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Peace and Pathos in the Sea Epiphanies of Rupert Brooke: Contours of Narcissistic Desire Martin Bidney SUNY, Binghamton THIS ESSAY is a contribution to the study of eroticism in Georgian verse, a topic broached in the "Soldier Boys" chapter of Paul Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory, notably in the part entitled "The Homoerotic Sensuousness of Wilfred Owen."1 A major reason for the prevalence of a homosocial motif in the poetry of Owen and his contemporaries is the era's proximity to the "Aesthetic Movement, one of whose most powerful impulses was the erotic attractiveness of young men"; this movement, an "offshoot" of the "warm late-Romanticism" of Tennyson, Whitman, and Housman, included "an ideal of 'Greek love' like that promulgated in Walter Pater's essay on Winckelmann (1867), stressing the worship of young male beauty without sex."2 Rupert Brooke's autoerotic epiphanies, with their idealizing sensuality strongly akin to that of Pater and Winckelmann, embody another variety of the era's sexual poetics, one quite distinct from Owen's and—unlike his—not yet analyzed. It is regrettable that Rupert Brooke (1887-1915) remains best known for his sentimental 1914 sonnets such as "The Soldier" ("IfI should die, think only this of me: / That there's some corner of a foreign field / That is for ever England" [1-3] ),3 for his psychoanalytically fascinating epiphanies convey the authentic pathos of Brooke's troubled search for peace amid a growing mental turmoil. In sealike imagery, Brooke explores the contours of narcissistic desire, conveying its erotic tensions and an emergent death wish. Using the insights of psychoanalytic art historian Alex Potts to clarify Brooke's erotic tensions, and the speculations of Jacques Lacan to illuminate his death drive, I chart Brooke's growth as epiphanist of a tragic narcissism. 324 BIDNEY:BROOKE The erotic suppression and the death drive in Brooke are both illuminated by Freud's speculation that "the most universal endeavour of all living substance" is "to return to the quiescence of the inorganic world."4 Noting the petite mort that blots out consciousness at the height of the sex act, Freud adds: "The pleasure principle seems actually to serve the death instincts. It is true that it keeps watch upon stimuli from without, which are regarded as dangers by both kinds of instincts; but it is more especially on guard against increases of stimulation from within, which would make the task of living more difficult."5 Freud suggests that peace, considered as a release of tension, functions unconsciously in our mental life as metaphor for death. The strategies Brooke unconsciously employs to attain oceanic peace in narcissistic epiphanies are clarified by Alex Potts's analysis of marine impressionism in the work of Johann Joachim Winckelmann, eighteenth -century critic of Greek sculpture, who founded modern art history6 yet was even more poet than historian. Potts shows how Winckelmann's rhetoric "melts away" sculptures into sealike contours, smoothing out differences between object and ambience, self and other, to gratify the narcissistic desire for oceanic oneness with no "recalcitrant externality." Indeed, marine contours also evoke the Lacanian imaginary, oceanic union with an idealized (pre-)Mother: The Laocoön is condensed into an image of "muscles . . . that lie like hills, flowing into one another," the [Belvedere] Torso of ones "that are like the surge of waves on a calm sea, rising in a flowing relief, and moving in a gently changing swell," and the [Belvedere] Apollo of ones that are "supple, and blown like molten glass in hardly visible undulations that are more apparent to the feeling than to the sight." Seen in this quasi-connoisseurial mode, these complex figures are made into fetishized objects. They are in effect each reduced to an immaculately formed inanimate surface, which shows not the least hint of disjunction or tension, but at the same time might intimate a potentially disturbing suppressed charge, as in the image of the gently swelling [maternal] sea conjured up by the Belvedere Torso___The suggested dissolution of fixed form in flowing contour fosters a "narcissistic" fantasy in which the recalcitrant externality of the sculptural object melts away and seems to be modulated to the subtlest stirrings of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-2715
Print ISSN
0013-8339
Pages
pp. 324-338
Launched on MUSE
2010-05-21
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Ceased Publication
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