The Collected Poems of Rupert Brooke: With a Memoir/Memoir/Part II
His first year at King's (1906-7) was rather unsatisfactory. He regretted Rugby; and he was (as always) rather shy, and (for the first and only time) a little on the defensive with the strange people. The 'decadent' pose lingered; he had Aubrey Beardsleys in his room, sat up very late, and didn't get up in the morning. He thought it right to live entirely for the things of the mind; his passion for the country had not yet begun, and it seemed to him a wicked waste of time to walk or swim—two things which came soon afterwards to give him as much pleasure as anything in the world.
His letters are plaintive: "This place is rather funny to watch; and a little wearying. . . . . . At certain moments I perceive a pleasant kind of peace in the grey ancient walls and green lawns among which I live; a quietude that doesn't compensate for the things I have loved and left, but at times softens their outlines a little. If only I were a poet, I should love such a life very greatly, 'remembering moments of passion in tranquillity'; but being first and chiefly only a boy, I am restless and unable to read or write. . . . . . These people are often clever, and always wearying. The only persons I ever make any effort to see are two who xxivcame up with me from my House at Rugby. Here across the Styx we wander about together and talk of the upper world, and sometimes pretend we are children again."
He joined the A.D.C., and played Stingo in She Stoops to Conquer; but his chief public appearance in his first term was in the Greek play, the Eumenides. "The idea of my playing Hermes fell through," he wrote to his Mother, "but they have given me the equally large part of the Herald. I stand in the middle of the stage and pretend to blow a trumpet, while somebody in the wings makes a sudden noise. The part is not difficult." "I wear a red wig and cardboard armour," he wrote in another letter, "and luckily am only visible for a minute." It turned out that he was one of the successes of the evening. His radiant, youthful figure in gold and vivid red and blue, like a Page in the Riccardi Chapel, stood strangely out against the stuffy decorations and dresses which pervaded those somewhat palmy days of the Cambridge Theatre. After eleven years, the impression is still vivid.
At the beginning of next term his elder brother died suddenly. They were very fond of each other, and this was, I suppose, his first great sorrow." It seems so strange that you haven't heard," he wrote. "I had thought that all the world must know. I suppose I ought to have written and told you; but there were so many letters to write; and I had to try to comfort Mother a little. Dick died on Sunday the 13th after a week's illness. Father was xxvwith him—but I don't think details matter much. . . . . . I came up here on Tuesday, partly to escape my Rugby school-friends, and partly that I might be alone."
"I'm rather wretched and ill," he writes a little later. "In my 'literary life' I have taken the last step of infamy, and become—a reviewer! I've undertaken to 'do' great slabs of minor poetry for the Cambridge Review. I've read volumes of them, all the same, and all exactly the stuff I write. I often wonder whether I haven't written several of them myself under a pseudonym, and forgotten about it."
In his first Long Vacation, "I work hundreds of hours a day," he writes, "at stuffy classics, and ooze with grammar. To save my soul, I write thousands of poems in the evening, and burn them. I'll quote to you one verse of an immensely long one in six cantos, entitled 'A Song Illustrative of a Sense of Incompatibility between Self and Universe; also In Favour of Decease.'
Things are beasts,
Part of this Long was spent at Lulworth, where he wrote to his Mother: "One day we were reading on the rocks, and I had a Keats in my pocket, and xxviit slipped out, and, falling into a swift current, was borne out to sea. So we leapt into a boat and rowed up and down the coast till we espied it off some rocks. But the sea was rather rough and we could not land on that rocky part, or get near Keats. So we landed half a mile off on a beach, and came over the rocks to the Keats; and when we found it, I stripped and went in after it and got it. It is indeed quite spoilt; but it only cost two shillings to begin with." (He did not know at this time of an association which he discovered four years afterwards. "Oh, I've read Keats," he writes in 1911, "and found the most AMAZING thing. The last place he was in was Lulworth. His ship was becalmed outside. He and Severn went ashore and clambered about the rocks all day—his last fairly happy day. He went aboard and wrote, that evening, his last poem—that sonnet. The ship took him on to Italy, coughing blood and suffering Hell because he wouldn't see Fanny any more. Fanny sat in Hampstead, with Mr Brown. It was at the end of Sept. 1820 . . .")
