Letters from America
Letters from America
Letters from America
by Rupert Brooke.
With a Preface by Henry James
New York: Charles Scribner's Sons
597-599 Fifth Avenue. 1916
The author started in May 1913 on a journey to the United States, Canada, and the South Seas, from which he returned next year at the beginning of June. The first thirteen chapters of this book were written as letters to the Westminster Gazette. He would probably not have republished them in their present form, as he intended to write a longer book on his travels; but they are now printed with only the correction of a few evident slips.
The two remaining chapters appeared in the New Statesman, soon after the outbreak of war.
Thanks are due to the Editors who have allowed the republication of the articles.
Nothing more generally or more recurrently solicits us, in the light of literature, I think, than the interest of our learning how the poet, the true poet, and above all the particular one with whom we may for the moment be concerned, has come into his estate, asserted and preserved his identity, worked out his question of sticking to that and to nothing else; and has so been able to reach us and touch us as a poet, in spite of the accidents and dangers that must have beset this course. The chances and changes, the personal history of any absolute genius, draw us to watch his adventure with curiosity and inquiry, lead us on to win more of his secret and borrow more of his experience (I mean, needless to say, when we are at all critically minded); but there is something in the clear safe arrival of the poetic nature, in a given case, at the point of its free and happy exercise, that provokes, if not the cold impulse to challenge or cross-question it, at least the need of understanding so far as possible how, in a world in which difficulty and disaster are frequent, the most wavering and flickering of all fine flames has escaped extinction. We go back, we help ourselves to hang about the attestation of the first spark of the flame, and like to indulge in a fond notation of such facts as that of the air in which it was kindled and insisted on proceeding, or yet perhaps failed to proceed, to a larger combustion, and the draughts, blowing about the world, that were either, as may have happened, to quicken its native force or perhaps to extinguish it in a gust of undue violence. It is naturally when the poet has emerged unmistakably clear, or has at a happy moment of his story seemed likely to, that our attention and our suspense in the matter are most intimately engaged; and we are at any rate in general beset by the impression and haunted by the observed law, that the growth and the triumph of the faculty at its finest have been positively in proportion to certain rigours of circumstance.
It is doubtless not indeed so much that this appearance has been inveterate as that the quality of genius in fact associated with it is apt to strike us as the clearest we know. We think of Dante in harassed exile, of Shakespeare under sordidly professional stress, of Milton in exasperated exposure and material darkness; we think of Burns and Chatterton, and Keats and Shelley and Coleridge, we think of Leopardi and Musset and Emily Brontë and Walt Whitman, as it is open to us surely to think even of Wordsworth, so harshly conditioned by his spareness and bareness and bleakness—all this in reference to the voices that have most proved their command of the ear of time, and with the various examples added of those claiming, or at best enjoying, but the slighter attention; and their office thus mainly affects us as that of showing in how jostled, how frequently arrested and all but defeated a hand, the torch could still be carried. It is not of course for the countrymen of Byron and of Tennyson and Swinburne, any more than for those of Victor Hugo, to say nothing of those of Edmond Rostand, to forget the occurrence on occasion of high instances in which the dangers all seemed denied and only favour and facility recorded; but it would take more of these than we can begin to set in a row to purge us of that prime determinant, after all, of our affection for the great poetic muse, the vision of the rarest sensibility and the largest generosity we know kept by her at their pitch, kept fighting for their life and insisting on their range of expression, amid doubts and derisions and buffets, even sometimes amid stones of stumbling quite self-invited, that might at any moment have made the loss of the precious clue really irremediable. Which moral, so pointed, accounts assuredly for half our interest in the poetic character—a sentiment more unlikely than not, I think, to survive a sustained succession of Victor Hugos and Rostands, or of Byrons, Tennysons and Swinburnes. We quite consciously miss in these bards, as we find ourselves rather wondering even at our failure to miss it in Shelley, that such "complications" as they may have had to reckon with were not in general of the cruelly troublous order, and that no stretch of the view either of our own "theory of art" or of our vivacity of passion as making trouble, contributes perceptibly the required savour of the pathetic. We cling, critically or at least experientially speaking, to our superstition, if not absolutely to our approved measure, of this grace and proof; and that truly, to cut my argument short, is what sets us straight down before a sudden case in which the old discrimination quite drops to the ground—in which we neither on the one hand miss anything that the general association could have given it, nor on the other recognise the pomp that attends the grand exceptions I have mentioned.
