As the Gallipoli centenary commemorations get under way today (24 April) it is a poignant time to remember the passing of English poet, Rupert Brooke, who died on the way to the conflict aboard a Royal Navy vessel in the Aegean on 23rd April, 1915. He contracted septicaemia during a stopover in Egypt. Weakened by this, a mosquito tipped the balance and he died aboard, aged only 27. Unusually he was buried on the southern island of Skyros in an olive grave, where later a memorial was erected by his mother and friends. Brooke, born in Tahiti, educated at Rugby and Cambridge, moved in the elite literary circle of the Bloomsbury Set, but also was one of the Dymock Poets (a coterie of poetic friends who ensconced themselves in a village in rural Gloucestershire: they comprised Lascelles Abercrombie, Wilfrid Gibson, John Drinkwater, Edward Thomas, and Robert Frost. Together they went on long walks, drank cider, wrote poetry, reviews, and criticism, and produced New Numbers, which although it only ran to 4 issues published the iconic poem of Brooke’s ‘The Soldier’ for the first time).
However tragic Brooke’s death – and of course he was only one of many who lost their lives in the Great War, the timing of his passing could not be more iconic. April 23rd, St George’s day (patron Saint of England, curiously enough born in Cappadocia, in what is now modern day Turkey), plus Shakespeare’s birth and death-day. This all fed into the legend. His death attained an almost mythic quality – the death of ‘the most handsomest man in England’, with the looks of an Adonis, on a Greek isle, on the way to fight for his country, as though he was some kind of James Frazer-ish solar hero who must perish for the vitality of the land (The Golden Bough and all that). In a similar way to Saint George, martyred in the Middle East, who was adopted by the Crusaders as a Christian icon, and later promoted to patron saint of England in 1222, Brooke’s Mediterranean demise was taken up as a symbol of patriotic sacrifice for King and Country, a PR boost to a dubious war – as the gungho Bosch-bashing of the early days gave way to the grim realities and heavy toll of industrialised warfare.
Brooke’s funeral was almost a state occasion – buried in St Paul’s with an eulogy by the Archbishop of Canterbury, and many of the great and the good in attendance, his passing was marked by a letter to The Times (April 26, 1915) by 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.
His dashing photographic portraits helped to secure his place in the heart of the nation – the bloom of England cruelly cut down. Published by friend Edward Marsh (who wrote a memoir of the poet’s life in the months following his death), his Selected Poems sold in the thousands, and Brooke became the ‘poetry idol’ of his day. ‘The Soldier’ was co-opted as a patriotic cri-de-coeur, used in countless funerals ever since. Brooke was a mercurial, almost quixotic figure – as many of his earlier poems attest (eg ‘Heaven’) — a young brilliant mind who had ambivalent feelings about the War. Flippant remarks such as ‘Come and die, it’ll be great fun’, need to be read with awareness of the whimsical irony with which he laced much of his writing. Typical of a young mind, he played with ideas, with voices, with ‘attitudes’ – never to mature into a consistent authentic voice. What he would have made of his post-humous recruitment as the War Office’s poster-boy, we can only imagine. And yet, his death bequeathed him a kind of Valhalla-like status, and his legend lives on to this day.