Rupert Brooke: Life, Death and Myth by Nigel Jones

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Rupert Brooke: Life, Death and Myth by Nigel Jones

Category: Biography
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A full biography of the 'war poet', his writing, life and loves, first published in 1999 and newly revised.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 588 Date: November 2014
Publisher: Head of Zeus
ISBN: 9781781857168

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Rupert Chawner Brooke’s reputation as one of the greatest or at least best-remembered war poets rests largely on his sonnet The Soldier. Perhaps it was English literature’s abiding loss that his output was so slender, as his career was cut short so suddenly. Had he lived longer he would surely have developed into a notable writer.

In his introduction to this lengthy biography, first published in 1999 and now with minor revisions, Nigel Jones suggests that posterity should prove kind to the best of his poetry, says his travel writing is vivid, and leaps from the pages, as do his letters, though not always for the right reasons. Yet all his fascination with the man whom he likens to Byron, Rimbaud, James Dean and even Jim Morrison, cannot conceal the fact that his subject was not a likeable person.

Brooke was born in 1887 in Rugby, the second of three sons of a schoolmaster. His mother was evidently the driving force in the family and his father comes across as a rather passive figure, henpecked, pessimistic and without much personality. Neither his sons, wife nor the boys he taught seem to have had much respect for him. Although coming from a well-to-do background, and with a good, even privileged education, Brooke himself became a committed supporter of radical politics. All the family threw themselves enthusiastically into the 1906 general election campaign which gave the Liberals a sweeping victory, and at school he took the lead in a debate supporting the rise of the new Labour party.

But politics was not his abiding passion in life, much as he seems to have had an intermittent obsession with attacking the well-off of his time while enjoying an upper-middle-class comfortable lifestyle. While at Cambridge University he was an active member of the Fabian Society and various drama clubs, taking part in their plays and making friends with contemporary writing groups such as the Bloomsbury Group and the Georgian Poets. He enjoyed friendships on something of an on-off basis with the likes of Lytton Strachey, Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West.

As befitting somebody dubbed by W.B. Yeats as the handsomest young man in England with his dazzling good looks, as might have been expected, he was highly sought-after by his contemporaries. In these pages he also comes across as unpleasantly vain, shallow and mysogynistic, ready to enjoy affairs or rather casual flings with members of both sexes, and then cast them aside when they had served their purpose. Jones excuses his hero with the argument that his physical and mental health were never good, and that at times he verged on being clinically insane. Whether this is an adequate defence for a young man who spends an afternoon swimming with a young woman, enjoys a few blissful moments of passion with her beside the pool afterwards and then starts to throttle her, telling her casually as he does so that it would only take two or three minutes for him to kill her, is for the reader to decide. Reading in somewhat excessive detail about his liaisons, at times I began to wonder whether every young man of his generation whom moved in the same circles was either gay or at least bisexual. In a long book about a short life, the lengthy accounts of such matters could have been edited a little to provide a better read.

After suffering a severe emotional crisis and nervous collapse, brought on in part by too many intense relationships more or less at once, he left England for a while to recuperate in Germany, the United States and Canada, passing much of his time in writing travel diaries. On the way back he spent some time in Tahiti, had an affair with a woman there and probably fathered her child.

Had he lived another ten or twenty years he might have become another Oscar Wilde, a highly-feted, versatile man of letters whose vanity and sense of his own infallibility would in time sow the seeds of his decline and fall. Maybe it was as well for his reputation that the First World War intervened. He was commissioned into the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, and was sent to take part in the landing at Gallipoli in 1915 but ill-health intervened and he never saw action. Ironically it happened at a time when he was beginning to receive national acclaim for his poetry as one of the brightest and most articulate of the new generation of poets.

Jones has done his research thoroughly and brought us a very full, searching portrait of a clearly unfulfilled talent. It demonstrates his enthusiasm for the man and seeks to explain his more unpleasant characteristics and actions with understanding as well as focusing on his positive qualities, notably his talent as a writer. Yet, as suggested above, a slightly shorter book would have resulted in a more concise and much more satisfying life.

For a life of one of Brooke's fellow war poets, may we recommend Now All Roads Lead to France: The Last Years of Edward Thomas by Matthew Hollis, and for a more general overview, Strange Meetings: The Lives of the Poets of the Great War by Harry Ricketts.

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Buy Rupert Brooke: Life, Death and Myth by Nigel Jones at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Rupert Brooke: Life, Death and Myth by Nigel Jones at Amazon.com.


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