Rupert Brooke, young, happy, radiant, extraordinarily endowed and irresistibly attaching, virtually met a soldier's death, met it in the stress of action and the all but immediate presence of the enemy; but he is before us as a new, a confounding and superseding example altogether, an unprecedented image, formed to resist erosion by time or vulgarisation by reference, of quickened possibilities, finer ones than ever before, in the stuff poets may be noted as made of. With twenty reasons fixing the interest and the charm that will henceforth abide in his name and constitute, as we may say, his legend, he submits all helplessly to one in particular which is, for appreciation, the least personal to him or inseparable from him, and he does this because, while he is still in the highest degree of the distinguished faculty and quality, we happen to feel him even more markedly and significantly "modern." This is why I speak of the mixture of his elements as new, feeling that it governs his example, put by it in a light which nothing else could have equally contributed—so that Byron for instance, who startled his contemporaries by taking for granted scarce one of the articles that formed their comfortable faith and by revelling in almost everything that made them idiots if he himself was to figure as a child of truth, looks to us, by any such measure, comparatively plated over with the impenetrable rococo of his own day. I speak, I hasten to add, not of Byron's volume, his flood and his fortune, but of his really having quarrelled with the temper and the accent of his age still more where they might have helped him to expression than where he but flew in their face. He hugged his pomp, whereas our unspeakably fortunate young poet of to-day, linked like him also, for consecration of the final romance, with the isles of Greece, took for his own the whole of the poetic consciousness he was born to, and moved about in it as a stripped young swimmer might have kept splashing through blue water and coming up at any point that friendliness and fancy, with every prejudice shed, might determine. Rupert expressed us all, at the highest tide of our actuality, and was the creature of a freedom restricted only by that condition of his blinding youth, which we accept on the whole with gratitude and relief—given that I qualify the condition as dazzling even to himself. How can it therefore not be interesting to see a little what the wondrous modern in him consisted of?
What it first and foremost really comes to, I think, is the fact that at an hour when the civilised peoples are on exhibition, quite finally and sharply on show, to each other and to the world, as they absolutely never in all their long history have been before, the English tradition (both of amenity and of energy, I naturally mean), should have flowered at once into a specimen so beautifully producible. Thousands of other sentiments are of course all the while, in different connections, at hand for us; but it is of the exquisite civility, the social instincts of the race, poetically expressed, that I speak; and it would be hard to overstate the felicity of his fellow-countrymen's being able just now to say: "Yes, this, with the imperfection of so many of our arrangements, with the persistence of so many of our mistakes, with the waste of so much of our effort and the weight of the many-coloured mantle of time that drags so redundantly about us, this natural accommodation of the English spirit, this frequent extraordinary beauty of the English aspect, this finest saturation of the English intelligence by its most immediate associations, tasting as they mainly do of the long past, this ideal image of English youth, in a word, at once radiant and reflective, are things that appeal to us as delightfully exhibitional beyond a doubt, yet as drawn, to the last fibre, from the very wealth of our own conscience and the very force of our own history. We haven't, for such an instance of our genius, to reach out to strange places or across other, and otherwise productive, tracts; the exemplary instance himself has well-nigh as a matter of course reached and revelled, for that is exactly our way in proportion as we feel ourselves clear. But the kind of experience so entailed, of contribution so gathered, is just what we wear easiest when we have been least stinted of it, and what our English use of makes perhaps our vividest reference to our thick-growing native determinants."
Rupert Brooke, at any rate, the charmed commentator may well keep before him, simply did all the usual English things—under the happy provision of course that he found them in his way at their best; and it was exactly most delightful in him that no inordinate expenditure, no anxious extension of the common plan, as "liberally" applied all about him, had been incurred or contrived to predetermine his distinction. It is difficult to express on the contrary how peculiar a value attached to his having simply "come in" for the general luck awaiting any English youth who may not be markedly inapt for the traditional chances. He could in fact easily strike those who most appreciated him as giving such an account of the usual English things—to repeat the form of my allusion to them—as seemed to address you to them, in their very considerable number indeed, for any information about him that might matter, but which left you wholly to judge whether they seemed justified by their fruits. This manner about them, as one may call it in general, often contributes to your impression that they make for a certain strain of related modesty which may on occasion be one of their happiest effects; it at any rate, in days when my acquaintance with them was slighter, used to leave me gaping at the treasure of operation, the far recessional perspectives, it took for granted and any offered demonstration of the extent or the mysteries of which seemed unthinkable just in proportion as the human resultant testified in some one or other of his odd ways to their influence. He might not always be, at any rate on first acquaintance, a resultant explosively human, but there was in any case one reflection he could always cause you to make: "What a wondrous system it indeed must be which insists on flourishing to all appearance under such an absence of advertised or even of confessed relation to it as would do honour to a vacuum produced by an air-pump!" The formulation, the approximate expression of what the system at large might or mightn't do for those in contact with it, became thus one's own fitful care, with one's attention for a considerable period doubtless dormant enough, but with the questions always liable to revive before the individual case.
