The handsomest young man... in Portsmouth
Portsmouth Grammar School archivist and city historian JOHN SADDEN recalls the idealistic poet who wanted to die.
In mid-November 1914, three months into the First World War, the Nelson Battalion of the Royal Naval Division was posted to Portsmouth.
Sub-Lieutenant Rupert Brooke (pictured below) was not happy. His frustration at not being sent immediately to fight in France led to him consider transferring to the army.
The poet, described by Yeats as ‘the handsomest young man in England’, had witnessed the siege of Antwerp but had not taken part in any fighting, and his youthful impatience was mounting.
He believed the English needed a salutary blooding. ‘There’s a ghastly sort of apathy over half the country,’ he wrote, ‘and I really think large numbers of male people don’t want to die. Which is odd. I’ve been praying for a German raid…’
But patriotism was not the only passion that motivated Brooke’s apparent desire to fight and to die.
As ‘the golden boy’ of the Bloomsbury group he had expressed his bisexuality with fellow members but had been unable to escape feelings of profound guilt and shame. He rejected Bloomsbury, suffered a nervous breakdown and, by the time war broke out, was expressing his desire for death as the only resolution to his inner conflict.
Brooke’s 1914 sonnet sequence, written during that bleak and colourful, tub-thumping autumn, shows a romantic desire for death. Death as a means of purification echoed those calls of the jingoists, the politicians, the newspaper editors and others who were too old or considered themselves too valuable to die themselves, but who willed, like Brooke, a ‘salutary blooding’ for the nation.
Despite the fact that half a million men had volunteered to fight in the first five weeks of war, the feeling persisted that the nation was suffering from apathy and needed a good purge. A healthy loss of British lives would boost recruitment.
But Brooke’s letters reveal that, when war broke out, he actually tried to become a war correspondent. If fighting the war with words was his aim, then there is little doubt that he did his bit, albeit posthumously.
His idealistic war poetry denied the realities of war and drew many young men to join up and go to their own deaths.
Brooke then joined up and, once in uniform, the sobering news of school friends’ deaths – the blooding had begun - appears to have tempered his own desire to die.
In a letter written from Portsmouth on November 20, Brooke expresses the hope that he will survive the war: ‘I’ll have such a lot to say and do afterwards. Just now I’m rather miserable because most of my school friends are wounded, or “wounded and missing” or dead. Perhaps our sons will live the better for it all.’
The following day, he wrote again to Lady Eileen Wellesley (with whom he was in an uncomplicated sexual relationship) describing his training at the Royal Naval Barracks.
‘I’ve been on the Range with Maxims, for four hours, in a wind far more unkind than human ingratitude. That never made me blush so – not even my own. I wish you could come and cool my cheeks.’
Brooke described how his battalion was ‘standing by’ at Portsmouth. ‘Do you know what that means? Nobody has leave. I can’t go, tomorrow, to lunch with people a few miles away. For at any time we may be called to... Norfolk, to repel the Germans. They’re expected hourly.’
By the end of November, Brooke’s ‘short spree’ at Portsmouth (as he described his sojourn in a letter to friend and fellow poet, Walter de la Mare) was at an end.
Along with other officers of Nelson Battalion, Brooke was transferred to the Hood Battalion and sent for further training to Dorset. There he was put in charge of a 30-man platoon and, in February 1915, sailed for Gallipoli with the British Mediterranean Expeditionary Force. But, en route, before he was able to die a soldier’s death in the Gallipoli bloodbath, Brooke developed sepsis from an infected mosquito bite and died on April 23, 1915.
Brooke’s volume of poetry, 1914 was published the following month and captured the mood of the moment, or at least of a perception of England just before the deluge. His sonnet The Soldier gained popular currency though his romantic view fell from favour as real war poets like Sassoon, Owen and Graves began to tell it as it was.
Brooke’s verse was exposed as naïve and sentimental and his lyrical war myth was ripe for debunking.
Brooke was buried in an olive grove on Skyros, a suitably romantic location far removed from the mud and slaughter of other foreign fields.
In his letter to Lady Eileen Wellesley from Portsmouth, dated November 21, 1914, Brooke reflected on his best school friend being ‘wounded and missing’ and went on to imagine, ‘a hundred years hence they’ll say, ‘‘What an age that must have been!’’ What’ll we care? Fools!’