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Views & Reviews Between the Lines

Safety in death

BMJ 2011; 342 doi: (Published 18 May 2011) Cite this as: BMJ 2011;342:d3001
  1. Theodore Dalrymple, writer and retired doctor

There is little doubt that an early death does no harm to a poet’s posthumous reputation. Dylan Thomas died at 39; Byron at 36; Shelley at 29; Keats at 24; Chatterton at 17. They died respectively of drink and cerebral haemorrhage, sepsis after venesection with a dirty lancet, drowning, tuberculosis, and arsenic poisoning, either suicidal or a self administered cure for venereal disease. It almost seems as if poetry were, one way or another, as hazardous an occupation as bomb disposal or Thai boxing; perhaps occupational health should look into it.

Rupert Brooke died aged 27 in 1915, and his books immediately went through many impressions: more, I suspect, than if he had survived. His most famous poems are the five sonnets he wrote in 1914 in which he seems to dwell on the noble sacrifice of youth in war: “These laid the world away; poured out the red / Sweet wine of youth; gave up the years to be / Of work and joy, and that unhoped serene, / That men call age …”

He suggested that in dying, men were achieving the highest kind of safety: “Safe shall be my going, / Secretly armed against all death’s endeavour; / Safe though all safety’s lost; safe where men fall; / And if these poor limbs die, safest of all.”

Because Brooke was a convinced atheist without any belief in an afterlife, eternal oblivion seemed to be his conception of the highest good or at least the highest security; though, in contradiction, he often extolled the beauty of existence, the sheer joy of living. We should remember that he was a poet, not a philosopher.

In fact he had long shown a romantic preoccupation with death, especially early death (in old age, death is definitely not romantic). Here, for example, is a sonnet written in the very month of my father’s birth, when Brooke was 21: “Oh! Death will find me, long before I tire / Of watching you; and swing me suddenly / Into the shade and loneliness and mire / Of the last land!”

Or again, in 1913, in The Funeral of Youth: A Threnody: “The day that Youth had died, / There came to his grave-side, / In decent mourning, from the country’s ends, / Those scatte’d friends / Who had lived the boon companions of his prime …”

However, before dismissing this as morbid we should remember that, even at the beginning of the 20th century, the grip on life was not quite as generally secure as it is now. Brooke’s older brother died when Rupert was 19; a much admired Cambridge tutor, Walter Headlam, died when Rupert was 20, “cut off by a sudden blind blow of Fate, as it might seems, in perfect health” (according to his biographer); his father died when Rupert was 21.

Like Byron, the other English poet who died in Greece, Brooke died of sepsis, supposedly from an infected mosquito bite. But he was already debilitated by the dysentery that he contracted in Egypt, from which he wrote to Miss Asquith: “A diet of arrowroot doesn’t build up violence. I am as weak as a pacifist.”

Brooke was buried on the island of Skyros by his friend, the musician William Denis Browne. Two days before his own death in the Dardanelles, Browne wrote, “Every colour had come into the sea and sky to do him honour.” When dying of his own wounds, Browne wrote, “I’ve gone now too; not too badly I hope. I’m luckier than Rupert, because I fought. But there’s no one to bury me as I buried him, so perhaps he’s best off in the long run.”


Cite this as: BMJ 2011;342:d3001

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