Monday, 3 May 2010

The Golden Boy

While I can admire the skill, the intelligence and the sheer power of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, the poets of the Great War, I have serious reservations when it comes to the influence they exerted.

Owen’s Anthem for Doomed Youth is perhaps among the greatest of the last century, expressing in simple words the gap between a noble ideal and the ugly reality of war. But it and others contributed to the pacifism of the 1930s, a movement that objectively aided the enemies of England, a movement that left her psychologically and practically unprepared for war, almost to the point of no recovery. For this reason, and for others, the poet of that generation that I admire the most is Rupert Brooke, that golden, beautiful boy, for the simple patriotism of poems like The Soldier, or the lyrical beauty of The Old Vicarage, Granchester, recalling a gentle England of long ago,

Just now the lilac is in bloom,
All before my little room;
And in my flower-beds, I think,
Smile the carnation and the pink;
And down the borders, well I know,
The poppy and the pansy blow . . .
Oh! there the chestnuts, summer through,
Beside the river make for you
A tunnel of green gloom, and sleep
Deeply above; and green and deep
The stream mysterious glides beneath,
Green as a dream and deep as death.
— Oh, damn! I know it! and I know
How the May fields all golden show,
And when the day is young and sweet,
Gild gloriously the bare feet
That run to bathe . . .
'Du lieber Gott!'

Here am I, sweating, sick, and hot,
And there the shadowed waters fresh
Lean up to embrace the naked flesh.
Temperamentvoll German Jews
Drink beer around; — and THERE the dews
Are soft beneath a morn of gold.
Here tulips bloom as they are told;
Unkempt about those hedges blows
An English unofficial rose;
And there the unregulated sun
Slopes down to rest when day is done,
And wakes a vague unpunctual star,
A slippered Hesper; and there are
Meads towards Haslingfield and Coton
Where das Betreten's not verboten.

ειθε γενοιμην . . . would I were
In Grantchester, in Grantchester! —
Some, it may be, can get in touch
With Nature there, or Earth, or such.
And clever modern men have seen
A Faun a-peeping through the green,
And felt the Classics were not dead,
To glimpse a Naiad's reedy head,
Or hear the Goat-foot piping low: . . .
But these are things I do not know.
I only know that you may lie
Day long and watch the Cambridge sky,
And, flower-lulled in sleepy grass,
Hear the cool lapse of hours pass,
Until the centuries blend and blur
In Grantchester, in Grantchester. . . .
Still in the dawnlit waters cool
His ghostly Lordship swims his pool,
And tries the strokes, essays the tricks,
Long learnt on Hellespont, or Styx.
Dan Chaucer hears his river still
Chatter beneath a phantom mill.
Tennyson notes, with studious eye,
How Cambridge waters hurry by . . .
And in that garden, black and white,
Creep whispers through the grass all night;
And spectral dance, before the dawn,
A hundred Vicars down the lawn;
Curates, long dust, will come and go
On lissom, clerical, printless toe;
And oft between the boughs is seen
The sly shade of a Rural Dean . . .
Till, at a shiver in the skies,
Vanishing with Satanic cries,
The prim ecclesiastic rout
Leaves but a startled sleeper-out,
Grey heavens, the first bird's drowsy calls,
The falling house that never falls.

