A Pagan Poet
Originally published in the August 1987 issue of the Freethinker to mark the centenary of Rupert Brooke’s birth on 3 August 1887. Since 1915, the year he died, his poems, particularly The Soldier, have been read at innumerable remembrance day services and recruiting rallies. His short life is widely regarded as the epitome of conservatism and conformity. In fact the soldier-poet, as he became known, was a Fabian Socialist who satirised Christianity in his work.
The poet W B Yeats once remarked:
He was the handsomest man in England and he wears the most beautiful shirts.
He was speaking of another poet, not to become as famous as himself but to have a special, if strange, place, in English poetry and even in English life. The “handsomest man”, called by another contemporary “an unbelievably beautiful young man”, was Rupert Brooke.
Even to readers who are familiar with Brooke’s work, and those, the great majority today, to whom the Great War of 1914 to 1918 is something about which they have heard from other people, it comes as a shock to realise that it is now (1987) a hundred years since Rupert Brooke was born. The occasion of the centenary affords an opportunity to think again about a young poet and his reputation, a reputation founded on other things besides his poetry.
Rupert Brooke was born at Rugby, in Warwickshire, where his father was a master at the famous public school. His mother was a woman of strong character who is reported to have been disappointed that, as she had one son already, the child was not a girl. His education was on the conventional middle-class lines. After a preparatory school, he went on to Rugby where he showed not only academic ability, with already a special interest in literature, especially poetry, but also a great aptitude at games.
He played in the rugby fifteen and in the cricket eleven, and is mentioned in Wisden’s Cricket Almanack. He won a classical scholarship to Cambridge and entered King’s College in the autumn of 1906. At the University he threw himself with great vigour and enthusiasm into a wide variety of activities, including amateur acting and, at the same time, was able to win academic prizes. He declared to a friend that:
There are only three things in the world; one is to read poetry, another is to write poetry, and the best of all is to live poetry.
At the end of his studies he took a second class degree, and his failure to obtain a first seems to have worried other people more than it did himself. He announced his intention to live “a Life Dedicated to Art”, and while the phrase was a quotation and used with a touch of self-mockery, there was some truth in it.
He later became a Fellow of King’s. During the years between his university studies and the outbreak of war in 1914, he published one book of verse and spent much time travelling in Europe and in the South Seas and in the United States. He had a serious breakdown in health and difficult relationships with women friends, in none of which does he appear to have found true satisfaction, although his letters show what deep distress he caused and was caused.
It has been suggested that nobody can be called truly mature who does not take some interest in politics or religion, the two chief means by which humanity has been deceived and led astray through the ages. On the one hand, is the problem of organisation and government in society; on the other is the question of the meaning and purpose of life.
Rupert Brooke, with his overwhelming interest in poetry, which subsumed all other concerns, could not perhaps have been expected to take the greatest interest in either of these two subjects. Yet it sometimes comes as a surprise to learn to what extent he did take an interest, in politics at least.
Thus, he had declared himself a Socialist while still at Rugby and, when he went to Cambridge, joined the Fabian Society. This was at the time of the Edwardian twilight that preceded the fall of night in 1914, and perhaps it was not altogether surprising that a young man of generous and artistic instincts should have been drawn to a political creed that appeared to offer something superior to the staleness of the Tory-Liberal governing machines.
Brooke was vigorously political for a time. Hugh Dalton said that, at first, he called himself a “William Morris sort of Socialist”, but later moved towards a more orthodox Fabian position. One of the more substantial pieces of evidence in relation to this stage in his development is a paper which he delivered to the Cambridge Fabians, apparently in 1910. The subject was “Democracy and the Arts”, and it is by no means out of date in 1987.
There does not seem to have been a very strong religious strain in Brooke’s early life. Of course, Rugby had its orthodox religious observances. These included obligatory chapel attendance for about ten minutes at seven o’clock each morning. There is no sign that this had any positive effect on Brooke and it may have influenced him in the opposite direction. In a letter to a friend in 1910, he made some attempt to set down what religious views, if any, he had. He could not say what it was that gave him any sense of purpose, but he tried to define it:
The remedy is Mysticism, or Life, I’m not sure which. Do not leap or turn pale at the word Mysticism. I do not mean any religious thing, or any form of belief. I still burn and torture Christians daily. It is merely the feeling – or a kindred one – which underlay the mysticism of the wicked mystics, only I refuse to be cheated by the feeling into any kind of belief.
