Described by none other than W.B. Yeats as “the handsomest man in England” Brooke is the quintessential war poet. A product of Rugby school and Cambridge University, a confused bisexual, steamy good looks, went skinny dipping with Virginia Wolfe, associated with the Bloomsbury set of poets. He had a nervous breakdown in 1912 and toured the world as part of his recovery process. He may have fathered a child with a Tahitian woman along the way.
When the first world war began Brookes poems “The dead” and “The Soldier” captured the mood of the nation and brought him to the attention of Winston Churchill, first Lord of the Admiralty. He was commissioned as a naval officer and sailed for Gallipoli. He died of an infected mosquito bite before the fleet reached Turkey. He is buried on the Greek Island of Skyros.
Here is a funnier and less heroic poem from the pen of someone who is way too godlike for his own good.
A Channel Passage; by Rupert Brooke
The damned ship lurched and slithered. Quiet and quick
My cold gorge rose; the long sea rolled; I knew
I must think hard of something, or be sick;
And could think hard of only one thing — YOU!
You, you alone could hold my fancy ever!
And with you memories come, sharp pain, and dole.
Now there’s a choice — heartache or tortured liver!
A sea-sick body, or a you-sick soul!
Do I forget you? Retchings twist and tie me,
Old meat, good meals, brown gobbets, up I throw.
Do I remember? Acrid return and slimy,
The sobs and slobber of a last years woe.
And still the sick ship rolls. ‘Tis hard, I tell ye,
To choose ‘twixt love and nausea, heart and belly.
May 2011 visit by Queen Elizabeth acknowledged at last Irelands WW1 legacy
As June 2017 draws to a close in broken showers and typical Irish summer weather I give you a poem about closing and June from the Poet of the Blackbirds. By rights Ledwidge is a war poet, but it became unfashionable in post revolutionary Ireland to admit to a career in the British Military. It took 100 years before the Irish nation could honour those Irish who responded to the call of John Redmond and spilled their blood on Flanders fields.
In a neat stroke of marketing Francis Ledwidge was cast as a poet of field and stream, of nature and songbirds. His Lament for the Irish patriot Thomas MacDonagh was given pride of place while his poems from the French and Turkish trenches in which he fought were swept under the carpet. Sadly even Poetry is not immune from politics.
June: by Francis Ledwidge
Broom out the floor now, lay the fender by,
and plant this bee-sucked bough of woodbine there,
and let the window down. The butterfly
floats in upon the sunbeam, and the fair
tanned face of June, the nomad gipsy, laughs
above her widespread wares, the while she tells
the farmers’ fortunes in the fields, and quaffs
the water from the spider-peopled wells.
The hedges are all drowned in green grass seas,
and bobbing poppies flare like Elmo’s light,
while siren-like the pollen-stained bees
drone in the clover depths. And up the height
the cuckoo’s voice is hoarse and broke with joy.
And on the lowland crops the crows make raid,
nor fear the clappers of the farmer’s boy,
who sleeps, like drunken Noah, in the shade.
And loop this red rose in that hazel ring
that snares your little ear, for June is short
and we must joy in it and dance and sing,
and from her bounty draw her rosy worth.
Ay! soon the swallows will be flying south,
the wind wheel north to gather in the snow,
even the roses spilt on youth’s red mouth
will soon blow down the road all roses go.