Rupert Brooke made them revive as soon as one began to know him, or in other words made one want to read back into him each of his promoting causes without exception, to trace to some source in the ambient air almost any one, at a venture, of his aspects; so precious a loose and careless bundle of happy references did that inveterate trick of giving the go-by to over-emphasis which he shared with his general kind fail to prevent your feeling sure of his having about him. I think the liveliest interest of these was that while not one of them was signally romantic, by the common measure of the great English amenity, they yet hung together, reinforcing and enhancing each other, in a way that seemed to join their hands for an incomparably educative or civilising process, the great mark of which was that it took some want of amenability in particular subjects to betray anything like a gap. I do not mean of course to say that gaps, and occasionally of the most flagrant, were made so supremely difficult of occurrence; but only that the effect, in the human resultants who kept these, and with the least effort, most in abeyance, was a thing one wouldn't have had different by a single shade. I am not sure that such a case of the recognisable was the better established by the fact of Rupert's being one of the three sons of a house-master at Rugby, where he was born in 1887 and where he lost his father in 1910, the elder of his brothers having then already died and the younger being destined to fall in battle at the allied Front, shortly after he himself had succumbed; but the circumstance I speak of gives a peculiar and an especially welcome consecration to that perceptible play in him of the inbred "public school" character the bloom of which his short life had too little time to remove and which one wouldn't for the world not have been disposed to note, with everything else, in the beautiful complexity of his attributes. The fact was that if one liked him—and I may as well say at once that few young men, in our time, can have gone through life under a greater burden, more easily carried and kept in its place, of being liked—one liked absolutely everything about him, without the smallest exception; so that he appeared to convert before one's eyes all that happened to him, or that had or that ever might, not only to his advantage as a source of life and experience, but to the enjoyment on its own side of a sort of illustrational virtue or glory. This appearance of universal assimilation—often indeed by incalculable ironic reactions which were of the very essence of the restless young intelligence rejoicing in its gaiety—made each part of his rich consciousness, so rapidly acquired, cling, as it were, to the company of all the other parts, so as at once neither to miss any touch of the luck (one keeps coming back to that), incurred by them, or to let them suffer any want of its own rightness. It was as right, through the spell he cast altogether, that he should have come into the world and have passed his boyhood in that Rugby home, as that he should have been able later on to wander as irrepressibly as the spirit moved him, or as that he should have found himself fitting as intimately as he was very soon to do into any number of the incalculabilities, the intellectual at least, of the poetic temperament. He had them all, he gave himself in his short career up to them all—and I confess that, partly for reasons to be further developed, I am unable even to guess what they might eventually have made of him; which is of course what brings us round again to that view of him as the young poet with absolutely nothing but his generic spontaneity to trouble about, the young poet profiting for happiness by a general condition unprecedented for young poets, that I began by indulging in.
He went from Rugby to Cambridge, where, after a while, he carried off a Fellowship at King's, and where, during a short visit there in "May week," or otherwise early in June 1909, I first, and as I was to find, very unforgettingly, met him. He reappears to me as with his felicities all most promptly divinable, in that splendid setting of the river at the "backs"; as to which indeed I remember vaguely wondering what it was left to such a place to do with the added, the verily wasted, grace of such a person, or how even such a person could hold his own, as who should say, at such a pitch of simple scenic perfection. Any difficulty dropped, however, to the reconciling vision; for that the young man was publicly and responsibly a poet seemed the fact a little over-officiously involved—to the promotion of a certain surprise (on one's own part) at his having to "be" anything. It was to come over me still more afterwards that nothing of that or of any other sort need really have rested on him with a weight of obligation, and in fact I cannot but think that life might have been seen and felt to suggest to him, in an exposed unanimous conspiracy, that his status should be left to the general sense of others, ever so many others, who would sufficiently take care of it, and that such a fine rare case was accordingly as arguable as it possibly could be—with the pure, undischarged poetry of him and the latent presumption of his dying for his country the only things to gainsay it. The question was to a certain extent crude, "Why need he be a poet, why need he so specialise?" but if this was so it was only, it was already, sympromatic of the interesting final truth that he was to testify to his function in the unparalleled way. He was going to have the life (the unanimous conspiracy so far achieved that), was going to have it under no more formal guarantee than that of his appetite and genius for it; and this was to help us all to the complete appreciation of him. No single scrap of the English fortune at its easiest and truest—which means of course with every vulgarity dropped out—but was to brush him as by the readiest instinctive wing, never over-straining a point or achieving a miracle to do so; only trusting his exquisite imagination and temper to respond to the succession of his opportunities. It is in the light of what this succession could in the most natural and most familiar way in the world amount to for him that we find this idea of a beautiful crowning modernness above all to meet his case. The promptitude, the perception, the understanding, the quality of humour and sociability, the happy lapses in the logic of inward reactions (save for their all infallibly being poetic), of which he availed himself consented to be as illustrational as any fondest friend could wish, whether the subject of the exhibition was aware of the degree or not, and made his vivacity of vision, his exercise of fancy and irony, of observation at its freest, inevitable—while at the same time setting in motion no machinery of experience in which his curiosity, or in other words, the quickness of his familiarity, didn't move faster than anything else.
