10. The 'Myth'
A century after his death, Rupert Brooke remains an extremely popular poet. His poetry is still read with interest, both in the course of study and leisure. While his popularity has not diminished, our understanding of the poet, his life and interests, has developed significantly.
Rupert Brooke was a popular figure during his life, often admired for his looks, charm and creative talents. W.B. Yeats, the Irish poet, famously described Brooke as ‘the handsomest man in England’, while Frances Cornford compared him to the god Apollo.
On Rupert Brooke
A young Apollo, golden-haired,
Stands dreaming on the verge of strife,
For the long littleness of life.
It has been suggested that the earliest tributes to Brooke painted an idealistic picture of him, rather than giving a well-rounded description of the real Rupert Brooke. This idealised and god-like view of him is often referred to as the ‘myth’ of Rupert Brooke.
When Rupert Brooke was at Rugby School, his father was the Master of School Field House. Far from being confined by his position as the son of the Master of his house, Rupert Brooke stood out, not least because of the length of his hair and his way of dressing.
Biographer Christopher Hassall suggested that Brooke liked to seize opportunities in ‘the anti-Philistine war’, rejecting ‘conventional hypocrisy’ (Hassall, 1964; 83).
Rupert Brooke often viewed himself in relation to his close friends. When relationships with others went through difficulties, these would affect him quite deeply. This is most clearly shown by a letter he wrote after his relationship with Ka Cox ended, in which he appears to mistrust most of his former friends. Some have suggested that he suffered a ‘breakdown’ at that point in his life, after which he went travelling in North America. He seems to have been quite open in his discussion of relationships and sometimes even self-deprecating, referring to his heart as a ‘cess pool’ (The British Library, RP5785 f.121).
Rupert Brooke was admired by many, for both his looks and his wit. This admiration took many forms, including friendship and love. Others viewed him as a god-like figure.
Others, including Fellows of King’s College and some members of the Apostles (a secret society in Cambridge), viewed him in more human terms, occasionally even tinged with a little cynicism. These people disliked the emergence of the ‘myth’ of Rupert Brooke, wishing him to be remembered as a real person. They recognised his talents and charm but also saw his ordinary human faults.
Edward Dent, a Fellow at King’s College and Cambridge University’s first Professor of Music, seems to have had mixed feelings about Rupert Brooke. He was familiar with Brooke through their mutual participation in dramatic productions, including the Greek play Eumenides and the Marlowe Society’s production of Comus. Brooke also had a role in the first productions of The Magic Flute in English, translated by Dent. While Dent seems to have been among those who considered Brooke’s talents as a performer to be rather limited, he still seems to have been fond of him and was quite moved when he died.
James Strachey was known to have had feelings for his close friend Rupert Brooke. He was instrumental in persuading his brother Lytton Strachey and Maynard Keynes to elect Brooke a member of the secret debating society called the Apostles. Initially, the Apostles seem to have had some doubts about Rupert Brooke but he was soon accepted by them.
There have been several biographies of Rupert Brooke and his close circle of friends, each of which have differed greatly from the others.
Edward Marsh claimed that Rupert Brooke chose him as his literary executor in February 1915. This led to Marsh writing his first biography, which was initially published as a preface to The Collected Poems of Rupert Brooke in 1918, then as a separate book.
The biography was the subject of much discussion among Brooke’s friends and his mother.Mary Ruth Brooke made it clear that she would have liked Geoffrey Keynes (later to be appointed one of Rupert Brooke’s literary trustees) to write about her son, as Keynes had known him much longer. After delays in the publication of Marsh’s Memoir (see a scan of the American edition, including important prefaces, below), it received a mixed reception. Many thought that it omitted certain important aspects of Brooke’s life and failed to give a true representation of his personality. Subsequent biographers have attempted to correct this.
An anonymous review of The Collected Poems of Rupert Brooke, with a Memoir was published in the Times Literary Supplement on 8 August 1918. A letter which Virginia Woolf wrote to Rupert Brooke’s friend Ka Cox on 13 August 1918 suggests that Woolf was the author of the review.
She appears to have been concerned about what Mrs. Brooke would think of the review. Although she was not particularly close to Rupert Brooke, Virginia Woolf had known the Brooke family for many years and two of Rupert Brooke’s closest friends in his early life were younger brothers of her friends in the Bloomsbury group (Geoffrey Keynes and James Strachey, younger brothers of John Maynard Keynes and Lytton Strachey respectively).
Geoffrey Keynes published an edition of Brooke’s letters in 1968. Later Keith Hale edited another edition of letters, this time focusing on the correspondence of Rupert Brooke and his friend James Strachey. In the preface to Hale’s book he stated that ‘the previously published Brooke correspondence was heavily edited or censored’. When Keynes omitted part of a letter, this was usually indicated using three asterisks, although there is at least one case of a postscript being omitted without that indication.
When answering these questions, consider what additional sources you would use to explore the subject more thoroughly, and where you might find them.
- Is there a ‘myth’ surrounding Rupert Brooke and if so, how it was created?
- In addition to the sources mentioned in this section, reflect on the administrative history of relevant archival collections, which may have been used by biographers.
- Archival documents weren’t usually created for the purpose of historical research. Is it important to reflect on the intended audience when reading archival documents?
- Can anyone be truly objective when using archives?
- Can biographies and edited volumes of letters preserve the contextual information which is found in an archive?
Why keep the papers of Rupert Brooke when so much has been published?
- Hale, K. (1998) Friends and Apostles: The Correspondence of Rupert Brooke and James Strachey, 1905-1914, New Haven and London: Yale University Press
- Hassall, C. (1964) Rupert Brooke: a Biography, London; Faber
- Keynes, G. (ed.) (1968) The letters of Rupert Brooke, London: Faber and Faber
- Marsh, E. (1918) Rupert Brooke: A Memoir, London: Sidgwick & Jackson, Limited
- For details of further secondary sources relating to Rupert Brooke, please see the Recommended Reading page.