There is a gloomy letter of the day after his birthday, when he became twenty. "I am now in the depths of despondency because of my age. I'm filled with an hysterical despair to think of fifty dull years more. I hate myself and everyone. I've written almost no verse for ages; and shall never write any more. I've forgotten all rhythm and metre. The words 'anapæstic dimeter acatalectic,' that fired me once, now leave me cold. The sunset or a child's face no longer reminds me of a bucolic xxviicæsura. But I still read plaintively, to pass the time." And he can still write at the end of this Long: "Go back to Cambridge for my second year and laugh and talk with those old dull people on that airless plain! The thought fills me with hideous ennui."
But this mood was already something of a literary survival, and well understood to be so by his friends. He went back to games, especially football; and by the beginning of his second year he had become one of the most interested and interesting people at Cambridge.
A young Apollo, golden-haired,
Mrs Cornford's epigram on him is well known, but one could not write about his great days at Cambridge without quoting it—bitter though the irony of 'long' has now become.
Henceforward friends and avocations crowded on him. He had been the chief advocate of the Labour Party at Rugby; and at King's he joined various societies, political and intellectual, mostly more or less revolutionary—the University Fabian Society, of which he became President for the year 1909-10; the Carbonari; and the Heretics. He also belonged to that old, great, secret, but vaguely famous Brotherhood from which the membership of Tennyson and others of the illustrious has lifted a corner of the veil. J. T. Sheppard, Fellow of xxviiiKing's, gives an account of some among these activities. "The Carbonari, I think, he founded; a Society which, in spite of its terrifying name, was very friendly. The paper and the talk which followed it at the one meeting to which, as an elderly person, I was allowed admission, were frank and amusing, but my chief memory is of the cheerful kindliness of the members. Then there were the Fabians, whom he sometimes entertained to a frugal supper of bread and cheese and beer in his rooms, and to whom he never tired of teaching the importance of poets and artists in the good society which is to be built up by our children. His advice to the State was very practical. Since poets and artists matter, and since they need time for development, we, who are not the poets and the artists, ought to organise the material requisites, bread and cheese and leisure, for those who seem to show the promise of good work. He believed that you do not improve a poet by starving and neglecting him; and one good way of showing that we remember him would be to remember also that it is our duty to buy as well as read the works of the poets who are still writing."
Rupert indeed wore his Socialism with a difference, which comes out in a letter of December 1907, thanking his uncle, Mr Clement Cotterill, for his book, Human Justice for those at the Bottom, in which he says that he has been urging his Socialist friends at Cambridge, especially the Fabians, to take a more human view of things. "Socialism is making great advances at Oxford and Cambridge just now; but its upholders are too apt to make it seem, to xxixothers and to themselves, a selfish scheme of economics. They confound the means with the end; and think that a Compulsory Living Wage is the end, instead of a good beginning. Bernard Shaw came down last term, and made a speech that was enthusiastically received, in which he advised a state of things in which each 'class' had its own party in Parliament fighting for its own hand. The whole thing was based on selfishness. It was not inspiring.
"Of course they're really sincere, energetic, useful people, and they do a lot of good work. But, as I've said, they're rather hard. Must every cause lose part of its ideal, as it becomes successful? And also they are rather intolerant, especially towards the old order. They sometimes seem to take it for granted that all rich men, and all Conservatives (and most ordinary Liberals) are heartless villains. I have already, thanks, in part, to some words of yours, got some faith in the real, sometimes overgrown, goodness of all men; and that is why I have found your book so good, as a confirmation rather than a revelation. And this faith I have tried to hammer into those Socialists of my generation whom I have come across. But it's sometimes hard. The prejudices of the clever are harder to kill than those of the dull. Also I sometimes wonder whether this Commercialism, or Competition, or whatever the filthy infection is, hasn't spread almost too far, and whether the best hope isn't in some kind of upheaval."
