Dreaming On The Verge Of Strife: Julian Bell And Rupert Brooke

A young Apollo, golden-haired,
Stands dreaming on the verge of strife,
Magnificently unprepared
For the long littleness of life.

Frances Darwin Cornford

Written after her first meeting with the poet, Frances Cornford’s pithy verse, On Rupert Brooke, was to prove eerily prophetic. Within a decade, Brooke would be dead after contracting septicemia on his way to Gallipoli. Cornford’s words could just as easily have been written about Julian Bell, another young Cambridge poet, whose life would also be cut short as a consequence of war. Bell was fascinated by Brooke, whom he greatly admired, and believed that they both shared a similar outlook towards war and duty, one that his Bloomsbury elders could not understand.

From an early age Bell had heard tales of the fabled Brooke from members of his family who had known Brooke at Cambridge. Bell also went up to the same University’s King’s College, where Brooke’s presence haunted the aged stone walls, its corridors and staircases seemingly reverberating with anecdotes about his legendary charm and beauty. Although Brooke would eventually become a Fellow of King’s, this was a feat that eluded Bell despite two attempts. Similarly in his lifetime, Brooke was an acclaimed poet whose reputation was only enhanced by his death, Bell however never came close to achieving comparable fame, and today his work remains largely unknown.

Just as Brooke had spent the last few years of his life abroad, travelling to America, Canada and the South Seas, as described in his Letters from America, published posthumously in 1916, Bell left for China in 1935 after he was offered a Professorship at Wuhan University. Teaching English literature to his Chinese students, Bell held Brooke up as a perfect example of what he believed to be a quintessentially English poet.

Remarking in a letter to his former lover, Lettice Ramsey, he declared Brooke to be ‘the most remarkable human being I’ve ever heard of,’ but whilst he could not help but notice the obvious similarities between himself and the war poet, he acknowledged that he had not been blessed with ‘all his gifts’ nor had he enjoyed ‘that sort of brilliant career.’

Bell’s upbringing, coupled with the overwhelmingly pacifist nature of Bloomsbury, led him to adopt his family and Bloomsbury’s attitudes towards war until the early 1930s. By that time, the tumultuous political situation at home and abroad meant that he was starting to question Bloomsbury’s belief in the supremacy of discourse over direct action as the best means of providing a solution to the problems that besieged Britain and Europe. Brooke himself had been deeply dismayed by the pacifism of his former Bloomsbury friends after the outbreak of the First World War, and this sentiment pervaded much of his subsequent poetry. In contrast Brooke openly embraced the declaration of war, from the belief that it would usher in the excitement that he felt was essential to young men, something that had been absent from his life thus far. In an essay that appeared in The New Statesman and Nation entitled An Unusual Young Man, Brooke wrote with characteristic nonchalance, ‘Well, if Armageddon’s on, I suppose one should be there.’

The complex and myriad emotions the outbreak war evoked in Brooke, were well understood by Bell as they also applied to his own life. In late 1933, at a time when many of his contemporaries were turning to Communism while he was turning away from the pacifism of Bloomsbury, Bell himself reflected in The New Statesman and Nation‘Our generation seems to be repeating the experience of Rupert Brooke’s, the appearance of a need for “the moral equivalent of war” among a large number of the members of the leisured and educated classes. And Communism provides the activity, the sense of common effort, and something of the hysteria of war.’

In July 1936, the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War offered Bell the kind of adventure he also craved and the opportunity to follow in Brooke’s footsteps. Bell arrived in Madrid in June 1937, however, in one last nod to his family’s pacifism he went as an ambulance driver, rather than a combatant. He was killed by Luftwaffe fire on 18th July 1937.

For his uncle, Leonard Woolf, Bell’s death was a ghastly reminder of the horrors endured during the Great War. As Woolf exclaimed to his nephew’s friend, John Lehmann, ‘There is nothing to be said except about the sheer waste and futility of it all. It is the war all over again, when one was rung up to be told that Rupert (Brooke) was dead, or one’s brother killed, and one knew that it was only in order to produce the kind of world we are living in now. Horrible!’ Following his death and his glowing obituary penned by Winston Churchill, Brooke became for many a romantic figure, someone who symbolised a lost world of optimism and security. On a far smaller scale and one generally confined to the Bloomsbury Group, Bell’s death also signified the beginning of a new era of unease and trepidation.

Frances Cornford, whose brief poem came to be seen as a succinct description of Brooke’s life also lost her son as a result of the Spanish Civil War. John Cornford, who ironically had been given the first-name Rupert, after Brooke, was an active Communist and went to fight for the Republican side in Spain. He was killed in December 1936 on his 21st birthday. Brooke’s close friend, Edward Marsh wrote to Julian Bell’s father Clive, ‘It is heartbreaking that boys like Julian and young Cornford should be sacrificed. Those they leave behind can only take comfort in the thought of their courage and devotion – but alas for the waste of them and the sorrow to you.’

Marsh had written the first biography of Brooke in 1918 and as John Lehmann later suggested, somewhat misleadingly, the dead poet was hailed as, ‘a sunny, forever-laughing youth of flawless beauty and many sided genius, the adored of all with whom he came into contact, of pure heart and stainless character.’ Virginia Woolf had been critical of Marsh and his editing of several of Brooke’s letters, that also appeared in the volume. Writing to her friend and Brooke’s former lover, Ka Cox, Woolf complained that Marsh had made the letters ‘as superficial and affected as his own account of Rupert.’ In fact, Woolf later hoped that her nephew might edit a collection of Brooke’s letters himself, after he returned from China, but Julian Bell’s desire to go to Spain halted any such plan.

A year after Julian Bell was killed, David Garnett and Bell’s younger brother Quentin, compiled and edited Julian Bell: Essays, Poems and Letters which was published by the Hogarth Press in November 1938. Just as Marsh portrayed Brooke as heroic and flawless, the Bloomsbury Group painted Julian Bell in a similar light. Both depictions have often been unquestioningly accepted. For instance Bell’s first biographers, Peter Stansky and William Abrahams, argued that he was ‘dangerously close to being one of those golden youths – Rupert Brooke is the prototype – whose years at the University are a kind of conquest, splendid but short-lived.’

More recent biographies of Brooke, and my own research into the life of Bell, have shown that neither were the mythical ‘young Apollos’ of popular imagination. They were instead far more fallible and complex characters than many subsequent historians have been comfortable admitting to. In both cases, their inner lives were often quite unlike the idyllic representations ascribed to them. Indeed the true similarities between them lay not so much in their youth or their golden hair, but in their mutual capacity for action.

Brooke still lies on the Greek island of Skyros, laid to rest by his fellow naval officers shortly after his death. His grave was given a more permanent headstone in the 1930s, and a statue of an upright and valiant young man was also erected in his honour. The whereabouts of Bell’s remains are unknown. He was buried at Fuencarral Cemetery on the outskirts of Madrid, but as I learned on visiting the site, the exact location of his grave is now lost. Bell remains separated in time and place from his idol Brooke, yet united with him in their shared willingness to die for the ideals in which they both believed.

Selected Sources:

The Papers of Rupert Chawner Brooke, King’s College Archive Centre, Cambridge.

The Papers of Julian Heward Bell, King’s College Archive Centre, Cambridge.

The Handsomest Young Man in England – Michael Hastings (1967)

Rupert Brooke – Nigel Jones (1997)

Julian Bell: From Bloomsbury to the Spanish Civil War – Peter Stansky and William Abrahams (2012)