Literature

A Short Analysis of Rupert Brooke’s ‘The Old Vicarage, Grantchester’

By Dr Oliver Tearle

Rupert Brooke wrote ‘The Old Vicarage, Grantchester’ in May 1912, while he was staying in Germany. Before we offer a summary of the fifth verse paragraphs which make up the poem, you might want to read the poem first, and keep the tab containing the text of the poem in a separate window (we find this useful anyway, when reading about longer poems). You can read ‘The Old Vicarage, Grantchester’ here.

The Old Vicarage, Grantchester: summary

Before we get to the poem’s first line proper, we’re faced with two very different locations: the Old Vicarage, Grantchester, in Cambridgeshire, England; and the Café des Westens, in Berlin, Germany. Although the former is the subject of the poem, Rupert Brooke wants to make it crystal clear to us that he is not at the Old Vicarage when writing his poem about it. This colours the whole poem, being an exercise in memory and nostalgia performed by someone who is recalling England while out of the country, abroad in Germany.

In summary, then: the poem is divided into five verse paragraphs, of varying lengths. The first verse paragraph sees Brooke picturing the view from his ‘little room’ back in the Old Vicarage at Grantchester: he can imagine the various flowers adorning the flower-beds outside his room, and the way the chestnut trees beside the river form a green tunnel when their branches are thick with leaves. He can also imagine all of the young people running to bathe in the stream nearby. This first verse paragraph then concludes with the harsh German words ‘Du lieber Gott!’ – an exclamation in German meaning, more or less, ‘Oh, good God!’ These words are spoken, presumably, by one of the Germans sitting nearby to Brooke in the café.

This leads into the second verse paragraph, which sees Brooke replacing the idyllic vision of back home offered to us in the previous paragraph with a description of his present surroundings, sitting in the Café des Westens in Berlin, a popular hangout for bohemians and artists on the continent at the time. Brooke focuses on the ‘naked flesh’ of the young bathers back at Grantchester, as they dive into the waters; meanwhile, here he is, in a foreign country, ‘sweating, sick, and hot’, while Temperamentvoll (i.e. excitable or, if you will, temperamental) German Jews drink beer at the tables around young Rupert; in Germany, even the flowers seem to do as they’re told, growing to some regimented set of orders, while (by contrast) the roses back in England are wild (‘unofficial’) and ‘Unkempt’. Even the English sun is ‘unregulated’. Venus, the ‘unpunctual star’ known as ‘Hesper’, the evening star (i.e. the planet Venus when viewed in the evening sky), is ‘slippered’, suggesting that even it is leisured and homely. Brooke ends this English-German contrast with a decidedly unpoetic construction: ‘Betreten verboten’ is the German for ‘keep off the grass’. In summary, then, the English have no time for such an idea, in Brooke’s imaginings: the lawns and fields of such Cambridgeshire villages as Haslingfield and Coton are there to be frolicked upon, rather than guarded and fenced off, as they are in Berlin. Note how yet again, we end a verse paragraph with a German, rather than an English phrase.

This brings us to the third verse paragraph, which opens neither in English nor German but … ancient Greek. This phrase is part of an epigram attributed to the Greek philosopher Plato, in which he addresses a beautiful man named Aster (i.e. ‘Star’): ‘You gaze at the stars, my Star; would that I were Heaven, that I might look at you with many eyes!’ This obviously links back to the end of the previous verse paragraph with its description of Venus as ‘a vague unpunctual star’, but also then nosedives from the highbrow world of ancient Greek philosophy (in the original Greek!) to Brooke’s altogether more personal and less grand desire to be back in Grantchester: ‘would I were / In Grantchester, in Grantchester!’ But indeed, Brooke goes on, that sleepy Cambridgeshire village is so idyllic that one might easily imagine one sees a Faun there (half-man, half-goat, associated with the Greek god Pan), and feel that the Classics, embodied by men such as Plato, are alive and well in the modern age. Similarly, one might imagine one sees a Naiad (a nymph of the waters in Greek mythology) in the waters around Grantchester. For Brooke, ‘the centuries blend and blur’ in Grantchester: time itself seems to collapse and even lose all meaning, to the extent that one can imagine the Romantic poet Lord Byron (‘His ghostly Lordship’) swimming in a pool there (Byron was known for swimming, and famously swam the Hellespont), even though Byron died in 1824. (‘Styx’, of course, reminds us that Byron is long dead: it’s the river in Hades, the abode of the Dead in Greek myth.) Even Geoffrey Chaucer, who died back in 1400, can still hear the river Cam according to Brooke, as can Tennyson, who had died in 1892. Brooke even imagines a hundred dead vicars turning up to dance on the lawn.

