Rupert Brooke: Poet-Soldier

Rupert Brooke
Imperial War Museum

Rupert Brooke was a poet, academic, campaigner, and aesthete who died serving in World War One, but not before his verse and literary friends established him as one of the leading poet-soldiers in British history. His poems are staples of military services, but the work has been accused of glorifying war. In all fairness, although Brooke did see the carnage first hand, he didn't get the chance to see how World War I developed.


Born in 1887, Rupert Brooke experienced a comfortable childhood in a rarified atmosphere, living near--and then attending--the school Rugby, a famed British institution where his father worked as a housemaster. The boy soon grew into a man whose handsome figure transfixed admirers regardless of gender: almost six foot tall, he was academically clever, good at sports--he represented the school in cricket and, of course, rugby--and had a disarming character. He was also highly creative: Rupert wrote verse throughout his childhood, having allegedly gained a love of poetry from reading Browning.


A move to King's College, Cambridge, in 1906 did nothing to dim his popularity--friends included E.M. Forster, Maynard Keynes and Virginia Stephens (later Woolf)--while he broadened into acting and socialism, becoming president of the University's branch of the Fabian Society. His studies in the classics may have suffered as a result, but Brooke moved in elite circles, including that of the famous Bloomsbury set. Moving outside Cambridge, Rupert Brooke lodged in Grantchester, where he worked on a thesis and created poems devoted to his ideal of English country life, many of which formed part of his first collection, simply entitled Poems 1911. In addition, he visited Germany, where he learned the language.

Depression and Travel

Brooke's life now began to darken, as an engagement to one girl--Noel Olivier--was complicated by his affection for Ka (or Katherine) Cox, one of his fellows from the Fabian society. Friendships were soured by the troubled relationship and Brooke suffered something which has been described as a mental breakdown, causing him to travel restlessly through England, Germany and, on the advice of his Doctor who prescribed rest, Cannes. However, by September 1912 Brooke seemed to have recovered, finding companionship and patronage with an old Kings student called Edward Marsh, a civil servant with literary tastes and connections. Brooke completed his thesis and gained election to a fellowship at Cambridge whilst captivating a new social circle, whose members included Henry James, W.B. Yeats, Bernard Shaw, Cathleen Nesbitt--with whom he was particularly close--and Violet Asquith, daughter of the Prime Minister. He also campaigned in support of Poor Law reform, prompting admirers to propose a life in parliament.

In 1913 Rupert Brooke traveled again, first to the United States - where he wrote a series of dazzling letters and more formal articles - and then through islands down to New Zealand, finally pausing in Tahiti, where he wrote some of his more fondly acclaimed poetry. He also found more love, this time with a native Tahitian called Taatamata; however, a shortage of funds caused Brook to return to England in July 1914. War broke out a few weeks later.

Rupert Brooke Enters the Navy / Action in North Europe

Applying for a commission in the Royal Naval Division--which he gained easily as Marsh was the secretary to the First Lord of the Admiralty--Brooke saw action in the defense of Antwerp during early October 1914. The British forces were soon overrun, and Brooke experienced a marching retreat through the devastated landscape before arriving safely in Bruges. This was Brooke's only experience of combat. He returned to Britain awaiting redeployment and, during the next few weeks of training and preparation, Rupert caught flu, the first in a series of wartime illnesses. More importantly for his historical reputation, Brooke also wrote five poems which were to establish him among the canon of First World War writers, the 'War Sonnets': 'Peace', 'Safety', 'The Dead', a second 'The Dead', and ' The Soldier'.

Brooke Sails to the Mediterranean

On February 27th, 1915 Brooke sailed for the Dardanelles, although problems with enemy mines led to a change of destination and a delay in deployment. Consequently, by March 28th Brooke was in Egypt, where he visited the pyramids, partook in the usual training, suffered sunstroke and contracted dysentery. His war sonnets were now becoming famous throughout Britain, and Brooke refused an offer from high command to leave his unit, recover, and serve away from the front lines.

Death of Rupert Brooke

By April 10th Brook's ship was on the move again, anchoring off the island of Skyros on April 17th. Still suffering from his earlier ill-health, Rupert now developed blood poisoning from an insect bite, placing his body under fatal strain. He died in the afternoon of April 23rd, 1915, aboard a hospital ship in Tris Boukes Bay. His friends buried him under a stone cairn on Skyros later that day, although his mother arranged for a grander tomb after the war. A collection of Brooke's later work, 1914 and Other Poems, was published in swiftly after, in June 1915; it sold well.

A Legend Forms

An established and rising poet with a strong academic reputation, important literary friends and potentially career-changing political links, Brooke's death was reported in The Times newspaper; his obituary contained a piece purportedly by Winston Churchill, although it read as little more than a recruiting advert. Literary friends and admirers wrote powerful--often poetic--eulogies, establishing Brooke, not as a lovelorn wandering poet and deceased soldier, but as a mythologized golden warrior, a creation which remained in post-war culture.

Few biographies, no matter how small, can resist quoting the comments of W.B. Yeats, that Brooke was "the most handsome man in Britain", or an opening line from Cornford, "A young Apollo, golden haired." Even though some had harsh words for him--Virginia Woolf later commented on occasions when Brooke's puritan upbringing appeared beneath his normally carefree exterior--a legend was formed.

Rupert Brooke: An Idealistic Poet

Rupert Brooke wasn't a war poet like Wilfred Owen or Siegfried Sassoon, soldiers who confronted the horrors of war and affected their nation's conscience. Instead, Brooke's work, written in the early months of the war when success was still in sight, was full of cheerful friendship and idealism, even when faced with potential death. The war sonnets swiftly became focal points for patriotism, thanks largely to their promotion by church and government--'The Soldier' formed part of the 1915 Easter Day service in St. Paul's Cathedral, the focal point of British religion--while the image and ideals of a brave youth dying young for his country were projected onto Brooke's tall, handsome stature and charismatic nature.

Poet Or Glorifier of War

While Brooke's work is often said to have either reflected or affected the mood of the British public between late 1914 and late 1915, he was also--and often still is--criticized. For some, the 'idealism' of the war sonnets is actually a jingoistic glorification of war, a carefree approach to death which ignored the carnage and brutality. Was he out of touch with reality, having lived such a life? Such comments usually date from later in the war, when the high death tolls and unpleasant nature of trench warfare became apparent, events which Brooke wasn't able to observe and adapt to. However, studies of Brooke's letters reveal that he certainly was aware of the desperate nature of conflict, and many have speculated on the impact further time would have had as both the war and his skill as a poet, developed. Would he have reflected the reality of the war? We cannot know.

Lasting Reputation

Although few of his other poems are considered great, when modern literature looks away from World War One there is a definite place for Brooke and his works from Grantchester and Tahiti. He is classed as one of the Georgian poets, whose verse style had noticeably progressed from previous generations, and as a man whose true masterpieces were still to come. Indeed, Brooke contributed to two volumes entitled Georgian Poetry in 1912. Nevertheless, his most famous lines will always be those opening 'The Soldier', words still occupying a key place in military tributes and ceremonies today.

  • Born: 3rd August 1887 in Rugby, Britain
  • Died: 23rd April 1915 on Skyros, Greece
  • Father: William Brooke
  • Mother: Ruth Cotterill, née Brooke
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Wilde, Robert. "Rupert Brooke: Poet-Soldier." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Wilde, Robert. (2020, August 26). Rupert Brooke: Poet-Soldier. Retrieved from Wilde, Robert. "Rupert Brooke: Poet-Soldier." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 23, 2023).