150+ essays on literary topics
Rupert Brooke’s range is wider than he is usually given credit for, both in form and content.
Lust, an early poem about sex, consensual or otherwise, begins with the usual male excuse –
How should I know? The enormous wheels of will
Drove me cold-eyed on tired and sleepless feet
– and ends in a somewhat morbid mood of post-coital torpor.
My conqueror’s blood was cool as a deep river
In shadow; and my heart beneath your hand
Quieter than a dead man on a bed.
Sonnet Reversed, coming two years later, is a short satire on love and marriage. It begins with a couplet that an ordinary love poem would have ended with –
Hand trembling towards hand; the amazing lights
Of heart and eye. They stood on supreme heights.
– and ends with the married couple’s death in the third quatrain.
They left three children (besides George, who drank):
The eldest Jane, who married Mr Bell,
William, the head clerk in the County Bank,
And Henry, a stock-broker, doing well.
The Night Journey is a later poem describing life and the end of life as a train journey.
Thirsty for dark, you feel the long-limbed train
Throb, stretch, thrill motion, slide, pull out and sway,
Strain for the far, pause, draw to strength again…
The sounds of the world die.
And lips and laughter are forgotten things.
Speed sharpens; grows. Into the night, and on.
The strength and splendour of our purpose swings.
The lamps fade; and the stars. We are alone.
One of his last and best known poems, The Great Lover, often remembered as beginning with the words “These I have loved”, actually begins with words that are not to be taken at face value.
I have been so great a lover…
These words and those that follow are surely meant to be read as ironic.
…filled my days
So proudly with the splendour of Love’s praise…
And all dear names men use, to cheat despair,
For the perplexed and viewless streams that bear
Our hearts at random down the dark of life.
Brooke is remembered now – or mis-remembered – mainly as the author of a patriotic sonnet.
If I should die, think only this of me…
In fact, The Soldier is a poem more personal than patriotic, recalling the England he remembered with affectionate humour in The Old Vicarage, Grantchester.
There is more of ‘the dark of life’ in Rupert Brooke’s poems than his popular reputation would suggest, which makes it easy to miss. We might even read something of it into the famous last lines of Grantchester as the random stopping of a clock at the moment of our death.
Stands the church clock at ten to three?
And is there honey still for tea?
In the only play Rupert Brooke wrote, the dark of life is all there is.
Lithuania had its first performance at Chicago Little Theatre a few months after Brooke’s death in April 1915. It is a short play about a murder which he understood to have taken place not long ago in Lithuania. In fact, it was a folk tale which had been re-told by other writers many years before Brooke heard of it.
In his version, an elderly couple and their grown-up daughter live a hand-to-mouth existence on the edge of a forest in a remote part of Lithuania. A stranger who has lost his way in the forest seeks their help and offers to pay for it. They give him food and a bed for the night. He is well dressed and, while he eats, boasts about his wealth, showing them his gold watch and a pocket stuffed with bank notes. When he goes to bed, they decide to kill him for his money. The father arms himself with a knife but can’t bring himself to do it. “I want drink in me,” he says and goes out to the vodka shop. Not trusting him to do any more than get drunk, the daughter picks up an axe and kills the stranger herself. Later, when the vodka shop owner brings the old man back, drunk as expected, he asks them whether their long-lost son who came to the shop earlier has been to see them yet.
Lithuania had its first performance in England in 1916 at His Majesty’s Theatre in London’s West End. There have been very few productions since, perhaps because of the lukewarm response to the London production from friends such as John Drinkwater, a poet and playwright, well known at the time, though largely forgotten now. In a condescending introduction to the 1935 volume in which the play made its first and only appearance in print, he wrote: “The little play made its own life on the stage, and although its significance was not profound it showed the working of a very likely ‘prentice hand.”
It is in fact a very well crafted play. There is none of the clumsy exposition that might be expected from a novice. The characters are very believable, the dialogue economical and realistic, the narrative effectively structured to engage and hold the audience’s attention.
Brooke’s misfortune was to have written it at a time when other poets were trying to revive so-called verse drama and reclaim the stage for poetry. John Drinkwater himself and others such as Lascelles Abercrombie were the Georgian poets at the forefront of the movement. In spite of the best (and worst) efforts of W.B.Yeats, who struck the first blow with The Countess Cathleen in 1892, and T.S.Eliot, who was still hammering away fifty years later, their efforts bore little fruit.
John Drinkwater would have been disappointed that his friend had written his play in prose. “His use of it,” he writes in his introduction, “is perhaps a trifle mannered… Lithuania is home-spun, almost threadbare in texture; but it is not without the beauty that none but a poet could have achieved.”
The mistake the Georgian poets made was in their too literal understanding of what they called verse drama, taking Shakespeare and his contemporaries as their model. The Elizabethans, from Sir Thomas Wyatt onwards, wrote poetry which was inherently dramatic. The voice of an individual in a real situation is what we hear time and again in their poems.
And if I did what then?
Are you aggrieved therefore?
Fool, said my muse to me, look in thy heart and write.
Since there’s no help, come let us kiss and part,
Nay, I have done: You get no more of me.
Busy old fool, unruly sun,
Why dost thou thus
Through windows and through curtains call on us?
I struck the board and cried, No more.
I will abroad.
What? shall I ever sigh and pine?
The language of poems and plays alike was a spoken language in which rhythm was far more important than metre. The language of the Georgian poets was too self-consciously poetic to be dramatic, as Brooke himself must have known.
One reviewer of the Chicago production described the play as an “extraordinary storm of dull, addled hearts and foul brains”. Another wrote that it was “extraordinarily grim and powerful, avoiding melodrama only by the skill with which it’s handled; its terrible intensity recalls the murder scene in Macbeth and indicates the dramatic heights to which Rupert Brooke might have risen.” The only thing they agreed on was that it was extraordinary.
A new production, free from the prejudices of the time, would be an opportunity to measure more fairly the dramatic height to which Rupert Brooke the playwright had already risen in Lithuania. It might also, by adding the word ‘playwright’ to his name, encourage a re-appraisal of the range and depth of his work as a poet.