Rupert Brooke (1887-1915)
Most people think of Brooke as a war poet, despite the fact that only a small percentage of his poetic output occurred after the outbreak of war. Pedants might argue that Brooke wasn’t really a ‘Dymock Poet’. They could point out that he visited the area on only two occasions (unless other visits went unrecorded and biographers have found no evidence of them). Both visits were brief. And there isn’t any one poem that was written while he was in the area or has any theme deriving specifically from it.
On the other hand ‘The Soldier’, one of the most famous sonnets in the English language, appeared in New Numbers , which was edited by Abercrombie and Gibson and posted to subscribers from Dymock. In fact, it was Gibson who decided to change the name of ‘The Recruit’ to ‘The Soldier’. It might even be claimed that without Gibson and Abercrombie asking Brooke to write some poems for the final issue of New Numbers , there might never have been any war poems from Brooke.
Brooke’s initial link with the Dymock Poets was through Eddie Marsh, whose moral and financial support was crucial for many young artists rebelling against the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Marsh not only edited Georgian Poetry , but is also credited with successfully marketing it (in today’s terminology). “Marsh took the first significant step toward making modern poetry popular,” concluded Ross. Marsh’s money underpinned the publication of Georgian Poetry , and later of New Numbers . Marsh doted on Brooke; as a result there were introductions to politicians and actresses as well as artists and writers. Through Marsh’s generosity Brooke had a base in London - a room in Marsh’s spacious flat at Gray’s Inn. Brooke’s first meeting with Drinkwater was during lunch at the flat in September 1912, arranged to discuss the possible publication of works by the new ‘Georgian’ poets. Gibson was there too, having met Brooke for the first time a few days earlier. When Marsh visited Dymock to see Abercrombie and Gibson in 1913 and 1914, he sent long letters to Brooke (who was abroad for a year) about how he spent his time and what the two poets were writing. Marsh also served as a post office while Brooke was away, forwarding poems for New Numbers to the editorial office at The Gallows.
Brooke, often accompanied by Marsh, saw several of the Dymock Poets in London. Brooke was occasionally at the St George’s restaurant (where Thomas first met Frost), or reading poems at the Poetry Bookshop, and there were meals with Eddie Marsh to which Gibson, Drinkwater and others were invited. Gibson attended Brooke’s farewell party on 20 May 1913 before he set sail for America. When Brooke returned a year later from his travels in North America and the South Seas, a party was arranged for Thursday June 11, 1914, which Gibson attended. The next evening Abercrombie dined with Brooke and Marsh at Simpsons, along with some Americans Brooke had met in Chicago. This was the first time Brooke and Abercrombie met. The next night, joined by Gibson and Monro, they all went to the ballet and talked late into the night.
Thomas and Brooke visited each other (in Steep and Cambridge) in 1910, although Brooke went to Steep with a dual purpose. He was in love with Noel Olivier, a pupil at the nearby Bedales school, and arranged to see her at the same time that he was visiting Thomas. Thomas reviewed Brooke’s Poems 1911 in the Daily Chronicle and forecast that Brooke would be a great poet. “Copies should be bought by every one over forty who has never been under forty. It will be a revelation,” he told readers. In May 1913 Brooke wrote to apologise for not coming to see Thomas before leaving for America: “I sail next Thursday. I shall stay - I don’t know how long. Perhaps next March’s primroses’ll fetch me back.” Brooke asked if Thomas would be in London early next week. “If so you might charge me with some message for the continent of America. . . and I could leave the muses of England in your keeping - I do that anyhow.”
Brooke had strong attachments to people throughout his life whom he did not see as much as he would have wished. The main evidence of his attachment to Abercrombie and Gibson is his instructions to his mother and to Marsh to make them recipients of his royalties, his capital allowance and the inheritance he would have had from her. A month before his death, Brooke wrote to Marsh: “I’ve tried to arrange that some money should go to Wilfrid & Lascelles & de la Mare to help them write good stuff, instead of me.” When one considers the wide range of friends Brooke had - through Cambridge, Bloomsbury, the Fabian Society and Eddie Marsh among others - his concern to ensure that Gibson and Abercrombie were beneficiaries is more significant than time spent - or not spent - in Dymock.
Brooke was delighted when Gibson asked him to be the fourth contributor to a magazine that he and Abercrombie were planning to produce at The Gallows. At first it was to be called New Shilling Garland and then Gallows Garland , after a series of books edited by Laurence Binyon. When Gibson wrote about the idea to Brooke, then in Canada, he said “You are, of course, too young to remember The Shilling Garland .” From Toronto in July 1913 Brooke replied to Gibson: “I think the G.G. is a great idea. I’m all for amalgamating our four publics, the more that mine is far the smallest! I’m afraid I shall be outwritten by you fluent giants. . . . I’m very much pleased and excited about the scheme, and I’ll ‘come in’, right in, without knocking....”