God! I will pack, and take a train,
And get me to England once again!
For England's the one land, I know,
Where men with Splendid Hearts may go;
And Cambridgeshire, of all England,
The shire for Men who Understand;
And of THAT district I prefer
The lovely hamlet Grantchester.
For Cambridge people rarely smile,
Being urban, squat, and packed with guile;
And Royston men in the far South
Are black and fierce and strange of mouth;
At Over they fling oaths at one,
And worse than oaths at Trumpington,
And Ditton girls are mean and dirty,
And there's none in Harston under thirty,
And folks in Shelford and those parts
Have twisted lips and twisted hearts,
And Barton men make Cockney rhymes,
And Coton's full of nameless crimes,
And things are done you'd not believe
At Madingley on Christmas Eve.
Strong men have run for miles and miles,
When one from Cherry Hinton smiles;
Strong men have blanched, and shot their wives,
Rather than send them to St. Ives;
Strong men have cried like babes, bydam,
To hear what happened at Babraham.
But Grantchester! ah, Grantchester!
There's peace and holy quiet there,
Great clouds along pacific skies,
And men and women with straight eyes,
Lithe children lovelier than a dream,
A bosky wood, a slumbrous stream,
And little kindly winds that creep
Round twilight corners, half asleep.
In Grantchester their skins are white;
They bathe by day, they bathe by night;
The women there do all they ought;
The men observe the Rules of Thought.
They love the Good; they worship Truth;
They laugh uproariously in youth;
(And when they get to feeling old,
They up and shoot themselves, I'm told) . . .

Ah God! to see the branches stir
Across the moon at Grantchester!
To smell the thrilling-sweet and rotten
Unforgettable, unforgotten
River-smell, and hear the breeze
Sobbing in the little trees.
Say, do the elm-clumps greatly stand
Still guardians of that holy land?
The chestnuts shade, in reverend dream,
The yet unacademic stream?
Is dawn a secret shy and cold
Anadyomene, silver-gold?
And sunset still a golden sea
From Haslingfield to Madingley?
And after, ere the night is born,
Do hares come out about the corn?
Oh, is the water sweet and cool,
Gentle and brown, above the pool?
And laughs the immortal river still
Under the mill, under the mill?
Say, is there Beauty yet to find?
And Certainty? and Quiet kind?
Deep meadows yet, for to forget
The lies, and truths, and pain? . . . oh! yet
Stands the Church clock at ten to three?
And is there honey still for tea?


  1. I quite agree with your measured analysis. The Great War was as hellish as it was un-necessary. The message therefore of The Great War, was to never again become entangled in a crude web of bellicose inevitability, lest feel powerless to sever the knot's of entanglement at any and all diplomatic costs. What this message perversely metamorphosed into was one that war somehow can be exercised, in a pseudo-scientific way, from the human psyche and thus the human experiences. This view is dangerously false, as history has shown time and again.

    Brooke in this sense was a kind of poet for all ages, whilst Owen and Sassoon were men inexorably tied to eyes that would view them through an epochal prism.
    Whilst Brooke was a fine poet of his generation, when it comes to the late 19th and early century, the finest poet is Houseman, followed closely by Kipling. In case one is curious my favourite poets are
    1. Houseman and Blake
    2. Kipling
    3. Lord Byron
    4. Wordsworth
    5. Coleridge
    6. Keats
    7. Eliot
    8. Sinfield
    9. Shelley
    10. Waters

  2. A great list. My own would have to include Larkin and Donne.

  3. Doone, yes. Larkin I appreciate but I honestly derive little pleasure from him. When it comes to modern poets after Eliot the only ones I truly like are Peter Sinfield who hankered back to a more romantic style, and Roger Waters who seamlessly combined the caustic nature of modernism with a finely constructed romance...and of course melody.

  4. I watched the poetry season last year on BBC. I was particularly moved by High Windows

  5. Stands the Church clock at ten to three?
    And is there honey still for tea?

    Those lines are among my favourite in English poetry. They never fail to send a shiver down one's spine. Graves wrote that the test of a true Muse-poet was that the lines would make the hairs on the back of one's neck prick.

    Did you catch Simon Schama On John Donne during the Poetry Season? And yes, Larkin definitely. This year marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of his death. There are a series of events being held, mostly up noorth tho'. On 6 June there is a lecture in Dorchester on Hardy and Larkin.

  6. I did indeed. I think I saw all of that series, actually. High Windows, believe it or not, was a new discovery for me. Previously I had really only known This be the Verse, which I memorised to recite to the girls at school, purely for the shock value, you understand. :-)