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Worth remembering that Rupert Brooke died at a young age. An age when love is a theme in just about any work. Scholars have detected a dualistic approach to Brooke’s treatment of women, however; one might even suggest that he was a borderline Borderline: the women in his verse are either up on a pedestal or down in the gutter. The seeming inability of Brooke to reconcile his two views have led to a thematic sensibility easily distinguished. Like many writers of great wit, he uses humor to deflect his conflicted feelings.
Just as Brooke’s young age infused his poetic themes with expressions of tormented conflict over how to approach women, so did the times into which he was thrust lend his poetry an obsession with death. The dawning of the Great War was not the subject at work here; his 1914 and Other Poems are sonnet that reflect the recognition of a changing world still trying to come to term with the turn of the century. Brooke’s true thematic obsession is not death per se, but the longing for death as a response to an existential crisis brought on a changing society.
Brooke’s poems about this longing for death would merely be cryptic and morose if they were not constructed upon a foundation that with death comes something greater. The collapse of the continental Old World fashioned for the Europeans a sense that what was to come in the 20th century would unquestionably be different, but different is not always better even when the promise lures with that expectation. Beyond death is a sense of leaving everything behind and genuinely having the power to become immortal. Immortality is an epic Modernist concern and in this state, Brooke delineates a lyrical promise grander than what the turn of the century could ever mandate.
SOURCE: "Rupert Brooke," in Neglected Powers: Essays on Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Literature, Barnes & Noble, 1971, pp. 293-308.
[In the following essay, Knight discusses the defining characteristics of Brooke's verse.]
Rupert Brooke belongs, not to a generation, and certainly not to posterity, but to a date: in so far as his name survives, it does so in inevitable connection with 1914. Although it was his generation—the generation of Pound and Eliot, of Joyce and Lawrence, of Epstein and Picasso and Stravinsky—that made the modern world of art, Brooke has no place among them, and consequently no living contact with the present moment. He is a poet of his time, but his time was those few first months of the First World War, when Englishmen still believed that it was sweet and proper to die for one's country, and when Brooke's war sonnets could be read without bitterness or irony.
We think of Brooke, then, as a War Poet. But quite inaccurately. In the first place, it would be more precise to call him an On-the-way-to-the-war Poet, for, with ironic appropriateness, he died of natural causes en route to the Dardanelles campaign, and the emotions that his war sonnets express are not those of a combatant, but of a recruit. The real War Poets—Owen and Sassoon and Graves and Blunden and Rosenberg—came along later, out of the trenches, and spoke with a different tone; indeed, one might say that their poems exist to contradict the ignorant nobilities of Brooke. Sassoon recalled [in Siegfried's Journey, 1945] that
while learning to be a second-lieutenant I was unable to write anything at all, with the exception of a short poem called 'Absolution', manifestly influenced by Rupert Brooke's famous sonnet-sequence. The significance of my too nobly worded lines was that they expressed the typical self-glorifying feelings of a young man about to go to the Front for the first time. The poem subsequently found favour with middle-aged reviewers; but the more I saw of the war the less noble-minded I felt about it.
Poor Brooke never got past the self-glorifying stage, because he did not get to the war.
But Brooke was a would-be War Poet for only the length of those last five sonnets. Until then, through nearly a hundred poems, he had been a lyric poet of Youth, Love and Death, who developed from a Late Decadent to an Early Georgian. Most of these poems are hard going now, not because they are particularly bad, and certainly not because they are difficult, but because they are uniformly and conventionally dull; they are poems that might have been written by any of a number of mediocre pre-war poets, or by a committee of Georgians. They have no distinguishable individual voice, and this is no doubt one reason for Brooke's popularity among people who don't ordinarily read verse; his poetry sounds the way poetry should sound, because it sounds like so many poems that have already been written. Echoes of Marvell and Donne, of Shakespeare, Blake, Housman, Dowson and Yeats haunt the Collected Poems; the only ghost that is not there is Brooke's.
