Tag Archives: poet

‘Youth’s Funeral’ by Rupert Brooke

One of the earliest donations of literary manuscripts to the Bodleian Library via the Friends of the Bodleian, founded in 1925, was a fair copy manuscript of Rupert Brooke’s poem ‘Youth’s Funeral’, published as ‘The Funeral of Youth: Threnody’ (shelfmark MS. Don. d. 1). According to the Summary Catalogue, the poem was donated by Mrs G.F. Brooke in 1926.(1)

Fair manuscript copy of Rupert Brooke’s poem, ‘Youth’s Funeral’, 1913, Bodleian Libraries, MS. Don. d. 1.

Today, Rupert Brooke is possibly best known as a War Poet and is included on the Poets of the First World War memorial in Poets’ Corner, Westminster Abbey, alongside fellow poets, Wilfred Owen, Edmund Blunden, and Siegfried Sassoon. ‘The Funeral of Youth’, however, was written in 1913, before the war. In the published version, the poem is described as a threnody, a memorial lament, and is an epitaph for bygone days of youthful innocence. In Fatal Glamour: The Life of Rupert Brooke, Paul Delany suggested Brooke’s inspiration was Thomas Hardy’s poem ‘God’s Funeral’, meditating on the death of belief, which had been published in the Fortnightly Review in 1911. (2) Brooke had met Hardy in Cambridge at a performance of Milton’s masque Comus by the Marlowe Society in 1908 (as well as producing the play, Brooke had played the Attendant Spirit).

Rupert Brooke was born on 3 August 1887 at 5 Hillmorton Road in Rugby, Warwickshire, to William Parker Brooke (1850-1910) and his wife, Ruth Mary Brooke (née Cotterill), the second of three sons. His father was classics tutor and later housemaster of School Field at Rugby School, which Rupert himself attended after studying as a day boy at Hillbrow preparatory school. At Rugby, he won a prize in 1905 for his poem, ‘The Bastille’, and excelled at sport. Brooke went on to read Classics at King’s College, Cambridge between 1906 and 1909. During this period, Brooke embraced various Cambridge groups, including the Apostles (an exclusive discussion group) and the Fabian Society. He also became one of what his friend Virginia Woolf would later call the ‘neo-pagans’, embracing outdoor exercise, vegetarianism, and alternative lifestyles, and having a strong interest in socialism.

Portrait of Rupert Brooke © IWM Q 71073 (IWM Non Commercial Licence)

After he completed his degree, he lived in nearby Grantchester continuing his academic studies and writing. His father died in January 1910 and Rupert went back to Rugby to cover as Deputy Housemaster for a term. His first volume of poetry, entitled Poems, was published in 1911. The following year, he helped Edward Howard Marsh (then Winston Churchill’s Private Secretary) publish the first of his Georgian Poetry series.(3) Brooke contributed several poems to Georgian Poetry 1911-1912, including one of his most famous poems, ‘The Old Vicarage, Grantchester’, which he had written while away in Berlin.

During 1912, however, Brooke had a nervous breakdown, part precipitated by his complex web of chaste and sexual relationships, and (potentially) confusion over his own sexuality.(4) Early in 1913, Brooke wrote ‘Youth’s Funeral’ whilst staying with his friends, Francis and Frances Cornford, in Cornwall. Later in the year he earned his longed for Fellowship at King’s College and then travelled abroad in order to restore his health, visiting the United States, Canada, and the South Sea Islands. A collection of prose essays of his time abroad was published posthumously as Letters from America in 1916 with an introduction by Henry James.

Rupert returned to England in June 1914 and, soon after war broke out in August, enlisted in the Royal Navy. Though he was at the siege of Antwerp, he saw little action. Shortly after this, he wrote his famous war sonnets, including ‘The Soldier’, which were published in New Numbers in December 1914. Having joined the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force in February 1915, Brooke sailed for Gallipoli, but he died at sea on 23rd April after contracting septicaemia from a mosquito bite. Winston Churchill paid tribute to him in The Times and Lascelles Abercrombie’s obituary in the Morning Post (27 April 1915) quoted from Brooke’s ‘The Funeral of Youth’.(5) Later that year, Brooke’s 1914 and other Poems (including ‘The Funeral of Youth: Threnody’) was published posthumously; his Collected Poems were edited by Edward Marsh, his literary executor, and published with a memoir in 1918.

Binding by Douglas Cockerell for manuscript of Rupert Brooke’s poem, ‘Youth’s Funeral’, 1913, Bodleian Libraries, MS. Don. d. 1.

As with many of the early Friends of the Bodleian deposits, the manuscript of ‘Youth’s Funeral’ has been finely bound in brown Morocco, in this case by the renowned bookbinder Douglas Cockerell and is encased in a bespoke wooden box. Interestingly, Cockerell was appointed adviser on printing to the Imperial War Graves Commission and he oversaw the printing and binding of the registers of the dead for each war cemetery.(6) Whilst Brooke is commemorated as a war casualty, the circumstances of his death meant he was buried in an isolated grave on the island on Skyros. His friend and fellow solider Denis Browne described Brooke’s burial place as ‘one of the loveliest places on this earth, with grey-green olives round him, one weeping above his head’.(7)

In his introduction to Letters from America, Henry James described Brooke as ‘young, happy, radiant, extraordinarily endowed and irresistibly attaching’. Along with the patriotism of his 1914 sonnets, the image of an innocent young poet tragically killed in the course of war prevailed for many years, an image which was carefully maintained by his friends and literary trustees. In reality, Brooke was a more complex character and, though they made him famous, his war poems only account for a small proportion of his work.