In the fourth verse paragraph, God is once again used as the ‘bridge’ – but this time, not a German exclamation (‘du lieber Gott!’) but an English one, and the poet’s own (‘God!’). Brooke now considers getting straight on a train and travelling back to England (good luck making that journey solely by train before the Channel Tunnel, mind). Brooke says England is full of ‘Splendid Hearts’ – and, in particular, Cambridgeshire – and, in particular, the ‘lovely hamlet Grantchester’. The various other villages and towns in the county of Cambridgeshire all have drawbacks when it comes to their inhabitants: in Over, they ‘fling oaths’ or swear, and they fling other things in Trumpington, and so on. But Grantchester people are apparently without such vices.

In the final verse paragraph, the litany of other Cambridgeshire locations continues, with each one coming off unfavourably next to the splendid Grantchester. The great thing about Grantchester is the ‘peace and holy quiet’ of the place, the lithe children, the men and women with ‘straight eyes’ (not shifty, one assumes), and the landscape (the ‘bosky wood’ and so on). Everything is bathed in that sleepy dreaminess of pre-war Englishness. Brooke ends ‘The Old Vicarage, Grantchester’ by summarising his feelings, wishing he were back there with the river and stream, with beautiful people found bathing there (‘Anadyomene’ is a term for artistic depictions of the Roman goddess Venus, goddess of love and beauty, specifically when she is shown rising from the sea). The poem ends with a series of questions Brooke asks, seeking to know whether the village remains as it was when he left it: ‘Stands the Church clock at ten to three, / And is there honey still for tea?’

The Old Vicarage, Grantchester: analysis

The Old Vicarage in the village of Grantchester, Cambridgeshire, England is now owned by, of all people, Jeffrey Archer. But back in the early twentieth century, a young handsome poet named Rupert Brooke lived there occasionally, and even swam in the nearby river Cam with a young woman named Adeline Virginia Stephen, who is now better-known to the world as Virginia Woolf. (The two aspiring writers reportedly went skinny dipping there.) It was Rupert Brooke who immortalised this small and unassuming village house in a poem he wrote from Berlin, Germany, in 1912.

This is a light poem, although its closing lines – as famous in their way as the opening lines of Rupert Brooke’s other widely anthologised poem – have, one suspects, become famous because they speak to a sense of nostalgia and patriotism which even those sceptical of such romantic indulgences harbour some sympathy for. The idea of the church clock standing at ten to three, as though frozen in time to mark the sunlit English afternoons – with the taking of afternoon tea in the offing, hence the reference to there being ‘honey still for tea’ in the poem’s very last line – resonates because it captures, and perhaps even helped to inspire, the idea of the English pre-war years as one long cricket match with beautiful warm sunshine, peace and tranquillity: a more civilised age. It’s the myth of Downton Abbey and much of P. G. Wodehouse’s wonderful fiction, and something which Philip Larkin’s famous poem ‘MCMXIV’ examines and critiques, even while it ultimately endorses this notion that England, pre-1914, was one of Edenic bliss: ‘Never such innocence again.’

Here, of course, the fact that Rupert Brooke is a poet of comfortable social standing writing about the Old Vicarage, Grantchester, rather than some Eastend wannabe-poet singing the praises of his old Dockside Secondary Modern, Peckham, undoubtedly helped the myth to succeed. As with the Wodehouse and Downton examples already given, the English became attached in the twentieth century to the life of English country houses, vicarages and village lawns in the years before Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination in summer 1914 prompted the outbreak of the Great War. Brooke’s poem is oddly ominous in being written from Berlin just two years before this war reared its head, plunging millions of men of Brooke’s age into a worldwide conflict which many of them would not survive, and which would claim Brooke just three years after he wrote ‘The Old Vicarage, Grantchester’.