Almost any poem from Poems 1911 (the only book that Brooke published during his lifetime) will confirm these strictures. Take, for example, this sonnet:
Not exactly a bad poem, and far from Brooke's worst, but a poem without any distinguishable merit—the diction abstract and conventional, the images the worn poetical coinage of the past, the theme Death, the most poetical subject that Brooke knew. Out of poems like this one a list of favourite words and gestures could be made that would constitute Brooke's sense of what was poetic, and that turn up again and again, rearranged, but essentially the same: dream and gleam, heart, tears, sorrow, grey, yearning, and weary cries and sighs, and of course, everywhere, Love and Death. In a rare moment of self-criticism Brooke composed a table of contents for an imaginary anthology, to which his own contribution was to be 'Oh, Dear! Oh, Dear! A Sonnet'. This is very perceptive, for nearly half of his poems are conventional sonnets, and most of them, like 'Oh! Death will find me', say little more than 'Oh Dear!'
This body of boring verse suggests not so much a man who wanted to write a poem as a man who wanted to be a poet; or perhaps in Brooke's case a man who took poeticalness as his destiny. For if the poems are in the most conventional sense poetic, so was Brooke. No one ever looked so much like a poet as he did—not a poètemaudit, but an ideal English poet, a gentleman poet, a Rugby-and-Cambridge poet, a healthy, pink-cheeked, blond, games-playing poet. He was, as Henry Nevinson said, almost ludicrously beautiful, and with his long hair and his flowing ties he made his own beauty poetical. (Even Beatrice Webb, who was deaf to poetry and immune to a pretty face, called Brooke 'a poetic beauty', though she thought him otherwise a commonplace, conceited young man.) With such looks, great personal charm, and a modest talent, no wonder that he had such friends, that he dined with the Prime Minister and called Winston Churchill by his first name and never worked for a living. He was a Doomed Youth from the beginning, but his doom was his extravagant good fortune; as Henry James said, felicity dogged his steps.
More than any of his other admirers it was James who understood the expense of Brooke's beauty. 'Rupert expressed us all', James wrote after his death [in the preface to Letters from America, 1916] 'at the highest tide of our actuality, and was the creature of a freedom restricted only by that condition of his blinding youth, which we accept on the whole with gratitude and relief—given that I qualify the condition as dazzling even to himself. The expressive self, the 'blinding youth' became a myth in his own time. Brooke was twenty-three and scarcely known when Frances Cornford published her epigram about him:
And he remained mythical in his life and in his death. [In Letters, edited by Aldous Huxley, 1932] Even D. H. Lawrence—a man not given to classical allusion—wrote of Brooke's death that
he was slain by bright Phoebus' shaft—it was in keeping with his general sunniness—it was the real climax of his pose. I first heard of him as a Greek god under a Japanese sunshade, reading poetry in his pyjamas, at Grantchester,—at Grantchester upon the lawns where the river goes. Bright Phoebus smote him down. It is all in the saga.
But as James perceived, the myth dazzled Brooke, too. He confessed to Ka Cox that he had 'always enjoyed that healthy, serene, Apollo-golden-haired, business' and in most of his poems he allowed himself to be absorbed in it, so that the personal role and the poetic role were the same, and there is no creative tension between them. If one asks who wrote 'The Funeral of Youth' or 'The Great Lover' or 'Tiare Tahiti', the answer can only be, 'Apollo-Brooke did'.
A few poems suggest, however, that Brooke did recognize the danger of the myth to him as a poet, and that he was trying to destroy, or at least modify it by writing poems that were aggressively anti-Apollonian. His five so-called 'ugly poems' are all attempts to get beyond conventional poetic subject matter and language, to a more acrid reality. 'Channel Passage', the most noticed of these, is about seasickness and lovesickness; 'Dead Men's Love' is a vision of dead lovers kissing;...