I owe to his intimate and devoted friend Mr Edward Marsh the communication of many of his letters, these already gathered into an admirable brief memoir which is yet to appear and which will give ample help in the illustrative way to the pages to which the present remarks form a preface, and which are collected from the columns of the London evening journal in which they originally saw the light. The "literary baggage" of his short course consists thus of his two slender volumes of verse and of these two scarcely stouter sheafs of correspondence—though I should add that the hitherto unpublished letters enjoy the advantage of a commemorative and interpretative commentary, at the Editor's hands, which will have rendered the highest service to each matter. That even these four scant volumes tell the whole story, or fix the whole image, of the fine young spirit they are concerned with we certainly hold back from allowing; his case being in an extraordinary degree that of a creature on whom the gods had smiled their brightest and half of whose manifestation therefore was by the simple act of presence and of direct communication. He did in fact specialise, to repeat my term; only since, as one reads him, whether in verse or in prose, that distinguished readability seems all the specialisation one need invoke, so when the question was of the gift that made of his face to face address a circumstance so complete in itself as apparently to cover all the ground, leaving no margin either, an activity to the last degree justified appeared the only name for one's impression. The moral of all which is doubtless that these brief, if at the same time very numerous, moments of his quick career formed altogether as happy a time, in as happy a place, to be born to as the student of the human drama has ever caught sight of—granting always, that is, that some actor of the scene has been thoroughly up to his part. Such was the sort of recognition, assuredly, under which Rupert played his—that of his lending himself to every current and contact, the "newer," the later fruit of time, the better; only this not because any particular one was an agitating revelation, but because with due sensibility, with a restless inward ferment, at the centre of them all, what could he possibly so much feel like as the heir of all the ages? I remember his originally giving me, though with no shade of imputable intention, the sense of his just being that, with the highest amiability—the note in him that, as I have hinted, one kept coming back to; so that during a long wait for another glimpse of him I thought of the practice and function so displayed as wholly engaging, took for granted his keeping them up with equal facility and pleasure. Nothing could have been more delightful accordingly, later on, in renewal of the personal acquaintance than to gather that this was exactly what had been taking place, and with an inveteracy as to which his letters are a full documentation. Whatever his own terms for the process might be had he been brought to book, and though the variety of his terms for anything and everything was the very play, and even the measure, of his talent, the most charmed and conclusive description of him was that no young man had ever so naturally taken on under the pressure of life the poetic nature, and shaken it so free of every encumbrance by simply wearing it as he wore his complexion or his outline.
That, then, was the way the imagination followed him with its luxury of confidence: he was doing everything that could be done in the time (since this was the modernest note), but performing each and every finest shade of these blest acts with a poetic punctuality that was only matched by a corresponding social sincerity. I recall perfectly my being sure of it all the while, even if with little current confirmation beyond that supplied by his first volume of verse; and the effect of the whole record is now to show that such a conclusion was quite extravagantly right. He was constantly doing all the things, and this with a reckless freedom, as it might be called, that really dissociated the responsibility of the precious character from anything like conscious domestic coddlement to a point at which no troubled young singer, none, that is, equally troubled, had perhaps ever felt he could afford to dissociate it. Rupert's resources for affording, in the whole connection, were his humour, his irony, his need, under every quiver of inspiration, toward whatever end, to be amused and amusing, and to find above all that this could never so much occur as by the application of his talent, of which he was perfectly conscious, to his own case. He carried his case with him, for purposes of derision as much as for any others, wherever he went, and how he went everywhere, thus blissfully burdened, is what meets us at every turn on his printed page. My only doubt about him springs in fact from the question of whether he knew that the earthly felicity enjoyed by him, his possession of the exquisite temperament linked so easily to the irrepressible experience, was a thing to make of the young Briton of the then hour so nearly the spoiled child of history that one wanted something in the way of an extra guarantee to feel soundly sure of him. I come back once more to his having apparently never dreamt of any stretch of the point of liberal allowance, of so-called adventure, on behalf of "development," never dreamt of any stretch but that of the imagination itself indeed—quite a different matter and even if it too were at moments to recoil; it was so true that the general measure of his world as to what it might be prompt and pleasant and in the day's work or the day's play to "go in for" was exactly the range that tinged all his education as liberal, the education the free design of which he had left so short a way behind him when he died.
