Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Rupert Brooke at Penshurst

 
Penshurst 1907
 
In July 1909, Rupert Brooke came to Penshurst, in Kent, on a camping trip with a group of friends. In a meadow close to the River Eden, they recreated days and nights at Grantchester with daring mixed swimming in the river, poetry recitals and romantic entanglements.
 
Among the young campers were three of the Olivier sisters, Bryn, Daphne and Noel, whose family lived at nearby Limpsfield Chart. They were cousins of the famous actor Sir Laurence Olivier, and Bryn and Noel, in particular, were charismatic beauties. Bryn and another sister, Margery, were part of Rupert’s famous Cambridge set. It was at Penshurst that Rupert Brooke fell deeply in love with Noel, the youngest (pictured, Brooke right). He had been pursuing her since they first met when she was still a schoolgirl at Bedales, and on this trip, she seemed to return his feelings.
 
   
Another of the friends was 17-year-old David “Bunny” Garnett, neighbour of the Oliviers at Limpsfield - he would become a prolific author and member of the Bloomsbury Group, and would write the novella Aspects of Love. He had chosen the pitch, ‘across the river from the imposing edifice of Penshurst Place’. But where exactly was the site of this camp? Remembering these summer days and nights, David Garnett wrote:

‘When we reached Penshurst we found a little road crossing the river Eden and above a narrow old bridge was a wider pool with water lilies, in which we bathed. Nearby was a little weirhouse over the river.’
 
There are four bridges over the rivers at Penshurst, which is in a valley at the confluence of the Medway and the Eden. Three of them have views of Penshurst Place, the stately historic birthplace of the Elizabethan poet Sir Philip Sidney. The question was, which one was it that saw the friends diving from the wall, as described by Garnett?
 
 
"On Sunday morning the rustics of Penshurst came down and leant in a line upon the parapet of the bridge, staring into the pool in which we were to bathe.
   “Come on,” said Daphne, “They’re not going to stop us.”
   Nor did they. We bathed, ignoring them, and Noel, not to be put off from her high dives, picked her way along the parapet between the rows of wrists and elbows, politely asked for standing room in the middle, and made a perfect dive into the pool. With florid expressionless face, the nearest labourer shook his black Sunday coat-sleeve free of the drops which had fallen from her heel."
 
I think the bridge over the Eden must be the one on the coach road up to Watstock Farm and Hever.
 
 
The long, tranquil field behind lies close by alongside the Salman’s Farm road, and offers a surprisingly fine view of Penshurst Place across the meadows. It seems a perfect – and relatively discreet – spot for a party of young men and women camping together in what, in the eyes of many Edwardians, would have been a shockingly free-spirited display of unconventionality.
 
 
If you want to see it, cross the bridge in the direction of Salman’s Farm, the field is immediately on the left. Downstream, very close by, an old shallow weir still splashes into a wide pool in the river, though the weir house has been replaced by a modern gauging station (the red brick structure at the bottom right of the photo). This picture was taken with a zoom lens that has shortened the real distances. This is what remains of the shallow weir.
 
 
 
 

David Garnett recalled the scene:
 "…soon we were sitting round the blazing fire, Noel’s eyes shining in welcome for the new arrivals and the soft river water trickling from her hair down her bare shoulders. And on the white shoulders, shining in the firelight, were bits of duck weed, which made me love them even more. The moon rose full. Soon we crawled back into our sleeping bags and slept, but Rupert, I believe, lay awake composing poetry."

Days and nights passed in walking, swimming, eating and talking. At night, they swam naked by the light of a bicycle lamp. Rupert had been pursuing both Noel from a distance for many months, and they finally had a chance to be alone together on a riverbank walk.
 
 
The Bathers, woodcut by Gwen Raverat (1885-1957) another of Rupert Brooke’s Cambridge friends, who took part in the Granchester night swimming parties. 
 
 

                                              
                                         The Hill by Rupert Brooke (1909)

                               Breathless, we flung us on the windy hill,
                               Laughed in the sun, and kissed the lovely grass.
                               You said "Through glory and ecstasy we pass;
                               Wind, sun, and earth remain, and birds sing still,
                               When we are old, are old...." "And when we die
                               All's over that is ours; and life burns on
                               Through other lovers, other lips" said I,
                               "Heart of my heart, our heaven is now, is won!"
 
                               "We are Earth's best, that learnt her lesson here.
                               Life is our cry. We have kept the faith!" we said;
                               "We shall go down with unreluctant tread
                               Rose-crowned into the darkness!"... Proud we were,
                               And laughed, that had such brave true things to say.
                               —And then you suddenly cried, and turned away.
 


After this idyllic interlude in Penshurst, the poet’s love for Noel Olivier endured, becoming almost obsessive. Yet he was distracted by other relationships - notably with Ka Cox - and unable to commit to her. The steely and self-sufficient Noel was coolly unimpressed by his confusions. Her eventual resolve that she did not love him caused Brooke to write her an enraged letter in 1912:
 
“You lie, Noel. You may have persuaded yourself you don’t love me, or engineered yourself into not loving me, now. But you lie when you say you never did & never could. You did – Penshurst & Grantchester & a thousand times. I know you did; & you know it. And you could.”
 
Noel qualified as a doctor in 1917, becoming a paediatrician. She married and had five children, before belatedly falling in love with James Strachey, another of Rupert’s Bloomsbury set friends, and brother of Lytton Strachey. In their forties, Noel and James embarked on a passionate affair that lasted nearly a decade.

Rupert Brooke died of sepsis caused by an infected mosquito bite in April 1915, on a ship in the Aegean Sea, bound for Gallipoli. Brooke (1887-1915) was known as “the handsomest young man in England” and he was already famous for his neo-Romantic poems when he enlisted to fight in World War One. His death at twenty-seven only added to his reputation and idealised image, allied to his lyrical nostalgia for the English countryside. He was buried on the Greek island of Skyros.
 
 
  
                                     The Soldier by Rupert Brooke (1914) 

                                IF I should die, think only this of me: 
                                That there's some corner of a foreign field 
                                That is forever England. There shall be 
                                In that rich earth a richer dust concealed; 
                                A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware, 
                                Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam, 
                                A body of England's, breathing English air, 
                                Washed by the rivers, blest by the suns of home. 
                                And think, this heart, all evil shed away, 
                                A pulse in the eternal mind, no less 
                                Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given; 
                                Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day; 
                                And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness, 
                                In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.
 

6 comments:

So many books, so little time said...

I used to love poetry when I was younger, not so much as an adult but they are lovely/haunting words. The photos are really nice too!

Lainy http://www.alwaysreading.net

Deborah Lawrenson said...

Thanks, Lainy. Yes, Brooke was always a sensuous nature poet, which I think is what makes his war poetry so haunting.

Karen Wojcik Berner said...

Fascinating, Deborah. Thanks for sharing this story.

aguja said...

A beautiful and amazing post, sauntering through lanes with thoughts and memories of Rupert Brooke. I agree with your comment on his poetry. Yes. Haunting poetry.
Thank you for sharing!

Deborah Lawrenson said...

Thank you, Karen. Love a good literary trail!

Deborah Lawrenson said...

So happy you enjoyed it, Ann (Aguja). I think what sometimes gets missed in all the nostalgia is the sense of fun in some of Brooke's poems, but he did "haunting" extremely well.

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