All this is supplemented in an account written by xxxHugh Dalton, an intimate friend of this time. "During our years at Cambridge, Fabianism was at its high tide, and attracted most of those who had any social enthusiasm worth speaking of. Rupert joined the C.U.F.S. in April 1907. He came to me, I remember, and said, 'I'm not your sort of Socialist; I'm a William Morris sort of Socialist, but I want to join your Society as an Associate.' He became a full member a year later. Like many of us, he was falling by then under the subtle influence of the Webbs, and simultaneously the atmosphere of Cambridge was teaching him to value and to cultivate lucidity of thought and precision of reasoning. He soon saw the intellectual limitations of a 'William Morris sort of Socialist,' and though he never studied the fine points of economics, he came to talk very good sense on the larger economic questions.
"It was through the meetings of the Carbonari that I first came to know him well. This was a society of our contemporaries in King's, about a dozen, which we formed in our first term for papers and discussions. Rupert and I and one or two others were generally the last to separate, and sometimes the dawn was in the sky before we got to bed. We walked round the Courts and beside the river for hours, trying to get things clear. For we wanted, half passionately and half humorously, to get everything clear quickly. Hitherto, we thought, we had been too young to think, and soon we might be too busy, and ultimately we should be too old. The golden time was now.
xxxi"'There are only three things in the world,' he said once, vehemently answering some Carbonaro who had been talking like a Philistine, 'one is to read poetry, another is to write poetry, and the best of all is to live poetry!' And I remember his saying that at rare moments he had glimpses of what poetry really meant, how it solved all problems of conduct and settled all questions of values. Moreover, it kept men young, he thought. One night we were sitting at a high window overlooking King's Parade. We had been discussing some philosophical point about the nature of Beauty, when we saw and heard some drunken members of another college going home. 'Those fellows,' he said, 'would think us very old if they had been in this room to-night, but when they go down and sit on office stools, they will grow old quite suddenly, and many years hence we shall still be talking and thinking about these sorts of things, and we shall still be young.'
"As for philosophy, he shared the general view of the set in which we moved that ethics were exceedingly important, but metaphysics rather trivial; that it mattered immensely what was good, but comparatively little what was real. I remember several fierce arguments as to whether a man's character, as distinct from the series of states of mind through which he passed, could be good in itself, and also a controversy as to whether states of affairs, as distinct from the states of mind of the xxxiipersons concerned in them, could be good in themselves. Rupert maintained that Variety was good in itself. 'A world containing you and me and Maynard Keynes,' he said, 'is obviously better than a world containing three people exactly like any one of us!'"
One of the most significant and absorbing of his activities was the dramatic. Here I must quote from E. J. Dent's admirable record: "When I came back to Cambridge in the autumn of 1907, I soon became aware that a new spirit was making itself felt. Probably it was active in more ways than I was able to observe; but the first notable result of it was the performance of Marlowe's Faustus in November by a number of men who afterwards constituted themselves as the Marlowe Dramatic Society. The new spirit seemed to come partly from Rugby, partly from Bedales, and by an odd coincidence the two leaders, though not related, bore the same name: Rupert and Justin Brooke. It was a queer performance. The elder generation were scandalised almost before the play began: no scenery, only dingy green hangings, no music, no footlights, frequent 'black-outs,' no names of the actors printed. And all this in the A.D.C. Theatre, with its familiar portraits, its familiar memories! No wonder they were upset by it all. 'Faustus isn't a play at all'—'absurd for undergraduates to attempt tragedy'—'why didn't they get somebody with experience to coach them?'—'why do they act in the dark?'—'not always in very nice taste.' It was indeed a queer performance. xxxiiiFaustus looked absurdly young; Mephistophilis (Rupert), his face completely hidden by his cowl, generally turned his back to the audience, and spoke in a thick indistinct voice which often served merely as a background to the piercing whispers of the Master of ——, whose thirst for information was insatiable. But in spite of these things and many others, in spite of the tedious humour of the comic scenes, the play had a new spirit of its own. The tragic moments were genuinely moving. Crude, awkward, and amateurish as it all was, there was the spirit of true poetry about it. One felt that to these actors poetry was the greatest thing in life.
