God, I will pack, and take a train,
And get me to England once again!
For England’s the one land, I know,
Where men with Splendid Hearts may go!
And Cambridgeshire, of all England,
The Shire for Men who Understand;
And of that district I prefer
The lovely hamlet Grantchester…
Rupert Brooke, The Old Vicarage, Grantchester
One of my students told me she intended to go to Grantchester this weekend. I hope she did – not so much for the weather, which was at best fair-to-middling, as for the anniversary she will unwittingly have marked – the 100th anniversary, plus a couple of days, of the death of the poet Rupert Brooke.
Rupert Brooke was the darling of his age (for a restricted social set, at any rate), an able if unexceptional poet of the Georgian school,also associated with the Bloomsbury group, who captured the early enthusiasm for the Great War in a series of rather jingoistic sonnets, and then sealed his legend by dying, like Byron, in Greece, en route to Gallipoli to fight the Turks.
And somewhat like Byron, too, he was considered the great beauty of his generation (I do not know that Byron was regarded as beautiful so much as highly competent in matters of love; and Byron was a very great poet, to be clear, which Brooke was not). Virginia Woolf boasted to Vita Sackville-West of having gone skinny dipping with him, and if he broke endless hearts, both male and female, he also had his own broken, famously, in 1912, by Katherine Laird Cox. It was while he was recuperating from the breakdown that followed the break-up that he wrote his whimsical The Old Vicarage, Granchester, lamenting his isolation in Berlin (where ‘Tulips bloom as they are told’) while, in May, Grantchester was at its finest.
His death was not martial: he contracted sepsis from an infected mosquito bite and died on the Greek island of Skyros at 4:46 pm on 23rd April 1915. (But hadn’t Byron, too, died of fever, at Missalongi?) However his death came about, Brooke, only twenty-seven years old, passed into a legend strangely at odds with, but no less lasting than that of his fellow Great War poets, Owen, Graves and Sassoon.
I will find out today if my student went up the river to pay her respects. But I notice that King’s College, Cambridge has just paid half a million pounds for the last substantial collection of documents relating to Rupert Brooke still in private hands. The legend continues.