Monday, 10 September 2012

‘…gentle stirring sounds, Belied a deathly silence that lay all around.’

Spent an afternoon at Grantchester recently. An attractive village near Cambridge, probably best known either for the poet Rupert Brooke and especially for his poem The Old Vicarage, Grantchester. Or for the Pink Floyd track from Ummagumma - ‘Grantchester Meadows’, from which the title of this piece is taken.
Rupert Chawner Brooke, the
1910's answer to 'glitterati'.

Having walked there from Cambridge, we had a beer in one of the local pubs and then something to eat in the Orchard, where Brooke, and other of the ‘beautiful young litterati’ of the pre-first world war spent time. Indeed there is a small (and quite impressive) museum to Brooke there. It gave a view of an intelligent and privileged young man who in many ways seemed to have a particular gift for self delusion. He seemed to be constantly confused about who he should trust, love and support. He was apparently a socialist of a Fabian bent, but wrote five or six stirringly jingoistic military verses at the beginning of the first world war.

Indeed, these verses (along with The Old Vicarage, Grantchester) are probably the main reason for his fame. He was taken up by (among others) Winston Churchill who promoted the (by then dead) Brooke as the voice of The Soldier

In truth, it is unfair in the extreme to blame Brooke for this lionisation, and indeed given his lack of experience of the war, (he died in 1915 from  blood poisoning after Gallipoli, where we was not part of the landings. He is buried on the Greek island of Skyros) it may also be slightly unfair to blame him for the jingoism of his poetry. After all, both Wilfred Owen, and Siegfried Sassoon had to experience much of the ‘pity of war’ before they produced their greatest works, and Sassoon initially produced as militaristic verse as Brooke.
“To these I turn, in these I trust; 
Brother Lead and Sister Steel. 
To his blind power I make appeal; 
I guard her beauty clean from rust.” The Kiss

Charles Hamilton Sorley
However, there was another poet early in the first world war who not only saw the futility and horror before having to spend years in the trenches, but also possessed the objectivity to express that as a general truth. The objectivity of Owen’s Strange Meeting, rather than the direct attack of Sassoon’s Base Details if you like.

Charles Hamilton Sorley, like Brooke, died young (also in 1915) and had little or no time to experience the horrors of war, yet in the short time he did have he produced two remarkable poems. All the hills and vales along, and When you see millions of the mouthless dead, are significant for both their prescient recognition of the futility of war and the bitter sarcasm with which Sorley lampoons the pastoral glories of many of the pro-war poets.

How does this happen? That a less insightful poet receives far greater recognition than a better? Is it to do with privilege? Hardly, Sorley was the product of the same public school/oxbridge upbringing as Brooke (although Marlborough College/Oxford vs Brooke’s Rugby School/Cambridge). He was, as some might have guessed, Scottish - born in Aberdeen - but that wasn’t hugely significant in his upbringing. 

Rupert Brooke (a la the Archers)
It is surely down to the illusion perpetrated by the establishment in using Brooke’s poetry to shore up their false image of the glory of war. Even now, a statue of Brooke in the grounds of the Old Vicarage in Grantchester, shows him in battledress holding a book! Yet his experience of frontline warfare was limited to one day of limited action during the evacuation of Antwerp! 

Mind you, if the illusion of Brooke was false, it was largely perpetrated by other people. The family who now own the Old Vicarage, Grantchester are the Archers, Lord Jeffrey, and Lady Mary. Certainly Jeffrey is a literary figure who requires no outside assistance to create an illusion of qualification, or even truth!

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