The Kent Conference

September 7-8 2007



The Kiplingisation of Rupert Brooke

Harry Ricketts (The Victoria University of Wellington)

[September 7 2007]


This paper is an offshoot of the book I am currently writing, called Strange Meetings, about different kinds of encounters between a dozen World War 1 English poets. What follows briefly explores a ‘strange meeting’ – an imaginative meeting, you could say – between Rupert Brooke and Rudyard Kipling in the Pacific in 1913.

But we don’t start there; we start on Thursday 9 July 1914 in London. That was the day Siegfried Sassoon had breakfast with Rupert Brooke, and was the only occasion the two met. Brooke at the time was the rising star of English poetry, and Sassoon – though an aspiring poet – was still rather more of a foxhunting man.

Sassoon’s later account of the breakfast in The Weald of Youth suggests that he not only felt somewhat cowed by Brooke’s charisma and literary standing but that he also fancied him. Most people did. For some, like Geoffrey Keynes, it was Brooke’s “unmanly physical beauty”, highlighted by the long, centre-parted, auburn hair with its golden tinge. [Geoffrey Keynes, The Gates of Memory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), p.165.] For others, like Gwen Raverat, it was the “sweetness and secrecy in his deepset eyes”. Yeats called him “the handsomest young man in England”, and particularly coveted his beautiful shirts. [Both quoted in Nigel Jones, Rupert Brooke: Life, Death & Myth (London: Richard Cohen Books, 1999), pp.110, 304.]

What people fell for was not just the stunning good looks and the infectious high spirits. In addition to Rugby and King’s College, Cambridge, Brooke had been to charm school. His letters are full of “charm-mongering”, as one clear-eyed flame, Noel Olivier, called it. [Pippa Harris (ed), Song of Love: The Letters of Rupert Brooke and Noel Olivier (London: Bloomsbury, 1990), p.272.] He could be epigrammatic: “Youth is stranger than fiction.” He could make you feel like the centre of the universe: “It’s wonderful saying everything to a person one absolutely trusts,” he confided somewhat less than candidly to another flame, the actress Cathleen Nesbitt. [Geoffrey Keynes (ed), The Letters of Rupert Brooke (London: Faber and Faber, 1968), pp.49, 448] He could make you feel infinitely desirable: “I remember you all naked lying to receive me; wonderful in beauty,” he told Ka Cox, the maker of the beautiful shirts. [Quoted in Rupert Brooke: Life, Death & Myth, p.229] Most charming of all was when the charm itself was sent up. “You are the only person,” he informed the poet Frances Cornford, “who ever believed all my lies. Nothing (short, perhaps, of incredulity) can shake my devotion to you.” [The Letters of Rupert Brooke, p.592.] Henry James spoke for all the smitten when he described Brooke as “young, happy, radiant, extraordinarily endowed and irresistibly attaching.” [Letters from America by Rupert Brooke. With a Preface by Henry James (London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1916), p.xii.]

But for all the charm, charisma and adulation, Brooke was a mess. At school, he had posed as a decadent; at Cambridge and afterwards he had been (with varying degrees of plausibility) a Fabian, a liberal, a neo-pagan, a socialite, an Elizabethan and Jacobean scholar, and an upandcoming poet. In 1912 he had had a breakdown from a combination of overwork and his strenuously complicated love life. By 1913 he was poetically stalled, fed up with his English life, tired of the various stances and roles he had adopted and played. The obvious solution was a major overseas trip, funded in part by travel pieces for the Westminster Gazette. So Brooke left for New York in May 1913, travelled across the States and Canada, wandered around the Pacific for six months – visiting Hawaii, Samoa, Fiji, New Zealand and Tahiti – and returned to England in early June 1914. A month later he was having breakfast with an apprehensive Sassoon.

