Cultural Capital Gallery | Cultural Contributors: Rupert Brooke [1887-1915], Poet & Cultural Icon
|Poet Rupert Brooke, remembered for such verses as "Stands the Church clock at ten to three? / And is there honey still for tea?" and "If I should die, think only this of me:/ That there's some corner of a foreign field / That is for ever England." was a much more complex figure than his boyish image would suggest. His local associations with Bournemouth and area are equally unknown to most people.|
Grantchester Dene Years
On a house in Dean Park Road in north Bournemouth is a plaque which states “Here Rupert Brooke, 1888-1915, Discovered Poetry.” Rupert spent his summer holidays here, at his grandfather’s and aunts’ house, between 1896 and 1907, when he was attending first Rugby School and then Cambridge U. He also stayed there, with the one surviving aunt, Fanny, as an adult when recovering from an illness, and made ‘duty call’ visits there right up to the final year of his life.
Not much detail is known of his early formative period in Bournemouth staying with his grandfather and two maiden aunts, Lizzie and Fanny. His grandfather, the Rector of Bath, had recently retired and moved to Bournemouth, acquiring the house at what was then 12 Littledown Road, which was named or renamed Grantchester Dene. The suffix Dene, from the Anglo-Saxon for a small vale, is a common one for houses and hotels in the town, but the coincidence of name Grantchester between the house and the Cambridge village where Rupert would live from 1909 on remains unexplained.
Christopher Hassall's 1964 biography says Brooke got interested in poetry in Bournemouth, the year before he began his formal schooling, on finding a book of verse by Robert Browning (who also grew up in an evangelical household). This transformed his earlier view of verse as 'merely the way they used to write hymns'. The earlier view may reflect the fact his two aunts were high-church types. In a letter he wrote his first year staying at Grantchester Dene, he describes them as ‘two faded but religious aunts’. He would have accompanied them to Holy Trinity Church*, the town’s now-demolished Anglican high church where Aunt Fanny, who would be longest-living of the house’s three adults, was honorary secretary of the Church Missionary Society. He described the domestic scene:
(The reference to the Scandinavian playwright Ibsen is unexplained – presumably he meant it was a gloomy household populated by characters so repressed, uncommunicative and hard of hearing that they had lost the art of normal conversation.) It’s possible the Browning volume was his grandfather’s, but by the time Rupert began writing such social commentary in 1905 [age 18], the grandfather seems to have already died, for references are only to the two aunts (and later to only one, who outlived Rupert).
The earliest reference we seem to have to his Bournemouth stays is his sardonic 1906 comment: ‘I have been in this quiet place of invalids and gentlemanly sunsets for about 100 years, ever since yesterday week.’ Towards the end of his stays here, we can detect the budding writer’s self-conscious image in a letter from 1907 (when he was 19 and about to enter Cambridge U.) headed ‘Bournemouth, South of France’. He was one of many who made comparisons with the French Riviera, based on the town’s mix of pine and palm trees and mild weather. ('Here in the south it is hot. In the mornings I bathe, in the afternoons lie out in a hammock among the rose beds, and watch them playing croquet… I linger here and read . . . the weather is very fine.’)
Rupert seems to have originally sent down here to recuperate from one of his regular illnesses. The town’s health-spa identity also suited his own youthful identity posing as the lonely melancholy wanderer in a 19th-century French novel. He wrote to Bloomsbury friend and future economist John Maynard Keynes of 'This strange place, which is full of moaning pines and impressionist but quite ungentlemanly sunsets. With other decrepit and grey-haired invalids, I drift wanly along the cliffs'. The town’s invalid-spa aspect also evoked the youthful Romantic’s fascination with imagining one’s own death. He worried that instead of dying romantically in France, (where he had hoped to holiday) while a friend read Baudelaire to him in his dying moments, “now alas! I shall expire vulgarly at Bournemouth, and they will bury me on the shore, near the bandstand."
The ‘Baudelaire’ he was reading in Bournemouth, the ambitious succes-de-scandale
verse cycle Les Fleurs du Mal, inspired his first known writing, evidently a surrealist
prose novel, title unknown. It does not survive, is not referred to later and was likely never
finished, but in his letter he describes it as ‘an enormous romance of which I have written
five chapters’. Given the Baudelaire poem inspiration and a few details cited in his letter,
the label romance is not used in its modern sense. It opens, he says: "The moon was
like an enormous yellow scab on the livid flesh of some leper. One of the characters is a ‘dropsical’
leper whose features are subsumed into ‘one vast soft paunch’ like ‘a great
human slug’ and who ‘croaks infamous little songs’. The other characters,
he adds, "are less respectable." It’s obviously designed, in the phrase
used by the French Decadent poets like Baudelaire and Rimbaud, pour épater la bourgeoisie,
to shock respectable bourgeois types (maiden aunts, perhaps?) with shocking surreal imagery.
