The First World War was a dreadful waste of approximately 9 million young lives. With this loss comes a sadness and inability to understand simply, why? Two young poets of the day, Rupert Brooks and Wilfred Owen became victims of this war, but before they died they used their pens to leave some lasting testament of what went before. This article briefly describes how two gifted writers came from different worlds to ultimately meet the same fate.
On the 11th November 1918, in Shrewsbury England the bells rang out to celebrate the Armistice and end to the first world war, happiness rained throughout the county until a door knock was heard and a telegram passed, the smiles on Mr & Mrs Owen faces sank as they read how their poet son Wilfred Owen had been killed in battle at Sambre Canal. But Wilfred hadn’t even joined the armed forces in the April of 1915 when Rupert Brooke another famous war poet was killed and their worlds of poetry and life couldn’t have been more different before the carnage of “The Great Folly” brought them both into the world of needless death and slaughter.
Rupert, born in Rugby, England was a man of boyish good looks and charm which prompted the Irish poet William Butler Yeats to describe him as “the handsomest man in England”. After winning a scholarship to Kings College in Cambridge Rupert became an active member of many drama groups and writers clubs and soon became a man adored by many, some for his talent and some for his good looks, Virginia Wolfe once boasted to have gone skinny dipping with Rupert and his society was generally much sought after. He was however a man confused by his sexuality and took to travelling throughout parts of the United States and Canada writing travel dairies for the Westminster Gazette. On his way back to England via the long route he settled on a Tahitian Island where he fathered a daughter by to a local woman with whom it was said that he found his most complete emotional relationship, but still his wonder lust had him move on. Back in England he became romantically involved with a number of notable actresses of the time and when his writings turned to war poems he came to the attention of Winston Churchill who commissioned him into the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve. At the age of 27 years, Rupert took part in the Royal Navy’s Antwerp expedition in October 1914 to be followed by a voyage with the British Mediterranean Expeditionary Force on 28th February 1915 but was bitten by a mosquito and the resultant sepsis infection resulted in his death on 23rd April 1915. His body was laid to rest in Skyros Greece at a site chosen by his friend and writer William Denis Browne who later wrote of Brooke’s death.
It was in the September of this same year of 1915 that Wilfred Owen, then a teacher in continental Europe took to visiting the wars wounded in a local army hospital and was deeply affected by their tales and condition. He was only 22 years old himself when he decided to enlist in the British Army and in a statement in September 1915 he said “I came out in order to help these boys, directly by leading them as well as an officer can; indirectly, by watching their sufferings that I may speak of them as well as a pleader can. I have done the first.” Owen was sent home injured in March 1917 but returned to the front lines in August 1918 where he was killed soon after. Rupert Brooke and Wilfred Owen both entered the first world war for their own reasons but their writings and poetry live on as a testament to their common dread of what was then thought as modern warfare.
I cannot pretend to be capable of writing anything as emotionally charged as their individual works and so recommend as a true ending to this piece you click on the internet to read the following two poems.
Rupert Brooks – The Soldier.
Wilfred Owen – Dulce et Decorum est ( the old lie ).
Point of note:
In Westminster Abbey, Poets Corner, stands a slate monument which commemorates 16 First World War poets which include Rupert Brooks and Wilfred Owen, whose work is also inscribed as follows:
“My subject is War, and the pity of War, The Poetry is in the pity.”