Rupert Chawner Brooke was born at Rugby on 3rd August 1887, the middle of the three sons of William and Mary Brooke. William Brooke was a Classics master at Rugby, where Rupert and this brothers Richard and William grew up under the watchful eye of their domineering mother.
Brooke was educated at Hillbrow Preparatory School, then at Rugby, where he showed himself to be gifted, both academically and on the sports field. This, coupled with his handsome features, made him a popular student. In 1906, Brooke won a scholarship to King’s College, Cambridge, where he read Classics and enjoyed an idyllic life of outings, picnics and boating on the Cam. At the same time, he embarked upon a series of unsuccessful love affairs and at the end of each, became almost suicidally depressed: a situation not helped by the death of his older brother Richard in 1907. During his final year at King’s Brook moved to the Old Vicarage at Grantchester in order to make a determined effort to put his problems behind him and focus on his studies.
In 1910, Brooke’s father died, so he stood in as temporary housemaster for one term, before beginning to work on a thesis on Webster and the Elizabethan dramatists, which would later earn him a fellowship at King’s. He also embarked on another doomed affair with Katharine Cox, the failure of which saw him leave England, bound for the Continent. In May 1912, while travelling, he wrote his most famous pre-war poem, The Old Vicarage, Grantchester, which evokes the archetypal image of Edwardian England.
Upon his return to England in late 1912, Brooke was introduced by Edward Marsh (a leading patron of the arts and private secretary to Winston Churchill) to many literary figures, including Wilfrid Wilson Gibson, with whom Brooke collaborated on the Georgian Anthology of poems.
In spring 1913, Brooke left England again, travelling to America and Canada, before proceeding to New Zealand and then Tahiti, where he fell in love with a beautiful Samoan girl named Taatamata. By the summer of 1914, Brooke was back in England and following the declaration of war, he gained a commission as a sub-lieutenant in the Royal Naval Division – with the assistance of Winston Churchil (then First Lord of the Admiralty). On October 4th, Brooke and his battalion, Anson, left for Antwerp to help stem the German advance through Belgium. This exercise proved a failure and the men joined the Belgian refugees fleeing the approaching German troops. By October 9th, Brooke was back in England and this would prove to be his only military experience of the war.
Brooke transferred to Hood battalion and at the end of November began working on the five sonnets that would make him famous. He completed them in early 1915 and send them to Wilfrid Wilson Gibson. On February 28th, Brooke boarded the Grantully Castle, bound for Gallipoli but, while en-route, at the beginning of April, he became unwell, developing a sore on his upper lip. Slowly his health seemed to improve and he received a letter from Edward Marsh telling him that his sonnet The Soldier had been read during a sermon at St Paul’s and subsequently published in The Times.
However, on April 20th, Brooke’s illness returned and by the following day he had deteriorated even further. After examination by several doctors it was agreed that the problem was an infected mosquito bite and despite all attempts to save him, Rupert Brooke died on the afternoon of 23rd April 1915. He was buried in an olive grove on the island of Skyros, where his grave still lies.
The blow to Brooke’s mother was compounded by the death of her only remaining son, William just nine weeks later on the Western Front, where he was serving as a Second Lieutenant with the London Regiment (Post Office Rifles).
In the aftermath of Brooke’s death, his friends sought to bring his poetry to the attention of the general public and volumes of his work sold in large numbers. Brooke had made Wilfrid Wilson Gibson a legatee of his literary estate (along with Walter de la Mare and Lascelles Abercrombie), thus ensuring that Gibson’s previous financial difficulties were a thing of the past.
Although Brooke’s poetry has sometimes been criticised for its lack of realism and its sentimentality, it should be born in mind that many poets were writing in a similar style at the time. Whether Brooke would have changed his tone had he gone on to experience the realities of trench warfare later in the war, remains an unanswerable question. However, we must credit him for capturing the very essence of his time, encapsulating the pride and patriotism then being displayed by so many of his generation.