This Side Of Paradise: Rupert Brooke And The South Seas

‘I want to walk a thousand miles, and write a thousand plays, and sing a thousand poems, and drink a thousand pots of beer, and kiss a thousand girls,’ and, added Rupert Brooke as he made plans to leave England in May 1913 ‘– oh, a million things.’ Seduced by the lure of  far away and exotic lands, Brooke would travel thousands of miles, write several poems, and meet many girls, but only one would truly capture his heart.

Brooke’s often dramatic and largely unsatisfying romantic entanglements, frequently a source of great anguish to him, had contributed to his decision to seek pastures new. His most enduring attachment had been to Ka Cox, whom he met at Cambridge, along with Noel Olivier, yet both women were drawn to other suitors; in Cox’s case, the painter Henry Lamb, and in Olivier’s, the dashing Hungarian poet Ferenc Békássy. Upon learning that Cox hoped to marry Lamb (she did not and would go on to wed the civil servant Will Arnold-Forster in 1918), Brooke suffered a breakdown, whilst visiting Lulworth Cove in Dorset towards the end of 1911 and start of 1912, and a period of precarious mental and physical health ensued. An offer from the Westminster Gazette to pay his travel costs in exchange for a series of articles about America and Canada, appeared to be just the tonic he needed. Perhaps glimpsing the foreboding clouds of war gathering across Europe, Brooke decided to extend his journey to include New Zealand and the South Seas.

Sailing from San Francisco, Brooke arrived in Waikiki in October 1913, before travelling on to Pango in Samoa a month later. Enchanted by the islands, he exclaimed in a letter to his friend Edward Marsh, ‘it’s all true about the South Seas! I get a little tired of it at moments, because I am just too old for Romance, and my soul is seared. But there it is: there it wonderfully is: heaven on earth, the ideal life, little work, dancing, singing and eating, naked people of incredible loveliness, perfect manners, and immense kindness, a divine tropical climate, and intoxicating beauty of scenery.’ Departing for Fiji on the SS Torfua in mid-November, Brooke arrived on the 19th and quickly immersed himself in Fijian culture, even attending the funeral of a Fijian princess who had died from pneumonia. Just before Christmas, Brooke boarded the Niagara and sailed to Auckland, with a trip to Tahiti planned for the January of 1914. Continue reading

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

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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