Rupert Brooke: Biography & Poems

Instructor: Lucy Barnhouse
Handsome, accomplished, and Cambridge-educated, Rupert Brooke was one of the first soldier-poets of World War I. Explore his lasting legacy and learn why Brooke is considered the best of a doomed generation.

Rupert Brooke

Poet Rupert Brooke was one of the very first war poets.
Brooke by Keynes, IWM

Meet Edwardian England's fantasy boyfriend. Rupert Brooke was born into late Victorian England's prosperous middle class. He was a high-achieving university student, charismatic and popular in literary circles and beyond. By the age of 25, he was a published poet and a Fellow of Cambridge University. When the First World War broke out, he was quick to enlist. He died in April 1915; his posthumously published war poems cemented his reputation as one of the poets who most effectively gave voice to the ideals and fears of a generation at a time of cultural transition.

Biography and Early Writings

Rupert Brooke lived a wild social life full of friends and artists.

Rupert Brooke was born in 1887. His father was a schoolmaster, his mother a clergyman's daughter. The world in which these things defined who you were, however, was rapidly changing. From the age of 14, Brooke attended Rugby, an elite boarding school, where his father was a housemaster. While Brooke excelled as a pupil, he was more popular for his efforts on the rugby and cricket fields.

At Cambridge, he chose to read (or major in) Classics. Believe it or not, the study of Greek and Roman history, culture, and literature was a prestigious field pursued by many members of the elite. Greece and Rome were seen as the most awesome civilizations ever, on which Britain's vast empire could and should model itself. The influence of that idea can be seen both in Brooke's poetry and in his reputation as a sort of latter-day Greek hero. It didn't hurt that he looked the part.

While Brooke's degree was conventional, his company and habits were far from it. Romantically interested in both men and women, Brooke joined gay discussion clubs and political and dramatic societies. He also hung out (and reportedly went skinny-dipping) with Virginia Woolf and other future members of the Bloomsbury Group, men and women who would lead literary and cultural experimentation in England both before and after WWI. He wrote and published poetry and, after graduation, traveled in Europe.

Brooke also found happiness closer to home. From 1909-1912, he lived in the village of Grantchester, near Cambridge. Here, he wrote a lot of pastoral poetry, a type of poetry based on both classical and English traditions of writing about nature and the appreciation of natural beauty. His first collection of poetry was published in 1911. Brooke also stayed connected with the Bloomsbury Group. In Brooke's sometimes turbulent personal life, his coping mechanism for a bad breakup was to take off and travel to a new country. It was in Berlin that he wrote one of his most famous poems, 'The Old Vicarage, Grantchester.' In its sensuality and stylistic experimentation, it is typical of much of Brooke's work. Brooke uses both pastoral imagery and the classical traditions he knew so well in contrasting the bustling city where he writes to the tranquil village he's writing about. The poem's closing lines connect specific English customs with the eternal beauties of nature and peace:

Say, is there Beauty yet to find?

And Certainty? and Quiet kind?

Deep meadows yet, for to forget

The lies, and truths, and pain? . . . oh! yet

Stands the Church clock at ten to three?

And is there honey still for tea?

Even as Brooke expresses his love and longing for Grantchester's traditions, the repeated question marks and broken rhythms suggest that he fears such traditions may be in danger. These were widely-shared fears in Edwardian England...fears that would seem terribly justified with the coming of the First World War.

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