Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Rupert Brooke, Julian Grenfell, and Homer

I have blogged separately about Rupert Brooke and Julian Grenfell. They were the earliest fatalities of all the War's significant poets, and despite the immense popularity of their work for many decades, in recent times their reputations have suffered because they discomfort us with truths about war which we would rather not acknowledge. Brooke, in particular, has become a byword for naivety, his example counterblasted by Owen's and Sassoon's bitter voices of experience. If Brooke had lived longer, the argument goes, he would have learnt better. The recent anthologist who condemns Brooke's 'life-diminishing ideas' and 'sick philosophy' articulates opinions which are regularly heard in schoolrooms and beyond.

Far from being a foolish innocent, Brooke in 1914 knew more about war than almost any of his contemporaries. Granted a commission in the Royal Naval Division---a new amphibious unit of Winston Churchill's devising---he had been helpless at the siege and fall of Antwerp as what he later called 'one of the greatest crimes in history' played out: 'Hundreds of thousands of refugees, their goods on barrows and hand-carts and perambulators and wagons... the old men mostly weeping, the women with hard drawn faces... That's what Belgium is now: the country where three civilians have been killed to every one soldier.' Brooke understood the  nature of modern conflict, foreseeing the 'incessant mechanical slaughter'. Nevertheless, appalling as it was, the sacrifice must be made, not only to protect England from a similar fate, but for compelling humanitarian reasons: 'I've seen the half million refugees in the night'.

Back in England, Brooke wrote the five sonnets of '1914' as a 'rallying cry' to a nation which didn't yet realise what 'sacrifices --- active or passive' would be required of its citizens. The Dean of St Paul's read the last of these ('The Soldier') from the pulpit on Easter Sunday, 4 April 1915. Less than three weeks later, on St. George's Day, Brooke was dead, having succumbed to septicaemia following a mosquito bite. Winston Churchill, in his obituary for Brooke published on 26 April, celebrated a man who 'was all that one could wish England's noblest sons to be in days when no sacrifice but the most precious is acceptable'. The apotheosis was complete: tens of thousands of copies of Brooke's poetry were sold every year until well into the 1960s, and every subsequent soldier-poet was obliged to wrestle with Brooke's legacy.

The first to do so was Julian Grenfell. Grenfell was Eton and Oxford, Brooke Rugby and Cambridge; Grenfell was a hearty in extremis (boxing, hunting), Brooke an aesthete. Yet the two men had friends in common, such as Patrick Shaw Stewart, and Grenfell would soon have known Brooke's fate. On 29 April 1915, six days after Brooke's death, Grenfell wrote his most famous poem, 'Into Battle'. Its opening stanza makes extraordinary claims:

The naked earth is warm with spring,
And with green grass and bursting trees
Leans to the sun's kiss glorying,
And quivers in the loving breeze;
And Life is Colour and Warmth and Light,
And a striving evermore for these;
And he is dead who will not fight;
And who dies fighting has increase.

What starts like a gorgeous invocation of spring's renewal becomes suddenly strange and disturbing. Readers carried along by rhyme and anaphora ('And... And... And... And... And...') will find themselves assenting to statements which are, at best, controversial: 'And he is dead who will not fight; / And who dies fighting has increase.' Elizabeth Vandiver, the poem's most perceptive critic, points out that Grenfell's debt is not to Christian but to classical tradition, especially to Homer's Iliad with its belief that the reputational glory gained through a brave death in battle provides 'increase'. As a demonstration, Vandiver quotes Sarpedon's speech to Glaucus in Iliad 12: 'My dear friend, if the two of us could flee this war and be forever ageless and immortal, I would not fight on among the foremost warriors nor would I send you into the battle that brings a man glory. But as it is, since thousands of death spirits crowd upon us, which no mortal can flee nor ward off, let us go; either we will yield glory to another, or someone will yield it to us.'

Without challenging Vandiver's belief in the poem's Homeric perspective, it is possible to see that, in the days after Brooke's death, Grenfell was also influenced by something closer to hand: Brooke's '1914'. The line 'And he is dead who will not fight' --- a concise expression of the paradox that we are only truly alive when we dare to risk our lives --- comes close to Brooke's opening sonnet, 'Peace', with its dismissal of those who will not fight as 'sick hearts that honour could not move, / And half-men'. As for Sarpedon's speech, it is mediated through the octave of Brooke's third sonnet, 'The Dead':

Blow out, you bugles, over the rich Dead!
      There’s none of these so lonely and poor of old,
      But, dying, had made us rarer gifts than gold.
These laid the world away; poured out the red
Sweet wine of youth; gave up the years to be
      Of work and joy, and that unhoped serene,
      That men call age; and those who would have been,
Their sons, they gave, their immortality.

Sarpedon tells Glaucus that they may as well sacrifice themselves, as one day they will die anyway; if they could achieve immortality by fleeing the battle, they should do so. Brooke makes the sacrifice of the War's early victims more complete. These men outdo even Homeric heroes. In Grenfell's terms, they 'ha[ve] increase', being 'rich'. At the same time, they (unlike Sarpedon) have been prepared to sacrifice their 'immortality'; that is, they give those never-to-be-conceived 'sons' when they give themselves. This is the ultimate sacrifice, all the richer for losing far more than mere life.


  1. I can see he would have known the Homeric reference; would he also have known the Norse equivalent in "Havamal" - "cattle die, kinsmen die, I myself shall die; the only thing that does not die is the name a man leaves behind"?

  2. Grenfell, of course, was already a professional soldier when war broke out, so might be expected to have a different perspective from the eager volunteers. On the Brooke point, it is said even Leonidas refused to take with him to Thermopylae those men who had no sons.

  3. I appreciate your defence of both Brooke and Grenfell. Since the 'Disenchantment' view of World War 1 prevails, there seems a hostility towards any heroic poetry that has emerged from that time, which seems a shame.
    I wish a cheaper edition of Elizabeth Vandiver 's Stand in the Trench, Achilles: Classical Receptions in British Poetry of the Great War' . The small amount I've read of this book certainly changed my perception of war poetry.