Today is the 400th anniversary of the death of Shakespeare. The Early Modern period is too early for this little blog, besides I’m sure there will be oceans written today about the great man. Instead I shall write about the anniversary of the death of another writer – Rupert Brooke. The myth and the man.
Brooke died on April 23rd, 1915. “Died, you say? I barely knew he existed. Who was he?”. He was an English writer, best known for his World War One poems. You may recall:
If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.
The poem was written at the beginning of the war and was idealistic in tone, appealing to a country that was experiencing a wave of patriotism in the face of the first major conflict in 100 years. Brooke was already a minor celebrity but with his death he came, for some, to represent a romantic sense of English national identity. The poems were written at the early stage of the war, had he lived to see the horrors of trench warfare the poetry would probably have been very different.
Brooke was also known for his good looks, quiet charm and vivacious spirit. Yeats once described him as “the handsomest man in England“. Leonard Woolf wrote “[he] is exactly what Adonis must have looked like in the eyes of Aphrodite”. Frances Cornford wrote a poem that began “A young Apollo, golden-haired.” He appears to have been fully aware of the impact he had on others and a number of people are said to have been in love with him.
“A kiss makes the heart young again and wipes out all the years.”
A little known fact about Brooke was that he was a long-time Fabian socialist. Better known is that he was friends with the Bloomsbury group of writers. Virginia Woolf claimed to have gone skinny dipping with Brooke in a moonlit pool.
“Cities, like cats, will reveal themselves at night.”
And naked writers, apparently.
After an emotional crisis, Brooke went on a tour of North America, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands (where he may have fathered a child) to write travel diaries.
I thought when love for you died, I should die. It’s dead. Alone, most strangely, I live on.
On his return Brooke was commissioned into the Royal Naval. He never saw direct action, but was indirectly involved in a disastrous campaign in October 1914. In February 1915 he developed blood poisoning from a mosquito bite en route to Gallipoli and died in Greece (like Byron) on St George’s Day (England’s national day). He was buried in an olive grove on the island of Skyros, aged 27. He had been attended throughout his illness by the Prime Minister’s son, his comrade Arthur Asquith and his Times newspaper obituary was written by Winston Churchill, commander of the Royal Naval Division. All of this added to the myth that is Rupert Brooke.
But let us not end on a sombre note. This is a book blog, so let’s finish with a simple book quote from Mr Brooke.
“A book may be compared to your neighbour: if it be good, it cannot last too long; if bad, you cannot get rid of it too early”