Britishness, Culture, Literature, Poetry

The Things We Love: In Memoriam, Rupert Brooke

I’ve mentioned once or twice that I’m an avid fan of the novels of mystery writer Louise Penny. A friend of mine introduced me to them several years ago, and at first I was hesitant, wondering how I’d get along with a Francophone Chief Inspector of the Sûreté du Québec, and his adventures in and around the little lost hamlet of Three Pines, somewhere in Québec’s Eastern Townships. It all sounded a bit “foreign” to me, given my almost exclusive devotion, whodunit-wise, to the British variety of same.

Then I read the first couple of books, and I fell in love. With Penny, who’s an extraordinarily good, and very insightful, writer. With Three Pines. And with the eccentric and recurring cast of characters who populate it and the books, who’ve invaded my heart, and who sometimes simultaneously (and at the same time), have me weeping with sorrow, laughing with joy, and crowing with delight. The plots aren’t so bad either. (If you’re interested, I’d strongly suggest reading the books in order, just because of the recurring characters, and the development of each of them throughout the series.)

There’s an “aha!” moment for me in almost every book; something I’m not used to in popular fiction, and yet another reason I love these books and their author. It’s usually something that makes me wish I could sit down with Penny for a cream tea (or a stiff drink) and just talk to this woman who is obviously so bright, and who clearly knows a great deal about the motivations of the human heart. I’m going to have to wait a while for the next bit of enlightenment though, as I’m all caught up, and have just completed the current entry in the series.

The moment in this book occurs quite early. One of Chief Superintendent Gamache’s colleagues, who was critically wounded in the previous book, is recuperating from her life-altering injuries, and is having a hard time, being–as often happens–furious with God, the world, and herself for her predicament and her unhappiness.

I hate my . . . body. I hate that I can’t pick up my kids or play with them, or if I do get onto the floor with them, they have to help me get up. I hate it. I hate that I can’t . . . read them to sleep, and that I get tired so easily, and that I lose my train of thought. I hate that some days I can’t add, and some days I can’t subtract. And some days–“

Isabelle paused, gathering herself. She looked into his eyes.

“I forget their names, patron,” she whispered. “My own children.”

It was no use telling her he understood. Or that it was all right. She’d earned the right to no easy answer.

“And what do you love, Isabelle?”


Gamache then quotes Rupert Brooke’s poem The Great Lover:

“White plates and cups, clean-gleaming,
Ringed with blue lines; and feathery, faery dust;
Wet roofs, beneath the lamp-light; the strong crust
Of friendly bread;”

And then Gamache, who has been through the wars himself, says:

There’s more, but I won’t go on. It’s a poem by Rupert Brooke. He was a soldier in the First World War. It helped him to think of the things he loved. It helped me too. I made mental lists and followed the things I love, the people I love, back to sanity. I still do.

It’s not quite as simple as that. Things are never As. Simple. As. That. But I have learned that–when you’re in danger of going off the edge–focusing on what you love, rather than what you hate, helps. A bit more of the poem:

and many-tasting food;
Rainbows; and the blue bitter smoke of wood;
And radiant raindrops couching in cool flowers;
And flowers themselves, that sway through sunny hours,
Dreaming of moths that drink them under the moon . . .

I think Rupert Brooke, among the First World War poets, usually gets pretty short shrift. Unlike Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, whose gut-wrenching, unsentimental, and disturbing imagery transports the reader to the trenches in the soldier’s voice and from the soldier’s perspective, Brooke’s poetry exists at a sentimental remove from the action. It’s a meditation. On bravery. On valor. On sacrifice. But above all, on the things he loves:

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England–from The Soldier

I didn’t know, until this morning that Rupert Brooke spent the last two years of his life on the edge of mental illness, recuperating from several simultaneous (and at the same time) failed love affairs, events which led to a nervous collapse and accusations against former friends, and which ended up in a world tour during which he wrote for several newspapers and magazines, traveled the South Seas, probably fathered a child in Tahiti, and got himself engaged and disengaged several times. When he returned to England at the start of the war, he enlisted in the Army, and started sending war poems home. In February 1915 he sailed with the British Expeditionary Forces to the Mediterranean, was bitten by a mosquito, and died of sepsis shortly thereafter.

The Great Lover, which is the poem excerpted in Penny’s book, was written before the war. It’s a paean to love and is sometimes labeled “Keatsian” in its hymning of ecstasy, particularly in the first section. That’s not what I remember about it, though. I remember the litany of simple things set out in the middle of the poem. The things he remembers, the things he thinks about when he wants to bring himself home:

Then, the cool kindliness of sheets, that soon
Smooth away trouble; and the rough male kiss
Of blankets; grainy wood; live hair that is
Shining and free; blue-massing clouds; the keen
Unpassioned beauty of a great machine;
The benison of hot water; furs to touch;
The good smell of old clothes; and other such—
The comfortable smell of friendly fingers,
Hair’s fragrance, and the musty reek that lingers
About dead leaves and last year’s ferns. . . .

It’s all good.

I have my own list of things I love, and which I recite at times of trouble to begin to sort myself out. Some of them are:

  • The first crocus that says Spring is on its way and that the cycle begins anew, independent of anything that’s happening to me
  • Freshly-fallen, untouched snow
  • My Dad’s teacup with the cow yelling “MOO!” on it
  • Christmas tree lights. (Not putting them on. Switching them on.)
  • Sunflowers in my garden as their faces follow the sun from East to West
  • The total body hug that only my granddaughter can give me
  • My well, which, against the odds, is still bringing up good sweet water from 110 feet below the earth and into my home
  • That out-of-the-blue phone call from an old friend who says “I just wanted to hear your voice.”
  • The tail-wagging and slobbering joy my dogs show when I come home
  • Watching the birth of the year’s first lamb and seeing its mother nurse it for the first time
  • Seeing, almost every day, that my hens have gifted me with fresh eggs
  • My family, who love me, no matter what a mess I sometimes make of things

What do you love? What are the things you think about, to center yourself and bring yourself “back” when things go sideways?

I wrote most of the above words on Ricochet four or five years ago.  Since that time, Louise Penny has gone irremediably woke, too many of her stories invoke the overtly political, and I’ve given up on the newer entries in the Three Pines series.  But I thought of the post today, when I realized that August 3, 2023 is the 136th anniversary of Rupert Brooke’s birth.

Like several of his contemporaries who are better-known for hymning the horrors of World War I, Brooke was absurdly young when he died on April 23, 1915, at the age of just twenty-seven. He’s left behind a few of the best-known poems in English, the most famous of which is probably this one:

The Soldier
If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

When I should die, wherever I end up, regardless–or irregardless as the case may be–of my citizenship at the time (right now, I’m still a loyal subject of His Majesty the King–gosh, that is hard to say following sixty-eight years of Elizabeth, whose name I bear,  being born not long after she was crowned), that’ll be true for me, too.

Funny how that works. But that is exactly how it works.  If you’re an English ex-pat.

The Things We Love

A photograph of a statue of Britannia on a stone plinth outdoors


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