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date: 22 July 2024

Brooke, Rupert Chawnerfree

(1887–1915)

Brooke, Rupert Chawnerfree

(1887–1915)
  • Adrian Caesar

Rupert Chawner Brooke (1887–1915)

by Sherril Schell, 1913

Brooke, Rupert Chawner (1887–1915), poet, was born on 3 August 1887 at 5 Hillmorton Road, Rugby, Warwickshire, the second of the three sons born to William Parker Brooke (1850–1910), schoolmaster, and his wife, Ruth Mary (d. 1930), the daughter of the Revd Charles Cotterill of Stoke-on-Trent. When Rupert was aged three, his mild and scholarly father was promoted from classics tutor to housemaster of School Field at Rugby School. Brooke attended a preparatory school, Hillbrow, as a day boy, 1897–1901, and then proceeded to take his place at Rugby. Home and school thus became the same place, and psychologically this situation may have represented the worst of both worlds: he experienced the sexually sequestered and confusing world of the public school, while simultaneously coping with the emotional intensities generated by a possessive mother and a distantly affectionate father.

In Brooke's adolescence there was a divergence between his conventional achievements and his quietly rebellious romantic and aesthetic interests. He did well at classics and represented both house and school at rugby football and cricket. But at the same time he was writing poems heavily influenced by the poets of the English decadence, and indulging in romantic crushes on other boys. The poems, with their expression of ambivalence towards desire, their feelings of sinfulness and shame, their notions of lost beauty, love, and purity, and their concern with sickness and disease, prefigure the intricate difficulties of Brooke's sexuality in the years that followed.

From 1906 to 1909 Brooke read classics at King's College, Cambridge, but English literature was always his first love. He experienced a difficult first term, and his elder brother died during the Christmas vacation, but despite these setbacks Brooke soon became involved in various Cambridge groups, and was widely acknowledged as a handsome and charismatic figure about the university. Some of the circles in which he moved were predominantly homosexual—Charles Sayle's salon and the exclusive discussion group known as the Apostles—while others (the Fabian Society and the Marlowe Dramatic Society), introduced Brooke to the company of women. Encouraged by friends, he also developed an enthusiasm for long walks, camping, nude bathing, and vegetarianism—a creed which Virginia Woolf christened 'neo-paganism'.

Brooke's public life continued successfully. He acted in various plays, wrote and published poems, and completed his degree. From 1909 to 1912 he lived in Grantchester while he pursued further academic work, concentrating now on Jacobean drama. He won the Charles Oldham Shakespeare prize for an essay on Webster (1909) and the Harness prize for his essay 'Puritanism and the English drama up to 1642', and finally completed a dissertation, entitled 'John Webster and the Elizabethan drama', which won him a fellowship at King's in 1913. These studies were punctuated by various travels in England and on the continent, and a term spent acting as housemaster of School Field at Rugby on the death of his father in 1910. In 1911 he published his first volume of poetry, and in 1912 he helped Edward Marsh to plan the first of his Georgian Poetry anthologies.

Despite this parade of achievement, Brooke's private life proceeded from confusion to chaos and crisis. Paradoxically, his emotional and his psychosexual life were ruled by the puritanism which he dissected in his academic writing. To a revulsion from the body he added a deep uncertainty as to the direction of his desires. In 1908 he met and chose to fall ‘in love’ with Noel Olivier, a fifteen-year-old schoolgirl. This inherently difficult liaison was further complicated by Brooke's deciding in 1909 to lose his virginity with Denham Russell-Smith (1888/9–1912). James Strachey also remained a close friend during this period, although Brooke refused at least two invitations to share his bed. Further chaste entanglements developed in 1910 and 1911 with Katherine (Ka) Laird Cox (1887–1938) and Elisabeth van Rysselberghe (1889/90–1980) respectively.

Brooke's unresolved relationships with Noel and Ka precipitated a nervous breakdown in early 1912, following which he consummated his relationship with Ka. But this led to more misery, and there is some evidence to suggest that Ka bore his stillborn child later that year (Delany, 172). Also during 1912, Brooke was sporadically involved in a tortured and ambivalent relationship with the artist Phyllis Gardner. This liaison foundered when Gardner insisted on the propriety of marriage. Brooke, meanwhile, in late 1912 and 1913, had recommenced his complicated dealings with Elisabeth van Rysselberghe and had been attracted to Cathleen Nesbitt. No satisfactory relationship with either woman ensued. As Paul Delany has remarked, Brooke's correspondence at this time is 'sprinkled with coarse and morally repellent attacks on women, homosexuals and Jews' (ibid., 153) that leave no doubt as to the depths of the psychological problems with which he was struggling.

In May 1913 Brooke escaped for a year of travel in which he visited Canada, the United States, and the south seas. This experience resulted in the prose essays collected posthumously as Letters from America (1916), and in an affair with a Tahitian woman, Taatamata, who seems to have afforded Brooke some temporary physical satisfaction but little lasting reprieve from his insecurity and paranoia.

