Rupert Brooke (3 August 1887 – 23 April 1915) was by some measure the most idealistic of the war poets. By the time the war started in 1914, the man who Yeats allegedly described as the ‘handsomest young man in England’ had already made something of a name for himself, both for his poetry and for his good looks, among the Bloomsbury group of writers and the Georgian Poets.
Brooke is most famous for the 5 sonnets he wrote about the war. The poems were published as a collection, entitled 1914, in May 1915 and were used as a part of Kitchener’s propaganda programme.
On 28th February 1915, having been commissioned as a Sub-Lieutenant into the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve, Brooke set sail for Gallipoli with the British Mediterranean Expeditionary Force. On the way, he developed sepsis from an infected mosquito bite. He died at 4:46 pm on 23 April 1915 in a French hospital ship moored in a bay off the island of Skyros in the Aegean. As the expeditionary force had orders to depart immediately, he was buried at 11 pm in an olive grove on Skyros, Greece, where his grave remains today.
Brooke’s poems painted a picture of war as the sort of place where right fought wrong, and men died in noble pursuit of a worthy cause. He is often contrasted in this regard with Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, but it is worth remembering that Sassoon’s earlier poems followed a similar pattern to Brooke’s. Just as Sassoon would go on to be arguably the anti-war poet of his time, I cannot help but feel that Brooke might have also changed his tune, if he had survived to bear witness to the horrors at Gallipoli and the slaughter on the Western Front. But he didn’t. He died with an idealised image of war untarnished in his mind, no doubt confident that he was playing his part, like so many of those young men who joined up without understanding what they were getting themselves into.
Here is the fifth and best known of Brooke’s sonnets.
The SoldierIf I should die, think only this of me: That there’s some corner of a foreign field That is for ever 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.