15 MAY 1964, Page 17


Honey for Tea


YEARS ago in the cynical History Sixth at Sherborne we used to repeat the line, 'If I Should die, think only this of me,' and then add, with what we thought decisively sardonic Wit, 'He is and we don't!' In the early Thirties we were, of course, pacifists, adherents of Owen and Sassoon, whom we had recently discovered; to us Rupert Brooke was politically anathema as the hero of a militaristic legend, the author of those shy-makingly naïve war sonnets, and suspect also as the darling of our mothers and aunts and of manly philistines who read him as they read Housman and, surprisingly, Wilde. But 1 suspect that our contempt concealed a certain ambivalence. We had, I think, a sneaking regard for a poet who so magnificently looked the part, Who was so successful and acceptable, who had been a cricketer and Head of his House at Rugby, and who seemed to have carried into adult life the (blithe, lithe, innocent, etc.) boyishness our mothers prayerfully saw in us, but which we ourselves had given up looking for. And then, again, we sixth-formers had not really struggled out of Georgianism, we were Still close to de la Mare's anthology, Conte Hither, and to the first volumes of Poems of Today. Certain tendencies which had accumu- lated across the five volumes and ten years of Edward Marsh's Georgian Poetry (19l2-22), over Whose inception Brooke enthusiastically presided, had solidified in J. C. Squire's London Mercury. With the aid of older poets—Belloc for Sussex, Chesterton for beer—the literary atmosphere was one of a patriotic and sentimental ruralism in Which an often self-conscious simplicity frolicked about a changing, dying countryside—or a petty romanticism tiptoed through 'the land of dream.' Re-reading Brooke's poems—in the light of the late Christopher Hassall's monumental 500-page biography'o—I can see much that would be at- tractive to eighteen-year-olds, but little or nothing that could really help them. Like a male Edna St. Vincent Millay, he wrote much on love and was addicted to the form of the sonnet. His favourite epithet seems to have been 'white,' with its train of 'pale,' 'faint,' dim,"white fire of moonlight,' although 'holy' crops up pretty often (despite Virginia Woolf's description of him as consciously and defiantly pagan') and there are also lithe,' jolly,"ghostly,"splendid.' He makes much of ecstasy and flame (gleam, golden dream, flame of youth, love as a flame). He is fond of the phrase 'the heart of me' and at least once uses 'the lips of you.' And his rhymes are fre- quently expected: trees, breeze; fire, mire. .It is understandable that Edward Marsh urged him to be more objective because, like later Georgians, he so often dealt in vague immensities, wind and hill and star,"wing, and leaf, and pool of light'—the accumulation via conjunctions is characteristic. The result was 'The Great * RUPERT BROOKE. By Christopher Hassall. (Faber, 45s.)

Lover,' a late poem written in the Pacific in 1914. To my mind, only one of the images— the Tennysonian bit about 'the little dulling edge of foam'—escapes the bogus charm of the rest of the list. Objectivity shrinks from each word of pastiche succulence in 'Radiant raindrops couching in cool flowers,' while the more you look at the famous 'rough male kiss of blankets' the odder it becomes. Almost all the verse is adolescent in attitude, as can be seen when it becomes angry and daring and out to shock; he dislikes all the things that a school prefect ought to dislike—a middle-aged sensualist listening to Wagner (fat belly, slimy lips), the horrible thought of people making love when past their prime (flabby lips this time, and a bald head), sweat, smells, flies, rottenness, dirt. Nevertheless, despite the moral earnestness Mr. Hassall stresses, what also emerges is that Brooke, who was jolly good at poetry competitions, was often in reality just having fun with a verbal game. Poems were tossed off and posted immediately.

Mr. Hassall is at pains to defend the verse. He compares Brooke to Andrew Marvell, praises the 'lightness of touch graced by his metaphysical turn of wit'—as though the best of the seven- teenth century used wit as a kind of external ornament to grace anything—while also admit- ting that, 'expressing under a guise of levity the deeper emotions of a reticent class,' he 'said little to which the general heart could not easily respond.' Which, then, is it to be : Donne and Marvell—or Ivor Novello and Julian Slade? To Mr. Hassall the 'relish of real existence' was something new and noteworthy irt 1912. One wonders if he didn't find this quality in Pound's Personae, or in the recent Yeats. He claims that at least seven of the sonnets and twelve of the other poems would deserve consideration by any anthologist of our poetry.