(See inset note opposite on the Decadent movement.)
New Forest Freedom
Bournemouth To Lulworth
The Neo-Pagan Camp-Outs
At Easter 1910, Brooke stayed with
two other Neo-Pagans, brothers James and Lytton Strachey, at West Lulworth’s Cove Cottage,
writing: “At length I am escaped from the world’s great snare. This is heaven.
Downs, hens, cottages and the sun. All morning I souse myself in Elizabethan plays; and every
afternoon I walk up perpendicular places alone for hours.”
A sample of Rupert's handwriting,
from January 1911, shows how erratic he was.
Rupert As Dramatist: Greed
And Murder In The Forest
Escape And Return
He had earlier spoken of reinventing himself - “go to a new place and a new individuality”. However he returned to England, keeping quiet however about the affair, and the war overtook any plans he might have had for a return trip. He came back to a Europe heading for a disastrous war into which he was soon drawn, leading ironically to his best-known poem [illustrated right] and officially-promoted public image as a self-sacrificing public-school sort typical of his generation.
Brooke, pictured here in his Bohemian phase with his floppy Hugh Grant hair, was named "the
handsomest man in England" by the poet Yeats. This would become the title of a 1967 photo-album
book, by Michael Hastings, about the poet and his circle. He would become a pin-up or poster
boy for the generation of fair youth swept away in the 1914-18 war.
The stone plaque on the house called
Grantchester Dene in north Bournemouth, erected privately in 1965, has his birth-year wrong,
and press reports of the unveiling say the original dedication also got his military unit wrong.
Little was known about the poet's life until recently; trustees kept back most of his correspondence
to stop 'sensitive' info about his private life becoming public.
Bournemouth's High Church
One of the writers we previously covered in our Cultural Capital series, Grantley Berkeley, complained Victorian Bournemouth was a nest of High-church Anglicans. The town had a large, now-demolished, Victorian High Church which stood on Old Christchurch Road, towards Lansdowne, with an enormous tower over looking what is the town’s high street. It was closed in 1973 and then demolished, but was a major presence in the town’s Anglican high-church identity. Brooke did not write of it, perhaps due to his aunts’ involvement, but one of his contemporaries did, in an influential novel of the pre-WW1 period. Sinister Street (US title Youth's Encounter) by Sir Compton Mackenzie (best-known for Whisky Galore) based on his 3-month stay in 1899-1900 at a Westcliff ‘spa’ hotel after being diagnosed as suffering from nervous strain.
In Ch. V, "Incense," the bored 14-year old Michael Fane, on family holidays at a Bournemouth boarding-house circa 1898, is impressed by a visit to Christchurch Priory, and seeks out a High Church in Bournemouth (which would in reality be Holy Trinity Church, which Rupert attended). In Ch. XIII "Sentiment," Michael returns circa 1901, when he finds the local High Church has lost its magic. The novel also describes the resort around the time Brooke was staying at his aunts’ house.
Brooke himself lists his boyhood favourite authors as "Kipling, Boothby, Sherlock Holmes." Boothby would be the prolific thriller writer Guy Boothby (1867-1905), best-known for his Fu Manchu style 'Dr Nikola' series. Like Brooke, he visited Bournemouth from 1895. He moved here in 1904, to Red Lodge in Parsonage Rd, where he bred dogs, horses and cattle, then Winsley Lodge in Boscombe, where he died of flu age 38.
Bournemouth And The Decadents
One of the original Decadents, the youthful poet Rimbaud’s mentor and lover Paul Verlaine, in one of those truth-is-stranger-than-fiction turns of fate, had been a schoolmaster in Bournemouth. Verlaine had come here in the 1870s after being imprisoned for shooting Rimbaud in the wrist in a fit of jealousy. Rimbaud then abandoned poetry and became a soldier of fortune in the Mediterranean, dying age 37.
Brooke’s correspondent to whom he mentioned Baudelaire was a poet who would later become editor of The Oxford Book Of French Verse, but whether Brooke was aware of Verlaine’s local connection is unclear. Ronald Firbank’s 1915 literary-satire novel Vainglory has him in it as “Winsome Brooks” and another character in it has just written “a poem of fifty sheets, on Verlaine at Bournemouth,” so his 1870s stay here was certainly known about in Brooke’s lifetime. (Verlaine himself had published two poems about the town.)
