Thursday 23 April 2015

Rupert Brooke, the antidote to Big Englandism, died a century ago today

Today is April 23, a date of some significance.  It is St George's Day.  It is Shakespeare's birthday and deathday.  It is a number of other people's birthdays too (many happy returns, Andrew!).  It is also the day that Rupert Brooke died, exactly a century ago, in 1915.

We could argue about his significance now, and I have done in my short ebook about his death, Rupert Brooke: England's last Patriot.  There will certainly be people who dismiss him as twee, mixed up or naive, or all three. But he was, in a small way, a pioneer.

He articulated a twentieth century Englishness, calm, green, nostalgic and unthreatening (even his famous war poem The Soldier was about death in war not military glory).

His hymn to The Old Vicarage, Grantchester came from this nostalgic, gentle tradition - it is about the quiet which might potentially smooth his nervous breakdown.  It is about a little place, not a big place.

He paved the way, it seems to me, for the mid-century revival of pastoral Englishness, which you can see in the work of Eric Ravilious, now on show at the Dulwich Picture Gallery.  Like Ravilious and Piper and others in the new romantic tradition, Brooke's poems have a kind of glowing transcendence about them (perhaps ntot he one about being sick on a Channel ferry, but Grantchester and others).

It is a gentle, unassuming, patriotism in the tradition of Jerusalem (see my short book on the history of the song), and it is worth remembering now that there is a more strident, intolerant nationalism abroad at the election hustings.

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