By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Rupert Brooke (1887-1915) is often known as a war poet, though he died early on during the conflict and didn’t live to see the sort of combat and conditions that later poets of the First World War, such as Wilfred Owen and Isaac Rosenberg, experienced and wrote so powerfully about.
He also wrote notable poems before the outbreak of the War, and was associated with the ‘Georgian’ poets who named themselves – patriotically – after King George V, who came to the British throne in 1910. Here’s our pick of Brooke’s five best poems, which we think would provide a fine introduction to his work as a whole.
Follow the title of each poem to read the poem. We’ve arranged these in ascending order, ending with what we think is Brooke’s finest poem of all.
1. ‘The Great Lover‘.
I have been so great a lover: filled my days
So proudly with the splendour of Love’s praise,
The pain, the calm, and the astonishment,
Desire illimitable, and still content,
And all dear names men use, to cheat despair,
For the perplexed and viewless streams that bear
Our hearts at random down the dark of life.
Now, ere the unthinking silence on that strife
Steals down, I would cheat drowsy Death so far,
My night shall be remembered for a star
That outshone all the suns of all men’s days …
This poem is a favourite among many fans of love poetry, and there’s certainly plenty of love on display here – of all people and things. The world is full of lovely things: ‘footprints in the dew; / And oaks; and brown horse-chestnuts, glossy-new; / And new-peeled sticks; and shining pools on grass; / All these have been my loves’, the poet confides.
The poem is halfway between a nature poem and a love poem – indeed, it’s a bit of both. It might otherwise be titled, ‘How do I love the whole world? let me count the ways’.
2. ‘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 …
Without doubt Rupert Brooke’s best-known poem, ‘The Soldier’, one of Brooke’s war sonnets of 1914, was read aloud during the Easter Sunday service at St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, in 1915.
By this point in the War, thousands of men had been killed in action. ‘The Soldier’ struck the perfect patriotic chord for the time, suggesting that the men who had given their lives had done so for a good cause, and that they represented the best and bravest of Englishmen.
Within a month of ‘The Soldier’ attaining huge public acclaim, Brooke died, aged 27, from an infected mosquito bite, aboard a French ship moored off the coast of the Greek island of Skyros. Yes, Brooke became effectively the founding member the ’27 club’ (if we can include later rock stars and musicians such as Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison, who also famously died at that age, under the banner of ‘poets’).
3. ‘The Dead‘.
These hearts were woven of human joys and cares,
Washed marvellously with sorrow, swift to mirth.
The years had given them kindness. Dawn was theirs,
And sunset, and the colours of the earth.
These had seen movement, and heard music; known
Slumber and waking; loved; gone proudly friended;
Felt the quick stir of wonder; sat alone;
Touched flowers and furs and cheeks. All this is ended …
Brooke wrote a number of war sonnets shortly after the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914. This is one of two war sonnets of 1914 which Brooke wrote called ‘The Dead’, and is the more famous of the two. ‘Blow out, you bugles, over the rich Dead!’ the opening line exhorts.
Like the more famous war poem ‘The Soldier’, this poem praises the sacrifice made by soldiers who have given their lives for the cause – they have made England noble and honourable again.
Fish (fly-replete, in depth of June,
Dawdling away their wat’ry noon)
Ponder deep wisdom, dark or clear,
Each secret fishy hope or fear.
Fish say, they have their Stream and Pond;
But is there anything Beyond?
This life cannot be All, they swear,
For how unpleasant, if it were!
One may not doubt that, somehow, Good
Shall come of Water and of Mud;
And, sure, the reverent eye must see
A Purpose in Liquidity …
Heaven was much on Brooke’s mind when he ended ‘The Soldier’ with its image of ‘hearts at peace, under an English heaven’. But this earlier poem, composed in 1913 before the outbreak of the War, is altogether more playful, even satirical, than the war sonnets.
‘Heaven’ uses fish to make a comment on human piety, and specifically the reasons mankind offers for a belief in something more than one’s immediate surroundings (e.g. an afterlife – hence the title of the poem).
Witty and well-constructed, ‘Heaven’ is an overlooked poem in Brooke’s oeuvre, but we think it’s one of his best. An analysis of the poem can be found here.
Just now the lilac is in bloom,
All before my little room;
And in my flower-beds, I think,
Smile the carnation and the pink;
And down the borders, well I know,
The poppy and the pansy blow . . .
Oh! there the chestnuts, summer through,
Beside the river make for you
A tunnel of green gloom, and sleep
Deeply above; and green and deep
The stream mysterious glides beneath,
Green as a dream and deep as death.
— Oh, damn! I know it! and I know
How the May fields all golden show,
And when the day is young and sweet,
Gild gloriously the bare feet
That run to bathe . . .
Another poem Brooke wrote before the outbreak of WWI was also one of his best-loved: ‘The Old Vicarage, Grantchester’ romanticises a small Cambridgeshire village from the perspective of a German café – a sort of updated version of Robert Browning’s ‘Home Thoughts, from Abroad’ for a new generation.
Like ‘Heaven’, it’s written in iambic tetrameter rhyming couplets, but it’s not a satire: in many ways it has more in common with Brooke’s later patriotic war poetry than it has with his earlier, lighter poems. The closing lines – ‘Stands the church clock at ten to three? / And is there honey still for tea?’ are well-known and well-loved.
Like the worlds of P. G. Wodehouse (and even earlier Downton Abbey), the poem captures an idea of Englishness which belongs to the years immediately preceding the First World War, which changed everything forever. The English way of life described in the poem would be altered drastically in all sorts of ways. Brooke seems to know, from his coffee-shop in Berlin, that its days are numbered. Two years later, he would be proved right.
We have analysed this poem here.
The best edition of Rupert Brooke’s poems is probably (in terms of the best value) The Complete Poems of Rupert Brooke.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.