Friday, 14 November 2014

Armageddon and Rupert Brooke

Rupert Brooke’s posthumous Letters from America (1916) has an unusual epilogue, entitled ‘An Unusual Young Man’. Is it an essay in the form of a short story, or a short story disguised as an essay? Whichever, its first-person narrator recalls a younger friend of his who, on a walking holiday in Cornwall in the summer of 1914, only learned on his return that war had been declared. The setting is certainly fictional, for Brooke was actually staying with at Cley-next-the-sea on August 3rd and 4th; but the young friend is Brooke himself. So the older man, explaining the thoughts and feelings of his younger friend, is a device enabling Brooke to reflect, with apparent detachment, on his own anxious and contradictory reactions to the war.

His puzzlement comes because he loves Germany – Bavaria and Munich especially – almost as much as he loves England, and certainly more than France. He has good friends there, of whom he cannot help thinking ‘heavily … all the time’. But when he tries to refocus, replacing old memories of his new enemy with appropriately patriotic thoughts

– he kept remembering, unwillingly, a midnight in Carnival-time in Munich, when he had seen a clown, a Pierrot, and a Columbine tip-toe delicately round a deserted corner of Theresienstrasse, and vanish into the darkness. Then he thought of the lights on the pavement in Trafalgar Square. It seemed to him the most desirable thing in the world to mingle and talk with a great many English people. Also, he kept saying to himself – for he felt vaguely jealous of the young men in Germany and France – “Well, if Armageddon’s on, I suppose one should be there.”

It’s as well the narrator admits that the young man kept saying this, for Brooke himself had evidently used these same words before. Shortly after the declaration of war, Brooke had wondered, with impeccable Fabian logic, about getting to France not by joining up, but by going over to help bring in the harvest. After all, France had compulsory military service; its reservists had already been called up; most of its farms were now short-handed. Less altruistically, he had also toyed with becoming a war correspondent. However, Christopher Hassall, whose biography of Brooke (though fifty years old this year) remains the best, records that

His first idea, to go over and help the French garner their crops, was now dropped, as also was the idea of reporting for a newspaper. But it wasn’t easy to enlist. He was amazed by Harold Monroe’s experience, who turned up on a motor-bicycle to volunteer, was rejected because his engine was of the wrong kind, reappeared next day with another engine, and was told there was no room. Meeting J.C. Squire in the street, ‘Well, if Armageddon’s on,” Brooke said, “I suppose one should be there.”

I’m not a fan of biographies whose notes and bibliographies at the back of the book threaten to swamp the narrative at the front, so I’m glad that Hassall wrote his book before citation and referencing ad tedium became the norm for all serious biography; but I should like to know who heard (and recorded or reported) Brooke saying this to the poet and editor J C Squire. Was it Squire, or Brooke himself, pleased enough with this apocalyptic utterance to recycle it in ‘An Unusual Young Man’? Edward Marsh, Brooke’s close friend, literary executor and author of the foundational ‘Memoir’  (1918), makes no mention of the meeting or Brooke’s Armageddon remark. True, other biographers have repeated the story, but again without reference, so I begin to wonder if they’re simply rehashing Hassall. Here, for instance, is Nigel Jones:

Brooke toyed with various half-baked ideas to be of use: did the French need hands to gather in the harvest now that so many peasant-soldiers had been mobilized, he wondered. He also made a half-hearted attempt to get a war-correspondent’s job, but there seemed to be no interest. Back in London on August 10th, and hurrying from office to office, he met the poet and journalist J.C. Squire in the street. Squire asked him what all the rushing was for. ‘Well, if Armageddon is on,’ replied Brooke, I suppose one should be there.’

