Rupert Brooke’s Letters From America

From The Spectator, 11th March 1916

Letters From America, by Rupert Brooke. With a Preface by Henry James.
London: Sidgwick and Jackson. 7s. 6d. net.)

A PECULIAR interest attaches to this volume, apart from the intrinsic merit of the letters from America, Canada, and the South Seas originally contributed by Rupert Brooke to the Westminster Gazette and the New Statesman, and here collected in permanent form. For they are prefaced by an essay by Mr. Henry James — the last thing he ever wrote for publication — in which, a veteran of the pen, he utters his ave atque vale to the most brilliant of the young English writers who have perished in the war.

Mr. Henry James’s tribute to Rupert Brooke, whom he knew as well as admired, is notable alike for the generosity and sensitive appreciation which always marked his relations with other writers, and for the extreme elaboration of his later style — that delicate and complicated machine devised to express the most recondite nuances of meaning. At times we own to finding it obscure, but it is remarkable how under the stress of emotion Mr. James’s diction suddenly clarifies, and we come across a generous thought, a fine criticism, simply and convincingly expressed.

How genuine that emotion was Mr. James’s friends need not to be reminded. The present writer, who can hardly claim to have been more than an acquaintance, met him for the last time shortly before his naturalization as a British citizen, and remembers vividly how he spoke, in broken accents, of the sacrifice in the war of “the best blood and seed and breed of England”; and none of the inroads into that heroic stock touched him more closely than the death, in his golden prime, of Rupert Brooke. For of him it might well be said, in the laconic simplicity of the Latin epitaph, neminem tristem fecit.

Mr. Henry James dwells on his felicity. Rupert Brooke did not fulfil Goethe’s maxim, for he cannot be said to have eaten his bread with tears, but he was unspoiled by the admiration which his rare assemblage of gifts, physical and mental, extorted from old and young. In a striking passage Mr. James compares his modernity with that of Byron:

Rupert Brooke, young, happy, radiant, extraordinarily endowed and irresistibly attaching, virtually met a soldier’s death, met it in the stress of action and the all but immediate presence of the enemy; but he is before us as a new, a confounding and superseding example altogether, an unprecedented image, formed to resist erosion by time or vulgarisation by reference, of quickened possibilities, finer ones than ever before, in the stuff poets may be noted as made of.

With twenty reasons fixing the interest and the charm that will henceforth abide in his name and constitute, as we may say, his legend, he submits all helplessly to one in particular which is, for appreciation, the least personal to him or inseparable from him, and he does this because, while he is still in the highest degree of the distinguished faculty and quality, we happen to feel him even more markedly and significantly modern.

This is why I speak of the mixture of his elements as new, feeling that it governs his example, put by it in a light which nothing else could have equally contributed — so that Byron for instance, who startled his contemporaries by taking for granted scarce one of the articles that formed their comfortable faith and by revelling in almost everything that made them idiots if he himself was to figure as a child of truth, looks to us, by any such measure, comparatively plated over with the impenetrable rococo of his own day.

I speak, I hasten to add, not of Byron’s volume, his flood and his fortune, but of his really having quarrelled with the temper and the accent of his age still more where they might have helped him to expression than where he but flew in their face. He hugged his pomp, whereas our unspeakably fortunate young poet of today, linked like him also, for consecration of the final romance, with the isles of Greece, took for his own the whole of the poetic consciousness he was born to, and moved about in it as a stripped young swimmer might have kept splashing through blue water and coming up at any point that friendliness and fancy, with every prejudice shed, might determine.

Rupert expressed us all, at the highest tide of our actuality, and was the creature of a freedom restricted only by that condition of his blinding youth, which we accept on the whole with gratitude and relief — given that I qualify the condition as dazzling even to himself.

This “wondrous modernity” Mr. James analyses as a flowering of “the exquisite civility, the social instincts of the race, poetically expressed”. Rupert Brooke was “an ideal image of English youth, at once radiant and reflective”; he never lost the bloom of the inbred “public school character”.

Again, “no young man had ever so naturally taken on under the pressure of life the poetic nature, and shaken it so free of every encumbrance by simply wearing it as he wore his complexion or his outline”. It was perhaps his public-school upbringing that mode him at times farouche in his verse:

Never was a young singer either less obviously sentimental, or less addicted to the twang of the guitar … His irony, his liberty, his pleasantry, his paradox, and what I have called his perversity [his occasional preoccupation with the unpleasant] are all nothing if not young.

