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.’ Continue reading

On An Ancient Isle: Kathleen Raine, Gavin Maxwell And Mijbil

One of the most renowned British female poets of the twentieth-century, and an accomplished scholar of Blake, Yeats and Hopkins, Kathleen Raine’s contribution to British poetry is without question. But Raine’s personal life was complex and, at times difficult, blighted by her intense love for the Scottish naturalist and writer, Gavin Maxwell, who, because of his homosexuality, could never return her passion with the intensity she longed for.

Born in Ilford in 1908, to a Scottish mother and English father, Raine spent part of the First World War living with her Aunt Peggy in Northumberland. The experience of living in the Northumbrian countryside gave her a  strong and lifelong  appreciation for nature. Raine went on to read Natural Sciences at Girton College, Cambridge, where contributed to the student magazine, The Experiment; her involvement with the publication would lead not only to her friendship with Julian Bell, but her eventual marriage to its editor, the poet Hugh Sykes Davies, in 1930.

Several years later, Raine left Sykes Davies for another poet, Charles Madge (who later founded Mass-Observation) and Julian Bell attempted to find her a job with Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s publishing house, the Hogarth Press. Bell’s efforts were unsuccessful and Virginia Woolf  wrote to his brother Quentin,  ‘Julian came to tea, and made such a wonderful picture of a Miss Raine who was once the wife of Sykes Davies but is now penniless, living with a communist, and he said, six foot two, and noble as Boadicea, so that we must give her a job at the Press. And then she comes, and she’s the size of a robin and had the mind of a lovely snowball. How can she run the press?’

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The King’s Hussar: Ferenc Békássy And The Great War

                  He went without fears, went gaily, since go he must,

                  And drilled and sweated and sang, and rode in the heat and the dust

                  Of the summer; his fellows were round him, as eager as he.

                  While over the world the gloomy days of war dragged heavily.

                  (Ferenc Békássy, 1914)

Written shortly after he left England following the outbreak of war, Ferenc Békássy’s poem 1914 is virtually unknown outside of his native Hungary. But Békássy represents what was lost by his own country as a consequence of war as much as Rupert Brooke is a symbol of the England that vanished after 1914. Like Brooke, Békássy too would die early on in the the War and so his work never had the chance to reflect upon the mounting horrors that unfolded.

In 1925, ten years after his death and a suitable amount of time after the Armistice, Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press published, Adriatica and Other Poems. It was to be Békássy’s only published work in English (he wrote in both English and Hungarian) and seemingly disappeared without note. Békássy also remained largely forgotten in Hungary, until after the fall of Communism in 1989, when his countrymen began to discover a new-found interest in his poetry, acknowledging the significance of the all too narrow body of work he left behind.

Ferenc Békássy was born in 1893 in Zsennye, Western Hungary. His family was an old aristocratic one, and the importance of education was strongly emphasised to Békássy from an early age, particularly by his mother, who encouraged him from childhood to spend hours in the family library. It was also his mother who believed that he and his five siblings should receive an English education and he was sent to the liberal and progressive Bedales in Hampshire, which had been founded the year he was born and was the first co-educational boarding school in England. It was at Bedales that he first met Noel Olivier, the daughter of the Governor of Jamaica, Sir Sydney Olivier. It was to be one of the most important and enduring relationships of his life.

Békássy left Bedales for King’s College, Cambridge in 1911, there, he found himself suddenly in the midst of a truly remarkable intellectual circle. Yet Békássy himself was the recipient of a great deal of admiration, for his own intellectual prowess and dashing Central European good looks. It was the latter that primarily led to him catching the attention of John Meynard Keynes, who was so taken with Békássy that he encouraged his admittance to the Apostles.

Lytton Strachey too was eager for Békássy to become a fully-fledged Apostle, writing to Keynes, ‘Békássy is so nice that the Society ought to rush forward now into the most progressive waters.’ Like Keynes, Strachey was very attracted to the young Hungarian and his younger brother James Strachey even wrote to Rupert Brooke that Lytton had, ‘wanted to bugger him when he was on the hearthrug.’ Continue reading

Kindred Subjects: Rupert Brooke And Hilaire Belloc

‘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.’

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