The Strange Destiny of Rupert Brooke

Holt, Rinehart and Winston, $12.95

With the magazine publication of his five war sonnets, Rupert Brooke became something of an English popular legend overnight. And, subsequent to his death in the Aegean the same spring, such disparate figures as Henry James and Winston Churchill were inspired to lavish rather embarrassingly mawkish and hyperbolic praise on the twenty-seven-year-old poet. Yet, with the emergence of the starker, more embittered works of the later war poets, Brooke became as sharply criticized as he had been excessively touted, his legend dismantled, and his poetry often largely dismissed. Neither extreme assessment permits a clear view of Brooke or of his work.

In this short but satisfying and surprisingly compelling life, John Lehmann shows us a youth at once devastatingly charming (“I have seen Shelley plain!” rhapsodized Ellery Sedgwick) and severely disturbed after a nervous collapse in 1911, troubled in his relationships with women, and irrational in his repudiation of Bloomsbury friends and their liberal ideals. Brooke was in fact a poet of promise but of uneven quality, at his best skillful and precise in image and meter and fiercely antiromantic in tone, at his worst given to empty rhetoric and vague sentimentality. His romanticized vision of war—a vision uncolored by combat experience—was seized upon by an English public desperate for ideals for which to fight an increasingly bewildering new kind of war. Lehmann provides a sensible, compact, and fair appraisal of Brooke’s psychological development and work. At the same time he puts his finger on the unique feeling in Edwardian England that permitted the mythologization of a captivating but minor poet.