– Rachael Marsay


Footnotes

  1. A little research has shed no light on the identity of Mrs G.F. Brooke, though she was presumably a relation of Rupert’s (there are no candidates in his immediate family, all Rupert’s siblings had died unmarried by the date of the deposit). The Archive of Rupert Brooke is held at King’s College, Cambridge.
  2. Paul Delany, Fatal Glamour: The Life of Rupert Brooke (Montreal/Kingston 2015), p.126-127.
  3. See Great Writers Inspire podcast (University of Oxford), ‘Georgians and Others’ by Dr Stuart Lee.
  4. By this time, Brooke had been romantically involved with Noel Olivier, Katherine (‘Ka’) Laird Cox, Phyllis Gardner and the actress Cathleen Nesbitt. An oral history interview of Cathleen Nesbitt, which touches on her relationship with Rupert Brooke, is available on the Imperial War Museum website.
  5. Quoted in ‘Rupert Brooke (3 August 1887-23 April 1915)’ in Patrick Quinn (ed.), British Poets of The Great War: Brooke, Rosenberg, Thomas: A Documentary Volume, Dictionary of Literary Biography vol. 216, Gale, 2000, p. 5-97.
  6. A. Crawford, ‘Cockerell, Douglas Bennett (1870–1945), bookbinder’, in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004, online).
  7. Rupert Brooke and Edward Howard Marsh, The Collected Poems of Rupert Brooke : With a Memoir (1918).

 


Please note that following guidance from the UK Government and Public Health England, the Bodleian Libraries are now closed until further notice. Please check the Bodleian Libraries website and Bodleian Twitter for the latest information.

New catalogue: papers of Edmund Blunden

The catalogue for a collection of letters and papers relating to the poet Edmund Blunden is now available online.*

Perhaps best remembered for being a war poet, Edmund Blunden is commemorated alongside fellow war poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey. Many of his war poems, however, were written in retrospect and have the added poignancy of being written by an author over whose entire remaining life the First World War cast a long shadow. His poetry, like that of his literary hero John Clare, often evoked nature and explored how the natural world was affected by the devastating effects of war.

Born in London on 1st November 1896, the eldest of nine children, Edmund’s formative years were spent in Yalding, Kent. He attended Christ’s Hospital in Horsham, Sussex. When he left school in 1915, he joined the Royal Sussex Regiment as a Second Lieutenant and fought on the front line. His war years were not without distinction and he was awarded the Military Cross in 1917. He would later write about his experiences in his acclaimed prose work, Undertones of War, published in 1930.

During the last year of the war, when on camp in Suffolk, he met, fell in love with, and married Mary Daines, a local 19-year-old girl. Their first child, Joy, was born the following year but tragically died after only a few weeks. Joy’s death was to haunt him for the rest of his life. Mary carefully kept the letters Edmund sent her during their courtship when he was away with military duties; as she requested, however, her own love letters to him have not survived.

Edmund Blunden and Mary Blunden (née Daines), by Lady Ottoline Morrell, 1920 © National Portrait Gallery, London (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

After demobilisation in 1919, Edmund started studying at The Queen’s College, Oxford but this was cut short, partly for financial reasons. He travelled alone to Buenos Aires in 1922 and then accepted the post of professor of English at the Imperial University of Tokyo in 1924. Both times he left Mary and his family behind, their daughter Mary Clare having been born in 1920 and a son John Clare in 1922. Edmund, always a prolific correspondent, sent home copious letters, postcards, and Japanese prints, which Mary and later Mary Clare kept carefully. However, the strain of living apart took its toll on an increasingly fragile relationship. Edmund returned home in 1927 and the couple were divorced in 1931.

Despite an inauspicious start at Oxford, Edmund became Fellow and Tutor in English Literature at Merton College, Oxford between 1931 and 1947. In these years he met and married the writer, Sylva Norman (née Nahabedian). The marriage, perhaps based more on intellectual need than compatibility, was short lived. Shortly after the marriage was dissolved in 1945, he married Claire Margaret Poynting, a young teacher and Oxford graduate, who shared his love of literature and cricket. They had four daughters.

Edmund returned twice again to the Far East – firstly in a diplomatic role between 1947 and 1950, before returning for a longer period as Professor of English Literature at the University of Hong Kong between 1954 and 1964. This time, though, he took his entire family with him.

Publicly acknowledged for his works to literature, in 1951 he was made a CBE, received the Queen’s Gold Medal for poetry in 1956, and was made a companion of the Royal Society of Literature in 1962. Upon his retirement in 1964, the family returned to Suffolk. Though his health was deteriorating, Edmund Blunden was elected Professor of Poetry at Oxford in 1966, a post he had to resign after two years. He died at his home in Long Melford in 1974 aged 77.

The collection contains an extensive series of correspondence, dating from 1918 to the 1960s, mainly comprising letters sent from Edmund Blunden to his first wife Mary. The collection also includes commonplace books, scrapbooks, newspaper cuttings, various papers and correspondence relating to biographies, and papers relating to Mary Blunden.

– Rachael Marsay

*Please note that the collection is not currently accessible as, following guidance from the UK Government and Public Health England, the Bodleian Libraries are now closed until further notice. Please do check the Bodleian Libraries website and Bodleian Twitter for the latest information.