Rupert Brooke had the oldest pith of England in his fibre. He was born of East Anglia, the original vein of English blood. Ruddy skin, golden-brown hair, blue eyes, are the stamp of the Angles. Walsingham, in Norfolk, was the home of the family. His father was a master at Rugby; his grandfather a canon in the church.
In 1913 Heffer, the well-known bookseller and publisher of Cambridge, England, issued a little anthology called Cambridge Poems 1900-1913. This volume was my first introduction to Brooke. As an undergraduate at Oxford during the years 1910-13 I had heard of his work from time to time; but I think we youngsters at Oxford were too absorbed in our own small versemakings to watch very carefully what the “Tabs” were doing. His poem The Old Vicarage, Grantchester, reprinted in Heffer’s Cambridge Poems, first fell under my eye during the winter of 1913-14.
Grantchester is a tiny hamlet just outside Cambridge; set in the meadows along the Cam or Granta (the earlier name), and next door to the Trumpington of Chaucer’s “The Reeve’s Tale.” All that Cambridge country is flat and comparatively uninteresting; patchworked with chalky fields bright with poppies; slow, shallow streams drifting between pollard willows; it is the beginning of the fen district, and from the brow of the Royston downs (thirteen miles away) it lies as level as a table-top with the great chapel of King’s clear against the sky. It is the favourite lament of Cambridge men that their “Umgebung” is so dull and monotonous compared with the rolling witchery of Oxfordshire.
But to the young Cantab sitting over his beer at the Cafe des Westens in Berlin, the Cambridge villages seemed precious and fair indeed. Balancing between genuine homesickness for the green pools of the Cam, and a humorous whim in his rhymed comment on the outlying villages, Brooke wrote the Grantchester poem; and probably when the fleeting pang of nostalgia was over enjoyed the evening in Berlin hugely. But the verses are more than of merely passing interest. To one who knows that neighbourhood the picture is cannily vivid. To me it brings back with painful intensity the white winding road from Cambridge to Royston which I have bicycled hundreds of tunes. One sees the little inns along the way–the Waggon and Horses, the Plough, the King’s Arms–and the recurring blue signboard Fine Royston Ales (the Royston brewery being famous in those parts). Behind the fun there shines Brooke’s passionate devotion to the soil and soul of England which was to reach its final expression so tragically soon. And even behind this the immortal questions of youth which have no country and no clime–
Say, is there Beauty yet to find?
And Certainty? and Quiet kind?
No lover of England, certainly no lover of Cambridge, is likely to forget the Grantchester poem. But knowing Brooke only by that, one may perhaps be excused for having merely ticketed him as one of the score of young varsity poets whom Oxford and Cambridge had graduated in the past decade and who are all doing fine and promising work. Even though he tarried here in the United States (“El Cuspidorado,” as he wittily observed) and many hold precious the memory of his vivid mind and flashing face, to most of us he was totally unknown. Then came the War; he took part in the unsuccessful Antwerp Expedition; and while in training for the AEgean campaign he wrote the five sonnets entitled “1914”. I do not know exactly when they were written or where first published. Their great popularity began when the Dean of St. Paul’s quoted from them in a sermon on Easter Day, 1915, alluding to them as the finest expression of the English spirit that the War had called forth. They came to New York in the shape of clippings from the London Times. No one could read the matchless sonnet: