A Richer Dust: Rupert Brooke & The Culture of Mourning
Rupert Brooke was a poet and an icon of youth for the literary and artistic circles of the early twentieth century. In April 1915, while serving in the Royal Navy during the First World War, Brooke died of blood poisoning. Brooke’s poem “The Soldier” – “If I should die, think only this of me:/ That there’s some corner of a foreign field/ That is for ever England” – is one of the most famous war poems of all time, and has become a symbol of the war’s early patriotic fervor. Rauner Special Collections Library holds one of the world’s finest collections of Brooke-related material. Brooke’s legacy unfolds in books, letters, and the print culture of the First World War era.
The exhibition was curated by Laura Braunstein and Morgan Swan and was on display in the Class of 1965 Galleries from June 4 through July 31, 2014.
Materials Included in the Exhibition
Case 1. Testaments of Youth
Rupert Brooke was born in 1887 the English Midlands town of Rugby, where his father was a master at Rugby School. He is chiefly remembered today for his poetry, but among his contemporaries he was an icon of youth and the promise of literary talent. Brooke, at various times referred to as a “young Apollo,” the “handsomest man in England,” and a “lithe and radiant figure,” played the muse for the literary and artistic circles that he frequented. Still, he was more than just a pretty face; his dissertation, John Webster and the Elizabethan Drama won him a fellowship to King’s College, Cambridge, and he published poetry and contributed regularly to various literary publications. Like many young men of his class and era, Brooke also amassed a significant library that included a collection of Catullus’ poetry and Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Last Adventures of Sherlock Holmes as well as volumes dedicated to him or written about him by his admirers.
- W. F. Barry. The Times Law Reports. London, 1906. Brooke KD288 .A5 v.22 no.20
- In the spirit of youthful irreverence, Brooke and several companions were cited for trespassing on an estate while catching moths in 1906, when he was 19 years old.
- Gaius Valerius Catullus. Catulli, Tibulli et Propertii Carmina. Ad praestantium librorum lectiones accurate recensuit C. H. Weise. Lipsiae, sumtibus et typis Caroli Tauchnitii, 1843. Brooke Library PA6274 .A2 1843
- It was common for copies of classical texts to be rebound with blank pages interleaved so that students could include their own translations. Brooke’s copy of Catullus’ writings belonged to his father before him.
- Arthur Conan Doyle. The Last Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Being a New Edition of His “Memoirs.” London: G. Newnes, 1897. Brooke Library PR4622 .L3
- This volume, given to the eleven-year-old Brooke in 1898, contains the earliest example of his signature.
- Rupert Brooke. Letters from America. With a preface by Henry James. New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1916. Brooke 29. This item has also been digitized by the Hathi Trust.
- Brooke’s reflections on his 1913 Grand Tour, which was subsidized by the Westminster Gazette, are collected in this volume.
- The Blue Review. 1.3 (July 1913). Brooke 9 v.1, no.1-3 My.-Jl.1913 and Brooke Library AP4 .B62 v.1, no.2 Je.1913
- A “little magazine” edited by John Middleton Murray and Katherine Mansfield, The Blue Review published Brooke, John Drinkwater, D. H. Lawrence and other emerging writers.
- Rupert Brooke. John Webster and the Elizabethan Drama. London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1916. Brooke 25 (3 copies).
- Sherrill Schell. Portraits of Rupert Brooke, 1913.
- Brooke’s photogenic charisma, as demonstrated in this series, inspired his Cambridge friends to nickname him “your favourite actress.”
- Lilian Street. Rupert and Other Dreams. London: Elkin Mathews, 1909. Brooke Library PR5499.S185 R8
- Testifying to what can only be a feat of self-aware narcissism, Brooke owned a copy of this encomium by Miss Lilian Street, a sentimental poet: “In his own countenance I could not find / One look that was not wholly to my mind: / His face, so full of shy romantic grace, /Was beautiful and humorous and kind.”
