The Short Life of Rupert Brooke

by Maggie B. Dickinson

On the Greek Island of Skyros, its shores lapped with Byron’s “wine-dark sea”, is a lonely grave.  Buried here is Rupert Chawner Brooke – writer, poet and playwright. Strikingly good-looking, he was described by the Irish poet W.B. Yeats as “the most handsome young man in England.”

Despite only a single book of his poems being published during his lifetime in 1911, he posthumously achieved a cult status that refuses to go away after almost a century.  It is evidence enough of how much the talented Brooke ploughed into the quality of his work in the twenty seven years of his life and leaves little doubt that had he lived he would have left an enviable legacy of superb writing.

From the outset he was privileged, not least by being born into an well-off academic family on August 3rd 1887 at 5 Hillmorton Road, Rugby in Warwickshire. His father was housemaster at School Field, Rugby Public School, and after being tutored at home by a governess, Rupert entered Hillbrow Prep School for four years before moving into School Field in 1901, where he excelled academically.

Rugby football was invented at this famous English school but regardless of the boy’s prowess at the sport, and also at cricket and other athletics, he did not have a strong constitution. Many of his constant health problems seemed to have stemmed from a weak immune system and in 1904, after a bout of illness, he spent a couple of months recuperating at the villa of parental friends near Genoa.

The prolonged convalescence in Italy gave him an opportunity to write for the school magazine,The Phoenix, and in 1905 Brooke won the school poetry prize. Influenced by his grandfather, and also by Robert Browning and Hillaire Belloc, he had shown a flair for the subject since the age of nine which was not unusual in a school such as Rugby which has a long tradition of producing poets and writers of note, like Matthew Arnold and Lewis Carroll.

The following year he won a scholarship and went up to King’s College, Cambridge where his uncle was the Dean.  Here he read Classics followed by English Literature and became involved with the Marlowe Dramatic Society.

In 1909 – the year he gained his Classical Tripos – he left his rooms there for the peace and quiet of the nearby small village of Grantchester, three miles up the River Cam, with its thatched cottages and lovely old church. Here he lodged at Orchard House with the Stevenson family who owned the Orchard Tea Rooms and where his accommodation, meals, and use of the garden, cost him thirty shillings a week.

Instead of the solitude which he craved, his charisma and personality were magnets, making him a leading figure in a group dubbed neo-Pagans by fellow member and childhood friend, Virginia Woolf.  As a consequence “The Orchard” unwittingly became the venue for like-minded free thinkers and literary movers and shakers.

This academic clique had a penchant for naturism, the great outdoors and a Bohemian way of life which included walking barefoot, hiking, and taking refreshments under the apple trees.  Rupert was also fond of bathing in the river in the moonlight, naked; sometimes with Ms. Woolf.

Whilst in Cambridge and Grantchester he formed attachments with folk from a Who’s Who of literature and other faculties, like Lytton and James Strachey, Geoffrey and Maynard Keynes, E M Forster and the great philosopher, logician and Nobel prizewinner, Bertrand Russell.  The gifted nomadic painter Augustus John and Russell’s pupil Ludwig Wittgenstein frequently joined the group.

At Rugby, Rupert had become friendly with Hugh Dalton, who was later appointed the Chancellor of the Exchequer under Clement Atlee.  With Dalton he helped form the Carbonari society where members’ varied discussions included poetry and politics. Around this time he developed a keen interest in socialism as well as the theatre and became President of the University Fabian Society.

His friend Edward (Eddie) Marsh (whose influence led Brooke to become a member of the select Dymock Poets) was Winston Churchill’s private secretary. He opened many doors for him, and once he became a member of the Bloomsbury Group he was able to rank Henry James and Winston Churchill amongst his personal friends.  It was Churchill who later penned Brooke’s obituary for The Times.

In 1910 his father died, and Rupert went through another period of illness after which he got orders to vacate his accommodation with the Stevensons who had tired of the barefooted, scantily-clad crowd.  Fortunately, he managed to acquire alternative lodgings next door at the Old Vicarage where the Neve family welcomed the income from Brooke to supplement their honey production.

His gorgeous features, long hair and romantic eyes capitulated with a physique honed by athletics guaranteed his attraction to others, but his private life was never straightforward and often mentally painful. Through the Fabian Society he had met Ka (Katherine) Cox with whom he later had an affair which resulted in her miscarrying his child.  Another great love, when he was twenty one years old, was Noel Olivier, whose father was the Govenor of Jamaica. She promised to marry him but she was only fifteen at the time and in due course his path steered away from hers. Later he would fall in love with, and part from, several more women.

Rupert travelled more than most of his contemporaries, especially to locations that were to provide him with inspiration for his writing.  Whilst in England he frequently accompanied friends to the area of Lulworth Cove in Dorset, the New Forest in Hampshire and the county of Sussex, all of which – along with foreign locations – were places which influenced his poetry.

It was in Lulworth at the end of 1911 that he suffered a breakdown. This followed intense months of work as he prepared his Fellowship dissertation and brought Poems 1911to publication, and also resulted from his conflicting feelings over Ka Cox.