Sassoon, rather desperately trying to make conversation, asked Brooke what “the white people were like in the places you stayed at in the tropics.” To which, Brooke replied that “Some of them … were rather like composite characters out of Conrad and Kipling.” [Siegfried Sassoon, The Weald of Youth (London: Faber and Faber, 1942), p.229] This was very much the line he had played writing home to friends from the Pacific; but there was more to it than his nonchalant reply suggested. In fact, it would be true to say that Kipling had been the principal lens through which in his letters he had framed, defined and made sense of his experience of the Pacific – just as Andrew Marvell had emerged as the dominant poetic equivalent in witty, new poems like ‘Heaven’, ‘Tiare Tahiti’ and ‘Sonnet Suggested by some of the Proceedings of the Society for Psychic Research’.

Brooke first struck a recognisably Kipling note in an early November 1913 letter from Samoa to his friend, admirer and self-appointed literary patron Eddie Marsh. Here the Kiplingism was unequivocally ironic: “I have crossed the Equator, & so am a Man at last. The rest of my life is to be spent in bartering cheap coloured handkerchiefs for priceless native tapestries, & gin for pearls.” [The Letters of Rupert Brooke, p.524.] ‘A Man’: Brooke was obviously guying that pandemic Kipling term of approval. Here is just one example out of dozens, but one particularly apropos for my purposes because it comes from Puck of Pook’s Hill. “‘Nay,’ said Allo [the Pict chieftain who helps Parnesius and Pertinax, the young Roman centurions in “On the Great Wall” and “The Winged Hats”]. ‘This is a gift from Amal, that Winged Hat who you saved on the beach. He says you are a Man.’” To which Parnesius naturally replies: “‘He was a Man, too.’” [Donald Mackenzie (ed), Puck of Pook’s Hill and Rewards and Fairies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, The World’s Classics, 1993), pp.117-118.] Also guyed in Brooke’s letter is the kind of rite-of-passage experience which often accompanies ‘becoming a Man’ in Kipling’s work. The best-known instance of this, of course, is ‘If-’ from Rewards and Fairies (though those who have read my biography of Kipling, The Unforgiving Minute, will know that I think the poem, modelled on Donne’s ‘The Undertaking’, is really about the impossibility of growing up - but that’s another story.)

A fortnight later aboard the S S Torfua “Somewhere near Fiji”, Brooke’s Kipling perceptions were quickening as he described to Marsh how the white people he had been encountering in hotel bars in Honolulu, Suva, and Apia, and in the smoking-rooms of steamers in-between were “all very self-consciously Kiplingesque”. [The Letters of Rupert Brooke, pp.525-6.] That “very self-consciously Kiplingesque” is neatly playful: witty in a sub-Wildean way – life yet again surprised imitating art. Indeed Brooke was a relatively early user of the term ‘Kiplingesque’, marking the way in which over the previous twenty years Kipling’s stories and poems had for the English reader more or less invented not only the British Empire but also the image of the Englishman and Englishwoman living a colonial or semi-colonial existence.

Nor was Brooke’s use of the term ‘Kiplingesque’ confined to sahibs and memsahibs. A vignette of a recently-met beachcomber made him sound almost exactly like Kipling’s boundary-crossing loafer McIntosh Jellaludin, the equivocally admired fallen hero of "To Be Filed for Reference", the concluding story of Plain Tales from the Hills:

The beach-comber matriculated at Wadham, & was sent down. Also he rode with the Pytchley, quotes you Virgil, & discusses the ins and outs of the Peninsular campaign. And his repertoire of smut is enormous.
Mere Kipling, you see: but one gets some good stories. Verses of a schoolboy kind, too - [.]

In another letter from the S S Torfua, Brooke told another friend, Dudley Ward, how in Samoa “the Englishman strikes roots, imagines he’s in a story by Kipling, and elects himself perpetual vice-consul. There are lots about here, mostly married to natives.” [The Letters of Rupert Brooke, pp.526, 529.] Shades there of "The Man Who Would Be King", without the tragic denouement.

