The Old Vicarage, Grantchester is among Rupert Brooke’s most famous and most popular poems. Although Brooke is often remembered for his war poetry, this is a good example of his earlier poems and has made the Cambridgeshire village it describes a popular destination for tourists and poetry lovers.
Read The Old Vicarage, Grantchester on the Rupert Brooke Society website.
The poem was not without critics though. In an essay entitled Inside the Whale (1940), George Orwell wrote:
Rupert Brooke’s 'Grantchester', the star poem of 1913, is nothing but an enormous gush of 'country' sentiment, a sort of accumulated vomit from a stomach stuffed with place-names. Considered as a poem 'Grantchester' is something worse than worthless but as an illustration of what the thinking middle-class young of that period felt it is a valuable document.
When Rupert Brooke finished his B.A., in the summer of 1909, he moved to a house called The Orchard, in Grantchester. There he spent much of his time outdoors with his close friends, dubbed the ‘Neo-Pagans’ by Virginia Woolf. He wrote poetry there, picnicked and even wrestled friends on the grass at the Meadows, which lie between Cambridge and Grantchester.
In August 1910 he moved to the Old Vicarage, Grantchester. After this, he spent some time travelling. He made his new home famous through the poem in the previous section, which he wrote while visiting his friend Dudley Ward in Berlin, as part of a tour of the continent. He later went on a lengthy tour of America and Canada, returning via the South Pacific.
Poems often appear in various states before the final version which we normally consider 'the poem'. On the previous page, we saw the first draft of Rupert Brooke's 'The Sentimental Exile', which later became 'The Old Vicarage, Grantchester'. When Rupert Brooke was alive, it was common for extracts, or 'fragments', of poems to be published in magazines before they were published in poetry books. Similarly, novels would be serialised and printed a chapter at a time in magazines.
Rupert Brooke produced a neat copy, referred to as a 'fair copy', of his poem for the editors of a King's College student magazine called 'The Basileon'. This fair copy includes the title 'Fragments from a Poem to be Entitled “The Sentimental Exile”' and is held at the Fitzwilliam Museum, in Cambridge. It can be seen below.
The fragments were published in Basileon in June 1912.
Visiting Grantchester, one feels that it is a very traditional and unspoilt village. This impression is helped by the Meadows, which separate it from nearby Cambridge, the river flowing through it and the Orchard Tea Rooms.
Despite the initial sense that Grantchester is unchanged, it is worth considering whether Rupert Brooke’s Grantchester was different to that we see today. One of the most obvious changes is in the use of Grantchester Mill. The Old Mill was destroyed by a fire in 30 October 1928. The Mill House was rebuilt but Grantchester no longer has the working mill which Rupert Brooke would have seen.
Not only did Grantchester influence the life and work of Rupert Brooke but his association with the village has had a significant impact on the village too.
The East Anglian Film Archive’s website includes a film about Rupert Brooke (see the link below). Filmed in 1961, it looks at his relationship with Grantchester.
While Grantchester is home to a popular Rupert Brooke museum and his name features on the village’s First World War memorial, there is no dedicated public memorial to him alone at Grantchester.
Papers on this subject question where Rupert Brooke felt most at home and where would be the most appropriate location for a memorial. His first memorial was at Rugby, where they created a memorial plaque based on a famous photograph by Sherrill Schell. Although Grantchester was not originally considered the most fitting place for his memorial, there have been subsequent discussions of creating a further memorial to him there.
At ten to three on 11 June 2006, Lady Margaret Thatcher unveiled a statue at the front of the Old Vicarage. Commissioned by the current owners of the Old Vicarage, the sculpture by Paul Day shows Rupert Brooke standing proudly in his military uniform. Though it is not a public memorial, it can be seen by passers-by.
When answering these questions, consider what additional sources you would use to explore the subject more thoroughly, and where you might find them.
- How did Rupert Brooke feel about Grantchester?
- Is Orwell’s criticism of Rupert Brooke’s poem ‘The Old Vicarage, Grantchester’ fair? Does the poem provide a vivid description of Cambridgeshire or is it the result of homesickness and sentimentality?
- Can a poem be a historically ‘valuable document’? If so, does it need to be read in context?
- Where do you think Rupert Brooke would have wanted his memorial?
The following question will require you to use additional sources, either online or in a library.
- Reflect on poets and their sense of place, drawing comparisons with other poets if possible. Do poets describe places in relation to their own experiences?