The True Story of Rupert Brooke

Among other quintessentially English anniversaries—Shakespeare’s birthday, St. George’s Day—April 23rd marks a hundred years since the death of Rupert Brooke, who for most of the past century has ranked among Britain’s best-known and most beloved cultural figures. A poet of the First World War who never saw action, he is famous mainly for one sonnet, “The Soldier,” from a sequence of five, and then mainly for its opening lines: “If I should die, think only this of me: / That there’s some corner of a foreign field / That is forever England.” Upper-class and stiff-upper-lipped, blond-haired and blue-eyed, eager to sacrifice youth and beauty for king and country, Brooke embodied a romantic and remarkably tenacious national fantasy. He was a minor celebrity before he died and a monstrous one afterward, holding on, to this day, to his fame and a rather tattered glory.

By the centennial of the First World War, Brooke ought to have faded to a scholarly footnote, along with other war-romanticizing poets such as Julian Grenfell and Vera Brittain’s fiancé, Roland Leighton. His 1914 sonnets and their torrent of imitations, published daily in newspapers along with the casualty lists, later came to represent the callous idiocy of the generals and politicians who blundered through the war until millions of people were dead. But the idea that Brookish innocence vanished at the first sight of a rat-bitten corpse in a trench is, of course, much too simple, and it conceals a continuing battle over the war’s meaning. As recently as last January, the U.K.’s Conservative education secretary, Michael Gove, attacked the “left-wing myths,” taught in British schools, that the war was a “misbegotten shambles.” Unquestioning, self-sacrificing patriotism of the kind Brooke represented remains a powerful right-wing myth—never mind that the poet was a committed Fabian socialist for much of his life. As so often happens, the truth about Rupert Brooke is more interesting than the political and biographical myths that have followed him.

Brooke enlisted almost as soon as the war broke out, like most young men of his class, and finagled an officer’s commission in the Royal Naval Division under the command of Winston Churchill. He composed the “1914” sonnets in October, during the evacuation of the Belgian fortified city of Antwerp—a bloodless action by the later standards of the Western Front, although the sight of columns of refugees fleeing the city shook him. In the end, to Brooke and his classically educated fellow officers, Belgium was nothing: they were sailing to Troy. In the spring of 1915, Brooke was on his way to the Dardanelles, the strategically essential waterway between Europe and Asia known to the ancient Greeks as the Hellespont. Homer and Herodotus were his guides, Brooke wrote to his mother, as he sailed over the “sapphire sea, swept by ghost of triremes and quinqueremes.” On April 25th, Allied troops would make a muddled, bloody landing on the Gallipoli peninsula, the start of a disastrous nine-month campaign. Brooke missed it by two days—a mosquito bite and a blood infection sent him down among the Greek ghosts. He was buried in an olive grove on the island of Skyros in the sapphire-blue Aegean.

In the library of King’s College, Cambridge, Brooke’s alma mater, there is a privately printed account of his death and burial, based on the log of the French hospital ship where he died. Over eleven excruciating pages (“Oh pale, pale, English face that no one will look on ever again! Face of passion, of dreams, and of torment!”), it establishes the twin poles of the Brooke myth, painting him as a literary hero, for dying in Greece like Byron, and as a figure of national political importance—he was attended throughout his illness and death by the Prime Minister’s son, his comrade Arthur “Oc” Asquith. His death, which came barely three weeks after the dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral recited “The Soldier” during the Easter Sunday service, seemed like the fulfillment of the poem’s prophecy. Its particular unmartial circumstances quickly ceased to matter—an obituary by Winston Churchill, which ran in the London Times, attributed his death to sunstroke. The symbolism was all. When the British came to lay out their war cemeteries, the organization in charge made Brooke’s poem come literally true: instead of gathering the dead into vast ossuaries, as the French did, the British established grave plots of varying sizes at the corners of “foreign fields.” Through a technical land-lease agreement, they became, forever, English.

Churchill’s brief obituary was part of a longer remembrance of Brooke by the politician’s private secretary, Edward Marsh, a patron of the arts who became Brooke’s literary executor. Marsh had become infatuated with the young poet after seeing him on stage, dressed in a thigh-grazing blue tunic, in a production of “The Eumenides” during his first term at Cambridge. In July 1918, after three years of battling Brooke’s formidable mother, Marsh published the first, highly sanitized account of Brooke’s life. It was the start of a reverent biographical trajectory that reached its apotheosis in Christopher Hassall’s fiftieth-anniversary door-stopper, published in 1964, which lavished attention on Brooke’s early life but could not draw on the sheaves of scandalous letters in Brooke’s correspondence, which were strictly embargoed by the trustees of his estate. The first collection of Brooke’s letters, edited by his old friend Geoffrey Keynes and published in 1968, was also heavily censored. After Hassall, most of the biographical work on Brooke has been a process of dismantling the golden-boy myth as new letters and new lovers have appeared. Just last month, the publication of several previously unseen letters and of a memoir by Phyllis Gardner, one of several women with whom Brooke was involved in the years before the war, prompted one of his recent biographers to brand him a “vicious sadist” in the Daily Mail.

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