In an attempt to sum up Brooke some time after his death, Virginia Woolf said that he was “consciously and definitely pagan”. What firm evidence there is supports this view. Thus Brooke was incensed at the Christian burial that was given to the poet Swinburne. He wrote to Dalton:
Did you see that, against his desire, the bloody parson mouthed Anglicanisms of blasphemous and untrue meaning and filthy sentimentality over him?
It could be that the clearest expression of Brooke’s religious, or non-religious, feelings is to be found in a comparatively light-hearted poem called “Heaven”, a reworking of an earlier poem called “The Fish”. It is light in touch but sharp, if not quite deadly, in its satire. Fish, in their pond, think about an afterlife and persuade themselves, because they have faith, that the future is “not Wholly Dry”, and that:
somewhere, beyond Space and Time,
Is wetter water, slimier slime!
And there (they trust) there swimmeth One
Who swam ere rivers were begun,
Immense, of fishy form and mind,
Squamous, omnipotent, and kind;
And under that Almighty Fin,
The littlest fish may enter in.
The poem ends with the expression of a fervent hope that the future shall be truly paradisial:
And in that Heaven of all their wish,
There shall be no more land, say fish.
If Brooke had died in 1913 or early 1914, he would be remembered as an exceptionally agreeable young man, mentioned in the memoirs of his many friends, who wrote very pleasant light verse, usually on the theme of unrequited love, which he generally treated with a rueful irony rather than any really deep feeling, let alone passion.
As it is, he did not die until 1915 when, after service in the Royal Naval Division at Antwerp, he contracted blood poisoning and died in the Mediterranean when he was originally bound for the Dardanelles campaign. He was unsettled and disturbed in his life generally, but especially, as has been noted, in his emotional life, and the war gave him a sense of purpose. Winston Churchill offered him a commission, and he wrote, soon after enlisting:
The central purpose of my life, the aim and the end of it now, the thing God wants of me, is to get good at beating Germans. That’s sure. But that isn’t what it was.What it was, I never knew; and God knows I never found out.
Brooke had liked the Germans when he lived among them, but his sincerity in expressing his devotion to the cause of defeating them cannot be doubted. Yet it is hard to read some of his best known works at the present day without misgivings. Shortly before he died, he wrote a short series of sonnets which appeared in book form in the volume “1914 and Other Poems”, a few months after his death.
One sonnet included a line about entering into the war “as swimmers into cleanness leaping”; the cleanness is contrasted with other men’s “dirty songs and dreary”, and the poem then refers to “all the little emptiness of love”. There is a better known passage in another sonnet, “The Soldier”:
If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England.
In the atmosphere of wartime, it was inevitable, if deeply regrettable, that Brooke’s life, and especially his death, should be seized upon and used for purposes that distressed his friends and would almost certainly have appalled him. Winston Churchill, understandably, wrote that:
The poet-soldier told with all the simple force of genius the sorrow of youth about to die, and the sure triumphant consolations of a sincere and valiant spirit.
The poet Harold Munro took great offence at Brooke’s being “advertised” as the soldier-poet, and the New Statesman wrote: “A myth has been created but it has grown round an imaginary figure very different from the real man! ”
In addition it was sad but true that Brooke’s vision of cleanness into which the young men threw themselves in 1914 would shortly be swept away by other, greater poets such as Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, whose own experiences drove them to write of the slaughter on the Western Front; not of “cleanness”, but of men “in foul dug-outs, gnawed by rats” or sent to “die as cattle”. Neither Churchill’s “sure triumphant consolations” nor the visions of the fishy heaven could have prevailed against this awful reality.
Editor’s note: T F Evans’ article has been slightly edited for grammar. The portrait of Brooke was painted in 1911 by by Clara Ewald, and hangs in the National Portrait Gallery, London.