Poetry Wednesday: Rupert Brooke

There’s no interesting backstory to my discovery of this week’s poem—I found it last week in one of my old textbooks and loved it.

The poet’s backstory, however, makes for very interesting reading.

Born in 1887, Rupert Brooke was once called the “handsomest man in England” by none other than William Butler Yeats, whom he met while attending King’s College at Cambridge. He was a member of the Bloomsbury group of writers—which included Virginia Woolf, John Maynard Keynes, and E.M. Forster—some of whom were rumored to be more interested in his looks and charisma than in his poems.

Although he published a small book of poetry in 1911, Mr. Brooke, who was commissioned in the Royal Naval Division in the First World War, made his reputation on the five war sonnets he wrote in late 1914, after participating in the ill-fated defense of Antwerp—his only combat experience. These sonnets became instantly popular and are credited with inspiring British patriotism during the first part of the War:

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England.

He died the following April at the age of twenty-seven—of blood poisoning from a neglected insect bite. Nonetheless, he was eulogized by his influential friends as a “golden fallen warrior,” a symbol that Winston Churchill himself used to rally Britain: “Joyous, fearless, versatile, deeply instructed, with classic symmetry of mind and body, he was all that one would wish England’s noblest sons to be in days when no sacrifice but the most precious is acceptable, and the most precious is that which is most freely proffered.”

So there’s that . . . but I think I like his earlier work better.  Especially this one, which is clever and clean and beautifully done:

(Rupert Brooke)

Fish (fly-replete, in depth of June,
Dawdling away their wat’ry noon)
Ponder deep wisdom, dark or clear,
Each secret fishy hope or fear.
Fish say, they have their Stream and Pond;
But is there anything Beyond?
This life cannot be All, they swear,
For how unpleasant, if it were!
One may not doubt that, somehow, Good
Shall come of Water and of Mud;
And, sure, the reverent eye must see
A Purpose in Liquidity.
We darkly know, by Faith we cry,
The future is not Wholly Dry.
Mud unto mud! — Death eddies near —
Not here the appointed End, not here!
But somewhere, beyond Space and Time.
Is wetter water, slimier slime!
And there (they trust) there swimmeth One
Who swam ere rivers were begun,
Immense, of fishy form and mind,
Squamous, omnipotent, and kind;
And under that Almighty Fin,
The littlest fish may enter in.
Oh! never fly conceals a hook,
Fish say, in the Eternal Brook,
But more than mundane weeds are there,
And mud, celestially fair;
Fat caterpillars drift around,
And Paradisal grubs are found;
Unfading moths, immortal flies,
And the worm that never dies.
And in that Heaven of all their wish,
There shall be no more land, say fish.

I’m sorry that we’ll never see how his talent might have surpassed his status as a symbol.