8 August 2009

Grantchester, Cambridgeshire, and Rupert Brooke

Yes, of course I'm well aware that Rupert Brooke (1887-1915) is undoubtedly the most well known of the World War I poets and one of the most patriotic, so what exactly is this post doing here? That he was strikingly handsome, that he died very young while enlisted, and that he had drawn a number of famous people into his circle is indisputable, but still, what is he doing on this blog? Grantchester is certainly very well noted for its former resident, and indeed appears to exploit his residence quite strongly - as indeed it should - but all the same, why should I, a pacifist with strong views against the tourist norm, choose to apparently trumpet the Rupert Brooke cause?

I'm not sure about this, but even if you've never heard of Rupert Brooke, Grantchester is well worth a visit.

Rupert Brooke went to Kings College, Cambridge, shown above.

In 1909 Brooke, who had graduated from the university, moved into lodgings at Orchard House, Grantchester, a village three miles from Cambridge. Since 1897, Orchard House had been run by Brooke's landlords, the Stevenson family, who catered in particular to university students by serving tea in their orchard grounds, and a number of Brooke's friends, such as Gwen Darwin, Jacques Riverat, Noel Olivier and Frances Cornford, used the tea rooms. In distinction to the Cambridge Apostles, Maynard Keynes called them the 'Neo-Pagans'. According to Graham Chainey's A Literary History of Cambridge, intellectual salvation lay in 'night bathing, socialism, mystical delight in homely objects and the pursuit of eternal youth'.

Brooke's father died in January 1910, Brooke became caretaker housekeeper at Cambridge, and by the following year he was living at Old Vicarage in Grantchester. He had decided that his dissertation would be on John Webster, the Elizabethan playwright.

The orchard tea pavilion - which still stands today, with its corrugated tin roof and wooden structure - has attracted such people as Bertrand Russell, Virginia Woolf, Ludwig Wittgenstein, E. M. Forster and Augustus John.

There is now an interesting Rupert Brooke Museum close to the Orchard.

But for many, especially during the summer months, the long queue for tea more than validates the visit.

The Orchard continues to serve tea, and also sells small pots of honey, an item Brooke is particularly associated with from his famous poem 'The Old Vicarage, Grantchester', the famous final lines of which read:

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

One of the village pubs, the Rupert Brooke, shows the time several times.

And, if at all possible, the urge to photograph the parish church clock at exactly this time is irresistible:

Brooke wrote 'The Old Vicarage, Grantchester', in the Café des Westens in Berlin in May 1912. He lived in the Old Vicarage after a brief spell in which he was forced to return to Cambridge in 1912, and the Old Vicarage itself, now owned by the, er, novelist and former MP Jeffrey Archer and his 'fragrant' wife Mary, has a bronze statue of Brooke at its entrance:

The village is also noted for Grantchester Meadows, which has been mentioned in poetry and song. In Birthday Letters (1998), Ted Hughes remembers Sylvia Plath sitting on a stile reading Chaucer aloud to the cows:

'Your voice went over the fields towards Grantchester.

It must have sounded lost. But the cows
Watched, then approached: they appreciated Chaucer.'

And it seems obligatory, when on this subject, to mention Pink Floyd's 'Grantchester Meadows' from their album Ummagumma, written by Roger Waters: even the Rupert Brooke Museum has a framed copy of the words.

Grantchester will obviously, and quite rightly, continue to exploit its literary associations, and Brooke paid homage to the poet Lord Byron, also a former resident of Cambridge, and whose existence is now remembered in the nearby Byrons Pool.

Not all remains of the original Grantchester, and the Green Man pub is a casualty. This sign is perhaps a humorous reminder of past times, and certainly the content is politically incorrect:

‘Rupert Brooke’, by Wilfrid Wilson Gibson


Your face was lifted to the golden sky
Ablaze beyond the black roofs of the square
As flame on flame leapt, flourishing in air
Its tumult of red stars exultantly
To the cold constellations dim and high:
And as we neared the roaring ruddy flare
Kindled to gold your throat and brow and hair
Until you burned, a flame of ecstasy.

The golden head goes down into the night
Quenched in cold gloom — and yet again you stand
Beside me now with lifted face alight,
As, flame to flame, and fire to fire you burn…
Then, recollecting, laughingly you turn,
And look into my eyes and take my hand.


Once in my garret — you being far away
Tramping the hills and breathing upland air,
Or so I fancied — brooding in my chair,
I watched the London sunshine feeble and grey
Dapple my desk, too tired to labour more,
When, looking up, I saw you standing there
Although I'd caught no footstep on the stair,
Like sudden April at my open door.

Though now beyond earth's farthest hills you fare,
Song-crowned, immortal, sometimes it seems to me
That, if I listen very quietly,
Perhaps I'll hear a light foot on the stair
And see you, standing with your angel air,
Fresh from the uplands of eternity.


Your eyes rejoiced in colour's ecstasy,
Fulfilling even their uttermost desire,
When, over a great sunlit field afire
With windy poppies streaming like a sea
Of scarlet flame that flaunted riotously
Among green orchards of that western shire,
You gazed as though your heart could never tire
Of life's red flood in summer revelry.

And as I watched you, little thought had I
How soon beneath the dim low-drifting sky
Your soul should wander down the darkling way,
With eyes that peer a little wistfully,
Half-glad, half-sad, remembering, as they see
Lethean poppies, shrivelling ashen grey.


October chestnuts showered their perishing gold
Over us as beside the stream we lay
In the Old Vicarage garden that blue day,
Talking of verse and all the manifold
Delights a little net of words may hold,
While in the sunlight water-voles at play
Dived under a trailing crimson bramble-spray,
And walnuts thudded ripe on soft black mould.

Your soul goes down unto a darker stream
Alone, O friend, yet even in death's deep night
Your eyes may grow accustomed to the dark
And Styx for you may have the ripple and gleam
Of your familiar river, and Charon's bark
Tarry by that old garden of your delight.


Viola said...

Beautifully-written post. I am a big fan of Rupert Brooke's poetry.

Dr Tony Shaw said...

Many thanks for your comment, Viola.