But not before sending Gibson an imaginary Table of Contents,
which is a witty parody of their respective styles:
1. Lascelles Abercrombie: Haman and Mordecai , pp.1-178
2. John Drinkwater: The Sonority of God: An Ode , pp.79-143
3. W.W. Gibson: Poor Bloody Bill: A Tale , pp.144-187
4. Rupert Brooke: Oh, Dear! Oh, Dear! A Sonnet, p.188
5. Lascelles Abercrombie: Asshur-Bani-Pal and Og , pp.189-254
6. John Drinkwater: William Morris: An Appreciation in Verse , pp.255-377
7. W. W. Gibson: Gas-Stoves: No. 1. A Brave Poor Thing , pp.377-594
Once again the name was changed - this time to New Numbers - and Brooke wrote to Eddie Marsh on September 6, 1913 that “I think it’s silly changing it from Gallows Garland .” But this didn’t stop him from sending some poems, including ‘Sonnet (Suggested by some of the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research)’. Here we see Brooke exploring the possibility of perfect love, which can take place when we have physically died - then there will be “pure converse” as we “learn all we lacked before.” When The Times gave a glowing review to New Numbers , it quoted from this poem. For Brooke’s biographer, Christopher Hassall, this and the war sonnets 4 and 5 are among the best sonnets in the English language.
The only poem by Brooke in New Numbers 2 was ‘Heaven’, in which he made use of Plato’s concept of universal ideas or forms while at the same time writing a witty satire on Victorian religion. He had sent it to Marsh from New Zealand and Marsh took it to The Old Nailshop when he visited the Gibsons in February 1914. The Gibsons had only been married for two months, and Marsh was keen to see how they were settling into their rural retreat. He wrote back to Brooke: “I’m enraptured by the fish’s heaven, it is brilliantly amusing, and also beautiful. It certainly mustn’t come out in New Numbers as all the clergyman would at once withdraw their subscriptions!” Of his weekend with the Gibsons he wrote: “. . . their cottage is very nice, all with a perfect sense of style - he couldn’t possibly have done better for himself. . . . We had a lovely walk, it’s beautiful country. . . . ”
That summer, when Brooke was back in England, he arranged for Gibson to send the second issue of New Numbers to his American friend, Russell Loines, to whom Brooke himself wrote that “The thing is going pretty well: about seven or eight hundred of each number, which pays expenses very easily, and leaves a good bit for division. It goes on selling steadily, & I suppose it always will. . . I hope so, for the more it’s sold, the more poetry, & less reviews, Abercrombie & Gibson can write: & the better for the world.”
Brooke returned from the South Seas via Chicago and New York, arriving in London on June 6, 1914. He spent the next few weeks “seeing old friends and making new ones - including Lascelles Abercrombie, whom he met for the first time, though they had long been friends by proxy and by correspondence.” Gibson went to London for the “welcome home” party. He and Brooke were especially fond of each other, and Brooke affectionately called him Wibson - perhaps because Gibson often signed himself W. W. Gibson. In a letter from Fiji to Jacques Raverat, Brooke had planned a walking tour “on the Poet’s Round,” starting from Charing Cross and stopping to see de la Mare at Anerley, Davies at Sevenoaks, Belloc at Kingsland, “then up to Wibson on the borders of Gloucestershire,” and returning via the Chilterns “where Masefield and Chesterton dwell.”
The walking tour never took place, but Brooke went to Gloucestershire in July 1914 to see Abercrombie and Gibson about the third issue of New Numbers . They had probably received most of Brooke’s poems by now, as Marsh had been forwarding them after receiving them from Brooke. “Fire the verse on to Wilfrid” he wrote to Marsh from the Hotel Lorina, in Papeete, Tahiti on March 7 1914. While living in Mataiea, a native village about 30 miles from Papeete, he wrote ‘Retrospect’, one of the five Brooke poems printed in New Numbers 3. While in the South Seas, Brooke had Robert Louis Stevenson much on his mind, and the poem reflects this. Hassall sees it as an elegy to the memory of Ka Cox, after their complex relationship had ended. Sending more poems to Eddie Marsh from Samoa, he says: “These go to Wilfrid immediately. A few more are half out & shall follow somewhen. I am becoming indistinguishable from R.L.S., both in thinness, in literary style, & in dissociation from England.” A couple of weeks later, writing to Edmund Gosse, he describes his protective feelings towards the natives and concludes: “And that perhaps is what Stevenson felt. I don’t know enough about him. His memory is sweet there, in Samoa; especially among the natives.” He goes on to describe his visit to Stevenson’s grave on a steep hill above Vailima - “It’s a high and lovely spot.” (Within 18 months Brooke too would be buried on a high and lovely spot, but on an island in the Aegean.)
Hassall concluded that the three poems - Sonnet , Heaven and Retrospect - plus a few others, “are the poems which best reflect Brooke’s character.”
