Rupert Brooke, 1887-1915

"A young Apollo, golden-haired,
Stands dreaming on the verge of strife,
Magnificently unprepared
For the long littleness of life."

These lines were written by Frances Cornford for Brooke, called by W. B. Yeats, "The most handsome man in England."

Rupert Brooke was born into a well-to-do, academic family; his father was a housemaster at Rugby School, where Rupert was educated before going on to King's College, Cambridge. He was a good student and athlete, and--in part because of his strikingly handsome looks--a popular young man who eventually numbered among his friends E. M. Forster, Maynard Keynes, Virginia Woolf, and Edward Thomas. Even as a student he was familiar in literary circles and came to know many important political, literary and social figures before the war.

Brooke actually saw little combat during the war; he contracted blood-poisoning from a small neglected injury and died in April, 1915, in the Aegean. Brooke's reputation, aside from the myth of the fallen "golden warrior" that his friends set about creating almost immediately after his death, rests on the five war sonnets of 1914. Some of his earlier poetry--"Fish," Helen and Menelaus," and "Heaven"--however, shows us a much different side of Brooke's talent and temperament.

Some critics doubt that he would have written the sonnets later in the war had he lived. They show an enthusiasm that most soldiers and poets eventually lost; another poet, Charles Sorley, said of Brooke's poetry, "He has clothed his attitudes in fine words: but he has taken the sentimental attitude." Sorley held, as a matter of fact, a low opinion of most war poetry: "The voice of our poets and men of letters is finely trained and sweet to hear; it teems with sharp saws and rich sentiment: it is a marvel of delicate technique: it pleases, it flatters, it charms, it soothes: it is a living lie." Sorley was killed in 1915, so he did not live to see the brutal turn poetry would take in the works of Owen, Sassoon and Rosenberg.

How Brooke's poetry would have changed in tone and imagery we can only guess. Fair or not, Brooke is remembered as a "war poet" who inspired patriotism in the early months of the Great War. Jon Stallworthy comments on the unfairness of this assessment, but acknowledges that Brooke assumed a symbolic role that eventually turned into the myth of a young and beautiful fallen warrior--Frances Cornford's "young Apollo, golden haired." Stallworthy notes that "England at that time needed a focal point for its griefs, ideals and aspirations, and the valedictory that appeared in The Times [April 26, 1915] over the initials of Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty, sounded a note that was to swell over the months and years that followed:

The thoughts to which he gave expression in the very few incomparable war sonnets which he has left behind will be shared by many thousands of young men moving resolutely and blithely forward into this, the hardest, cruellest, and the least-rewarded of all the wars that men have fought. They are a whole history and revelation of Rupert Brooke himself. Joyous, fearless, versatile, deeply instructed, with classic symmetry of mind and body, he was all that one would wish England's noblest sons to be in days when no sacrifice but the most precious is acceptable, and the most precious is that which is most freely proffered.

For an excellent short account of Brooke's life and literary reputation, read Jon Stallworthy's contribution in Tim Cross's The Lost Voices of World War I, pp. 52-58.