic in these caperings; they were curiously asexual, hearty, good clean fun. The Neo-pagans, as Virginia Woolf probably saw, were really just public school types by other means, exploring their own variation of the tribal rites. Like most revolutionaries they settled for a more high-souled and censorious version of the old regime.

At any rate Bloomsbury was prevailed on to attend a Neo-pagan camp at Dartmoor in the summer of 1911—“Bloomsbury under canvas,” as Brooke called it. Virginia roughed it nobly, if quizzically. Maynard Keynes was there, putting up an unexpectedly good show at rising with the dawn and sleeping on the ground. Lytton Strachey, who had come with an eye to the young men, wisely preferred the comfort of a neighboring guest house, and after a single night’s ordeal in the open his brother James joined him there, his caution provoking an extempore couplet by Rupert:

In the late evening he was out of place
And utterly irrelevant at dawn.

Also present, and in charge of most of the cooking arrangements, were the famous Olivier sisters, whose nephew still to be, Laurence, would one day become the most celebrated actor of his time. Children of a handsome colonial governor, the sisters were noted for their beauty, and in their parents’ absence had lived together rather like the Lost Boys in Peter Pan. They were perfect female Neo-pagans, and not lost girls in any sexual sense, for though they did their best to attract the new eligible youth they remained determinedly chaste. Rupert at various times was in love with the two youngest, Bryn and Noe!. They liked adding his scalp to their belts, but had no more intention of settling down yet than he had. In time Noel, whose deep eyes were her great attraction, would become a doctor and marry a nonentity in the same profession. James Strachey, who became a psychiatrist, loved her hopelessly for many years. As a middle-aged mother she suddenly returned his love and they had a long and passionate affair. She had certainly loved Rupert, but her instinct was to keep away from him, and he had become heavily involved with Ka Cox, another of the Neo-pagan circle. Virginia Woolf found Ka motherly but was also sexually attracted to her and called her “Bruin.”

Did it all amount to no more than Hilaire Belloc’s sardonic view of the in-groups of his day, who “Talk of their affairs / In loud and strident voices”? Yes and no. That reptilian old idealist and aristocrat Bertrand Russell was never taken in by the Neo-pagans:

I went to Grantchester…to tea with Jacques Raverat who is to marry Gwen Darwin. He has immense charm, but like all people who have superficial and obvious charm, I think he is weak and has no firm purpose. He is staying with Rupert Brooke whom I dislike…. Young people now-a-days are odd—…great familiarity, rendered easy by a complete freedom from passion on the side of the men.

Russell, who was just getting rid of his wife Alys the better to pursue his affair with Lady Ottoline Morrell, was inclined to despise the Neo-pagans’ lack of sex drive. Although their mild and malicious polymorphousness suited Virginia Woolf, it was a strain on the young men, who found themselves in the false position of carrying on public school mores in other situations. Those schools at least had never tried to idealize adolescent sex and make it part of the bracing and enlightened regime of mixed camps and nude bathing, sandals and uplift. Most of the young Neo-pagan men, and many of the girls, were to have more or less serious breakdowns based on the unnaturalness of their lives and feelings. Scientology and such movements have had the same effect, less picturesquely, in our own time.

But the men who were in a sense behind Neo-paganism—Badley the founder of Bedales School, Reddie of Abbots-holme, Edward Carpenter with his Millthorpe community, which influenced a generation of homosexuals like E.M. Forster—were not in it for money or power. They were genuinely innocent and good, though no doubt with a large slice of English middle-class hypocrisy transferred to a new sort of social area. Many of the Neo-pagans were from Bedales and spread the gospel when they teamed up with old Rugbians like Rupert, and even the more worldly Bloomsbury fringe. The Oliviers were connected with the Fabian movement, their father a friend of Bernard Shaw; Rupert and his associates strove to bring the Cambridge ideal of “good states of mind” to the lower classes; even Virginia Woolf gave lectures at working-class colleges in London. Feminism, socialism, pacifism were officially taken for granted.


Then why did the whole thing ring so false in what they said and in what they wrote—particularly in what Rupert wrote? Even their atheism sounds kitschy and bogus, perhaps because it was merely an inversion of and a reaction against the sickly pieties of public school religion, and playing the game. Could anyone, even at the time, not have been embarrassed by some of Brooke’s rhapsodies? “We’ll be children seventy-seven years instead of seven,” he vowed in what is virtually a Neo-pagan manifesto to Jacques Raverat:

We’ll live Romance, not talk of it. We’ll show the grey unbelieving age, we’ll teach the whole damn World, that there’s a better Heaven than the…harmonium-buzzing Eternity of the Christians,…a Heaven of Laughter and Bodies and Flowers and Love and People and Sun and Wind, in the only place we know or care for, ON EARTH.

The styles may differ but all flower children say much the same things; the exciting words of the Sixties sound like rubbish today. Yet the idiom of Rupert and his circle, and the personality behind it, still have a special power to set our teeth on edge. Perhaps that is why we keep going back to it, and remolding it in a new image of disillusion.

Delany quotes some of Rupert’s poetry but has little to say about its quality. And yet to reappraise it, at least in part, might seem a worthwhile project, if he and his circle are again to be studied seriously. Henry James, who fell for Rupert at first sight—his physical charm appealed equally to young women and to homosexuals—inquired anxiously whether he was any good as a poet, and was relieved to get a negative response from Rupert’s close friends, who were not as easily impressed as outsiders. The Master felt that those looks, and poetic genius as well, would have been altogether too much.