The last issue of New Numbers included three more of Brooke’s poems. ‘The Treasure’ was presumably written in August 1914, at a time when he was increasingly concerned about the war and whether he should try to get to the front as soon as possible. The poem was sent to Marsh from Rugby on 24 August; there was no other text, just the poem headed “Unpacking or Contemplation or The Store”. But it was printed in the final issue of New Numbers as ‘The Treasure’.
The memories he had stored up and hoped to unpack one day might well have been of his time at The Gallows a few weeks earlier. In the letter to Loines mentioned above he says “I’ve stayed two days with Gibson. . . . Abercrombie’s [cottage] is the most beautiful you can imagine: black-beamed & rose-covered. And a porch where one drinks great mugs of cider, & looks at fields of poppies in the corn. A life that makes London a very foolish affair. . . . There’s some good stuff of Wilfrid Gibson’s in next New Numbers . I doubt if there’s any other news of first-rate importance.” He was to recall those poppies when he visited The Gallows for the last time at the end of January 1915, when the Frosts as well as the Abercrombies were living there. Before leaving he gazed at the field that had been ablaze with poppies the previous summer, turned to Catherine Abercrombie and said “I shall always remember that - always.”
Brooke wrote his famous war sonnet sequence in December 1914 while preparing, with the Hood Regiment, to take part in the Dardanelles campaign. He finished them at Rugby, where he went to spend Christmas with his mother. Gibson and Abercrombie agreed to delay the publication of New Numbers 4 as Brooke was still working on the sonnets. He posted them to Abercrombie at The Gallows in January, and proofs reached him at camp near Blandford in Dorset. “These proofs have come,” he wrote to Eddie Marsh on January 24. “God, they’re in the rough, these five camp-children - 4 and 5 are good enough, and there are phrases in the rest.” In a letter to Drinkwater later in the month he wrote: “Come and die. It’ll be great fun. And there’s great health in the preparation. The theatre’s no place, now. If you stay there you’ll not be able to start afresh with us all when we come back. . . . But first, or anyhow, borrow a car, pick up Wilfrid and Lascelles on Saturday, and come to Dorset; and on Saturday afternoon, or Sunday, or both, walk over the Roman downs with me, and drink greatly, and talk once more. . . . ”
The final poem in the War Sonnets, ‘The Soldier’, needs no introduction. The sudden popularity of this poem, combined with the mythologizing of Brooke, produced an inevitable reaction later and it became fashionable to deride the patriotic sentiments the poem expresses. But critics forget that Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon had, early in the war, expressed sentiments similar to those in Brooke’s war sonnets. It is helpful to bear in mind that Brooke had been on active service at Antwerp and wrote to a friend on November 11 1914:
“It hurts me, this war. Because I was fond of Germany. There are such good things in her, and I’d always hoped she’d get away from Prussia and the oligarchy in time. If it had been a mere war between us and them I’d have hated fighting. But I’m glad to be doing it for Belgium. That’s what breaks the heart to see and hear of. I marched through Antwerp, deserted, shelled, and burning, one night, and saw ruined houses, dead men and horses: railway-trains with their lines taken up and twisted and flung down as if a child had been playing with a toy. And the whole heaven and earth was lit up by the glare from the great lakes and rivers of burning petrol, hills and spires of flame. That was like Hell, a Dantesque Hell, terrible.”
When Brooke sent Gibson a copy of the poem it was titled ‘The Recruit’. Gibson thought that ‘The Soldier’ would be better, and that is how it has always appeared. There is no published evidence as to whether this was discussed with Brooke.
While the poem made Brooke famous, it also drew attention to New Numbers and put Dymock on the literary map of England. Marsh sent Brooke, aboard his troopship, a glowing review of New Numbers 4 from the Times Literary Supplement , which singled out Brooke’s war sonnets for their selfless patriotism. He also sent a clipping from The Times reporting that on April 5 (Easter Sunday) Dean Inge had read the ‘The Soldier’ from the pulpit of St Paul’s and then remarked that Brooke would rank “with our great poets;” however, while admiring Brooke’s patriotism the Dean also criticised the absence of Christian sentiment in the poem. When his friend Denis Browne visited his cabin to say he had seen the article from The Times , a very ill Brooke could only mumble that he was sorry Dean Inge did not think him quite as good as Isaiah.
These were almost the last words he spoke. He died two days later, on April 23, and is buried on the Greek island of Skyros. In a letter to Robert Frost in May 1915, Thomas said that he was re-reading Rupert Brooke and writing an article about him: “You heard perhaps that he died on April 23rd of sunstroke on the way to the Dardanelles? All the papers are full of his ‘beauty’ and of an eloquent last sonnet beginning ‘If I should die’.. He was eloquent. Men never spoke ill of him.”
This text is from
Once They Lived in Gloucestershire: A Dymock Poets Anthology
by Linda Hart
ISBN 0 9526031 52 - Reprinted in 2011
(£6.95 from the Green Branch Press, Kencot, Gloucestershire, England GL7 3QX).
The book also includes most of the poems mentioned in the text above, a chapter introducing the Dymock Poets, two maps showing the Dymock area, and detailed references to all sources.