Saturday 15 June 2024

The Old Vicarage, Grantchester by Rupert Brooke

Say, is there Beauty yet to find? 
And Certainty? and Quiet kind? 
Deep meadows yet, for to forget 
The lies, and truths, and pain? . . . oh! yet 
Stands the Church clock at ten to three? 
And is there honey still for tea?

These final lines of Rupert Brooke's 1912 poem are perhaps the most famous, because so yearningly evocative, expressions of Edwardian nostalgia - which seem to foreshadow the terrible losses (and in Brooke's case, death on active service) suffered by the gilded youth of the English upper classes in the 1914-18 War. 

And of all such youth, Brooke was certainly the most gilded! - since he was so perfect an example of the then-ideal of male beauty as to have become the centre of a considerable and worshipping cult (and being English upper class, this was from both sexes). 

All of which does not much endear him to me! Brooke was, indeed, a Norman among Normans...

Yet; in his longish poem "Grantchester"; Brooke achieved a marvelously enjoyable and satisfying piece of verse. The whole poem is actually of considerable complexity; having the epigraph "Cafe des Westens, Berlin, May 1912" - so the set-up is of Brooke, sitting abroad in Germany, miserable, and remembering the happiest year of his life living in Grantchester - a village situated a few miles along the river from Cambridge University where he was an undergraduate.   

What is startling after this introductory section - which contains another section that has entered common parlance:

Oh! there the chestnuts, summer through, 
Beside the river make for you 
A tunnel of green gloom, and sleep 
Deeply above; and green and deep 
The stream mysterious glides beneath, 
Green as a dream and deep as death. 

Is that there arrives a section of superb comic verse: 

God! I will pack, and take a train, 
And get me to England once again! 
For England’s the one land, I know, 
Where men with Splendid Hearts may go; 
And Cambridgeshire, of all England, 
The shire for Men who Understand; 
And of THAT district I prefer 
The lovely hamlet Grantchester. 

Yet, despite his hyperbolically expressed love of Cambridgeshire (albeit knowingly-inaccurate! Because Grantchester is not a hamlet but a village; a parish, with a church!); Brooke then (with deliberate absurdity) lists many towns and villages near to Grantchester, and waspishly (and arbitrarily) satirizes them for their various supposed inferiorities. e.g:

And folks in Shelford and those parts 
Have twisted lips and twisted hearts, 
And Barton men make Cockney rhymes, 
And Coton’s full of nameless crimes, 
And things are done you’d not believe 
At Madingley on Christmas Eve.  

Light or Comic Verse must exhibit technical perfection - and this does; and more generally "Grantchester" is remarkable for the way in which its short line rhymed couplets remain continually interesting and surprising; despite that this is probably the dullest of all verse forms - witness most of the 18th century English poets - Pope, Dryden, Johnson... who I find all-but unreadable.    

Probably my favourite humorous section of the poem comes somewhat earlier; describing a ghostly fairy-tale scene, set in the immediate surroundings of the Grantchester Old Vicarage where Brooke dwelt during his glorious year: 

And in that garden, black and white, 
Creep whispers through the grass all night; 
And spectral dance, before the dawn, 
A hundred Vicars down the lawn; 
Curates, long dust, will come and go 
On lissom, clerical, printless toe; 
And oft between the boughs is seen 
The sly shade of a Rural Dean . . . 

I would indeed classify "Grantchester" as verse, rather than poetry (as I understand it) - it is an exemplar of the classical rather than romantic tradition. Its considerable delights are not at the very highest level. 

And, as for Brooke himself - he is best appreciated as the original basis of what soon became an archetypal ideal. 

By contrast; I find the historical-biographical "reality" of his life among the Cambridge Apostles, the "Bloomsbury Group" and Fabian Society to be repellant, sordid, corrupt.

Best ignored; or viewed through a rose-tinted retrospectoscope!

And, of course; properly understood and responded-to, the legend is what matters most. 


This post was triggered by a couple of visits to Grantchester over past months; eating lunch in the Orchard Tea Garden that contains a little Rupert Brooke museum. 

And then picking-up (from a sales display at St Andrew and St Mary's church, Grantchester) a very enjoyable photographic and explanatory edition of the poem (done by a couple of the local residents) which I recommend to anyone intrigued by my comments above:

Rupert Brooke's Grantchester, by Francis Burkitt and Christine Jennings (2010).  


Yves-Marie said...

Dear Bruce Charlton,

I know that you have a deep interest in genetics.

May I ask, when you talk of 'Normans' living among us, do you mean that in a spiritual sense, or are you talking of a distinct group, a ruling class which would have kept itself genetically inbred ever since 1066, continuing to rule Great Britain as 'foreign overlords' to this day?

Yves-Marie Stranger

Bruce Charlton said...

@YM - Neither of the two categories as you probably mean them - but in a Tolkien sense of the word (see the links); which implies a kind of spiritual heredity that is neither dependent on, nor independent of, "blood" heredity.

But spiritual is always primary. It is the spiritual Normans that matter most.

So that there are non-blood Normans; and Normans who have genuinely repudiated their spiritual lineage (but nothing like so many as pretend to!)

BTW, although Normans have had influence in many places of the world, I am talking particularly of Britain. Some nations have a distinct destiny and Britain ("Albion") is one of these.

This is Not a Master Theory of global evil. I am Not suggesting that what applies for Britain applies for everybody everywhere - IMO that is not true.

Hagel said...

I've no idea who this man was, but that was pretty funny

Avro G said...

When you speak of Normans I think of Churchill, Haig, Wilson, and their latter-day incarnations, Nuland, Blinken, von der Leyen, Stoltenberg, Macron… for whom human lives are a material resource to be expended like artillery shells or suicide drones in whatever quantities are needed to get the job done.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Avro - My understanding of "Normans" is somewhat narrower and more specific (more Anglocentric) than that list implies!

BricolagePUA said...

Yeah, instinctively interpreted 'Norman' in the pragmatic patrician sense characterised in Kiplings 'Norman and Saxon'...