"The Marlowe group were inclined to be suspicious, perhaps not unjustly, of anyone who was a member of the Senate. But as I had been one of the few to admit themselves sincerely impressed by Faustus, I was occasionally allowed to hear news of their next project. Milton was to be commemorated in the summer, and the young poets were going to have a hand in it. Rupert was to be seen almost daily, I believe, in Room Theta, studying vast books on theatre-construction; a kind friend brought out for him his copy of the Trinity Milton facsimile, for the settling of points of textual criticism; and mysterious designs for costumes and scenery were handed round, in which wonderful effects à la Gordon Craig were to be obtained with scaffold poles.
xxxiv"It is difficult to criticise Comus, or to write the history of its preparation. It had much the same faults and the same merits as Faustus, though on a larger scale. Rupert was not a good actor, nor even a good speaker of verse. Yet I feel now that anyone who remembers Comus, and remembers it with ever so slight a sense of beauty, will think of Rupert as the central figure of it; and watching rehearsals daily, as I did, I felt that, however much his personal beauty might count for, it was his passionate devotion to the spirit of poetry that really gave Comus its peculiar and indescribable atmosphere.
"Comus, however unimportant to the world at large, did, in fact, mean a great deal for Rupert and his friends. It was the first time that he had had to bear the responsibility of a large undertaking, and he addressed himself to it in the spirit of a scholar. It deepened his sense of poetry, of drama, and of music; it made him develop an ideal continually present in his mind, even in later years, which gave solidity to his group, the ideal of Cambridge, of young Cambridge, as the source from which the most vital movements in literature, art, and drama, were to spring. Comus effected an intimate collaboration of all sorts of brains, and it effected especially a co-operation of men and women. Rupert was by no means the only remarkable person in the circle. He had, moreover, a power of making xxxvfriends with women as well as with men, and although Comus was probably a symptom rather than a cause, it was from about that time that joint societies, such as the Heretics and the Fabians, began to make a new influence felt."
Rupert was knocked up by his exertions over Comus. He wrote from Rugby to Mrs Cornford (then Miss Frances Darwin): "I went off without even saying good-bye or thank-you to people. My mother (I can plead) packed me up and snatched me here to sleep and recover. I am now convalescent, and can sit up and take a little warm milk-and-Tennyson. I feel a deserter; but I can always adduce the week when the Committee went to the seaside, and I faced the world and Albert's Artistic Temperament alone."
He had written to his mother about this week, and about another matter. "Albert [Rutherston], who is painting our scenery, is staying with me. We paint in the theatre, 9 to 5 every day. I daub a little, but most of the time carry and empty pails, run errands, wind pulleys, etc. . . . . . I suppose you heard of the dreadful tragedy that happened last Saturday week—[Walter] Headlam's death? It was terribly sudden. He was about in King's all the week—kept the procession for the Chancellor's installation on Wednesday waiting for half an hour by being late—in his usual way! On Friday he was in King's, about, as usual. Friday evening he xxxviwent up to town, had a slight operation (by some accounts), and died on Saturday morning. . . . . . . It made me quite miserable and ill for some days. One gets so angry at that sort of thing. I didn't know him very well. But he was the one classic I really admired and liked; and I had done a good deal of work with him. The papers made very little of it. He published so little that outside people didn't know much of him. But his friends, and we who were his pupils, knew his great genius. I don't know how much of him they will be able to rake together from his papers. But all the great, ripe, splendid works we all proudly looked forward to him achieving—which we knew he might consummate any time he gave himself a few months, have died with him: can never be made. That's the terrible thing. Even in Cambridge many people knew of him most as a brilliant 'scholar,' i.e., emender of Greek texts. But he was also about the best writer of Greek there has been since the Greeks. And what I loved so in him was his extraordinary and living appreciation of all English poetry, modern and ancient. To hear him repeat it was a delight. He was an excellent poet himself, and had perfect taste. He first inspired me with a desire to get Comus done, a term or two ago, and has often talked about it since. I had made up, in my mind, a little list of things about which I was going to ask him, large and small points, to make certain that we should interpret and understand it in the best way xxxviipossible; but I put it off till too late. . . . The whole thing makes me so rebellious—to think what the world has lost."
. . . . . .
