November 8 2020
Remembrance Sunday 2020
For our reflection on Remembrance Sunday this year, I have chosen to concentrate for a few minutes on the life and work of a writer who was not regarded as a first class writer, and not in the same ranks as Siegfried Sassoon or Wilfred Owen, but who nevertheless captured the imagination and the hearts of the generation which he has come to represent.
Rupert Brooke was born at Rugby in 1887, and died during the First World War at the age of 28, in 1915. His life reads more like romantic fiction than a slice of reality.
The novelist Henry James remarked of Brooke that “he was a creature on whom the gods had smiled brightest.”
Rupert had a brilliant school career at Rugby where his father was a housemaster, during which he won two prizes for poetry, before going up to Kings College at Cambridge University. At Cambridge his good looks and great personal charm won him immediate popularity.
Another novelist, John Galsworthy, said of him, “I have rarely seen a man more beautiful,” and Rupert’s friend and fellow-poet, Edward Thomas, remarked, “Brooke is so handsome that I find myself staring…”
After university Brooke travelled widely, visiting Canada, America, Hawaii, Fiji, New Zealand and Tahiti, and wherever he went he won many friends and attracted admiration. He was capable of great ease in society, and coupled it with an ability to study and write. And although there was no suggestion that he was a brilliant scholar or author, his poems were favourably received by an adoring public, often female.
In 1914 with the outbreak of war, Brooke was commissioned as an officer in the Royal Navy. His service life suited him, and he wrote home, “I’ve never felt better or happier in my life…”
Within a few months further training in Blandford, Dorset, followed, from which he eventually set sail for the conflict in the Dardanelles.
His personal charm which had always secured him admiration from the women he encountered, at this time brought him to the notice of General Sir Ian Hamilton who, rather than send Brooke into the war zone itself offered him a staff post. Brooke declined, preferring instead to serve with the men he had trained with.
Edward Thomas too declined a staff post, and became the first of the two friends to lose his life as a result of an explosion close to a battery he was in command of. Rupert Brooke himself was posted later as having been killed in action, but had in fact contracted blood-poisoning from an insect bite, dying with 48 hours.
So not so glorious an ending, nor one much in tune with the promise and glamour he showed during his short life. Why, then, are we thinking particularly about him today?
Well chiefly because of a handful of poems that he is responsible for. The most famous is the fifth of a sequence of sonnets, written during the time he was training at Blandford.
If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is forever 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.
This sonnet displays such quiet assured patriotism, and such (albeit untested) courage, that it captured what England at the time considered to be essential about our national character, “whom England bore, shaped, made aware.” It may not be great poetry when compared to the emotional depths of Wilfred Own or indeed Edward Thomas, but Brooke’s lines have endured in the public mind. As has his paean to Englishness captured in lines about his home in Cambridgeshire at Grantchester:
Say, is there Beauty yet to find?
And Certainty? And Quiet kind?
Deep meadows yet, for to forget
The lies, and truth, and pain? … oh! Yet
Stands the Church clock at ten to three?
And is there honey still for tea?
Nostalgic and sentimental, and yet because of the circumstances of his life and death, a portrait of something we can identify with in the ideal world of our imaginations.
WH Davies, who was also a better poet than Rupert Brooke, wisely said that his death was not a severe loss to English poetry; but that he did die, makes what he wrote take on the significance of a prophecy, and that upsets our judgement.
The majority, if not all, the individuals who have lost their lives in conflict, will not be able to relate to Brooke’s life or achievement. But that life still stands, singular and true to one sort of person and one set of values, which we no longer aspire to, but which we acknowledge were once true of our nation. (Acknowledgement for info to JHB Peel)
Shall we end with a moment of prayer? (from A Powell Davies)
We bow our heads this day, O God, in remembrance of those who laid down their lives that others might live…
To them, as to us , the life of earth seemed fair and bright; they loved the blueness of the sky, the firmness of the ground beneath their feet, the snows of winter, the blossoming of Spring… They loved their homes, their families… their intimates and friends… Let not their lives be given in vain.
And let our hearts remember …the many who waited for them, and who learned at last that they would not return. Let there be a stillness within us, a depth of humility, when we remember the bereaved.
As we recall those we have loved and lost, help us to remember also how great a thing is loving, and that not to have loved would have been far greater loss. Amen.