Poetic hair, C K Stead

C K Stead recalls encountering Rupert Brooke’s The Complete Poems.

During WWII my sister Norma, two and a half years my senior, acquired a “pen-friend” in Rugby, England. I don’t recall the friend’s name, but we sent her family food parcels – it was something that was done to “help the war effort”. After the war, when I was 14, she sent my sister a copy of The Complete Poems of Rupert Brooke, because Brooke came from her home-town and attended its famous public school where our national game had its beginnings.

My sister had no special interest in poetry. My own was at an early stage – a distinct quickening, a prickling excitement in response to poems in The Golden Treasury of Songs and Lyrics, which was a school text, and to the language of scenes from Shakespeare that came up in third- and fourth-form English. I “borrowed” the Brooke collection and it was never returned. I have it still, with my sister’s name in it.

This was the first time I’d sat down with a book of poems by a single poet and read them right through, randomly, then in sequence. I returned to them often, getting a sense of Brooke’s personality – an English poet who had even come to our part of the world, and who had died young and romantically, a soldier in WWI. I looked at the frontispiece photograph of him with the poetic hair and the large loose poetic tie.  More interesting to me was the holograph of his most famous poem “The Soldier”, which I committed to memory. There was even what must have been a last-minute alteration in the manuscript. The opening phrase of the sestet – “Think, too, …” had been scored out and replaced by “And think …”  This was an exciting reminder that poems were not delivered from the gods, set in stone, complete.  They were made by human beings, worked on, changed, improved.

It had probably not yet occurred to me that one poet could experiment with many forms – and Brooke, without being dauntingly adroit, was a good craftsman. Reading him, I began to learn about poetic forms, how they worked, what to look for, what to listen for. I can see from the poems I gave a special tick at the top of the page that it was not the ones for which he was best known that appealed most. “The Old Vicarage, Grantchester” got no tick – and nor, I now know, would he have wanted it to. “The Soldier” was moving and well-made, but among the war poems, “Safety” was better. There was a certain rigour about it which, many years later, I would recognise as showing the influence of Donne, even to containing a phrase from “The Anniversary”.

But I think what interested me most was the sense of a young man engaged in a series of erotic adventures, with all their inevitable complexities, pains and contradictions.  They were, many of them, “I” and “you” poems, which seemed to invite an adolescent to put himself in the picture and to fill in the spaces.

Somewhile before the dawn I rose, and stept
Softly along the dim way to your room,
And found you sleeping in the quiet gloom …

He could rise to a high rhetoric:

Shall I not crown them with immortal praise
Whom I have loved, who have given me, dared with
High secrets …

and then seem to mock himself for it. He could make light of religion, as in “Heaven”, without losing his balance or sense of humour. And then there were poems which had a strange nightmare quality – the one called “Lust”, for example, that began:

How should I know? The enormous wheels of will
Drove me cold-eyed on tired and sleepless feet.
Night was void arms and you a phantom still,
And day your far light swaying down the street.


I’m sure this kind of thing must have lain behind some of my own earliest poems (all later burned) one of which began, I remember:

No light there was, no sound nor sense,
No moving shadows broke the night.


In the school library I found a copy of the collected poems with a memoir by Edward Marsh. There I discovered more about Brooke’s visit to the South Pacific, his falling for the romance (and one or two women) of the islands, and the fact that he had passed through New Zealand on an indirect route from Suva to Tahiti. This was of special interest to me because my mother had spent much of her childhood in the islands, and our house was full of photographs of sailing ships, coral reefs, palm trees and beautiful people with brown skins. One of my great grandmothers was buried on Ocean Island, and my Swedish grandfather in Noumea.

I learned also that Brooke had died of blood poisoning (rather unromantically induced by a mosquito bite) as a young naval lieutenant on his way to Gallipoli; and that our own Bernard Freyburg, who would earn his VC there, and who was still very much in mind as CO of New Zealand forces in the more recent war, had been one of the party that carried Brooke’s body to its burial place at the top of the Greek island of Skyros.

Most of one’s adolescent reading belongs to its time, stays there, and is returned to, if at all, as to a foreign country. But the case of Brooke for me was different. He had got me started as a poet; and in time I would have to go back to him. He interested me greatly; but he didn’t take possession of me in the way that Keats and Wordsworth did a year later; and then Donne a year or two after that. And over this same period, during all of which I was writing poems of my own, came my discovery of Eliot and the Modernists, and of our New Zealand poets, especially Curnow, Fairburn and Baxter.

By the early 1950s, when I was a student, there was a very clear orthodoxy throughout the international world of English studies, which bundled Brooke together with the Georgians into the bin labelled “poetic nobodies”. Brooke was described by F R Leavis as having “energised the Garden-suburb ethos with … the vigour of a prolonged adolescence”, and of manifesting “something like Keats’s vulgarity, but with a public school accent”.  His soldier sonnets were unfavourably compared with the work of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, who had gone into battle, looked at war’s realities squarely, and written poems that were at once true records and impassioned protests.

No one wanted to be a Georgian any more; and when (I offer this example to show how the term was used and abused) Alistair Campbell wanted to argue that R A K Mason had been overvalued by Curnow, he set out to demonstrate that he was “really a Georgian”.

For a time this was an orthodoxy I accepted, or didn’t think about; but when I came to write The New Poetic (this was in the late 1950s), a large part of which was 20th century literary history, I had to look carefully at the Georgians, and what I discovered was that they had been innovators, “modern” in their own time, Brooke no less than the others; and that if you wanted to recognise what they had achieved, it was fairer to compare them with what had gone before rather than with the Modernism that followed.

There is no case to be made that Brooke was a major poet, or that he was likely to have become one had he lived; but technically he was at least the equal of Owen and Sassoon; and there were rough drafts, written just before he died, suggesting a new cool realism that might have led on to something different, fresh and original:

I strayed about the deck an hour
Under a cloudy moonless sky, and peeped
In at the windows, watched my friends at table
Or playing cards, or standing in the doorway
Or coming out into the darkness. Still
No one could see me.

I would have thought of them
– Heedless within a week of battle – in pity,
Pride in their strength and in the weight and firm-
And link’d beauty of bodies, and pity that
This gay machine of splendour’ld soon be broken,
Thought little of, pashed, scattered …

Only always
I could see them – against the lamplight – pass
Like coloured shadows, thinner than filmy glass,
Slight bubbles, fainter than the wave’s faint light,
That broke to phosphorus out in the night,
Perishing things and strange ghosts – soon to die
To other ghosts – this one, or that, or I.

What in the end went against him, and prevented his talent from being critically and fairly recognised, was fame, the cult of Brooke, “the handsomest young man in England”, the soldier-poet whose “corner of a foreign field” would be “for ever England”.  He had become the proud possession of those whose interests were not primarily literary at all.

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