The vacations were spent in all sorts of ways: at the Fabian Summer School, or camping out with smaller groups of friends; on walking tours; or, at Christmas, with large heterogeneous parties for winter-sports in Switzerland. He told his mother of his plans for one of the Swiss excursions in the winter of 1908. "What I meant about the holidays is this. It is quite true that I have plenty of opportunities of resting. But I always feel that I oughtn't to, and can't, do nothing. There are so many things I must learn and do, and there is not too much time. My brain must be working. And so the only way (I find) I have a real holiday from my work, is on a walking-tour, or in Switzerland; times and places where it is impossible to think or read for more than five minutes. In a way such things are a waste of time. And I can't imagine anything I should hate more than a long 'holiday' like that, of more than a week or ten days. It would be intolerable. But, I think, just a week's mental rest strengthens a mind for some time. This sounds rather priggish; but I'm really very much in earnest about reading and writing."
The Swiss relaxations used to include the performance of a play, or even an opera—the Importance of Being Earnest, in which Rupert played Algernon, or a nonsense-melodrama written in collaboration by the party, but mostly by him. In xxxviiithe opera he was obliged at the last moment, by the sudden defection of the tenor, to play the hero. He couldn't sing a note; and the difficulty was got over by making the actor who played his valet stand beside him in a rigid position and sing, while Rupert did the gestures.
The English holidays were more peaceful. "Overcote is a lovely place," he wrote to his mother on one of them, "with nothing but an old inn, and a ferry. There are villages round, a mile or two away, but hidden. And there's just the Ouse, a slow stream, and some trees and fields, and an immense expanse of sky. There were a lot of wild birds about, wild duck, and snipe, and herons."
All these occasions produced floods of doggerel, some of which is amusing—from a snatch of blank verse on an unfortunate town-bred friend who arrived late on a wet night at a camp where all the beds were occupied, and didn't rise to the occasion:
In the late evening he was as out of place,
—to the following elaborate ballade, composed during a sleepless night when he and Dudley Ward, coming very late into Cranborne, couldn't find the inn which they had picked out in the guide-book for the sake of its name:
In Cranborne town two inns there are,
xlThe next was written at a very favourite inn, the Pink and Lily, near Prince's Risborough, on one occasion when he went there with Jacques Raverat.
Never came there to the Pink
The last I will quote was pinned to some food which they left by the roadside after luncheon:
Two men left this bread and cake
. . . . . .
From this time the story shall be told as far as possible in extracts from Rupert Brooke's letters xlito his friends, from which his character will appear far more vividly, and on the whole more clearly, than from anything that could be written about it. But the picture thus given must for various reasons be incomplete, and perhaps misleading; and a few touches must here be added, to be borne in mind while the letters are read.
They might, for instance, give the idea of self-absorption. Self-conscious he was, self-examining, and self-critical, to the last degree; but hardly ever self-absorbed. The extracts cannot show his continual helpfulness and serviceableness to his friends, both in large matters which are too private, and in details which are too trivial, to be chronicled. "There was a deep-seated generosity in him," says Mrs Cornford, "at once sensible and tender. I used to think that the real reason the charm of his face struck people so greatly was because its clearness and fairness were not simply a happy accident of youth, but expressed this innate quality in him. . . . . . . He was endlessly kind in helping me with my verses (except that kindness seems the wrong word, because he did it as a matter of course). He would sit for an hour or two at a time, generally on the ground, frowning and biting the end of his pencil and scribbling little notes on the margin before we talked. Of the better things he would only say 'I like that,' or 'That's good.' I can't imagine him using a word of that emotional jargon in which people usually talk or write of poetry. He made it feel more like carpentering." Here we see him as he often was, just simple and serious, full of xliithe business of the moment. Indeed he was very restful to be with. The eager, working, excited brain which shows in the letters, incessantly registering, assimilating, juggling with, sensations and impressions, hid its thrills under an appearance almost of placidity. He never 'put himself forward,' and seldom took the lead, in conversation; someone spoke of 'the beauty of his eyes looking steadily and without mocking into quite ordinary talk.' But he was 'noticing' all the time; he had the power which women are supposed to have of knowing everything that is going on in the room; and he seemed never to forget the smallest detail.