On 19 November Brooke wrote from Fiji to that eminent literary turnstile Edmund Gosse. He had come to an unexpected realisation: not only were the other white people he was meeting Kiplingesque; he himself was too. This self-discovery was naturally presented to Gosse with a certain wry, self-disparaging amusement. This wry amusement is itself an interesting indicator of how over the years Kipling’s reputation had significantly shifted. Throughout the 1890s, his work had, with a few notable exceptions, been widely and enthusiastically read and admired across the political, intellectual and literary spectrum. The outbreak of the Boer War in 1899 had changed that. It was then that Kipling really emerged as a kind of unofficial laureate of Empire. The result was that he kept his enormous middle- and low-brow audience, but seriously alienated the liberals and the literati. In short, he became the butt of Max Beerbohm’s famous 1904 cartoon. (That’s the one with the diminutive Kipling on the arm of a large, languid Britannia. He wears her helmet and blows a toy trumpet; she wears his bowler hat and looks decidedly bored.)

A potted history of this shift is reflected in Brooke’s admission to Gosse. “One feels like a White Man – ludicrously”, he wrote, adding “Vide. R. Kipling passim.” But Brooke then tellingly continued: “I kept thinking I was in the Sixth at Rugby again. Those dear good people, with their laughter and friendliness and crowns of flowers – one feels one must protect them.” [The Letters of Rupert Brooke, p.531.] What Brooke had surprised in himself was the presence of a Kiplingesque side, an Empire side. Or to put it another way, he was trying out what it felt like, and sounded like, to be himself a character in a Kipling story – if a slightly different one from those he had previously evoked in his letters. The story Brooke was auditioning for more resembled ‘A Conference of the Powers’, say, in which a writer of previously liberal views and persuasion discovers that he is really ‘one of us’, after all – part of the Empire in-group. Brooke signalled his awareness of a certain game-playing aspect by himself sounding “very self-consciously Kiplingesque” to Gosse: “One feels that one’s a White Man” – capital ‘W’, capital ‘M’."

He quickly took to this new game, new role, this mask – just as one can see the nineteen-year-old Kipling writing himself into it in his letters from India to his cousin Margaret Burne-Jones in.1885. A few days later, Brooke was describing to Cathleen Nesbitt how Suva is full of “staid English officials, heavy with the White Man’s Burden”. As with the letter to Gosse, there was an ironic knowingness, a flick of calculated caricature, but not entirely. Brooke went on:

It’s so queer, seeing the thin, much clothed, ancient, overcivilized, silver-bangled Indians, and these jolly, half-naked, savage children of the earth [ie the Fijians], working side by side in obedience to the Clifton and Trinity, or Winchester and New College, man, with his ‘Doesn’t do to be too friendly with these niggahs, you know. You must make ‘em respect you!’ That is Empire. [The Letters of Rupert Brooke, pp.537-538.]
Brooke was amused; he was also (perhaps in spite of himself) impressed, aware that, after all, he was in the same mould – a Rugby and King’s man. In the tone of the letter there is a half-echo of the older Beetle excitedly expostulating in ‘Slaves of the Lamp, II’, the final story in Stalky & Co.: “‘India’s full of Stalkies – Cheltenham and Haileybury and Marlborough chaps – that we don’t know anything about ...’” [Rudyard Kipling, Stalky & Co. {Oxford: Oxford University Press, The World’s Classics, 1987), p.296.]

Brooke’s increasingly Kiplingesque stance also of course included the local inhabitants. “These dear good people, with their laughter and friendliness and crowns of flowers – one feels one must protect them,” as he had written to Gosse of the Samoans. Or the “jolly grinning fuzzy-haired Fijians,” he described to Cathleen Nesbitt, “who care nothing, and know nothing, of burdens, Empire, or responsibility, nor that they are a dying and defeated race. They merely like sunshine, and people, and fishing, and food and especially swimming in the sea.” Or, as he put it to Eddie Marsh, life in the Pacific was a kind of Paradise, Romance with a capital R: “Oh, Eddie, it’s all true about the South Seas! …. there it wonderfully is: heaven on earth, the ideal life, little work, dancing, singing & eating, naked people of incredible loveliness, perfect manners, & immense kindliness, a divine tropic climate, & intoxicating beauty of scenery.” [The Letters of Rupert Brooke, pp.531, 537-8, 525.]