Just there was the luck attendant of the coincidence of his course with the moment at which the proceeding hither and yon to the tune of almost any "happy thought," and in the interest of almost any branch of culture or invocation of response that might be more easily improvised than not, could positively strike the observer as excessive, as in fact absurd, for the formation of taste or the enrichment of genius, unless the principle of these values had in a particular connection been subjected in advance to some challenge or some test. Why should it take such a flood of suggestion, such a luxury of acquaintance and contact, only to make superficial specimens? Why shouldn't the art of living inward a little more, and thereby of digging a little deeper or pressing a little further, rather modestly replace the enviable, always the enviable, young Briton's enormous range of alternatives in the way of question-begging movement, the way of vision and of non-vision, the enormous habit of holidays? If one could have made out once for all that holidays were proportionately and infallibly inspiring one would have ceased thoughtfully to worry; but the question was as it stood an old story, even though it might freshly radiate, on occasion, under the recognition that the seed-smothered patch of soil flowered, when it did flower, with a fragrance all its own. This concomitant, however, always dangled, that if it were put to us, "Do you really mean you would rather they should not perpetually have been again for a look-in at Berlin, or an awfully good time at Munich, or a rush round Sicily, or a dash through the States to Japan, with whatever like rattling renewals?" you would after all shrink from the responsibility of such a restriction before being clear as to what you would suggest in its place. Rupert went on reading-parties from King's to Lulworth for instance, which the association of the two places, the two so extraordinarily finished scenes, causes to figure as a sort of preliminary flourish; and everything that came his way after that affects me as the blest indulgence in flourish upon flourish. This was not in the least the air, or the desire, or the pretension of it, but the unfailing felicity just kept catching him up, just left him never wanting nor waiting for some pretext to roam, or indeed only the more responsively to stay, doing either, whichever it might be, as a form of highly intellectualised "fun." He didn't overflow with shillings, yet so far as roving was concerned the practice was always easy, and perhaps the adorably whimsical lyric, contained in his second volume of verse, on the pull of Grantchester at his heartstrings, as the old vicarage of that sweet adjunct to Cambridge could present itself to him in a Berlin café, may best exemplify the sort of thing that was represented, in one way and another, by his taking his most ultimately English ease.
Whatever Berlin or Munich, to speak of them only, could do or fail to do for him, how can one not rejoice without reserve in the way he felt what he did feel as poetic reaction of the liveliest and finest, with the added interest of its often turning at one and the same time to the fullest sincerity and to a perversity of the most "evolved"?—since I can not dispense with that sign of truth. Never was a young singer either less obviously sentimental or less addicted to the mere twang of the guitar; at the same time that it was always his personal experience or his curious, his not a little defiantly excogitated, inner vision that he sought to catch; some of the odd fashion of his play with which latter seems on occasion to preponderate over the truly pleasing poet's appeal to beauty or cultivated habit of grace. Odd enough, no doubt, that Rupert should appear to have had well-nigh in horror the cultivation of grace for its own sake, as we say, and yet should really not have disfigured his poetic countenance by a single touch quotable as showing this. The medal of the mere pleasant had always a reverse for him, and it was generally in that substitute he was most interested. We catch in him reaction upon reaction, the succession of these conducing to his entirely unashamed poetic complexity, and of course one observation always to be made about him, one reminder always to be gratefully welcomed, is that we are dealing after all with one of the youngest quantities of art and character taken together that ever arrived at an irresistible appeal. His irony, his liberty, his pleasantry, his paradox, and what I have called his perversity, are all nothing if not young; and I may as well say at once for him that I find in the imagination of their turning in time, dreadful time, to something more balanced and harmonised, a difficulty insuperable. The self-consciousness, the poetic, of his so free figuration (in verse, only in verse, oddly enough) of the unpleasant to behold, to touch, or even to smell, was certainly, I think, nothing if not "self-conscious," but there were so many things in his consciousness, which was never in the least unpeopled, that it would have been a rare chance had his projection of the self that we are so apt to make an object of invidious allusion stayed out. What it all really most comes to, you feel again, is that none of his impulses prospered in solitude, or, for that matter, were so much as permitted to mumble their least scrap there; he was predestined and condemned to sociability, which no league of neglect could have deprived him of even had it speculatively tried: whereby what was it but his own image that he most saw reflected in other faces? It would still have been there, it couldn't possibly have succeeded in not being, even had he closed his eyes to it with elaborate tightness. The only neglect must have been on his own side, where indeed it did take form in that of as signal an opportunity to become "spoiled," probably, as ever fell in a brilliant young man's way: so that to help out my comprehension of the unsightly and unsavoury, sufficiently wondered at, with which his muse repeatedly embraced the occasion to associate herself, I take the thing for a declaration of the idea that he might himself prevent the spoiling so far as possible. He could in fact prevent nothing, the wave of his fortune and his favour continuing so to carry him; which is doubtless one of the reasons why, through our general sense that nothing could possibly not be of the last degree of rightness in him, what would have been wrong in others, literally in any creature but him, like for example "A Channel Passage" of his first volume, simply puts on, while this particular muse stands anxiously by, a kind of dignity of experiment quite consistent with our congratulating her, at the same time, as soon as it is over. What was "A Channel Passage" thus but a flourish marked with the sign of all his flourishes, that of being a success and having fruition? Though it performed the extraordinary feat of directing the contents of the poet's stomach straight at the object of his displeasure, we feel that, by some excellent grace, the object is not at all reached—too many things, and most of all, too innocently enormous a cynicism, standing in the way and themselves receiving the tribute; having in a word, impatient young cynicism as they are, that experience as well as various things.
