Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. V. Browning to Rupert Brooke
Critical Introduction by Sir Henry Newbolt
Rupert Brooke (18871915)
[Rupert Brooke was born at Rugby, August 3, 1887, and educated at Rugby School, where his father, William Brooke, was a housemaster. In 1905 he won a prize with a poem on The Bastille. In 1906 he went up to Kings College, Cambridge, and after taking a classical degree, lived at Grantchester, publishing his first volume of poems in 1911. In 1913 he was elected a Fellow of Kings, and started for a years travel in America, Samoa, and Tahiti. In September, 1914, he joined the Hood Division of the R. N. V. R. as a sub-lieutenant; took part in the Antwerp expedition in October, and sailed again on February 28, 1915, for the Dardanelles. He died of blood-poisoning at Lemnos, April 23, 1915, on board a French hospital ship, and was buried in the island of Imbros. A second volume of his collected verse, 1914 and other Poems, was published in 1915, shortly after his death.]
FEW men are so obviously born to distinction as Rupert Brooke; he shone from first to last, and seldom disappointed expectation. He had no disadvantages to contend with; his athletic and intellectual gifts matched the beauty of his form and face; his whole personality was radiant. When his first volume of poems appeared it gained at once the recognition which his friends had anticipated: among the new constellation of the Georgian Poets he was instantly seen to be the brightest star. So much ardour and freshness put forth with such sureness of utterance, seemed to call only for enthusiasm. The volume was followed by a number of single poems, all beautiful and successful; then came the five sonnets on the War, a self-dedication and a forecast of a happy warriors death. Lastly, when that forecast had been fulfilled and deeply mourned, a final volume was received with an outpouring of affectionate admiration, such as has seldom been given to a young poet by his contemporaries. It was made clear that in a great moment, black with storm, his radiance had lightened the eyes of his countrymen.
It has been questioned whether such a reputation, won, as it were, by surprise, and confirmed in the emotion of a national crisis, is likely to stand the test of time. Time will show; but it may be noted that Brookes work is remarkable for originality and sanity, two qualities which in combination have always made for permanence. His artistic method was adapted rather than invented, but was none the less original. It would hardly be conceivable that a poet of his temperament should spend patience in elaborating a new instrument; he took up the old, with confidence that whoever had tried the strings before him, a new and living hand would bring new and living tones from them. So with the content of his poetry: his subjects were for the most part Love and Death, and he had no fear of coming to them in too late a day, for what he had to record was his own experience, and that he knew must be unique. He speaks of Beauty, but not, as some have done, of the search for it: for him expression was the peremptory need, and Beauty a matter of vision. How intense, and how original in its intensity, was his vision of things in themselves commonplace, may be most easily proved by The Fish, a poem in which he has almost endowed humanity with a new and non-human rapture of sensation. Again, in Dining-room Tea he has taken an ordinary domestic interior and has arrested, in a familiar moment, the kinematograph of eye and brain by which existence is displayed to us as an unending, unseverable tissue of changing action. So much a painter might have done; but the poet has done morehe has thrown over the picture the light of vision, the light, invisible to others, of the eternal reality lying behind the appearances of transitory life.
In his love poems, which form the greater part of his work, the same intensity is felt: it enters into every one of many moods, some of them the contradictory opposite of each other. Brooke was not perhaps much more inconsistent in his philosophy than other men, but he had this peculiarity, that he cared little for the construction of a watertight theory of life, and was too honest, or too detached, to take any account of his own inconsistencies. He alternated between moods, and set them all down with perfect sincerity, notwithstanding that some of them were moods of belief. In the mood of Tiare Tahiti he mocks gently at immortality; in The Hill, Second Best, and Mutability he is splendidly or sadly convinced that it is a vain hope. But in The Great Lover he cries, Oh, never a doubt but, somewhere, I shall wake, and in The Soldier he bids his friends think of his heart as a pulse in the Eternal Mind, giving back, no less, the thoughts by England given.
As with the survival of the soul, so with the survival of love: he was alternately a passionate believer and a bitter sceptic. In Dust, in The Wayfarers, in the sonnet Not with vain tears, his hope has an ardent certainly which might well carry a world upon its wings; while in Kindliness, in Thoughts on the Shape of the Human Body, in the sonnet Love is a Breach in the Walls, he proclaims the opposite conviction: love, that was sweet lies at most, grows false and dull, and all love is but this. It must be so, for mans very nature is a deformity in the world of ideal love.
There are poems more merciless even than these: Dead Mens Love, for example, and Town and Country and Libido; but bitter as he can be, Brooke is not cynical. His contempt is always for a lower as compared with a possible higher: the observation is amazingly faithful, the resulting expression never affected or rhetorical or merely rhapsodic. It is the simple truth that at one time he burns with one feeling, at another time with another: there is no attempt at synthesis, and no reticence: the ardour is breathed out, the doubts cried aloud, just as they came to him. A study of the dates of the poems named will show that they record not a gradual development, but an alternating series of moods equally natural, called forth no doubt by deeply-felt changes of circumstance. The collector of poetical gems will reject the records of pain and despair; the moralist will perhaps disapprove a story which has little to say of prudence or restraint, but tells of experience accepted freely and at a stage when it must inevitably be followed by regret.
Yet of Brooke, as of others, it is true that the poet is greater than any of his poems, his story more significant than any of its pages. These two little volumes are not a pocket of unequal gems nor the indiscreet revelation of a too-young lovers secrets, they are fragmentary passages from a spiritual drama. How profoundly felt and how movingly uttered may be judged by any one who will read the sonnet called Waikikithe cry of one haunted by remembrance in the Circean Islands of the Pacific. Dramatically too came war to cut the tangled threads: but it was a joyful deliverance only because it gave opportunity to another energy of this glowing spirit. Though utterly careless, it would seem, of personal salvation, he had a sane and virile love of righteousness for its own sake, and with this a natural desire to be freed and perfected. He had also the Englishmans normal love of his own country, a love untroubled by political theories or conscientious objections because it knows how to judge of nations and their dreams. In the last poems of this soldier, England is not a world power nor even a vision of unbuilt hopes, but a land of kindly life and kindly memories. If these are set for a moment over against the deeds and dreams of our enemies, it will be understood how truly Rupert Brooke spoke for his generation when he offered his life for the beauty and the fellowship from which he knew he had received it.