Biographies also say Brooke liked Aubrey Beardsley as he "caricatured Humanity" and he owned a pair of his prints, and hence may also have known of the doomed youthful artist’s 1890s stay here in Bournemouth, the year before his death of TB age 25. (It's sometimes speculated Beardsley like Verlaine may have "got religion" here - wanting to escape his own career and reputation as a Decadent associate of Oscar Wilde another Bournemouth visitor of the time, who would end up in prison like Verlaine, as punishment for his ‘sordid’ Decadent lifestyle.)
The New Forest was Brooke's favourite corner of England for nature rambles, originally while staying with his school pals, whose family had a house at Brockenhurst. After those stays ended, he returned on walking tours and camp-outs. It was his ‘Arcady’. He noted, “I went dancing and leaping through the New Forest, with £3 and a satchel full of books, sleeping and eating anywhere”. It also proved ideal for Neo-Pagan purposes, offering many sites with privacy for their camp-outs, which sometimes included nude swims.
James Strachey, brother of the biographer Lytton Strachey (one of the Bloomsbury set) was perhaps Rupert's most long-lasting companion, so his correspondence offers insight into his life. Strachey survived the war as a conscientious objector and became a psychiatrist, working with Freud as a translator.
The Neo-Pagans: Friendship And Love In The Rupert Brooke Circle (1987), by Canadian university professor Paul Delany, who has just published a centenary biography of Brooke, Fatal Glamour, was first to document these pre-war literary camp-outs.
Despite appearances, there was little or no premarital sex involved. As RB wrote to Ka Cox in 1911: ‘The group of people we’re part of … don’t copulate without marriage, but we do meet in cafes, talk on buses, go [on] unchaperoned walks, stay with each other, give each other books, without marriage.’
Below: A Neo-Pagan campout, with Rupert on the right, next to Virginia Woolf, and Noel Olivier at far left. These usually week-long outings were officially called "reading parties" and the favourite work for reading aloud, significantly, was Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound. There were also picnics, walks, games and “nude bathing and similar pastimes” which the group supposedly indulged “as tributes to the ancient Greeks.”
Left: a closeup from the group's
1911 Forest camp-out near Bucklers Hard, showing Rupert in Peter-Pan mode, tousle-headed and
barefooted (he disliked socks).
Bournemouth And The Fabians
Rupert’s own involvement with the Neo-Pagans and the Bloomsbury set was originally via another Cambridge group, the Fabians, which also had local links of its own.
Fabian Society and political weekly The New Statesman [1913-] founders Sidney and Beatrice Webb had longstanding connections with Bournemouth. There was a Bournemouth Fabian Society from 1892 (re-established twice since, lastly in the Fabians’ centenary year, 1984), which brought in speakers like TH Huxley and the Empiricist philosopher Herbert Spencer, who was an influence on Beatrice.
As Beatrice Potter (1858-1943), BW stayed here as a teen in 1875, when a spell at an Anglican boarding school on Bath Road precipitated her ‘crisis of faith.’ In 1886-8, she spent three winters here with her convalescent father, in a clifftop lodging house below the Royal Bath Hotel, doing her first published writing here. She also recommended the town to her convalescing future husband Sidney Webb (1859-1947), a London council worker whose Fabian essays impressed her. (His stay at ‘The Osborne,’ a boarding house opposite the Royal Exeter Hotel prompted his observation of the low ‘moral and intellectual atmosphere’ of the idle well-off.)
Together, the Webbs wrote a score of social-research textbooks which established the Fabians as an early think-tank outlining reformist policies that helped establish the Liberal and Labour Parties in Westminster, where Sidney became an MP, a Minister, and then a peer. Their books and other work would be recognised as helping inspire Labour’s postwar welfare state, and both were buried in Westminster Abbey. In later life, when they were established in London (where in 1895 they founded the LSE), the Webbs would return to stay at the clifftop Marriott Highcliff Hotel. (Though the Webbs organised events, they were not impressed with Brooke, after he attended one of their Fabian farm holidays and tried to lecture Beatrice about the working class needing moral backbone.)
|Off To War
He came back bursting with energy and ideas in June 1914 and made the rounds of his friends over the summer, but the outbreak of war in August forestalled further travel plans. His friend (and biographer-to-be) Edward Marsh, now Churchill’s secretary, in September got him in as an RNVR Sub-Lieutenant to a Naval Division in which some of his friends had already obtained commissions. His unit went to Belgium for the siege of Antwerp in October 1914, but this was abandoned after a day and he returned home to Dorset, to Blandford Camp, for a final visit to the area, which included two stays outside Poole as a guest at Canford Manor, whose owners Lord and Lady Wimborne were related to Winston Churchill (who had nearly broken his neck in 1892 age 18 playing in the chine at the seaward end of their estate). Originally, he was brought there by the PM's daughter Violet Asquith to recuperate from one of his regular flu-like illnesses. There he wrote the first line of his most famous poem, the sonnet '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.
