‘Youth and poetry are the links binding the children of the world to come to the grandsires of the world that was. War will smash, pulverize, sweep into the dust-bins of eternity the whole fabric of the old world; therefore the first born in intellect must die. Is that the reading of the riddle?’ These words, written by Sir Ian Hamilton, the Commander in Chief of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force, upon hearing the news that Rupert Brooke had died of septicaemia on his way to Gallipoli; were not only remarkably insightful, but also prophetic. The conflict was to prove every bit as devastating as Sir Ian had foreseen.
Though he died in the sunlit cabin of a French Hospital ship, instead of meeting an heroic but bloody end in the mud- shrouded trenches of France; Rupert Brooke has emerged as an iconic figure of the First World War. Not only was he exceptionally attractive, W.B. Yeats even described him as ‘the handsomest young man in England’; his poetry speaks of a gentler age, an England yet to be obliterated by the horrors of war. Whilst sometimes criticised for its sentimentality and overt patriotism much of Brooke’s poetry has remained in the public consciousness. Less well-known, however, is his association with another poet and writer, whose influence on Brooke’s own work would be pronounced.
Brooke’s admiration for Hilaire Belloc has been explored by the biographers of both men. In 1926, only eleven years after Brooke’s death, C. Creighton Mandell and Edward Shanks wrote in their study of Belloc, ‘Rupert Brooke has been called too often the disciple of Dr. Donne: no critic, so far as we are aware, has called attention to his debt to Mr. Belloc. This debt was neither complete nor immediately obvious, but it existed. Brooke knew it, spoke of Mr. Belloc with admiration, and quoted his poems with surprising memory.’ Mandell and Shanks were the first to draw comparisons between the two men’s poetry, and claimed that if you, ‘put a few lines from Grantchester beside a few lines from one of Mr. Belloc’s poems of Oxford…you will realize how curiously the younger man was fascinated by the older.’
Yet it seems that the full extent of Brooke’s appreciation, for both Belloc’s writings and his character, has been somewhat understated. Even before he came up to King’s College, Cambridge, in the Michaelmas Term of 1906, Belloc was a source of inspiration for the young Brooke. Born in France in 1870, Belloc became a British subject in 1902, and in 1906 was elected as the Liberal Member of Parliament for Salford South (he remained an MP until 1910). An overview of Belloc’s speeches to the House of Commons reveals that he spoke frequently, and was particularly concerned with military and colonial matters.
Nevertheless, Belloc’s political career did not detract from his literary one, and he published numerous works, both fictional and non-fictional, during his four years in Parliament. His 1906 book, Hills and the Sea, however, had not impressed Brooke who was still at Rugby, where his father was a Housemaster. Brooke wrote to his then mentor, the poet St. John Lucas, saying, ‘we are having read to us Belloc’s new book. I had expected something like ‘The Path to Rome,’ and was therefore disappointed. So far as we have got –about half way-it is historical, descriptive, quite interesting, the expression of an unusual view. But it is not Belloc. I miss that grave and fantastic irresponsibility; it is a clever book which might have been written by any of several men; I wanted one that only one could have made.’
Not that this disappointment dampened Brooke’s excitement at finally meeting Belloc in May 1907, after Belloc had been in Cambridge to read a paper on history to a group at Pembroke College. Brooke enthusiastically recounted to his friend, Francis John MacCunn (killed in action in 1915) how had found Belloc ‘vastly entertaining’ and that he and another, friend, Andrew Sydenham Farrar Gow, had walked the ‘wonderfully drunk’ Belloc home later that evening. The following day, Brooke had lunch with Belloc. Two days later Brooke wrote to his mother, telling her that Belloc’s paper had been ‘magnificent to hear’ and how that afternoon (the same day as his letter) he had, ‘met him again in the street and, finding he was still hazy as to the best way to his house walked there with him again. So altogether I feel rather pleased with myself!’