Case 2. “An Amusing Experience”
When World War I began in the fall of 1914, Rupert Brooke was commissioned into the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve as a sub-lieutenant. He participated in the failed defense of Antwerp a few months later, where he witnessed first-hand the true brutality of the war. In a February 1915 letter to poet and critic Edmund Gosse, Brooke reflects on the loss of friends as a result of the ongoing conflict. Several months later, Rupert Brooke would himself die aboard a French hospital ship near the Greek island of Skyros on April 22, 1915. The cause was not a war wound but blood poisoning caused by a severely infected mosquito bite. Brooke’s poetry had begun to garner widespread attention after two of his war sonnets, “The Dead” and “The Soldier,” were published in The Times Literary Supplement. A month after he died, 1914 & Other Poems was published and became wildly popular, requiring eleven subsequent impressions in that year alone. This explosion of Brooke’s popularity was fueled by the tragic circumstances of his death, an event that Brooke anticipated in his poetry. The numerous versions of Brooke’s works that appeared after his demise speak to the immediate impact they had, but also to their continuing significance decades later: a Braille version of 1914 with a handwritten dedication to a son who died in the Battle of the Somme; a 1940 Armed Services Edition of Brooke’s collected poems; and two editions of a selection of Brooke’s sonnets set to music, with the title of the later edition altered slightly to capitalize upon the surge of public interest in the poet.
- Rupert Brooke. “The Life Beyond.” 1911.
- Brooke’s imagery of the “long livid oozing plain” and “a thing that cries;/ An unmeaning point upon the mud” foreshadows the horrors of trench warfare.
- Rupert Brooke. War Poems. London: Privately printed, 1915. Brooke PR6003.R4 W6
- One of very few copies privately printed by Lady Desborough, mother of Julian Grenfell, another poet killed in the war.
- Rupert Brooke. “1914,” Five Sonnets. London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1915. Brooke 36 (2 copies)
- This promotional pamphlet, which included his most famous poems, was a cheap alternative to the first edition and was clearly meant to be widely circulated by mail.
- Rupert Brooke. 1914 and Other Poems. London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1915. Brooke 35
- Rupert Brooke. 1914 and Other Poems. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1915. Brooke 34
- This “unique first edition” was published before the American rights to Brooke’s poems were secured, and projected his American popularity.
- Rupert Brooke. “1914.” Poems, by Rupert Brooke. Transcribed into Braille by E. I. F. Williamson. [n.d.] Brooke 33
- Inscribed “To the dear Memory of her Boy/ Killed in ‘The Battle of the Somme’/ September 15th, 1916.”
- Rupert Brooke. The Collected Poems of Rupert Brooke. Editions for the Armed Services, 1940. Brooke PR6003 .R4 1940
- Armed Services Editions were specially published for American troops serving in World War II. The inclusion of Brooke’s poetry in this series testifies to the continuing popularity of his work as a symbol of patriotic fervor.
- Rupert Brooke. Letter to Edmund Gosse, 19 February 1915. MSS 915169.1
February 19 
To Edmund Gosse,
I was in the country for last week-end – till late on Sunday night – so I couldn’t come to dinner – couldn’t even say I wasn’t coming, in time. I’m sorry. I was unlucky to have coincided with your indisposition, too, a fortnight ago. It would have been very nice to have seen you and talked with you. Now, I’m afraid I shan’t have another chance, for some time. We’re going abroad very soon, it appears. It’ll be an amusing experience. But I wish we could beat them, & have done with it, this summer. So many of my friends have been killed lately. It forestalls Time too much in stripping the world away from me.
- Sydney H. Nicholson. “1914.” Poems by Rupert Brooke, Set to Music for Solo, Chorus and Orchestra. London: J. Curwen, 1917. Brooke 24 and Brooke M1740 .N535
- Sydney H. Nicholson. "In Remembrance (1914)." Sonnets by Rupert Brooke, Set to Music for Solo, Chorus and Orchestra. London: J. Curwen, 1917. Brooke 24 and Brooke M1740 .N535
Case 3. In Memoriam R. C. B.
