Some poets stick in your mind for certain reasons. One might recall your school days, sitting at a desk listening to your teacher reciting from the front of the room; another may transport you to a particularly special time spent with a special person/people. There are a number of poets who will always take me back to my college days, studying A Level English Literature, specifically the vast amount of time spent analysing literature from World War One. Amongst the stacks of material we were given to pore through, some names stood out very clearly. Of course there were the two heavyweights of war literature, so to speak: Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. I had come across both some time before, in history lessons dating as far back as junior school. But there was another poet, previously unheard of, who captured attention. He was Rupert Brooke. Perhaps this was partly for the wrong reasons; the subject of war, with its overwhelming amount of death and destruction, was not immediately pleasing to a class largely made up of teenage girls. Yet on the production of a photograph of Rupert Brooke interest was most definitely aroused. There were quite a few admiring remarks of approval, somewhere along the lines “Ooh, he’s hot” and “How cute is he?” On the poetry side of things, his sonnets of war – so called as they appeared to paint a rather idealistic, glorified picture of war – include much poignant beauty, talking not of brutality and horror but of the peace and safety that comes from dying a heroic and celebrated death. So up until quite recently, I associated Rupert Brooke predominately with war and being something of a literary heartthrob.
Last summer, I discovered another side to Brooke upon reading a book called The Great Lover by Jill Dawson. Its name taken from one of Brooke’s poems, the novel is a partly fictitious account of the poet’s life and rather troublesome love life, making the title in some respects ironic. It centres upon an imagined relationship between Brooke and a young maid who served as his attendant during his stays at the famous Grantchester, immortalised in his poem The Old Vicarage, Grantchester. However it contains just as much fact as fiction, if not more, as much of the story is informed by biographies and letters from Brooke himself, making the portrait of Brooke and his various associations vividly real. Knowing that the book detailed Brooke’s life in a rather unconventional and interesting way, and wanting to expand my knowledge of him away from what I’d previously known, I was drawn towards it. And it did its job – as well as being an enjoyable summer read, it gave me a much more rounded view of Brooke as a person and one which was even more intriguing than I’d considered beforehand. Underneath the handsome and self assured surface were crippling doubts over his poetic ability, unrelenting preoccupations with his sexuality and most movingly, a battle with his mental health which culminated in a nervous breakdown. Rupert Brooke is a fascinating figure, like many poets are, and it’s rewarding to find more out about our literary legends. Of course the selected words we read on a page give us so much but knowing that little bit more about what inspired those words to be written infuses them with added passion and meaning.
Here is a poem which for me seems to sum up the conflicts I find to be striking in Brooke’s poetry and within the man himself; a nature that is full of desire and yearning, that mixes heady dreaming and romanticism with occasional sharp and bitter realisations that come with having certain long held ideals shattered swiftly before your eyes. And it also serves to commemorate the anniversary of his death, which is fast approaching.
Love is a breach in the walls, a broken gate,
Where that comes in that shall not go again;
Love sells the proud heart’s citadel to Fate.
They have known shame, who love unloved. Even then,
When two mouths, thirsty each for each, find slaking,
And agony’s forgot, and hushed the crying
Of credulous hearts, in heaven — such are but taking
Their own poor dreams within their arms, and lying
Each in his lonely night, each with a ghost.
Some share that night. But they know love grows colder,
Grows false and dull, that was sweet lies at most.
Astonishment is no more in hand or shoulder,
But darkens, and dies out from kiss to kiss.
All this is love; and all love is but this.
Rupert Brooke (1887-1915)