The Collected Poems of Rupert Brooke

Brooke, Rupert

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poetry

Annotated by:
Ratzan, Richard M.
  • Date of entry: Apr-19-2016
  • Last revised: Apr-19-2016


This book represents the 1915 American edition of Brooke's collected poems and is introduced by George Edward Woodberry, an American critic of poetry. A table of contents of titles follows the introduction. Ninety-four poems - all rhymed and almost all of them formal - are thematically arranged on 163 pages.

Thirty six are sonnets. Most of the poems are brief, under two pages in length, and deal with love or ardor (59), death or aging (43), or various combinations of love/ardor and death/aging (33). Only three treat subjects one could call primarily medical or related to medicine: "Thoughts on the Shape of the Human Body" (p. 59), "Paralysis" (p.73) and "Channel Passage" ( p. 90). However, the threads of death, aging, the limitations of one's physicality and loneliness - no strangers to medical humanities courses - are ubiquitous.

His famous sonnet sequence of five poems composed while a soldier in WWI occurs halfway through the book under the grouping "1914." Following the poems is a biographical note by poet Margaret Lavington. There is a photogravure frontispiece dated 1914 with a reproduction of the poet's autograph beneath. The book has no index.


Born in 1887, Rupert Brooke was a English poet most widely known for his sonnet, "The Soldier" with the strikingly proleptic first line, "If I should die, think only this of me." He died, age 27, only 4 months after writing this poem. A graduate of Cambridge University, he had friends and fellow poets in several literary groups, e.g., the Bloomsbury group, the Georgian poets and the Dymock poets.

He traveled to Germany, the U.S., Canada, and the South Seas, composing poems in this collection based on these travels. His WW I sonnets came to public attention and wide admiration, including that of Winston Churchill (who added an effusively laudatory paragraph to Brooke's obituary), shortly before Brooke's death on April 23, 1915, on a French hospital boat in the Aegean Sea during World War I. Brooke died from sepsis resulting from an infected mosquito bite on his lip.

The poems on death and love reflect a belief, at times almost transcendental, in the spiritual world and the afterlife that strikes this reader as more than simply poetical, e.g., "Dust"  (pp 50-1). Brooke would thus apparently agree with Nando Parrado (see Miracle in the Andes in this database) that the opposite of death is not living but love.

Brooke demonstrated great versatility in his short career as a poet. There are striking poems on that intense moment of reflection when we see a scene as a stopped-moment, a transient still life distillation of the entire scene cum meditations on it ("Dining-Room Tea," pp. 86-8); the composer Wagner ("Wagner," p. 28); his boyhood home ("The Old Vicarage, Grantchester," pp. 149-53); and many poems on all the nuances of love. He could write metaphysical, syntactically tight poems like Donne ("Thoughts on the Shape of the Human Body," p. 59; "He Wonders Whether to Praise or to Blame Her," p. 121; and "Love," p. 132).

Other poems explore the communion between the living curious and their kindred dead spirits reminding one of Shelley's “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty," like "Flight" (page 60); and "Sonnet: Suggested by some of the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research," (p. 126). Brooke wrote humorous poems, too, like "Wagner" (p. 28), "Heaven" (pp. 117-8), and "The Little Dog's Day" (pp. 168-9). Indeed, these concluding lines from "Heaven," defining what Heaven would be like for a fish, as entertaining as they are, are deceptively profound in simultaneously plumbing the depths of deeper issues like immortality, the after-life and how one's personal and physical boundaries shape such views:

Oh! never fly conceals a hook,
Fish say, in the Eternal Brook,
But more than mundane weeds are there,
And mud, celestially fair;
Fat caterpillars drift around,
And Paradisal grubs are found;
Unfading moths, immortal flies,
And the worm that never dies.
And in that Heaven of all their wish,
There shall be no more land, say fish.

Given the pervasive concern in so many of his poems with death, love and physicality, there is an unsurprising correspondence with other poets like Sylvia Plath and Thomas James  whose early deaths mirrored their own pre-occupation with mortality.  Indeed, James’s "Wild Cherries" would make an excellent companion poem to Brooke's "The Dead" (page 103), and "The Treasure" (page 106) in a literature and medicine class studying death.

Three poems are particularly suited for students of literature and medicine. "Thoughts on the Shape of the Human Body" (p. 59) is a whimsical, tongue-in-cheek page-long exploration of the constraints of the human body on desire and thought:

Finger with finger wreathes; we love, and gape,
Fantastic shape to mazed fantastic shape,
Straggling, irregular, perplexed, embossed,
Grotesquely twined, extravagantly lost
By crescive paths and strange protuberant ways
From sanity and from wholeness and from grace.

"Paralysis" (p. 73) appears to have sprung from the imagination and not from any known experience or friend in Brooke's life. It is the soliloquy (three six lined stanzas ending with an eight line stanza) of a person paralyzed in bed describing, initially, a sang froid attitude to paralysis and the normal bodiedness of a visiting friend (the sexes of both are unspecified) and then a wistful return to reality as the paralyzed person imagines the friend meeting a lover (this is also not entirely clear) in the woods. The paralyzed narrator ends with the following lines addressing the absent friend:

And still in the white neat bed I strive
Most impotently against that gyve;
Being less now than a thought, even,
To you alone with your hills and heaven.

The pun on "still" (is it an adverb, or an adjective describing the immobility of the paralyzed person?) re-inforces - especially with the ironic "strive" counterposing it - the sad realization that the unconcern in the first few pages is not so bravely felt after all.

The last poem that involves an illness or medical condition is "Channel Passage" (p. 90). It is a sonnet of a sea-sick person in mock distress over whether to choose to think about a loved one or to yield to being sea-sick:

And still the ship rolls.
'Tis hard, I tell ye,
To choose 'twixt love and nausea, heart and belly.

The lapidary heart of this collection is, of course, the heart-breakingly beautiful, perfect “If I should die” sonnet entitled "The Soldier" (p. 105). It is a poem many poets would trade their entire oeuvre to have written.

Rupert Brooke experienced a minor resurgence in interest last year (2015), the centennial of his death. Most critics seem now to feel that if he is not as great as many would wish him considered, he is also still under-appreciated. His slim volume of collected verse offers several poems worthy of literature-medicine students' attention. Anyone who studies or teaches death, aging, loneliness, physicality, concern for the afterlife and paralysis as depicted in literature would do well to explore this volume.


Dodd Mead & Co

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