The letters, which form the body of the volume, bear out the claims and reserves of Mr. Henry James’s preface. They are extremely frank, but, to quote Mr. James:

What we note in particular is that he likes, to all appearance, many more things than he doesn’t, and how superlatively he is struck with the promptitude and wholeness of the American welcome and of all its friendly service.

Written for newspapers and with regard to limitations of space, they are wonderfully free from the defects and excesses of the modern journalist. Whether he is giving his impressions of New York skyscrapers or sky signs, the aura of Boston, the spirit of the Canadian landscape, or the divergent tempers of East and West Canada, he achieves the result, rare in so young an observer, of being at once sincere, critical, and yet appreciative of the unfamiliar. And the record is frequently illumined by comments or reflections of a true poetic quality, as in his impressions of the Great Lakes:

There is something ominous and unnatural about these great lakes. The sweet flow of a river, and the unfriendly restless vitality of the sea, men may know and love. And the little lakes we have in Europe are but as fresh-water streams that have married and settled down, alive and healthy and comprehensible. Rivers (except the Saguenay) are human.

The sea, very properly, will not be allowed in heaven. It has no soul. It is unvintageable, cruel, treacherous, what you will. But, in the end — while we have it with us — it is all right; even though that all-rightness result but, as with France, from the recognition of an age-long feud and an irremediable lack of sympathy. But these monstrous lakes, which ape the ocean, are not proper to fresh water or salt. They have souls perceptibly, and wicked ones.

We steamed out, that day, over a flat, stationary mass of water, smooth with the smoothness of metal or polished stone or one’s finger-nail. There was a slight haze everywhere. The lake was a terrible dead-silver colour, the gleam of its surface shot with flecks of blue and a vapoury enamel-green. It was like a gigantic silver shield. Its glint was inexplicably sinister and dead, like the glint on glasses worn by a blind man. In front the steely mist hid the horizon, so that the occasional rock or little island and the one ship in sight seemed hung in air. They were reflected to a preternatural length in the glassy floor. Our boat appeared to leave no wake ; those strange waters closed up foamlessly behind her. But our black smoke hung, away back on the trail, in a thick, clearly-bounded cloud, becalmed in the hot, windless air, very close over the water, like an evil soul after death that cannot win dissolution.

If it be, as it surely is, a test of a man’s descriptive and imaginative powers to write something fresh and impressive about Niagara, Rupert Brooke certainly emerges from the ordeal with no common distinction. We give as our last quotation his picture of the Canadian Falls:

Half a mile or so above the Falls, on either side, the water of the great stream begins to run more swiftly and in coninsion. It descends with ever-growing speed. It begins chattering and leaping, breaking into a thousand ripples, throwing up joyful fingers of spray.

Sometimes it is divided by islands and rocks, sometimes the eye can see nothing but a waste of laughing, springing, foamy waves, turning, crossing, even seeming to stand for an instant erect, but always borne impetuously forward like a crowd of triumphant feasters. Sit close down by it, and you see a fragment of the torrent against the sky, mottled, steely, and foaming, leaping onward in far-flung criss-cross strands of water.

Perpetually the eye is on the point of descrying a pattern in this weaving, and perpetually It is cheated by change. In one place part of the flood plunges over a ledge a few feet high and a quarter of a mile or so long, in a uniform and stable curve. It gives an impression of almost military concerted movement, grown suddenly out of confusion. But it is swiftly lost again in the multitudinous tossing merriment. Here and there a rock close to the surface is marked by a white wave that faces backwards and seems to be rushing madly up-stream, but is really stationary in the headlong charge.

But for these signs of reluctance, the waters seem to fling themselves on with some foreknowledge of their fate, in an ever wilder frenzy. But it is no Maeterlinckian prescience. They prove, rather, that Greek belief that the great crashes are preceded by a louder merriment and a wilder gaiety. Leaping in the sunlight, careless, entwining, clamorously joyful, the waves riot on towards the verge. But there they change.

As they turn to the sheer descent, the white and blue and slate-colour, in the heart of the Canadian Falls at least, blend and deepen to a rich, wonderful, luminous green. On the edge of disaster the river seems to gather herself, to pause, to lift a head noble in ruin, and then, with a slow grandeur, to plunge into the eternal thunder and white chaos below.

Where the stream runs shallower it is a kind of violet colour, but both violet and green fray and frill to white as they fall. The mass of water, striking some ever-hidden base of rock, leaps up the whole two hundred feet again in pinnacles and domes of spray. The spray falls back into the lower river once more; all but a little that fines to foam and white mist, whioh drifts in layers along the air, graining it, and wanders out on the wind over the trees and gardens and houses, and so vanishes.