Few sites in the field of literary biography have been so hotly contested as the biography of Rupert Brooke. Within days of his death from blood poisoning on a troop ship in the Aegean, he had been praised by Winston Churchill and wistfully mourned in national newspapers and literary journals. Meanwhile, a battle was brewing between his mother and Edward Marsh, his friend and literary executor, for control over his letters and papers. Brooke was held up by many as a national example of patriotism and as the idealization of youth, while others insisted that he was simply a flawed but talented young man. Things are much the same today. Brooke’s poem “The Soldier” is still read at Armistice Day services and is regularly taught at schools and universities as a fine example of sonnet form. In other camps, however, his poetry is lambasted as nationalistic, emotionally naïve, and conservative in form. So much has been projected onto the memory of this young man that he has become a potent symbol of a particular moment and set of values. Like it or loathe it, he has come to stand for “Englishness”—or at least the particular brand of English nostalgia that was in vogue in the opening stages of the First World War. Many of Brooke’s friends and colleagues protested his appropriation as an icon of establishment values. But cultural momentum was at work. The sheer number of tributes and appreciations written in the weeks after Brooke’s death demonstrates how keen the British were to find a representative figure on which to focus their grief in April 1915 and in the months that followed.
Among these appreciations is an essay by Henry James, in the form of a preface to Rupert Brooke’s Letters from America. This is a striking combination of names to find on the flyleaf of a book, so it is intriguing that this essay is not much discussed by scholars either of James or Brooke. Written in the autumn of 1915 and published with Brooke’s travel essays in March 1916, this essay is the last piece of work James completed before his health collapsed in December 1915. The writing of this preface coincided with work on The Sense of the Past and The Middle Years (the third volume of his Autobiography), and many of the themes and concerns evident in these texts [End Page 132] surface in his writing about Brooke: the collision of past and present, the nature of artistry, and the relation of individuality to nationality. This article examines how James used his essay as a platform to discuss the tension between his view of art and his impressions of the First World War—elements more closely connected in James’s mind than one might suppose. Like many of the pieces written about Brooke, James’s essay reveals as much about the writer as it does about the subject and thus occupies a hazy boundary zone between biography and autobiography. Nevertheless, James is more perceptive than many of his contemporaries about Brooke’s limitations and inconsistencies.
James first met Brooke in 1909 on a visit to Cambridge University. Little remains in the way of correspondence between the two, but they obviously remained sufficiently in contact for Brooke to feel able to call on James at Lamb House in Rye one evening in 1912, while on a walking tour with James Strachey. Brooke’s account of what happened is reproduced in Edward Marsh’s introductory memoir in Brooke’s Collected Poems:
At length I pressed the Bell of the Great Door—there was a smaller door further along, the servants’ door we were told. No answer. I pressed again. At length a slow dragging step was heard within. It stopped inside the door. We shuffled. Then, very slowly, very loudly, immense numbers of chains and bolts were drawn within. There was a pause again. Further rattlings within. Then the steps seemed to be heard retreating. There was silence. We waited in a wild agonising stupefaction. The house was dead silent. At length there was a shuffling noise from...