For much of the next two years, although nominally living at the Old Vicarage, he travelled first to France and Germany and then lived in London for a while before touring North America and the South Pacific, having been commissioned to write a series of articles on his impressions of the USA and Canada for the Westminster Gazette.

In May 1912 he wrote The Old Vicarage, Grantchester in his favourite cafe in Berlin, the Cafe des Westens, during a bout of homesickness and nostalgia for the village.  It includes the famous lines:

“Say, is there beauty yet to find?
And certainty? and quiet kind?
Deep meadows yet, for to forget
The lies, and truths, and pain?…oh! yet
Stands the church clock at ten to three?
And is there honey still for tea?”

In the same year he was also awarded the Fellowship of King’s College for his work on John Webster.  With Eddie Marsh he also contributed to an anthology, Georgian Poetry 1911-1912.

After fulfilling his journalistic commission to the United States he took a break in the South Seas where, in January 1914, he visited Mataia and met a beautiful local girl, Taatamata, with whom he was reputed to have a daughter he never met. Some of his best poems were written here including Tiare Tahiti.  His great love is the Mamua in one of its verses :

“Hasten hand in human hand
Down the dark, the flowered way,
Along the whiteness of the sand,
And in the water’s soft caress
Wash the mind of foolishness
Mamua, until the day.”

He arrived in England at the outbreak of WWI, volunteering for active service and, as befitted his class and education, received a commission as Sub-Lieutenant in the Hood Battalion of the Royal Naval Voluntary Reserve.

On February 28th 1915, after a spell in Amsterdam and Blandford Camp in Dorset, he sailed with the British Mediterranean Expeditionary Force for Gallipoli, calling in at Port Said.  Here he suffered from sunstroke, had an attack of dysentry and was bitten on the lip by a mosquito.  To all accounts he was so under par that he should never have left for Gallipoli.

As they headed through the Aegean Ocean his condition worsened and he died at 4.20pm on April 23rd of septicaemia. As the Force had orders to depart immediately, he was buried that same evening by moonlight on Skyros in a simple grave bearing a wooden cross a mile from the sea. Three volleys were fired and a young bugler sounded the last post.

At the end of the war, which claimed another of her sons, Rupert’s mother commissioned the present white marble grave.  It is inscribed with a fitting epitaph written with his own pen – the fifth of his War Sonnets entitled The Soldier.

“If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.”

Thus this “corner of a foreign field”  became his last resting place amongst mauve flowering thyme in the loveliest of olive groves, overlooked by mountains.

The Soldier, along with his other sonnets, was published and revered even before Brooke set off to war, never to arrive at his destination, being read out to the congregation of St Paul’s Cathedral in London – news of which must have delighted him as he sailed purposefully towards the front line.

A few years ago, I was travelling to Suffolk on a business trip and after a lengthy drive, I stopped off for a late lunch in Cambridge.  As I ate I watched students punting up river, as they have done since time immemorial, and browsed the map for a suitable route to my destination for the night. Suddenly, the word Grantchester jumped off the page.

I couldn’t leave the area without checking out Brooke’s village, so I stole a couple of hours from my schedule and turned the nose of the car in its direction.  It was a thrill to discover that The Orchard Tea Room was, and still is, a thriving institution.  On the outdoor wall of its wooden pavilion a large photograph showed Rupert Brooke and his neo-Pagan chums, sitting in striped deckchairs, taking tea under the apple trees.  As I turned to walk away, it was as though time had stood still. Nearly a century later the scene hadn’t changed at all, including the striped deck chairs: only the players were different.

Next door at the Old Vicarage now live Lord (Jeffrey) Archer (whose novels include Kane and Abel and Shall We Tell the President) and his wife Dr. Mary Archer, herself an expert on Brooke. This summer former Prime Minister Baroness Thatcher unveiled a lifesize statue of Rupert Brooke in the Archers’ garden at Grantchester.  They had commissioned sculptor Paul Day, who produced the Battle of Britain Monument on London’s Embankment, to create it.  Appropriately the Union Jack was removed at 2.50, on the 11th of June – the couple’s 40th wedding anniversary.

I would have liked the clock at St. Andrew and St. Mary to have been fixed on “ten to three”, but that would have been asking too much. As it was, I stared at the timepiece made famous by Rupert Brooke until the magic moment  came and went, and then headed back to The Orchard.

In age-old tradition, I ordered a teapot of tea and a buttered scone which I partook from my striped deckchair in the shade of the old apple trees, with Cambridge students on either hand.  But I passed on the honey.

Maggie B Dickinson lives in North West England and has written for magazines, websites and radio on travel, humour, long-distance footpaths, history and literature.  In 2005 her essay “A Coat of Paint” was published by the writers’ ezine AbsoluteWrite in the US anthology “Stories of Strength”, the proceeds of which go to the disaster relief charities involved with Hurricane Katrina victims.  In the spring of 2007 a US anthology “Voices of Alzheimer’s” will contain an essay she has written from her own experience of caring for her late husband who suffered from early-onset dementia.


The Rupert Brooke Society in Grantchester

The Orchard, Grantchester

Rupert Brooke’s Grave

Recommend0 recommendationsPublished in Articles

Related Articles