Some soldier poets/Rupert Brooke

Some soldier poets  (1920) 
Rupert Brooke

Rupert Brooke was beginning to be known both as a poet and for rare personal beauty when his death at the age of twenty-eight, on his way out to the Dardanelles, set him beside Sir Philip Sidney as scholar, soldier, poet and patriot.

There was a factitious element in this burst of acclamation, something we can hope the man himself would have responded less and less to. Though the beauty of his person and the daintiness of his verse and the gentleness of his manners made worldlings eager to spoil him, he was not averse to hard work, and maintained a certain reserve which augured a better future for him than that of a darling of fashion. He and his young Cambridge friends of both sexes seem to have cherished an ideal of free comradeship, and to have realised it in an uncommon degree without paying toll in scandals to the censorious world. In like manner his verse, though playful and ornamental, so toys with philosophical inquiries as to hint at latent resources of graver power. Such problems as whether any communions are possible, whether I can know you or you me, and whether existence is absolutely conditioned by time and space, are whimsically put and illustrated in such instances as a fish, or a single moment of one particular tea in a dining-room.

"Oh! never fly conceals a hook,
Fish say, in the Eternal Brook,
But more than mundane weeds are there,
And mud, celestially fair;
Fat caterpillars drift around,
And Paradisal grubs are found;
Unfading moths, immortal flies,
And the worm that never dies.
And in that heaven of all their wish,
There shall be no more land, say fish."

Only an arch levity saves this from being trite. I should have to quote too much before I could illustrate his amusement with the possible delusions of men's thoughts. But occasionally a serious shudder is glimpsed behind the smiling mask.

"And suddenly there's no meaning in our kiss
And your lit upward face grows, where we lie,
Lonelier and dreadfuller than sunlight is,
And dumb and mad and eyeless like the sky."

His sovran preoccupation, that which inspired his best poems, was the least suitable for one whom some have imagined cut out for the part of a modern Antinous, to whom the elite of London, both male and female, should corporately play the part of a platonic Hadrian. His thoughts flocked about death. At first he dallies with them.

"Oh! Death will find me, long before I tire
Of watching you; and swing me suddenly
Into the shade and loneliness and mire
Of the last land! There, waiting patiently,
One day, I think I'll find a cool wind blowing,
See a slow light across the Stygian tide,
And hear the dead about me stir, unknowing,
And tremble. And I shall know that you have died
And watch you, a broad-browed and smiling dream,
Pass light as ever, through the lightless host,
Quietly ponder, start, and sway, and gleam—
Most individual and bewildering ghost!—
And turn and toss your brown delightful head
Amusedly, among the ancient Dead."

But his contemplation of possible significance in life's end passes gradually into serener moods.

CLOUDS

Down the blue night the unending columns press
In noiseless tumult, break and wave and flow,
Now tread the far South, or lift rounds of snow
Up to the white moon's hidden loveliness.
Some pause in their grave wandering comradeless,
And turn with profound gesture vague and slow,
As who would pray good for the world, but know
Their benediction empty as they bless.
They say that the Dead die not, but remain
Near to the rich heirs of their grief and mirth.
I think they ride the calm mid-heaven, as these,
In wise majestic melancholy train,
And watch the moon and the still-raging seas,
And men, coming and going on the earth."

At last in his finest poem these reveries rise to an expression worthy of the classics of our language.


THE DEAD (1914)

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
In wandering loveliness. He leaves a white
Unbroken glory, a gathered radiance,
A width, a shining peace, under the night.[1]

The remoteness and impersonality of this sadness, with the wide horizon and unifying candour, compel our deepest welcome. The effort to startle, allure, or amuse has vanished. No doubt the devotion to England, dwelt on in the other sonnets of the 1914 sequence, won more of the praise; but some who acutely felt his charm were conscious of a falsetto emphasis in those efforts to say the right thing at the right moment, although his death had doubled their appeal.

Poems demand to be read aloud by someone who has instinctive sympathy for the pace, tone and address proper to each. For many the interest must at first, and perhaps long, lie in the mental attitude revealed. Nor is this attitude a small or insignificant part of the impression which ought to be made by poetry—the most perfect speech of man, as it has been called—that is, the utterance to which the greatest number of his faculties combined in harmonious balance contribute. The way the speaker has borne himself, and the way he now confronts the world, must influence this harmony profoundly. His words betray his past and present to those whose attention is sufficiently continuous and searching, by indices that lie around and beyond the mere meaning of the sentences used—indices gleaned from their interplay and the degree in which each alters and defines the whole sense, as much as from the melody of the words or the rhythm of their just enunciation. This aroma, which arises from the organism of the meaning, translators can often convey to other nations; for the beauties of diction and rhythm, many among those who speak the same tongue should accept the verdict of trained appreciators. Now melody and rhythm often engross trained apprehension, and the less learned may therefore be more ready to note the grave drift of wonder which flows beneath the playful, indulged and indulgent surface of Brooke's art, than were his æsthetic admirers. Those eyes which gaze out from behind his poems have been fascinated by the contrast between the momentousness of life to us, and our strangely casual relation to its vast movement, which is not at all suited to nourish our hopes of divining the whole truth. Those eyes seem to dance; for has not methodic inquiry begun to reconsider what it had denounced as entirely fabulous? Death's door, which Spencer, Renan and Nietzsche regarded as finally closed, is well-nigh ajar once more. Brooke's amused alertness is like that of a child who watches a door emphatically closed upon a cupboard declared to be empty by grown-up assurance; it creaks, and mysteriously seems to stir; other little boys and girls, his playmates, pay scant attention to its unaccountable behaviour. He himself thinks he has seen that the cupboard was vacant, and yet, in spite of himself, is fascinated by the possibility of a ghostly opener. Smiling over his own fancies, Brooke seems to have sat half abstracted at a pleasure party till the outbreak of war. He immediately volunteered, though delicate and but recently returned from a voyage across America and through the Pacific Islands in search of health—health which finally failed him before he had struck a blow or fired a shot, though he had been to Antwerp with the naval expedition.

To-day he stands with Julian Grenfell, as I see them through their work, in attitudes that suggest statues more worthy of the acropolis of the supreme city than any of those which the public figures of these times have yet assumed. What is done is always faulty, but what is intended may sometimes be divinely fair; and early death leaves this untampered with. Finely wrought bronze, these youths and their peers from other lands stand in that lofty garden above the ideal town, listening to their "friends" the trees. At their feet children play on the grass, and young girls crumble bread to lure doves down from the heroic shoulders; while for the men who glance at them in passing the inspiration of their bearing is all that remains of the Great War. The ardent Grenfell leaps forward; Brooke with smiling grace escapes from the uncomfortable admiration of a bygone age—both bent on grasping by the hand their new and best friend, Death.

  1. Quotations by permission of Brooke's literary representative, E. Marsh, Esq.