There are only three good things in this world: one is to read, one is to write, the other is to live poetry. -- Rupert Brooke
Rupert Brooke, 17 in 1905, in a letter to a friend wrote: "I am writing a Book. There will only be one copy. It will be inscribed in crimson ink on green paper. It will consist of thirteen small poems; each as beautiful, as perfect, and as meaningless as a rose-petal or dew-drop. When the book is produced, I shall read it once a day for seven days. Then I shall burn the book: and die."
Ten years later, a sub-lieutenant in the English Navy in the Aegean, he died of blood poisoning. But not before his youthful prophesy had been largely fulfilled. At the time of his death, only one small volume, Poems (1911), had been produced in 100 copies. The promise it suggested was fully realized, however, only after years of writing, an eventful trip to American 1914 ("Well if Armageddon is on, I suppose one should be there"). He died a poet in full-stride.
It is difficult for us now to appreciate Brooke's effect on the English middle class in 1915. Vera Brittain in her autobiography, Testament of Youth (1933), recently reissued and got up splendidly for television, wrote of his poetry, "For the young to whom Rupert Brooke's poems are now familiar as classics, it must be impossible to imagine how it felt to hear them for the first time just after they were written. I found the experience so moving that I should not have sought it had I realized how hard composure would be to maintain."
The six sonnets in 1914, published in Brooke's collected works shortly after his death, were the prime propellant of his fame. Such lofty lines as, "Now God be thanked who has matched us with His hour," "These laid the world away; poured out the red/Sweet wine of youth . . ," "If I should die, think only this of me:/That there's some corner of a foreign field/That is forever England . . ." from the pen of a beautiful Greek god of a man who died young in the early euphoria of the war to end all wars, met the mood of a generation. He was eulogized by Churchill and other dignitaries; the sales of his books skyrocketed, and he became a legend.
In this book, John Lehmann, poet and former associate of Virginia and Leonard Woolf at The Hogarth Press, gives a slant assessment of Brooke the man and the legend. His account pivots on an incident in 1912 involving Brooke and Katherine Cox when she favored a friend of Lytton Strachey to Brooke. This upset Brooke and led him to sever his friendship with Strachey and the Bloomsbury circle. Lehmann implies that the crisis resulted from Brooke's ambivalent sexuality. (He even cites a homosexual act by Brooke but gives no evidence or source -- there is no hint of it in Christopher Hassall's fine biography of Brooke written in 1964). Lacking solid documentation, the Brooke/Strachey incident seems blown out of proportion.
Lehmann sees Brooke the man sour. Where most contemporaries found him happy and outgoing, Lehmann (who never met him) paints him jealous and moody. He views Brooke's poetry as flawed and gives him high marks only as a critic and travel writer. His best chapter, in fact, is on Brooke's travel writing.
He accuses Brooke of sentimentalizing war, but if he means by this using words to confuse and weaken rather than to define and decide (G K. Chesteron's definition), he errs. Brooke hated sentiment and slosh in all poetry. In his war sonnets he was not so much glorifying the war as celebrating the discovery of a lofty moral purpose. Other writers held the same exalted view, joined up, and were killed -- even older men Edward Thomas, 39, and Hector Munro (Saki), 43 -- but it was Brooke, the poet of the passing moment, delighting in things touched, smelt, and tasted, only he, the great lover, who could have achieved the unique alchemy he did. Had he lived longer, of course, he would have recoiled in horror from the protracted senseless butchery and his poetry would have been considerably different.
Rupert Brooke, the supreme soldier-poet of his time, was remarkable without being a masterpiece. Despite Lehmann's debunking attempt, he remains remarkable.