This kind of rhapsodic response is now often seen as paternalistic, exoticising, eroticising and infantalising. And so it is; few would dispute that. But it is sometimes assumed in our current “culture of reprimand”, as Denis Donohue has memorably dubbed it, that a response like Brooke’s and Kipling’s was simply an exploitative one, merely paternalistic. Nothing is easier than to patronise the past for being patronising, and to forget that Kipling (at least some of the time) was well aware of cultural relativism and the construction of ‘the Other’ – a term he had himself used in its modern sense as early as 1889 in one of his travel letters from Japan. For instance,, from the 1920s, there is his poem ‘We and They’ with its jolting final stanza:

All good people agree,
And all good people say,
All nice people, like Us, are We
And everyone else is They:
But if you cross over the sea, Instead of over the way,
You may end by (think of it) looking on We
As only a sort of They.

[The Definitive Edition of Rudyard Kipling’s Verse (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1940), p.764.]
Ironically, it was by ‘crossing over the sea’ that Brooke more straightforwardly discovered that he was really ‘We’ rather than ‘They’, and, adopting this new purposeful, ‘tough’ Kiplingesque stance, found it congenial. In November 1913 he told Marsh he was giving up “the National Liberal Club: because I hate the Liberal party, & the Marconi affair, & the whole mess, & Rufus Isaacs as Lord Chief Justice”. The following March in Tahiti, he was informing Marsh that ‘hardness’ was what he had come all this way for. The claim, as usual, was laced with charm, posturing and literary game-playing:

The Game is Up, Eddie. If I’ve gained facts by knocking about with Conrad characters in a Gauguin entourage - I’ve lost a dream or two. I tried to be a poet. And because I was a clever writer, & because I was forty times as sensitive as anybody else - I succeeded a little ... I am what I came out to be - Hard. Quite, quite hard. I have become merely a minor character in a Kipling story.
Not quite a minor character perhaps, but the new mask fitted well enough, and he could and did use the new voice, now without irony. Reading Sons and Lovers on the way home, he told Marsh that D H Lawrence was “a big man”. [The Letters of Rupert Brooke, pp. 527, 568, 576.] On returning to England, the new ‘hard’ Brooke publicly cut Bloomsbury friends like Lytton Strachey, and long-time adorers like Lytton’s brother James.

And when, during their breakfast together, Sassoon tried to suck up to Brooke with “some disparaging remark about Kipling’s poetry being terribly tub-thumping”, he did not at all get the reaction he expected. “‘But not always, surely,’ ”, [Brooke] “answered; and then let me off easily by adding, ‘I used to think rather the same myself until Eddie made me read ‘Cities and Thrones and Powers’. There aren’t many better modern poems that that, you know.’” ”, [The Weald of Youth, 229.] ‘Cities and Thrones and Powers’ immediately precedes ‘A Centurion of the Thirtieth’, the first of the Roman stories in Puck of Pook’s Hill, and wryly reflects on both the transience of things and human obliviousness in the face of this:

So Time that is o’erkind
To all that be,
Ordains us e’en as blind,
As bold as she:
That in our very death,
And burial sure,
Shadow to shadow, well persuaded, saith,
‘See how our works endure!’


[Puck of Pook’s Hill and Rewards and Fairies, p.81.]
When the First World War broke out less than a month later, Brooke was ready. He briefly debated whether to enlist or try for a post as a war correspondent. But, thanks to Marsh, who as Winston Churchill’s private secretary was in a position to open doors, he soon had a commission in the newly established Royal Naval Division. The Kiplingesque stance was firmly in place, also the tone of voice. When he told J C Squire, “Well, if Armageddon is on, I suppose one should be there”, he sounded exactly like one of Kipling’s subalterns or, even more, like the jauntily fatalistic centurion Pertinax in "On the Great Wall" and "The Winged Hats". And by Christmas, he had written those five war sonnets, which would quickly become as famous, and later as infamous, as ‘If-’.


[H.R.}
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