‘Hurrying … rushing …’ These are reasonable adjectives for a biographer to use in creating a sense of Brooke’s mood of the time. But if his attempt to become a war reporter was only ‘half-baked’, was Brooke really in that much of a hurry? At least Jones is more specific than Hassall in providing a date – August 10th – though Brooke was already in London the previous day: in a letter quoted (but again not cited) by Marsh, he describes going to a music hall show. After a few sketches and songs, the next item displeases Brooke, though he describes it, and its aftermath, in detail:

“Then a dreadful cinematographic reproduction of a hand drawing patriotic things – Harry Furniss it was, funny pictures of a soldier and a sailor (at the time I suppose dying in Belgium), a caricature of the Kaiser, greeted with a perfunctory hiss – nearly everyone sat silent. Then a scribbled message was shown: ‘War declared with Austria 11.9.’ There was a volley of quick, low hand-clapping – more a signal of recognition than anything else. Then we dispersed into Trafalgar Square and bought midnight War editions …. In all these days I haven’t been so near tears; there was such tragedy and dignity in the people.”

Britain formally declared war on Austria on 9th August. The film Brooke had disliked was Peace and War Pencillings by Harry Furniss, a cartoonist and illustrator for magazines such as Punch and the Illustrated London News. It had premièred at the Coliseum in St Martin’s Lane – hence the audience had spilled out into Trafalgar Square. Was this, then, why the unusual young man’s thoughts had turned from Theresienstrasse to Trafalgar Square?

In the end, Brooke found a way of getting to Armageddon. Let Richard Aldington have the last, touching (but still not necessarily reliable) word:

I had a last glimpse of Rupert Brooke when Flint [FS Flint, Aldington’s friend and fellow Imagist poet] and I bumped into him in Piccadilly, not long after the outbreak of war. He was dressed in a shabby macintosh, and looked a little sallow and less handsome than his pictures. He at once informed us that he had a commission, and was about to join the Naval Division at Antwerp. We wished him luck – a gallant but pathetic figure, the last English poet who really believed in the romance and chivalry of war.

Adrian Barlow

[Illustration: photograph of Rupert Brooke by Sherril Schell; frontispiece to Letters from America.

·      Extract (i) from ‘An Unusual Young Man’ in Edward Marsh (ed.) Letters from America (London Sidgwick and Jackson, 1916) pp. 179-80 
·      Extract (ii) from Christopher Hassall, Rupert Brooke, a biography, (London: Faber, 1964) pp. 458-9
·      Extract (iii) from Nigel Jones, Rupert Brooke  (London: Richard Cohen Books, 1999) p.375
·      Extract (iv) letter from Brooke; quoted in Edward Marsh, ‘Memoir’, in Collected Poems of Rupert Brooke (London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1918) pp. cxxiv-cxxv
·      Extract (v) from Richard Aldington, Life for Life’s Sake (London: Cassell, 1941; 1968) p.135.


  1. As always, Adrian, very interesting and thoughtful and original. Thank you! A little footnote - after Brooke's experiences at Antwerp [which included shell-bursts and artillery fire as well as retreating with a vast crowd of Belgian refugees], he wrote: ‘But it’s a bloody thing, half the youth of Europe, blown through pain to nothingness, in the incessant mechanical slaughter of these modern battles.’ The phrase ‘half the youth of Europe’ feels like a curious anticipation of Owen’s ‘half the seed of Europe’ in the Parable of the Old Man and the Young, written in July 1918.

  2. Tom, this is a very interesting quotation, both for its anticipation of Owen (a connection I have not seen made before) and for demonstrating how Brooke very quickly came to understand the reality of 20th century warfare, and to lose whatever illusions he may have had - though, as I wanted to show in what I wrote, I think that his view of the war was far more ambivalent - right from the start - than most people assume. Many thanks, Adrian

  3. Fascinating piece, Adrian. So much here that I didn't know. It makes me reconsider Brooke's patriotic sense of Englishness, expressed famously in "The Soldier", in the context of his European attachments. And I love the idea of responding to the German invasion of France by helping with the French harvest, an idea that anticipates VSO and the Peace Corps, perhaps.