Rupert Brooke: The Soldier Poet
Who was Rupert Brooke?
Born in Rugby on August 3rd 1887, Brooke was the son of a schoolmaster. He was educated first at Rugby, before winning a scholarship to King’s College Cambridge. He later wrote for The Westminster Gazette whilst he travelled the world but he is most famously remembered as a poet, particularly as the author of The Soldier.
“The handsomest young man in England”
During his first year up at King’s, Brooke’s performance as the Herald in Eumenides won him many admirers. He was famous for his looks and enjoyed attention from many men and women, and he is known to have loved and bedded both sexes.
After some fairly innocent romantic entanglements with boys at school and later relationships with Noel Olivier and Ka Cox, towards the end of his life he pursued the actress Cathleen Nesbitt. His friends, some of who were also admirers, included Edward Marsh, James Strachey, Francis Darwin and Virginia Woolf.
After completing his degree, Brooke continued to live near Cambridge in the small village of Grantchester whilst he worked towards a fellowship and prepared his first collection of poetry. He lived at The Old Vicarage and later next door at The Orchard, which is today famous for its tea rooms and the many notable people who have visited there.
In Grantchester Brooke would walk around barefoot, swim naked in the river and he adopted a vegetarian lifestyle. He painted himself as a child of nature and often went camping or rambling with his friends, who called themselves the Neo-Pagans. Those days are often thought of as one long golden summer before the war, but Brooke was by no means always happy.
After suffering a nervous breakdown in 1913, which was caused in part by sexual confusion, Brooke travelled to America and Canada where he wrote articles for The Westminster Gazette. When that was done he travelled on to South East Asia, stopping at Hawaii, Samoa and Tahiti, where he met Taatamata, a native woman with whom he had the most passionate relationship of his life and possibly fathered a child.
It was June 1914 when he returned and war was brewing. Brooke met Winston Churchill through Edward Marsh and he used that connection to get himself into the Navy. His first posting, after just weeks in uniform, was to Antwerp in Belgium, where he was moved by the plight of the civilians there. This was very early in the war and when Brooke returned to England to complete his training he, and his poetry, were full of patriotism.
It was at this time, during the last months of his life, that Brooke wrote his most famous poem, The Soldier. Little did he know he would see no more conflict, or that its success and his own death would shortly make him a legend.
It was on his way to Gallipoli that Brooke died on 23rd April 1915 from sepsis caused by an infected insect bite. He was buried on the island of Skyros by his friends and fellow officers, who themselves all died in combat only a fortnight after.
Brooke’s obituary appeared in The Times a few days later, written by Marsh and Churchill, who said of the poet, “he was all that one would wish England's noblest sons to be.” Today Brooke is not so fondly remembered. Georgian poetry is not highly regarded and The Soldier has been eclipsed by the anti-war poetry of the period, written by the likes of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. However, there was a time when both those poets had wished to write in his style and achieve his success.