Rupert Brooke’s death and the subsequent publication of 1914 inspired an outpouring of eulogistic prose and poetry lamenting the loss of such an inspiring young man. Despite this postmortem adulation of Brooke as a tragic and stirring example of British patriotism, not every voice praised the young writer. After Brooke’s death, his close friends and fellow poets took great pains, both privately and publicly, to separate public sentiment for Brooke the person from Brooke’s actual literary talent. One of these comrades, Edward Thomas, was a fellow member of the Dymock Poets, a group of writers who lived in the vicinity of the village of Dymock in Gloucestershire, England, just before the war. In a letter to Robert Frost, Thomas remarks that Brooke “lacked power of expression.” Harold Monro, publisher of the anthology Georgian Poetry, warned that it was “a foolish but common public failing to attach some special interest to a man’s verses on account of painful or romantic circumstances connected with his death.” Still, despite these attempts to regulate the strength of feeling about Brooke’s poetry, the popular appeal of his passionate lines came to define a jingoistic philosophy towards the war that would later be challenged by poets such as Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon.
- Rugby School. Memorials of Rugbeians Who Fell in the Great War. [London]: Printed for Rugby School by P. L. Warner, 1916. Brooke 136
- Nearly 700 alumni of the Rugby School, including Brooke and his younger brother William, were killed in the First World War.
- Edward Thomas. Letter to Robert Frost, 19 October 1916. From MS-1178 (Box 10, Folder 33, 34, or 35)
- “It would take me too long to be sure what I think of Rupert…. I don’t think ill of him. I think he succeeded in being youthful and yet intelligible and interesting (not only pathologically) more than most poets since Shelley. But thought gave him (and me) indigestion. He couldn’t mix his thought or the result of it with his feeling. He could only think about his feeling. Radically, I think he lacked power of expression. He was a rhetorician, dressing things up better than they needed. And I suspect he knew too well both what he was after and what he achieved.”
- C. E. Byles. Rupert Brooke’s Grave, and Other Poems. London: E. Macdonald, 1919. Brooke 52. This item has also been digitized by the Hathi Trust.
- This collection includes a photograph of the original cairn on Skyros, which was replaced after the war with a permanent monument commissioned by Brooke’s mother.
- Georgian Poetry, 1913-1915. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1916. Brooke PR1225 .G4 1915a
- This series, published by Harold Monro and edited by Edward Marsh, promoted the work of poets, including Brooke, D. H. Lawrence, and John Drinkwater, who represented to later critics a movement against which Modernism asserted itself.
- Conrad Aiken. “Rupert Brooke (Died at the Dardanelles, April, 1915).” The Atlantic Monthly 116.1 (1915), 98. Brooke 2
- This elegy by the American poet Aiken typifies the extravagant adulation lavished upon Brooke on both sides of the Atlantic.
- Jeanne Perdriel-Vaissière. Rupert Brooke’s Death and Burial. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1917. Brooke 124 and Brooke Y12pe. This item has also been digitized by the Hathi Trust.
- Some memorials of Brooke bordered on the morbid – this volume translated and liberally embellished the log books of the French hospital ship where Brooke died.
- Stanley Casson. Rupert Brooke and Skyros. London: E. Mathews, 1921. Brooke 53 and Baker Berry 827 B79 BC2. This item has also been digitized by the Hathi Trust.
- After the war, gravesites became a popular destination for pilgrimage and mourning. This travelogue includes woodcuts of Brooke’s grave on the Aegean island of Skyros.
- Edward Thomas. “Rupert Brooke.” The English Review 20.3 (June 1915): 325-28. Brooke 152
- In his public eulogy for Brooke, fellow war poet Thomas (who was killed on the Western Front in 1917) hints at his frank assessment of Brooke’s fame privately expressed later to Robert Frost: “Many people knew the man or the reputation of his personal charm. Wherever he went, he made friends, well-wishers, admirers, adorers.”