Brooke’s biographer, Nigel Jones, has stressed that Belloc’s energy and unashamed enjoyment of drink made quite an impression on Brooke. Brooke’s papers, held by the Archive Centre of King’s College, show that he made notes on Belloc’s work for a paper entitled, “Satire in English Verse.” Jones also notes that in early 1909 a further meeting between them took place, after Brooke invited Belloc to dine with him and his fellow Apostles, at his rooms in King’s.
Two Photographs of Belloc and Brooke, taken separately but both dated 1908, the year Belloc published his collection of essays, On Nothing and Kindred Subjects, highlight their marked physical differences. Belloc appears brooding, staring straight ahead with a look of serious determination. In contrast, Brooke appears to be full of youthful exuberance as he poses in costume for his role as the Attendent Spirit in the Marlowe Society’s performance of Comus; revelling in his status as the ‘young Apollo’ of Frances Cornford’s poem.
Nigel Jones has observed that Brooke was drawn to Belloc as both men shared ‘a worm of xenophobia, particularly anti-Semitism.’ In his 1980 book, Rupert Brooke: His Life and Legend, John Lehmann emphasised how, when writing about him for a 1947 Time and Tide article, Frances Cornford asserted of Brooke that, ‘very little of his early work is quite enough to show how gifted he was from the beginning, and how much skill he had learnt from Belloc, Housman, Dowson and the “decadent” poets of the nineties. But these were, on the whole, dangerous influences – he was far too apt to absorb not only their skill but their mannerisms.’
On the other hand the Canadian broadcaster Michael Coren, himself an admirer of Belloc’s work, has argued that the staunchly Catholic Belloc was ‘vehement in his denunciation of Nazism’ and that a careful reading of Belloc’s 1922 book, The Jews, reveals that ‘he was never an anti-Semite in the established sense.’
The high esteem in which Brooke held Belloc remained unchanged and constant throughout the last few years of Brooke’s life, which were both turbulent and eventful. He suffered a nervous breakdown at the beginning of 1912 and then spent much of 1913 travelling America, Canada and the South Seas. Following the declaration of war in August 1914, Brooke was eager to join up and was commissioned as a Sub-Lieutenant in the Royal Naval Division. Writing to his friend, the French painter Jacques Raverat, from Dorset where his Battalion was stationed, shortly before Christmas 1914, Brooke stated, ‘I love no women and very few men: only Mr Belloc.’ Days before Brooke’s death in April 1915, the musician and composer Frederick Septimus Kelly (killed in November 1916), noted in his diary, ‘I had a short discussion of literary matters with Rupert Brooke before dinner. He thinks Dr Johnson’s prose style quite perfect and, apart from Shakespeare who is supreme, he seems to like Keats best of the poets. He is very fond of Belloc and G.K. Chesterton and does not care much for R.L. Stevenson.’
Brooke’s death at the age of 27 has become part of his enduring legend; the War would also inflict great suffering upon Belloc, after his son Louis was killed in France in 1918.
Turning the pages of Belloc’s On Nothing and Kindred Subjects, the very same battered and ink-stained copy that Brooke had kept in his rooms in King’s, and whose inner cover bears his distinctive signature, I am drawn to the lines, ‘The noblest or the most perfect of English elegies leaves, as a sort of savour after the reading of it, no terror at all nor even too much regret, but the landscape of England at evening.’ I cannot help but wonder, whether the book travelled with Brooke on his ill-fated journey to the Aegean, or if he simply carried its words with him; in the heart, soon to be ‘at peace, under an English heaven.’
Hilaire Belloc: The Man and His Work – C. Creighton Mandell and Edward Shanks (1916)
Rupert Brooke: A Memoir – Edward Marsh (1918)
The Edited Letters of Rupert Brooke – Sir Geoffrey Keynes (1967)
Rupert Brooke: His Life and His Legend – John Lehmann (1980)
Rupert Brooke – Nigel Jones (1997)