Like so many others of his time, Rupert Brooke did not live to reach his full potential, but his haunting, often prescient poems testify to his dazzling command of words and the depth of his imagination.
Brooke often mused on the certainty of death, but he also treasured deeply the vital pleasures of life — friendship and love, the ‘link’d beauty of bodies’, the joy of hearts ‘swift to mirth’. His musical poems pay homage to the quiddity of things — ‘wet roofs, beneath the lamp-light’, ‘white plates and cups’, ‘live hair that is/Shining and free’ — urging us to remember him as one who loved all that the world offered to his senses and his mind. But even while he cherishes the sensations of being alive, in his early work he evokes the possibility of a superior, ethereal form of being, free from the shortfalls of earthly emotions. Like elegies from which the sadness has been lifted, ‘The Treasure’ and the strongly Platonic ‘Tiare Tahiti’ gently insist that the fleeting moments that have made up his life, and those of his lover, will live on in ‘some golden space’.
This embracement of life and the afterlife has given us some of the most memorable verse of the Georgian school. It was a stance Brooke maintained in his group of sonnets, written while he was on leave from the Royal Naval Division at Christmas 1914. In these he anticipates that the destruction wrought by war will give way to the renewal and rejuvenation of a ‘world grown old and cold and weary’. ‘The Soldier’, famously read aloud by the Dean of St Paul’s at the Easter Sunday Service in April 1915, reassures us that in the event of his death, his essence will live on, ‘all evil shed away’, as a ‘pulse in the eternal mind’.
But Brooke’s appeal also lies in his ability to temper these beautifully rendered visualisations of destiny, death and the afterlife with a playful irony, sometimes in the form of satirical counterpoints to his own grand themes and paeans to Platonism and Christianity. Indeed, he increasingly rejected the notion of a heaven, and in his final, deeply moving poem, ‘Fragment’, found in the notebook he was using in the weeks before his death, the exuberant tone of his earlier verse is replaced by a deeply reflective awareness of the fate of his generation. Notions of honour, patriotism and a sublime hereafter give way to that of casual destruction. As many have conjectured, this last poem suggests that Brooke, had he lived longer, would likely have equalled Owen and Sassoon in his responses to the horrors of the war. At least, as Jon Stallworthy writes in his introduction to this edition, Brooke’s avowal that his heart would give ‘somewhere back the thoughts by England given’ turned out to be true; however short his life, his meditations remain alive for us today.