Aug 032015
 

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Today is the birthday (1887) of Rupert Chawner Brooke, an English poet known for his idealistic war sonnets written during the First World War, especially “The Soldier”. He was also known for his boyish good looks, which were said to have prompted the Irish poet W. B. Yeats to describe him as “the handsomest young man in England.”

Brooke was born in Rugby, Warwickshire, the second of the three sons of William Parker Brooke, a Rugby schoolmaster, and Ruth Mary Brooke, née Cotterill. He was educated at two independent schools in Rugby: Hillbrow School and Rugby School. In 1905, he became friends with the poet St. John Lucas, who thereafter became something of a mentor to him.

While travelling in Europe he prepared a thesis, entitled “John Webster and the Elizabethan Drama”, which won him a scholarship to King’s College, Cambridge, where he became a member of the Cambridge Apostles, a well known, but secret, intellectual gathering, was elected as President of the Cambridge University Fabian Society, helped found the Marlowe Society drama club and acted in plays including the Cambridge Greek Play.

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Brooke made friends among the Bloomsbury Group, some of whom admired his talent while others were more impressed by his good looks. Virginia Woolf boasted to Vita Sackville-West of once going skinny-dipping with Brooke in a moonlit pool when they were at Cambridge together. Brooke belonged to another literary group known as the Georgian Poets and was one of the most important of the Dymock poets, associated with the Gloucestershire village of Dymock where he spent some time before the war. He also lived in the Old Vicarage, Grantchester.

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Brooke suffered a severe emotional crisis in 1912, caused by the breakdown of his long relationship with Ka Cox (Katherine Laird Cox). Brooke’s paranoia that Lytton Strachey had schemed to destroy his relationship with Cox by encouraging her to see Henry Lamb precipitated his break with his Bloomsbury Group friends and played a part in his general collapse. I doubt that this paranoia was legitimate, but who knows? One can imagine no end of scenarios. My personal suspicion is that the man beneath the handsome, well educated, sensitive-poet veil, was not easy to get along with romantically.

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As part of his recuperation, Brooke toured the United States and Canada to write travel reports for the Westminster Gazette. He took the long way home, sailing across the Pacific and staying some months in the South Seas. Much later it was revealed that he may have fathered a daughter with a Tahitian woman named Taatamata (pictured) with whom he seems to have had a revitalizing emotional relationship.

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I’m given to wonder if part of the issue was that it was uncomplicated with Taatamata. England was not especially healthy for him. Apart from Cox, Brooke had been romantically involved with the actress Cathleen Nesbitt and was once engaged to Noël Olivier (pictured along with Virginia Woolf), whom he met when she was aged 15 and he 20, and with whom he corresponded up until his death.

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Might have been a happy match judging from their letters. Dunno. You can be deeply in love with a person, yet an actual relationship sometimes complicates things, as previous posts (and personal experience) attest.

As a war poet Brooke came to public attention in 1915 when The Times Literary Supplement quoted two of his five sonnets (“IV: The Dead” and “V: The Soldier”) in full on 11 March and his sonnet “V: The Soldier” was read from the pulpit of St Paul’s Cathedral on Easter Sunday (4 April). Brooke’s most famous collection of poetry, containing all five sonnets, 1914 & Other Poems, was first published in May 1915 and, in testament to his popularity, ran to 11 further impressions that year and by June 1918 had reached its 24th impression; a process undoubtedly fueled by posthumous interest.

He is quite unlike the other well-known Great War poets such as Wilfred Owen (http://www.bookofdaystales.com/wilfred-owen/ ) and Siegfried Sassoon in that he is more sentimental about death than they were. Here’s “The Soldier”:

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,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

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Brooke was commissioned into the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve as a temporary Sub-Lieutenant shortly after his 27th birthday and took part in the Royal Naval Division’s Antwerp expedition in October 1914. He sailed with the British Mediterranean Expeditionary Force on 28 February 1915 but developed sepsis from an infected mosquito bite. He died at 4:46 pm on 23 April 1915 in a French hospital ship moored in a bay off the Greek island of Skyros in the Aegean Sea on his way to the landing at Gallipoli. As the expeditionary force had orders to depart immediately, he was buried at 11 pm in an olive grove on Skyros. The site was chosen by his close friend, William Denis Browne, who wrote of Brooke’s death:

…I sat with Rupert. At 4 o’clock he became weaker, and at 4.46 he died, with the sun shining all round his cabin, and the cool sea-breeze blowing through the door and the shaded windows. No one could have wished for a quieter or a calmer end than in that lovely bay, shielded by the mountains and fragrant with sage and thyme.

