Returning, as I am semi-regularly, to poetry in connection with the 100th anniversary of World War I—an anniversary that does not loom large enough in our popular culture right now (at least, I think we could learn a lot from reflecting on it, and we seem not to be)—coming to Rupert Brooke was more or less a necessity. The first WWI poet I ever featured on the blog (a poem posted for Veterans Day 2009), Brooke is the archetype of the World War I poet—a bright young thing, sent off to war with glorious notions about valor and duty, writing a few beautiful poems that express some deep truths about his experience and then dying a tragic young death in some gas-filled trench. Except that almost none of that is true of Rupert Brooke, who lives in the imagination (when he is remembered) a life he didn’t exactly live in real life. Today I want to reflect on a lovely sonnet by Brooke but also to consider how myth and truth come together to form images that our society will accept.
First, then, a quick reality check about Brooke—he’s usually talked about as though he was one of the many teenagers rushing off to war, a perception made easier by the fact that his poetry (for all its charms) comes across as a bit naive, the sort of thing a man might write before his twentieth birthday. But the Rupert Brooke who headed off to the Great War was in his mid-twenties, an associate of a very “adult” and artsy crowd in Bloomsbury. Lytton Strachey was a romantic rival of his, at one point, and while at university Brooke once went skinny-dipping with Virginia Woolf; Brooke was a man of the world by the time the war came, possibly a father of a child born to a Tahitian woman who had known him during his travels in the South Seas. The glory, valor, and duty part? Oh yes, we can give him that. But we can’t fill in the rest of the story—unlike many other famous poets of the war (Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, etc.), Brooke does not become disenchanted with those starry-eyed ideals once he encounters the blood and darkness of combat in the trenches. He will not, in fact, see any meaningful combat at all—no trench will color his writing about the war, and his death (untimely though it was, and tragic) occurs far from the battlefield, as Brooke perishes of a mosquito-borne infection in a hospital ship in the Greek islands. He will be buried there in haste before his regiment moves on to the assault on Gallipoli: I wonder what the sweet, golden verse of Brooke would have made of that living nightmare. We will never know.
So again, Brooke wasn’t the ideal “World War One poet” as far as his biography goes. But the verse he left behind is more than worthy of remembering, and here at the beginning of September, with the trenches (for the most part) not yet dug in the fields of France in 1914, I think it’s time to give him the floor again. This is one of the five poems in a series of sonnets he entitled “1914” and wrote sometime in the autumn of that year—two of the sonnets, oddly, have the same subtitle, “The Dead”. This is the latter of them, the fourth sonnet in the cycle of five, and I think perhaps his best work.
“These hearts were woven of human joys and cares,
Washed marvellously with sorrow, swift to mirth.
The years had given them kindness. Dawn was theirs,
And sunset, and the colours of the earth.
These had seen movement, and heard music; known
Slumber and waking; loved; gone proudly friended;
Felt the quick stir of wonder; sat alone;
Touched flowers and furs and cheeks. All this is ended.
There are waters blown by changing winds to laughter
And lit by the rich skies, all day. And after,
Frost, with a gesture, stays the waves that dance
And wandering loveliness. He leaves a white
Unbroken glory, a gathered radiance,
A width, a shining peace, under the night.”
Brooke composes a sonnet in praise of the war dead that, as I suggested earlier, is free of any of the realities of modern warfare. But it is undeniably beautiful, and I think there are truths here to grapple with regardless. Look at those almost effortless opening lines—presenting the dead to us as though carving them in monument. The dead are strangely alive in Brooke’s hands—marvelous in sorrow, swift to laugh. He comforts us by weaving an image of life that makes death bashful to show its face. For who can dwell on the awfulness of death in the face of this joy? Time itself is a kindness to all who have had the gift of life. Each human shares in the possession of light and life that beams in on us from the sky and erupts around us from the fertile ground. Each moment of their living is something to wonder at, for Brooke—that there should be music to hear, sleep to comfort ourselves with, friends to cheer us, somehow all of it is amazing to him, and therefore by extension to us.
He executes the turn then, with the last half of the eighth line, “all this is ended”, and it is so abrupt and unexpected, we think we see where the sestet will go—the sonnet is turning from life to death, we feel instinctively, and brace ourselves for it. But there is a pause and a rush of air and we find something else. The commotion of human life is ended, but Brooke seizes on that, not to lament, but to pull backwards and appreciate this immense, vibrant space in which this life took place. Humans are entirely absent from this second half of the sonnet: instead, the light and laughter have moved on from human contexts and into the waters and winds. The frost freezes them in appreciation of the magic of the dance, holding immobile, at least for the moment, water in the midst of the wind. What else he does, as winter approaches, is to leave something else incredible “under the night”, some physical presence that Brooke sees as peaceful and glorious and overflowing with light.
Few soldiers could have written this even several months later; truthfully, Brooke could hardly have written it himself past mid-1915, given both the likelihood that he would have died at Gallipoli and the likelihood that a man who survived Gallipoli would be able to write something this impersonal and idealistic afterwards. But there’s something I like about it—the sense that the immense splendor of the earth compensates us in ways we can hardly calculate for injustices that we may face along the way, the reality that no human death stops wind or wave and that therefore all life does go on, even when we do not. This is a commonly anthologized poem and it’s not hard to see why. To the extent that this obscures the grim reality of war, and makes it seem so noble and significant that it encourages our politicians to be cavalier about conflict, I’ll criticize the poem. But tonight it’s more important for me to appreciate it—to step back and ask myself where I can draw joy from unexpected places in my life, and how moving out away from human cares can provide real clarity about how to care more effectively. Whether it calls you to that or not, I hope it engages with you, on some level, and provides insight into our place in a lively and busy world.