His observation was always, if not 'mocking,' at any rate amused; and something must be said about the peculiar quality of his irony and his humour, which were very intimate, and might be misunderstood by strangers. J. T. Sheppard has written admirably about them, as they played on his friends. "He would laugh at them, and sometimes treat their most cherished enthusiasms as amusing, if harmless foibles; but he had not the power, possessed by some people who matter less, of making you seem small and dull. His society was, in the good sense, comfortable. He loved children, and when he treated his grown-up friends as rather absurd but very nice children, they would have had to be very absurd indeed to resent it. It must have been very hard to be pompous or priggish in his company." He treated himself in much the same way. If there was any fun to be got out of a laugh against him, far from grudging it, he gave xliiievery facility; but he liked to have the first go at it himself. There was always some foundation for the jokes; but the truth and the fun were inextricably mixed up, and one had to know exactly how many grains of salt to take. As an obvious instance: it was certainly his usual belief that he was, or at any rate had it in him to be, a good poet; and so he would describe himself as the first poet of the age, because it would be funny if he thought so, and therefore it was amusing to say so; and there was no risk of his correspondents thinking him cocksure. In the same way he would pick out his best lines for special praise. "There's one superb line," he said to me when he first showed me the sonnet Love. "'Astonishment is no more in hand or shoulder.' Isn't it amazing?" He did think it good, and was enjoying what Keats calls 'the reperception and ratification of what is fine' in his own work; but he said it with a twinkle.
He always loved to dramatise a situation, and to make out that he had said or done something absurdly striking and stunning. Here is a good illustration from a letter of 1909: "And so I walked and laughed and met a many people and made a thousand songs—all very good—and, in the end of the days, came to a woman who was more glorious than the sun, and stronger and stranger than the sea, and kinder than the earth, who is a flower made out of fire, a star that laughs all day, whose brain is clean and clear like a man's, and her heart is full of courage and kindness; and whom I love. I told her that the Earth was crowned with windflowers, xlivand dancing down the violet ways of Spring; that Christ had died and Pan was risen; that her mouth was like the sunlight on a gull's wings. As a matter of fact I believe I said 'Hullo! isn't it rippin' weather?'"
"You are the only person, Frances," he wrote much later to Mrs Cornford, "who ever believed all my lies. Nothing (short, perhaps, of incredulity) can shake my devotion to you."
One more quotation from Sheppard: "He was kind and unaffected. But he was not miraculously unselfish, nor indifferent to his popularity. The fact that in small things he sometimes seemed to choose the pleasant second-best, and, as he himself realised, rather eagerly to accept the little successes which he could so easily win, should make us appreciate not less, but more, the rightness and the goodness of his larger choices. He was very sensitive to praise, and it would be wrong to say that he was always wisely praised. But he was sensible enough and strong enough to take flattery, in the long run, for what it was worth; and he valued the affection that was critical, not flattering.
"Because he was human, he enjoyed his popularity. The quality which won it was, I think, his power of liking people, and making them feel, because he liked them all, not only at their ease with him, but also happy and friendly with one another. His company had this effect at home, and in his rooms at King's, in his garden at Grantchester, in London, and I am sure wherever he went in Germany and in America. Certainly the most varied people used xlvto delight in it, and he, for his part, was delighted when some of the incongruous persons he liked, unexpectedly also liked one another.
"He was in some ways like a child, very frank and simple, generally knowing what he wanted, and, if he could see it, taking it; but also, where his affections were concerned, most loyal and devoted; suffering acutely in the few great troubles that came to him, but generally confident and happy; above all delighting, and making other people share his delight, in a great number of different things."
- I may as well mention that I first met him just after the end of the May Term this year. After this I saw him at intervals, and we knew each other pretty well by the summer of 1909.
- Argument, it will be remembered, at Youth's Funeral, was 'too full of woe to speak.'
- By this time the Authorities had come round to the Marlowe Society, and Christ's College bespoke a special performance of its Comus for their celebration of the Tercentenary.
- He took the part of the Attendant Spirit. It is only fair to say that this view of his acting, or at any rate of his elocution, was far from universal.
- It was at about this time that he bought two drawings by Augustus John, "very splendid ones—even the critical Albert admitted that, and confessed jealousy."
- It was not till later that he knew A. W. Verrall, whom he 'admired and liked' very much.
- A Cambridge friend, not to be confused with the Member of Parliament of the same name
- Showing that a Grantchester man can make cockney rhymes just like a Barton man.
- This couplet, which is inconsistent with the rest, was supplied by his companion.