Browne, had been at King’s with Brooke, and died at Gallipoli just a few weeks after Brooke. Browne describes Brooke’s grave in Skyros,

. . .one of the loveliest places on this earth, with grey-green olives round him, one weeping above his head: the ground covered with flowering sage, bluish grey & smelling more delicious than any other flower I know”.

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His grave remains there today. On 11 November 1985, Brooke was among 16 First World War poets commemorated on a slate monument unveiled in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey. The inscription on the stone was written by Wilfred Owen. It reads: “My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity.”

Why in heaven’s name we still go to war is utterly beyond me. What will it take to stop it?

I come by today’s recipe via a circuitous route. I wanted something that reflected his days at Rugby School and so re-read the chapter in Tom Brown’s School Days concerning Tom’s first coach ride to Rugby. Mid-journey the coach stops at a coaching inn where Tom breakfasts on kidneys and pigeon pie. Kidneys you can handle by yourself. Here’s Isabella Beeton’s pigeon pie (minus her endless discussion of various breeds of pigeon). You should be able to find squab in a good supermarket. I used to be able to get them frozen in Rockland Co, NY. Why it is important to use THREE feet as a decoration escapes me (although I realize that, on the whole, an odd number of items on a plate is always more pleasing than an even number).

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PIGEON PIE (Epsom Grand-Stand Recipe).

975. INGREDIENTS.—1-1/2 lb. of rump-steak, 2 or 3 pigeons, 3 slices of ham, pepper and salt to taste, 2 oz. of butter, 4 eggs, puff crust.

 Mode.—Cut the steak into pieces about 3 inches square, and with it line the bottom of a pie-dish, seasoning it well with pepper and salt. Clean the pigeons, rub them with pepper and salt inside and out, and put into the body of each rather more than 1/2 oz. of butter; lay them on the steak, and a piece of ham on each pigeon. Add the yolks of 4 eggs, and half fill the dish with stock; place a border of puff paste round the edge of the dish, put on the cover, and ornament it in any way that may be preferred. Clean three of the feet, and place them in a hole made in the crust at the top: this shows what kind of pie it is. Glaze the crust,—that is to say, brush it over with the yolk of an egg,—and bake it in a well-heated oven for about 1-1/4 hour. When liked, a seasoning of pounded mace may be added.

 Time.—1-1/4 hour, or rather less. Average cost, 5s. 3d.

 Sufficient for 5 or 6 persons. Seasonable at any time.

  3 Responses to “Rupert Brooke”

  1. I have always enjoyed Brooke’s poetry, and think him a much underrated poet. I wonder too, which course he might have taken had he lived.

    As to Brooke the man, I suspect that he was essentially, a bitter repressed homosexual, who hoped that each encounter with a woman might change him. This might account for his neurotic behaviour. Are you aware that on one occasion, when he and Ka Cox returned from a walk, her spectacles had been broken, her face was bruised, and she was crying?

    • I don’t know the details of his relationship with Ka Cox beyond what I wrote. I’d have to dig into his letters to her to make a closer judgment about the relationship and his sexuality. It’s certainly true that the Bloomsbury Group and the Neo-Pagans had complicated sex lives. Brooke also went to Rugby school and Cambridge in the days when homosexuality was illegal, but common. I’m not a clinician, nor was Brooke a patient, so I wouldn’t want to hazard a guess concerning his sexuality. My non-professional judgment is that they were all screwed up — Virginia Woolf, Vita Sackville-West, etc etc. His love for Noël Olivier seems quite genuine, and I don’t find it odd that a 20 year old man should fall for a 15 year old girl. Those were different times. We can get ourselves tied into knots if we project our own culture on the past, especially the past of the privileged elite.

    • Anyway . . . thanks for your interest, and the comment.

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