When World War I began in the fall of 1914, Brooke was commissioned into the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve as a sub-lieutenant. He participated in the failed defense of Antwerp a few months later, where he witnessed first-hand the true brutality of the war. In a February 1915 letter to poet and critic Edmund Gosse, Brooke reflects on the loss of friends as a result of the ongoing conflict:
We’re going abroad very soon, it appears. It’ll be an amusing experience. But I wish we could beat them, & have done with it, this summer. So many of my friends have been killed lately. It forestalls Time too much in stripping the world away from me.Several months later, Rupert Brooke would himself die aboard a French hospital ship near the Greek island of Skyros on April 22, 1915. The cause was not a war wound but blood poisoning caused by a severely infected mosquito bite. Brooke’s poetry had begun to garner widespread attention after two of his war sonnets, "The Dead" and "The Soldier," were published in The Times Literary Supplement. A month after he died, 1914 & Other Poems was published and became wildly popular, requiring eleven subsequent impressions in that year alone. This explosion of Brooke's popularity was fueled by the tragic circumstances of his death, an event that Brooke anticipated in his poetry. The numerous versions of Brooke's works that appeared after his demise speak to the immediate impact they had, but also to their continuing significance decades later: a Braille version of 1914 had a handwritten dedication to a son who died in the Battle of the Somme and a 1940 Armed Services Edition of Brooke's poems, specially published for American troops serving in World War II, testified to the continuing popularity of his work as a symbol of patriotic fervor.
Brooke's death and the subsequent publication of 1914 inspired an outpouring of eulogistic prose and poetry lamenting the loss of such an inspiring young man. Despite this postmortem adulation of Brooke as a tragic and stirring example of British patriotism, not every voice praised the young writer. After Brooke’s death, his close friends and fellow poets took great pains, both privately and publicly, to separate public sentiment for Brooke the person from Brooke's actual literary talent. One of these comrades, the Welsh poet Edward Thomas, wrote a frank assessment of Brooke in a letter to Robert Frost:
It would take me too long to be sure what I think of Rupert…. I don’t think ill of him. I think he succeeded in being youthful and yet intelligible and interesting (not only pathologically) more than most poets since Shelley. But thought gave him (and me) indigestion. He couldn’t mix his thought or the result of it with his feeling. He could only think about his feeling. Radically, I think he lacked power of expression. He was a rhetorician, dressing things up better than they needed. And I suspect he knew too well both what he was after and what he achieved.Despite these attempts to regulate the strength of feeling about Brooke's poetry, the popular appeal of his passionate lines came to define a jingoistic philosophy towards the war – one that would be challenged by later poets such as Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon.
To learn more about Brooke, stop by to view our latest exhibit: "A Richer Dust": Rupert Brooke and the Culture of Mourning, curated by Laura Braunstein and Morgan Swan. It will be on exhibit in the Class of 1965 Galleries until July 31, 2014.