Something Rather Scandalous

Jean McNicol

  • something-rather-scandalousRupert Brooke: Life, Death and Myth by Nigel Jones Head of Zeus, 588 pp, £12.00, April 2015, ISBN 978 1 78185 703 8

  • Fatal Glamour: The Life of Rupert Brooke by Paul Delany McGill-Queens, 380 pp, £28.99, March 2015, ISBN 978 0 7735 4557 1

  • The Second I Saw You: The True Love Story of Rupert Brooke and Phyllis Gardner by Lorna C. Beckett British Library, 216 pp, £16.99, April 2015, ISBN 978 0 7123 5792 0

Rupert Brooke died of septicaemia caused by an infected mosquito bite, on his way to fight in Gallipoli in April 1915. It wasn’t a romantic or heroic death, but it proved easy enough to turn into legend: that he died in the Aegean and not a ditch in Northern France helped; so did his burial on the island of Skyros, where Achilles lived and Theseus was killed; so did the speed with which his death followed on the publication of his five war sonnets, his most famous and least typical poems, which had just been praised by the dean of St Paul’s for their ‘pure and elevated patriotism’. Churchill’s threnody to an already mythical soldier-poet appeared in the Times three days after his death: ‘Joyous, fearless, versatile, deeply instructed, with classical 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.’ It was Churchill who, as First Lord of the Admiralty, had formed the Royal Naval Division, secured Brooke a place in it and sent it east, in the hope of helping Russia by taking Constantinople and opening up the Black Sea. In the weeks after Brooke’s death landings were finally made on the Gallipoli peninsula and many of his battalion were gunned down by Turks positioned on the high ground; 11 of its 15 officers were lost by the end of June.

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Brooke was buried a few hours after his death in an olive grove on Skyros: it was ‘as though one were involved in the origin of some classical myth’, F.S. Kelly, who would survive until the Somme, noted in his diary. Brooke and his fellow officers, all public schoolboys who’d studied Greek, had been carried away by the Homeric echoes of their journey: ‘Do you think perhaps the fort on the Asiatic corner will need quelling,’ Brooke had written, ‘and we’ll land and come at it from behind and they’ll make a sortie and meet us on the plains of Troy?’ They were primed to see Brooke’s death at this time, in this place, in those terms. They were also aware that their own deaths might well follow swiftly and that, as Denis Browne, who would die in trench fighting in Gallipoli that June, wrote, ‘there’s no one to bury me as I buried him.’ The scene, in any case, was impossibly romantic. ‘Oc’ Asquith, the prime minister’s son (who would survive, though he had a leg amputated), described it to his sister Violet: ‘the moon thinly veiled: a man carrying a plain wooden cross and a lantern leading the way: some other lanterns glimmering: the scent of wild thyme’.

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Another reminder that Anne Fletcher will lead a discussion on Poetry of the First World War on October 27. Please see the SCHEDULE PAGE for a list of Anne’s selected poems (and prose). Anne also invites members to bring their own favourites to read and discuss.

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