No detail of Mr Marsh's admirable memoir may I allow myself to anticipate. I can only announce it as a picture, with all the elements in iridescent fusion, of the felicity that fairly dogged Rupert's steps, as we may say, and that never allowed him to fall below its measure. We shall read into it even more relations than nominally appear, and every one of them again a flourish, every one of them a connection with his time, a "sampling" of it at its most multitudinous and most characteristic; every one of them too a record of the state of some other charmed, not less than charming party—even when the letter-writer's expression of the interest, the amusement, the play of fancy, of taste, of whatever sort of appreciation or reaction for his own spirit, is the ostensible note. This is what I mean in especial by the constancy with which, and the cost at which, perhaps not less, for others, the poetic sensibility was maintained and guaranteed. It was as genuine as if he had been a bard perched on an eminence with a harp, and yet it was arranged for, as we may say, by the close consensus of those who had absolutely to know their relation with him but as a delight and who wanted therefore to keep him, to the last point, true to himself. His complete curiosity and sociability might have made him, on these lines, factitious, if it had not happened that the people he so variously knew and the contacts he enjoyed were just of the kind to promote most his facility and vivacity and intelligence of life. They were all young together, allowing for three or four notable, by which I mean far from the least responsive, exceptions; they were all fresh and free and acute and aware and in "the world," when not out of it; all together at the high speculative, the high talkative pitch of the initiational stage of these latest years, the informed and animated, the so consciously non-benighted, geniality of which was to make him the clearest and most projected poetic case, with the question of difficulty and doubt and frustration most solved, the question of the immediate and its implications most in order for him, that it was possible to conceive. He had found at once to his purpose a wondrous enough old England, an England breaking out into numberless assertions of a new awareness, into liberties of high and clean, even when most sceptical and discursive, young intercourse; a carnival of half anxious and half elated criticism, all framed and backgrounded in still richer accumulations, both moral and material, or, as who should say, pictorial, of the matter of course and the taken for granted. Nothing could have been in greater contrast, one cannot too much insist, to the situation of the traditional lonely lyrist who yearns for connections and relations yet to be made and whose difficulty, lyrical, emotional, personal, social or intellectual, has thereby so little in common with any embarrassment of choice. The author of the pages before us was perhaps the young lyrist, in all the annals of verse, who, having the largest luxury of choice, yet remained least "demoralised" by it—how little demoralised he was to round off his short history by showing.
It was into these conditions, thickening and thickening, in their comparative serenity, up to the eleventh hour, that the War came smashing down; but of the basis, the great garden ground, all green and russet and silver, all a tissue of distinguished and yet so easy occasions, so improvised extensions, which they had already placed at his service and that of his extraordinarily amiable and constantly enlarged "set" for the exercise of their dealing with the rest of the happy earth in punctuating interludes, it is the office of our few but precious documents to enable us to judge. The interlude that here concerns us most is that of the year spent in his journey round a considerable part of the world in 1913-1914, testifying with a charm that increases as he goes to that quest of unprejudiced culture, the true poetic, the vision of the life of man, which was to prove the liveliest of his impulses. It was not indeed under the flag of that research that he offered himself for the Army almost immediately after his return to England—and even if when a young man was so essentially a poet we need see no act in him as a prosaic alternative. The misfortune of this set of letters from New York and Boston, from Canada and Samoa, addressed, for the most part, to a friendly London evening journal is, alas, in the fact that they are of so moderate a quantity; for we make him out as steadily more vivid and delightful while his opportunity grows. He is touching at first, inevitably quite juvenile, in the measure of his good faith; we feel him not a little lost and lonely and stranded in the New York pandemonium—obliged to throw himself upon sky-scrapers and the overspread blackness pricked out in a flickering fury of imaged advertisement for want of some more interesting view of character and manners. We long to take him by the hand and show him finer lights—eyes of but meaner range, after all, being adequate to the gape at the vertical business blocks and the lurid sky-clamour for more dollars. We feel in a manner his sensibility wasted and would fain turn it on to the capture of deeper meanings. But we must leave him to himself and to youth's facility of wonder; he is amused, beguiled, struck on the whole with as many differences as we could expect, and sufficiently reminded, no doubt, of the number of words he is restricted to. It is moreover his sign, as it is that of the poetic turn of mind in general that we seem to catch him alike in anticipations or divinations, and in lapses and freshnesses, of experience that surprise us. He makes various reflections, some of them all perceptive and ingenious—as about the faces, the men's in particular, seen in the streets, the public conveyances and elsewhere; though falling a little short, in his friendly wondering way, of that bewildered apprehension of monotony of type, of modelling lost in the desert, which we might have expected of him, and of the question above all of what is destined to become of that more and more vanishing quantity the American nose other than Judaic.
