Spotlight On …
Rupert Brooke’s Books
Written by Victoria Green
“If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England.”
I would imagine that few people are unfamiliar with these lines. Even if you don’t know who wrote them or why, the likelihood is that, at some time in your life, you have heard them. My first taste of Rupert Brooke was whilst at school, studying the ‘Up the Line to Death’ anthology for my A-Level exams. Brooke was, to me, part of this highly romanticised group of wartime poets, suffering youth, telling the truth of the war with their words. Any jingoistic sentiment turned quickly to realism for poets like Siegfried Sassoon, but Brooke did not have so long a war.
With this year marking 100 years since the Armistice and the end of the First World War, we have been focusing on the role of leather in warfare, in all its forms and facets. Yes, leather was used as armour, it was incorporated into weapons, used to ride horses, worn on feet and it kept your trousers up. It is often forgotten, however, that leather would also have been used to bind books. War diaries, poetry, literature; all making leather an enduring part of war’s legacy.
It was our recent acquisition of a book of Brooke’s poems that got me thinking about the power of WWI literature. We (especially we of modern peacetime) cannot possibly imagine what it was like for those men fighting in the mud on the front lines. The majority of what we know comes from literature; people like Rupert Brooke, Wilfred Owen and Vera Brittain. The British Army censored all correspondence from the front line, so arguably the most ‘truthful’ accounts come in the form of front-line poetry, and books published post-war. There has been some debate, however, about how poetry has provided us with a distorted view of trench warfare and ‘romanticised’ the experience of war.
Nonetheless, WWI literature is, in my opinion, some of the most powerful writing out there. It expresses feelings and themes that no-one was able to talk about at the time. It was cathartic, a tool for recovery. It opened a country’s eyes to the realities of the Great War, and spoke for a lost generation.
Anyway. Back to our book. A first edition of Twenty Poems by Rupert Brooke, featuring a profile portrait of Brooke on the wrappers. The binding itself is extraordinary, a 1930s designer binding by William Matthews.
The book is covered in green morocco (crushed goatskin, which was popular with bookbinders in the 1930s), with an art deco style monogram and gilt ruling. The spine and top is faded a little, likely sun-damaged. William Matthews was one of the most important British binders of the early 20th Century. He was well-known for his exquisite work and his influence as a teacher of his craft. His studies with W. T. Morrell were interrupted by the war, but he returned in 1919 to finish his apprenticeship and to begin a long teaching career at the Central School of Arts and Crafts.
The book features some of Rupert Brooke’s best-known poetry, including The Old Vicarage, Grantchester, The Great Lover, Peace, and The Solider.
But what was Brooke’s story?
He was born in Rugby in 1887, the son of a schoolmaster. He was one of four children, well-travelled and intelligent. Brooke attended Cambridge University and befriended the ‘Bloomsbury Group’, rubbing shoulders with individuals like Virginia Woolf and E. M. Forster. He was known for his good looks, and while many of the Bloomsbury Group admired his talents, it is said that some were more impressed by Brooke’s appearance. After university, Brooke suffered an emotional crisis triggered over confusion about his sexuality (Brooke was bisexual), and travelled to Germany for a period of ‘rehabilitation’. He toured the US and Canada writing travel diaries, and returned home ‘the long way’, across the Pacific. War broke out not long after his travels ended, and Brooke was off on an adventure of a different kind. Not long after enlisting in 1914, he was commissioned into the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve as a Sub-Lieutenant. He was sailing with the British Mediterranean Expeditionary Force in February 1915, when he contracted sepsis from an infected mosquito bite. He died in April, on a French hospital ship bound for Gallipoli. As the expeditionary force had orders for immediate departure, Brooke was buried on the Greek island of Skyros, where his grave is marked by a memorial constructed by his friend Stanley Casson.
Brooke’s experience of the war was markedly different than other anti-war poets like Graves and Owen. He never saw trench warfare or experienced the horrors of the later war years, and so Brooke’s writing echoes the early days of the First World War; the patriotism, the glory in fighting for king and country. A testament of wartime youth, young and idealistic. And words that resonate again with us today, just as strongly as they did one hundred years ago.
“Now, God be thanked who has matched us with his hour,
And caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping!
With hand made sure, clear eye, and sharpened power,
To turn, as swimmers into cleanness leaping,
Glad from a world grown old and cold and weary;
Leave the sick hearts that honor could not move,
And half-men, and their dirty songs and dreary,
And all the little emptiness of love!
Oh! we, who have known shame, we have found release there,
Where there’s no ill, no grief, but sleep has mending,
Naught broken save this body, lost but breath;
Nothing to shake the laughing heart’s long peace there,
But only agony, and that has ending;
And the worst friend and enemy is but Death.”