On his return to England in June 1914 Brooke's vacillations concerning Cathleen Nesbitt were exacerbated by a developing friendship with Lady Eileen Wellesley. But the outbreak of war saved this situation and Brooke turned his romantic attention away from love towards war. He was given a commission in the Royal Naval division in September and in October was at the siege of Antwerp, but saw little action. Following this experience he wrote the five war sonnets which made him first famous, then infamous when they came to be taken as representative of the supposedly naïve patriotism of Brooke's generation. In February 1915 the division sailed for Gallipoli, but Brooke never reached any heroic apotheosis in that ill-fated campaign: he died at sea on 23 April and was buried at Skyros the same day. He is thought to have contracted septicaemia from a mosquito bite. 1914 and other Poems was published posthumously in 1915, and his Collected Poems in 1918.

During his years at Cambridge, influenced by the Jacobean poets and dramatists that he studied, Brooke refined the style of his poetry. The lush extravagance learned from the decadents gave way to a harder-edged diction, metaphor which sometimes tested the boundaries of Edwardian good taste, and a penchant for syllogism. He showed a particular felicity in his use of the sonnet and rhymed octosyllabics. The subject matter of the poems is dominated by conflicts in which youth and innocence are preferred to age and experience, mind is valued above the distrusted body, and the ‘eternal’ is often aspired to at the expense of the transitory. There is a desire for ‘cleanliness’ and a shrinking from ‘dirt’. It is not difficult to trace the continuities between such concerns and the war sonnets. In the latter, mind triumphs over matter to achieve a youthful and martyred heroism that is eternal; pain, violence, and death are equated with cleanliness and allowed to triumph over erotic love: all this in the name of England.

The war sonnets, and other much-quoted poems, such as 'The Old Vicarage, Grantchester', and 'The Great Lover', together with memoirs which dwelt on Brooke's charm and good looks, created a cultural myth in which the poet—'A young Apollo, golden-haired' in Frances Cornford's famous phrase from the poem 'Youth'—came to symbolize both a golden age of pre-war Edwardian England and the tragedy of willingly martyred youth. Revulsion from the horrors of the First World War, the huge reputation of the trench poets Owen, Sassoon, and Rosenberg, and the general dismissal of Georgian poetry in the 1960s and 1970s created a counter-myth wherein Brooke became politically and poetically unfashionable, though his poems kept their place in anthologies and in public memory: 'The Soldier' (1914), Brooke's elegy to England, was probably the best-known sonnet published in English in the twentieth century. Perhaps now, it is possible to see him and his work from both perspectives as a representative figure of his time, articulating the manifest complexities of Edwardian masculinity.

Sources

  • C. Hassall, Rupert Brooke: a biography (1964)
  • P. Delany, The neo-pagans: friendship and love in the Rupert Brooke circle (1987)
  • J. Lehmann, Rupert Brooke: his life and his legend (1980)
  • A. Caesar, ‘Rupert Brooke’, Taking it like a man: suffering, sexuality and the war poets (1993)
  • The letters of Rupert Brooke, ed. G. Keynes (1968)
  • P. Harris, ed., Song of love: the letters of Rupert Brooke and Noel Olivier (1991)
  • W. E. Laskowski, Rupert Brooke (1994)
  • S. Hynes, ‘Rupert Brooke’, Edwardian occasions: essays on English writing in the early twentieth century (1972)
  • G. Bloom, ‘The falling house that never falls: Rupert Brooke and literary taste’, British poetry, 1900–1950, ed. G. Day and B. Docherty (1995)
  • M. Hastings, The handsomest young man in England: Rupert Brooke (1967)
  • G. Keynes, A bibliography of Rupert Brooke (1954)
  • F. D. Cornford, ‘Youth’, Collected poems (1954)
  • E. Marsh, ‘Memoir’, in The collected poems of Rupert Brooke (1989)

Archives

  • CUL, corresp. and papers; letters to his mother
  • Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire, corresp. and papers, incl. literary MSS
  • King's AC Cam., corresp., papers, and literary MSS
  • BL, corresp. with Phyllis Gardner and her mother Mary, Add. MS 74741
  • BL, Strachey MSS
  • CUL, letters to Frances Cornford; letters to Katherine Cox; letters to Hugh Dalton; letters to Geoffrey Fry; letters to Geoffrey Keynes; letters to Jacques Raverat and Gwen Raverat; letters to Charles Sayle; letters to A. F. Scholfield; corresp. with Edward Dent
  • King's Cam., letters to J. T. Sheppard
  • NYPL, Berg collection, corresp. with J. Strachey

Likenesses

  • Speight, carte photograph, 1903, NPG
  • G. A. Dean, carte photograph, 1905, NPG
  • Scott & Wilkinson, print, 1906, NPG
  • V. H. Mottram, print, 1907, NPG
  • G. Raverat, pencil on paper, 1910, NPG
  • C. Ewald, oils, 1911, NPG; version, King's Cam.
  • S. Schell, photographs, 1913, Hult. Arch., NPG [see illus.]
  • E. Walker, glass positive photograph, 1913 (after S. Schell), NPG
  • photograph, 1913, NPG
  • J. H. Thomas, pencil drawing, 1916 (posthumous; after photograph by S. Schell), NPG
  • H. Thomas and E. Gill, stone memorial plaque, 1919 (after photograph by S. Schell), Rugby School chapel
  • photograph, NPG
  • photographs, priv. coll.

Wealth at Death

£923 10s. 0d.: administration, 29 July 1915, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

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