Monday, 11 April 2016

Rupert Brooke


Last year, among so many solemn centenaries of the First World War, we remembered the ill-fated Gallipoli landings – part of a campaign, intended to knock the Ottoman Turks out of the war, which cost the lives of so many British and Empire servicemen. The soldier-poet Rupert Brooke never made it to the landings. Bound for the Dardanelles, his troop ship was moored off the Greek island of Skyros when he developed septicaemia from an insect bite and died. He is buried on the island.

Rupert Brooke, “the handsomest young man in England” in the opinion of WB Yeats, has become a poster-boy for the Lost Generation.  His Cambridgeshire connections are well-known. In 1909 he took lodgings in Grantchester in a former farmhouse called The Orchard (doubling as a tea room even then) before moving next door to The Old Vicarage a couple of years later. Early in 1912, frustrated in love and thwarted in his bid for a Fellowship at King’s College, he suffered some form of nervous breakdown. Recuperation abroad was recommended, and in May we find him in the CafĂ© des Westens in Berlin, seated at a table by the window, reminiscing about his skinny dips in Byron’s Pool:

Here I am, sweating, sick, and hot,
And there the shadowed waters fresh
Lean up to embrace the naked flesh.

‘The Old Vicarage, Grantchester’, from which these lines come, has become one of his most famous poems, a deft combination of nostalgia, luxuriant language and whimsy that stays just this side of sentimentality. Or so I would argue. George Orwell was less impressed:

Rupert Brooke’s ‘Grantchester’, the star poem of 1913, is nothing but an enormous gush of ‘country’ sentiment, a sort of accumulated vomit from a stomach stuffed with place-names. Considered as a poem ‘Grantchester’ is something worse than worthless but as an illustration of what the thinking middle-class young of that period felt it is a valuable document. [Inside the Whale (1940).]

My impression is that Orwell was a sensitive reader of other writers. As a thinker of the Left, he was naturally suspicious of writers who didn’t share his politics, but he was also a big enough critic to appreciate literary quality wherever it surfaced. If he didn’t find literary quality, he still recognised that a writer could be read historically as a voice of his time – which seems to be his approach to Brooke. The long, nuanced essay he wrote on Kipling shows all these strategies in play. Conversely, a writer could be on the same side of the political fence as Orwell but still be chastised for irresponsibility. A few pages after his comment on Brooke in ‘Inside the Whale’, he takes a pop at Auden. In Auden’s poem ‘Spain’ there’s a reference to “necessary murder”. Orwell doubts that Auden had seen murder at first hand: “Mr Auden’s brand of amoralism is only possible if you are the kind of person who is always somewhere else when the trigger is pulled”. Yet, overall, Orwell declares the poem to be “one of the few decent things that have been written about the Spanish war”.

But I digress. Back to Brooke’s poem and his “accumulated vomit from a stomach stuffed with place-names”. As a Cambridgeshire resident of twenty years standing, I’m perhaps more attentive to these place names than Orwell was (he was living in Hertfordshire in early 1940 when his essay appeared).

Brooke’s strategy is first to contrast England, where an “unofficial rose” blooms under an “unregulated sun”, where feet may trespass on the grass, with the Teutonic passion for order and regulation:

… and there are
Meads towards Haslingfield and Coton
Where das Betreten’s not verboten.

Then he narrows his focus to tell us why, of all Cambridgeshire villages, he prefers “the lovely hamlet Grantchester”. By contrast, he says,

… Barton men make Cockney rhymes,
And Coton’s full of nameless crimes,
And things are done you’d not believe
At Madingley on Christmas Eve.

In the margin of the manuscript Brooke wrote a list of villages to be worked into the poem. Comberton was on the list but didn’t make the final cut, being replaced by Trumpington. Denis Cheason, in his book The Cambridgeshire of Rupert Brooke, suggests that Brooke may not even have visited all the places he mentions. In any case, we locals are not to take offence:

To those of you who are residents of the villages, do not be dismayed by Rupert Brooke’s comments. He was only joking, or perhaps belittling neighbouring villages to highlight the Grantchester which he loved.

No offence is taken, for the choice of names is very obviously driven by the rhyme scheme: “Coton/verboten”, “rhymes/crimes”. But could there be any more behind it? In her slim volume on the history of The Old Vicarage, Mary Archer concedes that the place names “appear to have been chosen more for convenient scansion than for any accurate local allusion”. However, she goes on to suggest possible, if far-fetched, sources for the references to Barton and Madingley.  For Barton she quotes the anonymous ballad ‘The Knocking Ghosts of Barton’, which is almost in the same octosyllabic metre as Brooke’s poem:

Jiminy, criminy, what a lark,
You must not stir out after dark,
For if you do you’ll get a mark –
From this knocking ghost of Barton.

And of Madingley it is said that, in the late nineteenth century, a Rector of High Church leanings promised the villagers a High Mass on Christmas Eve. The squire forbade his tenants to attend but they went, defiantly, and were turned out of their homes on Christmas Day. It’s the sort of story that might have appealed to Brooke, had it come to his ears.

But neither Mary Archer nor Francis Burkitt and Christine Jennings, in their book Rupert Brooke’s Grantchester, have any suggestions for Coton.  Another work, Coton Through the Ages (Kathleen Fowle and others, 2013), lists a number of crimes and misdemeanours over the centuries – at least one case of arson and a fair bit of sheep-rustling – but I don’t see anything likely to tickle the fancy of the “handsomest young man in England”.

So do these place names go down in the annals of literature merely as handy rhymes? As “accumulated vomit”? Or are we missing a trick here?