Nigel Jones

The poet who welcomed war

The poet who welcomed war
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Today, 23 April, the world celebrates the 450th anniversary of William Shakespeare's presumed birth (and marks with less joy the date of the Bard's death in 1616). That double date obscures another: the 99th anniversary of the death of a less celebrated Warwickshire-born literary lad, the poet Rupert Brooke.

Brooke, like many of his friends and contemporaries, died in the First World War. But unlike most of them, he perished not in action, but as a result of septicaemia from an infected insect bite to his upper lip. En route to the bloody beaches of Gallipoli, he fell ill in Egypt, died on a French hospital ship moored off the Greek island of Skyros, and - fittingly for a classically educated poet - lies buried in an isolated olive grove overlooking the wine-dark waters of the Aegean.

Eulogised in the Times by an admiring Winston Churchill as 'one of England's noblest sons' and made a poster boy for the self-sacrifice of the generation of 1914, Brooke's most famous poem, 'The Soldier', speaks of his coming death with the longing language of 'The Great Lover' that Brooke saw himself as embodying:

'If I should die, think only this of me;

That there's some corner of a foreign field

That is for ever England. There shall be

In that rich earth a richer dust concealed

A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,

Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,

A body of England's breathing English air'

Like some of Kipling's lines, this may not be the greatest poetry, and he might well have ended by writing in a similar vein to Wilfred Owen if he had  survived a little longer, but if literary immortality means giving memorable lines to the language, Brooke has surely added his share.

Even before his demise, Brooke was a legend in his own lifetime. His striking good looks - W.B. Yeats, no less, deemed him 'the handsomest young man in England' - carefully cultivated carefree image (think tousled hair, perfect profile, loose shirt and bare feet treading the dew-dappled grass of his home) attracted all, or nearly all, who strayed across his orbit.

Brooke also evidently possessed that most perishable of qualities, charm, in shedfuls, if the ecstatic comments of those meeting him for the first time are to be believed. 'I have just seen Shelley plain!' squealed Ellery Sedgwick, editor of the Atlantic Monthly, before burbling,

'A young man more beautiful than he I had never seen. Tall beyond the common. His loose tweeds accentuated his height and the athletic grace of his walk. His complexion was as ruddy as a young David's. His auburn hair rippled back from the central parting, careless but perfect. I went home under the spell of it.'

His own friends were rather more cynical. The catty critic Lytton Strachey - later a bitter enemy during Brooke's paranoid phase - 'wasn't particularly impressed', branding Brooke, 'dreadfully commonplace [and] damned literary'; while Brooke's Cambridge contemporary Frances Cornford set out her withering view in verse:

'A young Apollo, golden haired

Stands dreaming on the edge of strife

Magnificently unprepared

For the long littleness of life'.

Brooke's looks and charisma made him the brightest star in the crowded firmament of Edwardian England. Together he and his mentor Eddie Marsh launched the first anthology of Georgian poetry which, controversially for the time, included a sonnet about Rupert throwing up during a Channel crossing:

'...Retchings twist and tie me,

Old meat, good meals, brown gobbets, up I throw.'

Which is some way from the elevated patriotism of the  five sonnets written on the outbreak of war for which he is both remembered - and damned.

For Broke was a far darker star than those - like Churchill - who tried to posthumously cast him in the role of  a patriotic plaster saint fully realised. Before the war, a seemingly trivial setback in love propelled him into  a state of severe psychosis, during which he revealed himself as an anti-Semitic mysogynist, harbouring disturbing impulses of violence towards the women whose emotions he toyed with.

Brooke's sexuality was complex: exclusively gay at Rugby where his father was a housemaster, he remained unashamedly so at Cambridge until he began to pay court to a variety of young women, sometimes simultanously, including the Fabian bluestocking Ka Cox, the four headstrong Olivier sisters (cousins of Sir Laurence), the actress Cathleen Nesbitt, the artist Phyllis Gardner,  and Elisabeth van Rysselberghe who later bore a child - strange as it may seem - to Andre Gide.

Before his death Brooke had a brief final fling with Eileen Wellesley, daughter of the Duke of Wellington (Eddie Marsh's shocked housekeeper found her hairpins in Brooke's bed); but the fullest and most satisfying erotic experience of his life was a Gauguinesque episode with a comely Tahitian girl whom Rupert encountered while globetrotting in the South Seas, and who probably bore him a daughter.

It is ironic that this thoroughly modern man - narcissistic, sexually confused, at once libidinous and fiercely puritanical - should have been immortalised by the five patriotic sonnets he wrote on the outbreak of war in 1914 in which he welcomed the conflict as a cleansing douche from a corrupting century of peace:

'Now, God be thanked Who has matched us with His hour,

And caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping'

And suggested that England's youth should fling themselves into the conflict 'As swimmers into cleanness leaping...'

Brooke sought death as a solution to his own unresolved problems, enlisting in Churchill's royal naval division and sailing towards Gallipoli with the certain knowledge that he was embracing his own extinction. (For if he had not suffered the fatal mosquito bite he would surely, like his pallbearers, not have survived the Dardanelles or the Somme). But by dying so appropriately he escaped from unfulfillable expectations and a celebrity that had finally become literally unbearable.

Nigel Jones' biography Rupert Brooke: Life, Death and Myth is to be re-issued with new material in November by Head of Zeus.