What we note in particular is that he likes, to all appearance, many more things than he doesn't, and how superlatively he is struck with the promptitude and wholeness of the American welcome and of all its friendly service. What it is but too easy, with the pleasure of having known him, to read into all this is the operation of his own irresistible quality, and of the state of felicity he clearly created just by appearing as a party to the social relation. He moves and circulates to our vision as so naturally, so beautifully undesigning a weaver of that spell, that we feel comparatively little of the story told even by his diverted report of it; so much fuller a report would surely proceed, could we appeal to their memory, their sense of poetry, from those into whose ken he floated. It is impossible not to figure him, to the last felicity, as he comes and goes, presenting himself always with a singular effect both of suddenness and of the readiest rightness; we should always have liked to be there, wherever it was, for the justification of our own fond confidence and the pleasure of seeing it unfailingly spread and spread. The ironies and paradoxes of his verse, in all this record, fall away from him; he takes to direct observation and accepts with perfect good-humour any hazards of contact, some of the shocks of encounter proving more muffled for him than might, as I say, have been feared—witness the American Jew with whom he appears to have spent some hours in Canada; and of course the "word" of the whole thing is that he simply reaped at every turn the harmonising benefit that his presence conferred. This it is in especial that makes us regret so much the scanting, as we feel it, of his story; it deprives us in just that proportion of certain of the notes of his appearance and his "success." There was the poetic fact involved that, being so gratefully apprehended everywhere, his own response was inevitably prescribed and pitched as the perfect friendly and genial and liberal thing. Moreover, the value of his having so let himself loose in the immensity tells more at each step in favour of his style; the pages from Canada, where as an impressionist, he increasingly finds his feet, and even finds to the same increase a certain comfort of association, are better than those from the States, while those from the Pacific Islands rapidly brighten and enlarge their inspiration. This part of his adventure was clearly the great success and fell in with his fancy, amusing and quickening and rewarding him, more than anything in the whole revelation. He lightly performs the miracle, to my own sense, which R. L. Stevenson, which even Pierre Loti, taking however long a rope, had not performed; he charmingly conjures away—though in this prose more than in the verse of his second volume—the marked tendency of the whole exquisite region to insist on the secret of its charm, when incorrigibly moved to do so, only at the expense of its falling a little flat, or turning a little stale, on our hands. I have for myself at least marked the tendency, and somehow felt it point a graceless moral, the moral that as there are certain faces too well produced by nature to be producible again by the painter, the portraitist, so there are certain combinations of earthly ease, of the natural and social art of giving pleasure, which fail of character, or accent, even of the power to interest, under the strain of transposition or of emphasis. Rupert, with an instinct of his own, transposes and insists only in the right degree; or what it doubtless comes to is that we simply see him arrested by so vivid a picture of the youth of the world at its blandest as to make all his culture seem a waste and all his questions a vanity. That is apparently the very effect of the Pacific life as those who dip into it seek, or feel that they are expected to seek, to report it; but it reports itself somehow through these pages, smilingly cools itself off in them, with the lightest play of the fan ever placed at its service. Never, clearly, had he been on such good terms with the hour, never found the life of the senses so anticipate the life of the imagination, or the life of the imagination so content itself with the life of the senses; it is all an abundance of amphibious felicity—he was as incessant and insatiable a swimmer as if he had been a triton framed for a decoration; and one half makes out that some low-lurking instinct, some vague foreboding of what awaited him, on his own side the globe, in the air of so-called civilisation, prompted him to drain to the last drop the whole perfect negation of the acrid. He might have been waiting for the tide of the insipid to begin to flow again, as it seems ever doomed to do when the acrid, the saving acrid, has already ebbed; at any rate his holiday had by the end of the springtime of 1914 done for him all it could, without a grain of waste—his assimilations being neither loose nor literal, and he came back to England as promiscuously qualified, as variously quickened, as his best friends could wish for fine production and fine illustration in some order still awaiting sharp definition. Never certainly had the free poetic sense in him more rejoiced in an incorruptible sincerity.
He was caught up of course after the shortest interval by the strong rush of that general inspiration in which at first all differences, all individual relations to the world he lived in, seemed almost ruefully or bewilderedly to lose themselves. The pressing thing was of a sudden that youth was youth and genius community and sympathy. He plunged into that full measure of these things which simply made and spread itself as it gathered them in, made itself of responses and faiths and understandings that were all the while in themselves acts of curiosity, romantic and poetic throbs and wonderments, with reality, as it seemed to call itself, breaking in after a fashion that left the whole past pale, and that yet could flush at every turn with meanings and visions borrowing their expression from whatever had, among those squandered preliminaries, those too merely sportive intellectual and critical values, happened to make most for the higher truth. Of the successions of his matter of history at this time Mr Marsh's memoir is the infinitely touching record—touching after the fact, but to the accompaniment even at the time of certain now almost ineffable reflections; this especially, I mean, if one happened to be then not wholly without familiar vision of him. What could strike one more, for the immense occasion, than the measure that might be involved in it of desolating and heart-breaking waste, waste of quality, waste for that matter of quantity, waste of all the rich redundancies, all the light and all the golden store, which up to then had formed the very price and grace of life? Yet out of the depths themselves of this question rose the other, the tormenting, the sickening and at the same time the strangely sustaining, of why, since the offering couldn't at best be anything but great, it wouldn't be great just in proportion to its purity, or in other words its wholeness, everything in it that could make it most radiant and restless. Exquisite at such times the hushed watch of the mere hovering spectator unrelieved by any action of his own to take, which consists at once of so much wonder for why the finest of the fine should, to the sacrifice of the faculty we most know them by, have to become mere morsels in the huge promiscuity, and of the thrill of seeing that they add more than ever to our knowledge and our passion, which somehow thus becomes at the same time an unfathomable abyss.
