This weekend a wonderful item came into my possession. My Aunt runs a local charity shop and generally saves me anything Great War related that comes in. My heart soared when I found among a large pile of books an old edition of ‘The Complete Works of Rupert Brooke’
Whilst many people may not have heard of him, like many great literary figures, his words precede his name…
If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England…
Three lines from what is a two verse sonnet – ‘The Soldier’ – that Brooke wrote whilst on leave in 1914 after his experiences serving in the BEF taking part in the evacuation of Antwerp (which it’s worth noting was a reasonably bloodless action compared to much of what was to come on the Western Front.)
Brooke was a poet and writer before the war, educated at Rugby, he was a handsome yet deeply troubled man. Like many of the famous Romantics, he is remembered as a sensitive and complex soul with a wanderlust and thirst for breaking free of the Victorian sensibilities that restricted his forefathers. As with all the Great War poets, his life and service have over the years become mythologised. Poet, playboy, socialist, patriot.. scoundrel even. Brooke as a man is someone who I gravitate towards, probably because I have from a young age been drawn towards the dead romantics and others – the stories and verse of Keats and Yeats, Shelley and Byron speak to some of us louder than others. Really though, with Brooke, none of this matters. Not his connections to Churchill or Asquith, not his political or romantic persuasions, simply his words. Just five sonnets: (I) Peace, (II) Safety, (III) The Dead, (IV) The Dead, (V) The Solider.
Though written at a time when the war was in its relative infancy, the words became ever more powerful as the conflict progressed, until those of ‘The Solider’, in particular took on a meaning that resonates far beyond the Great War.
Brooke did not die in combat, he in fact died of sepsis as a result of a mosquito bite that he received whilst en route to the Dardanelles in 1915. Rather poetically closely mirroring the death of Byron some 91 years previous.
My favourite sonnet, IV. The Dead, is written with an air of reflection about the war that only seems to gain meaning as the years pass.
IV. The Dead.
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.
So look at my wonderful book. Not only does it contain a lot of beautiful poetry but it was in a past life ‘a token of friendship’ and in the back I found a dried rose. A book which tells three stories – that of the words written within, that of the author and that perhaps of the previous owner.