Lacking originality or an inspiring model—the days of Pound and Eliot were still to come—Rupert tried to write like a Georgian poet and a country lover. But by temperament he was too waspish and irreverent for the form: there was a discrepancy between his nature and the way he tried to write which I.A. Richards probably spotted when he remarked that Brooke’s poetry had no “inside” to it. He seems indeed, as Delany rereads him, to have been oddly lacking in personality. He and his close friend Jacques Raverat, who was half-French and who later became an artist, were would-be poets together “talking from breakfast to midnight of poetry, art, sex, suicide, the ridiculous superstitions about God and religion, the absurd prejudices of patriotism and decency, the grotesque encumbrances called parents.” But they were a long way from Rimbaud; this childish irreverence was not “le dérèglement de tous les Sens,” but the high spirits of those who are never going to grow up. Raverat died young of multiple sclerosis, and Brooke of an infected mosquito bite before he reached wartime Gallipoli.

It is this quality of being “slightly insincere to myself,” as Brooke complacently phrased it in a letter to Geoffrey Keynes, which helps to make the language of most of his poems so shoddy and embarrassing. Memorable too in a sense. People who don’t read real poetry can always remember the bits about “is there honey still for tea?” and the breeze at Grantchester “sobbing through the little trees.” His best talent was satirical, his best poem the remarkable “Fish,” for once a performance both lighthearted and genuinely heartfelt, for Rupert had an uninhibited sexual passion for water as he did for neither man nor woman. Sex, the true poetic drive, comes into this poem with real fervor. The only flicker of life in the famous wartime sonnets is his private identification of the coming struggle with bathing nude—“swimmers into cleanness leaping.” But whether daring or coy, most of his verse smells of the school magazine; had he survived he would almost certainly have returned to Rugby, and dwindled into an embittered pedagogue like his father.

Frances Cornford, one of the Neo-pagans who survived into old age, possessed a slight, but compared with Rupert’s an individual, poetic talent (her anthology poem is on the fat white woman who walks through the field in gloves) and the sight of Rupert laughing and talking with his friends inspired her to write when young her well-known quatrain:

A young Apollo, golden-haired,
Stands dreaming on the verge of strife;
Magnificently unprepared
For the long littleness of life.

“Long littleness,” which made Hardy into a poet, would certainly not have done the same for Rupert. When the golden dream was over life merely became “perfectly foul.” Gwen Darwin, who married Jacques Raverat, summed up a general feeling when she wrote, “I don’t believe there is anything compensating in age and experience. We are at our very best and most livingest now—from now on the edge will go off our longings and the fierceness from our feelings and we shall no more swim in the Cam…. I don’t believe in getting old—I hate it, I hate it.” So did they all, and the breakdown Rupert suffered three years before the war seems as much due to the terror of age as to the sexual puritanism that (as with D.H. Lawrence) was his mother’s legacy. Having coldly broken his virginity with a boyfriend he experienced nothing but depression from going to bed with Ka Cox and Cathleen Nesbitt, however much he might desire them theoretically. He was not specially homosexual but he was incorrigibly narcissistic. The letters Delany quotes make disagreeable reading, as much from their idiom—lots of locutions like “most livingest”—as from their emotions and prejudices. Social conversation was less racially inhibited then than now, but Rupert’s venomous superiorities and his anti-Semitism, which he probably acquired from Hilaire Belloc via Jacques Raverat, would make repulsive reading in any age.

Necessary legends care little for such things. Rupert was to remain fixed as the golden boy of the war and the future, the tragic flower of his country’s youth. Sir Philip Sidney had meant much the same to the Elizabethans, with more justification, for he was a poet and scholar of international repute, but even so Ben Jonson had not been able to refrain—fifty years on—from belittling his image and claiming he had had an ugly spotty face. No iconoclast could deny Rupert Brooke’s facial beauty, but, as he himself knew very well, there was something sufficiently ugly about the rest of him. All “public schools” tend to be horrible at the time, joyous in retrospect, and there is something both repellent and pathetic about the taste of an age which exalts such a school product as its national ideal, whether that ideal comes from Rugby or from Bedales. Let us return to real education and give up the mystique—soppy or bracing—which used to surround such schools. That should be the moral of Delany’s valedictory study, though he wisely refrains from pointing any.

Neo-paganism was not just a provincial English phenomenon. In another guise it had appeared in progressive Germany, where all good Neo-pagans went whenever they could. Rupert wrote his poem “Grantchester” while sitting in a café in Berlin; and in Austria both Musil the novelist and Rilke the poet were to write with horrified fascination about the “public school” type of academy they had both attended. The young volunteers on both sides in 1914 had much the same ideals; the cult of the young continued after the war, fostered by Mussolini and that romantic idealist, Adolf Hitler. The English Neo-pagans perhaps showed good sense in letting the movement fade out in the comparative harmlessness of a myth to look back on, although Auden—a great poet—and his friend Isherwood revived their own schoolboy version of it when they were young in the Thirties. But youth must end, somehow or other, in every generation. Gwen Raverat pronounced the Neo-pagans’ final epitaph in a letter to Virginia Woolf:

All the others are dead or have quarrelled or gone mad or are making a lot of money in business. It doesn’t seem to have been a really successful religion, though it was very good fun while it lasted.

This Issue

December 17, 1987