Rupert, who had joined the Naval Brigade, took part in the rather distractedly improvised—as it at least at the moment appeared—movement for the relief of the doomed Antwerp, but was, later on, after the return of the force so engaged, for a few days in London, whither he had come up from camp in Dorsetshire, briefly invalided; thanks to which accident I had on a couple of occasions my last sight of him. It was all auspiciously, well-nigh extravagantly, congruous; nothing certainly could have been called more modern than all the elements and suggestions of his situation for the hour, the very spot in London that could best serve as a centre for vibrations the keenest and most various; a challenge to the appreciation of life, to that of the whole range of the possible English future, at its most uplifting. He had not yet so much struck me as an admirable nature en disponibilité and such as any cause, however high, might swallow up with a sense of being the sounder and sweeter for. More definitely perhaps the young poet, with all the wind alive in his sails, was as evident there in the guise of the young soldier and the thrice welcome young friend, who yet, I all recognisably remember, insisted on himself as little as ever in either character, and seemed even more disposed than usual not to let his intelligibility interfere with his modesty. He promptly recovered and returned to camp, whence it was testified that his specific practical aptitude, under the lively call, left nothing to be desired—a fact that expressed again, to the perception of his circle, with what truth the spring of inspiration worked in him, in the sense, I mean, that his imagination itself shouldered and made light of the material load. It had not yet, at the same time, been more associatedly active in a finer sense; my own next apprehension of it at least was in reading the five admirable sonnets that had been published in "New Numbers" after the departure of his contingent for the campaign at the Dardanelles. To read these in the light of one's personal knowledge of him was to draw from them, inevitably, a meaning still deeper seated than their noble beauty, an authority, of the purest, attended with which his name inscribes itself in its own character on the great English scroll. The impression, the admiration, the anxiety settled immediately—to my own sense at least—as upon something that would but too sharply feed them, falling in as it did with that whole particularly animated vision of him of which I have spoken. He had never seemed more animated with our newest and least deluded, least conventionalised life and perception and sensibility, and that formula of his so distinctively fortunate, his overflowing share in our most developed social heritage which had already glimmered, began with this occasion to hang about him as one of the aspects, really a shining one, of his fate.
So I remember irrepressibly thinking and feeling, unspeakably apprehending, in a word; and so the whole exquisite exhalation of his own consciousness in the splendid sonnets, attach whatever essentially or exclusively poetic value to it we might, baffled or defied us as with a sort of supreme rightness. Everything about him of keenest and brightest (yes, absolutely of brightest) suggestion made so for his having been charged with every privilege, every humour, of our merciless actuality, our fatal excess of opportunity, that what indeed could the full assurance of this be but that, finding in him the most charming object in its course, the great tide was to lift him and sweep him away? Questions and reflections after the fact perhaps, yet haunting for the time and during the short interval that was still to elapse—when, with the sudden news that he had met his doom, an irrepressible "of course, of course!" contributed its note well-nigh of support. It was as if the peculiar richness of his youth had itself marked its limit, so that what his own spirit was inevitably to feel about his "chance"—inevitably because both the high pitch of the romantic and the ironic and the opposed abyss of the real came together in it—required, in the wondrous way, the consecration of the event. The event came indeed not in the manner prefigured by him in the repeatedly perfect line, that of the received death-stroke, the fall in action, discounted as such; which might have seemed very much because even the harsh logic and pressure of history were tender of him at the last and declined to go through more than the form of their function, discharging it with the least violence and surrounding it as with a legendary light. He was taken ill, as an effect of blood-poisoning, on his way from Alexandria to Gallipoli, and, getting ominously and rapidly worse, was removed from his transport to a French hospital ship, where, irreproachably cared for, he died in a few hours and without coming to consciousness. I deny myself any further anticipation of the story to which further noble associations attach, and the merest outline of which indeed tells it and rounds it off absolutely as the right harmony would have it. It is perhaps even a touch beyond any dreamt-of harmony that, under omission of no martial honour, he was to be carried by comrades and devoted waiting sharers, whose evidence survives them, to the steep summit of a Greek island of infinite grace and there placed in such earth and amid such beauty of light and shade and embracing prospect as that the fondest reading of his young lifetime could have suggested nothing better. It struck us at home, I mean, as symbolising with the last refinement his whole instinct of selection and response, his relation to the overcharged appeal of his scene and hour. How could he have shown more the young English poetic possibility and faculty in which we were to seek the freshest reflection of the intelligence and the soul of the new generation? The generosity, I may fairly say the joy, of his contribution to the general perfect way makes a monument of his high rest there at the heart of all that was once noblest in history.
- There remain also to be published a book on John Webster and a prose play in one act.—E. M.