Brooke is not a fashionable poet, however. Let’s stop to think about why.
W.B. Yeats, perhaps the greatest of all Irish poets, once said something scandalous about Wilfred Owen. Yeats left Owen out of the Oxford Book of Modern Verse that he compiled in 1935, because he disliked what he saw as Owen’s mix of grim realism and sentimentality. Yeats declared that Owen was “all blood, dirt, and sucked sugar stick”. He also said that Owen’s poetry was poor because it described the “passive” suffering of soldiers. Owen was, in effect, in love with miserable agony. As disappointing as such an opinion is, it’s cheering, I think, to find that even geniuses are capable of the odd critical slip-up, here and there. Yeats, one of the greatest poets of the Twentieth Century, was also turned down for an academic post once because he misspelt the word ‘professor’ on his application.
Rupert Brooke made it into Yeats’ anthology, however. His poetry chimed with the older man, who even before the First World War had admitted the young poet into his circle of friends.
Today, it might seem baffling that Owen would get the boot, and Brooke find inclusion. Brooke can seem, by comparison with Owen, all sucked sugar stick– without even the blood and dirt.
The truth is, something happened, something fundamental changed about the Western world between 1914 and 1918. It didn’t leave Brooke’s world behind– his brand of intense patriotism and fellow-feeling was and remains popular. A century of well-reported technological mass warfare, however, has meant most people’s feelings about war and patriotism today are inevitably more guarded and ambivalent than the sentiments we find in Brooke’s emotive poetry. The sympathies of those living in the second half of the twentieth century have mostly been with Owen’s coughing and disabled soldiers, rather than Brooke’s dutiful and sainted dead.
Knowing this however, the worst thing to do would be dismiss Brooke and his work. This is a thing you have to be careful about as a reader and critic: sometimes you’ll miss what others love about a writer because of your own attitude or prejudices.
What is clear about Brooke is that he is part of a long, long tradition of poets who see war as the ultimate testing ground for young men. He is a poet who reflects many of the attitudes of his time– of his class, his nation, men in general– and who continues to speak for some today. His poems have fine heights (“If I should die…”) to match queasy lows (his talk of “sick hearts” and “half-men”). He remains well worth reading.
Looking online, there is a thoughtful short page on Rupert Brooke’s life and achievement at Harry Rusche’s Lost Poets website: the critical perspective on Brooke that you can find there from Charles Sorely is very interesting.
Another biographical sketch can be found here, looking at the ‘doomed’ life of Brooke and his method of composing his poems.
That excellent WWI resource, The First World War Digital Archive has a brief bio and links to a number of Brooke’s poems, annotated.
There’s a neat little webpage about Brooke’s grave on the Greek island of Skyros that gives lots of interesting information about his life and death.
To see another side of Brooke, check out the Guardian Books Blog entry about his poem ‘Heaven’– included on the page– an amusing poem about where fish may go when they die.
Finally, you can find online a copy of Rupert Brooke’s obituary in The Times— written by none other than Winston Churchill.