As far as his theorised death wish goes, or even a presumed presentiment of coming death suggested by his war sonnets, his correspondence does not support this interpretation. (At Canford, he did have a disturbing dream his [pregnant] Polynesian lover had committed suicide right after he sailed away, but soon afterwards he got a delayed letter from her, salvaged from the sunken RMS Empress Of Ireland. He then commented "I think Life's FAR more romantic than any books.") He had evidently put his youthful preoccupation with a bohemian pose behind him and adopted a more Kiplingesque identity. He evidently was impressed by Kipling’s heritage storybook Puck Of Pook’s Hill and some references suggest he might have taken up this angle in his poems, and perhaps in prose.
His stays at Canford Manor seem to have helped awaken an interest in local heritage, cf a letter quoted by Marsh:
The last sentence suggests an
interest in the Arthurian mythos, but there is no way of knowing if he would have developed this
into poetry or prose. He got the proofs of his final book, '1914' with the 5 war sonnets at
Canford Manor in January, and the next month the Division set sail for Gallipoli, before there
was time to complete any ‘English-heritage’ poems.
The last image of Rupert, now shorn of his floppy Hugh Grant style locks
Brooke’s final Bournemouth visit was in December 1914, to see Aunt Fanny, who had organised a consignment of winter woollies for his company. Not that they would need them where they were actually going: the Dardanelles.
Though he was never to see action, his youthful concerns about not dying a Romantic death (either growing old or dying ‘vulgarly’ somewhere like Bournemouth) proved unjustified. Like Byron, he would die in Greece of sepsis. This was the result of an infected mosquito bite, on his way to his Constantinople crusade, and he was buried on an island en route, Skyros. As Edward Marsh’s account memorialises it: "the island where Theseus was buried, and whence the young Achilles and the young Pyrrhus were called to Troy, Rupert Brooke died and was buried on Friday, the 23rd of April, the day of Shakespeare and of St. George."
His death date was as romantic as the Greek island setting where his friends
buried him under a stone cairn, before sailing off to be slaughtered at Gallipolli. He was elevated
to national hero and cultural icon as soon as news reached England of the death of England’s
"golden young Apollo." His poem “The Soldier”, written at Canford and Blandford
Camp, was read out at Easter 1915 from the pulpit of St Paul's Cathedral.
Sites Of Interest
Grantchester Dene, at 48 Dean Park Road, the house belonging to Brooke’s grandfather and
aunts stood on what was then Littledown Rd but is now renamed Dean Park Road. Now overlooked
by the busy Wessex Way motorway, and too far to walk from downtown, this is a site only for the
dedicated fan, and is a private house; there is nothing to see except the unremarkable house
exterior and the plaque (not an official English Heritage Blue Plaque) with the wrong birth-year,
both of which can be viewed online.
The only relevant nearby site is the cricket ground - as a schoolboy, Brooke liked to watch cricket,
if not play it. There is also a plaque in The Moon In The Square pub, part of a writers' gallery
in the upstairs bar.
However still there and accessible are the Lower Central Gardens, with their pine (and palm) trees and Invalids’ Walk, by the bandstand (where he once feared he might be buried, unromantically), below Westover Road. Last year, at the outset of the Great War centenary programme, Greek flowers were planted in two flower beds to honour Brooke’s burial in Greece, but this was a temporary feature.
The last place he stayed in the
present conurbation was as Lady Wimborne’s guest at Canford Manor on the
outskirts of Poole in early 1915. This is now a school and hence out of bounds to the public,
but as the map opposite shows, a scenic pub-walk is possible along the banks of the Stour adjacent,
from the Fox & Hounds inn by the A31 roundabout.
There is no particular site in the New Forest with any trace of the visits of Rupert and friends, though the village of Bank remains (look for The Oak Inn). Buckler’s Hard has since been restored as a heritage village with entrance fee. Camping a la the Neo Pagans is still possible at designated sites and the landscape is unchanged, this being now a National Park.
At Cranborne in NE Dorset, the original Fleur-de-Lys inn mentioned by Hardy and the subject of Brooke’s poem survived as a popular dining spot until 2012; after it closed down, another inn was opened on the same site, and as in Rupert’s day, there is another smaller inn on the main street or village square.
Lulworth Cove, which Brooke called “the most beautiful place in England to work” is a central scenic attraction of the Dorset Jurassic coast and crowded in tourist season. The village of West Lulworth where he and fellow Neo-Pagans stayed in various b&bs and hotels is just above the cove, to the left.
His final home in the area, pre-embarkation, was at Blandford Camp, which is still an army camp and not publicly accessible, but the sites he mentioned reading about in a local heritage book [see quote above] while at Canford Manor are, principally Badbury Rings hill-fort nearby.
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