The choice to write in rhyming couplets of iambic tetrameter gives ‘The Old Vicarage, Grantchester’ a sprightly rhythm, with the perfect rhymes – undisturbed by so much as the occasional use of a triplet, or by the grim, unsettling pararhymes which mark out Wilfred Owen’s poems of a few years later – providing a sense of certainty. This poem has often been labelled ‘seriocomic’: Brooke is poking gentle fun at his fellow Englanders and the people of Cambridgeshire, holding up Grantchester as a place set apart from the petty vices found among people elsewhere in the county, but he is doing so ultimately to celebrate the English with their ‘Splendid Hearts’, although the fact that he only really has any time for a small hamlet named Grantchester also suggests that Brooke isn’t so keen on ‘Englishness’ and the English in a wider sense. The roll call of small locales in Cambridgeshire which we get in the poem’s fourth verse paragraph supports this analysis: everyone who is not a Grantchester resident has something wrong with them. This litany of villages sounds like a light-hearted nod to A. E. Housman’s poetry of Shropshire, with its similar use of County to stand in for Country (Shropshire as a microcosm of England itself): indeed, the rhyme scheme and metre of Brooke’s poem echo one of Housman’s poems from A Shropshire Lad to the extent that we might suspect a direct influence, and a dash of pastiche on Brooke’s part. (See Housman’s ‘In my own shire, if I was sad’, which, like ‘The Old Vicarage, Grantchester’, is about pining for one’s rural home while away from it.) The rhymes, while always assured, are sometimes almost comical in their fullness: the rhyme of ‘branches stir’ with ‘Grantchester’ is so forced as to invite the ‘charge’ of either intentional comedy or unintentional tone-deafness. (It reminds us of a particularly rude limerick which rhymes ‘Chichester’ with ‘britches stir’, which we won’t repeat here.)

Of course, such patriotism can easily spill over into nationalism, or sneering at other nationalities and ethnicities: the reference to the German Jews in the second verse paragraph of ‘The Old Vicarage, Grantchester’ is fairly neutral when laid next to, say, T. S. Eliot’s references to Jewish people in ‘Gerontion’ and ‘Burbank with a Beidecker: Bleistein with a Cigar’, although of course the whole point of mentioning the Jewish customers at this point in the poem is to contrast them, and the German culture and landscape more generally, unfavourably with the England Brooke is absent from. But the people of Cherry Hinton and the girls of Ditton (‘mean and dirty’) come off positively worse than those German Jews. ‘The Old Vicarage Grantchester’ is, ultimately, a celebration of Grantchester, not England.

Brooke captures the tone of wistfulness which runs alongside the gentle ribbing of English attitudes through some subtle poetic effects. Consider the first verse paragraph:

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 . . .
                      Du lieber Gott!

We get a series of rhymes here built around open, long vowel sounds: bloom/room, know/blow, through/you, sleep/deep, beneath/death, know/show, and sweet/feet … before everything comes crashing down with that short, guttural German ‘Gott!’ The wrench from Brooke’s imaginings of his room back in Grantchester, at once so delicate and yet so vivid (look how ‘I think’ promptly shifts to ‘well I know’ between the third and fifth lines), back to his actual surroundings in the bohemian Café des Westens in the German capital, couldn’t be more jolting.

In the last analysis, ‘The Old Vicarage, Grantchester’ is a light poem, but a light poem which succeeded in making a serious mark on the English consciousness because it contributed to a growing notion of national identity centred on village customs, rural parishes, sunlit gardens, and, of course, honey for tea. If it does celebrate England, it does it only by teasing the English and – somewhat ridiculously – holding up Grantchester as the paragon of stout and splendid English values.

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.

Image: via Wikimedia Commons.

3 Comments

  1. Great analysis! Thank you.

  2. Oh I think your final comment there was a bit harsh! I confess that having enjoyed eight happy blissful years in Cambridge where I did my first degree and masters (and also married there), that Grantchester truly does have a special place in my heart and I get Brookes love and longing for it. Oddly, I first knew of the place from Pink Floyd’s ‘Grantchester Meadows’ on their ‘Ummagumma’ album (the title refers to the fens of the area too) and was excited when I arrived in Cambridge to discover the place existed and had to visit. Thus began many walks along the river to end up in Grantchester. It is, frankly, an idyllic village. Moreover, his gentle ridicule of people from surrounding areas rang true – I knew them all and could smile in recognition of the traits he mentions. Happy memories!