This point is pretty crucial, becauk readers will want to know how far this huge, pains- takingly, detailed and very pleasantly written biography is justified. There are three reasons for writing about Brooke: that he was a first-class poet, or interesting as the leader of a generation, or just a singularly beautiful young man, the Apollo of Frances Cornford's epigram. If he was a Keats, then we can do with every detail; if the peg on which to hang a cultural, socio- logical study, then surely Mr. Hassall's concen- tration on the minuthe of his existence is a bit excessive; and as for the god-like beauty and charm—quite clearly a pervasive feature of the case—this is a teasingly difficult subject which would require a more poetic and atmospheric book.

To what extent, in fact, does Mr. Hassall improve on Marsh's excellent memoir, a labour of loves and humanisation which the author achieved in the teeth of Mrs. Brooke's maternal solicitude? (As Mr. Hassall well knew, for he wrote Marsh's biography.) From Marsh we

learned that Brooke was a keen Fabian as well as a Cambridge 'Apostle,' that he moved idio- syncratically among scores of 'emancipated friends, that he wrote letters bubbling with gaiety, 'humour and the self-mockery which goes with a considerable egotism, that his academic work concerned the Elizabethan theatre and John Webster, that from time to time he formulated a breezy philosophy in favour of 'mysticism' or 'goodness' and that he came close to a nervous breakdown. Mr. Hassall crowds his pages with the picnics, the reading parties, the nude bathing, the trip in a horse-caravan to protest against the Poor Law. But he also extends our know- ledge of how emotionally ill Brooke became, as a result of his simultaneous love for the girls Ka Cox and Noel Olivier. Clearly he had a touch of hysteria; it even got into his rebellious dissertation. More mysteriously, Mr. Hassall touches on the break with Lytton Strachey and Bloomsbury which led, to Brooke's giving up his best friend and rediscovering the virtues of Vic- torianism. He shows how, in that enviably sociable age, nascent Georgians and emerging Modernists mingled, sharing Ibsen and Strind- berg, the Post-Impressionists and the Russian Ballet. He sees the influence of G. E. Moore's 'states of mind' in some of the poems. Never- theless; boyishness is paramount. 'I want to walk 1,000 miles, and write 1,000 plays, and sing 1,000 poems, and drink 1,000 pots of beer, and kiss 1,000 girls, and—oh, a million things!'

And his beauty. On this Mr. Leonard Woolf, in the third volume of his memoirs,t is emphatic. 'His looks were stunning . . . exactly what Adonis must have looked like in the eyes of Aphrodite.' To Mr. Woolf, a drily humorous ob- server with a forthrightness, an honest astrin- gency which is all his own, Brooke was inclined to exploit his charm and . had also a 'streak of hardness, even cruelty.' (Both E. M. Forster and Virginia Woolf saw him as developing into a man of affairs rather than a poet.)

Beginning Again. covers the years from Mr. Woolf's return from Ceylon to the end of the Kaiser's War and the establishment of the Hogarth Press. It is expectedly full of good things: Shaw's great but self-centred kindliness, Desmond MacCarthy's groaning inability to write, the treacherous nature of Ramsay Mac- Donald and the alarming formality of young Mr. Eliot. Here, too, students of the period will find a definitive description of 'Bloomsbury.' The core of the book, though, is Mr. Woolf's account of his brilliant wife's illnesses, all the more moving for the tough-minded plainness of its 'telling; she lived, near the edge of breakdown and on three occasions suffered from manic- depressive. insanity, attempting suicide twice before 1941. Like Brooke an enthusiast for life, she also swung between exaltation and self- disgust.

Compared to Mr. Woolf and Mr. Hassall, Lady Glenavy's account of much the same period is pleasant but dispensable. An Irish painter and sculptor, she moved to London. where she knew many artists and writers; she is par- ticularly good on Katherine Mansfield and Lawrence's fiercely honest friend Kotehansky, who is really the hero of the book. She. too, epoch crho roams where G i a tnhte


when we are at of so much, ■vho's al raid fdt trhaleinsilistecheri tnid°I il''Cl'ilkuceadis.ni ca. And nowadas,

of Humbert Wolfe?

.1. BEGINNING AG oN. By Leonard Woolf. (liogarth Press, 30s.) Timm WI 11111 ONLY GOSSIP. By Beatrice, Lady Glemo IC ,ffislable, 30s.)