I was a bit peeved with Leonard Cohen for quite a while. I had set Lord Byron’s poem So we’ll no more go a’roving to music, and was quite pleased with myself for it. Then, a few years later, our Len did the same thing. I am not suggesting, of course, that he copied me. The problem was that people might think I had copied him.
Anyway, it is the local dog park concert today, and I was being encouraged to sing and play something. So I have set a Rupert Brooke poem to music. I discovered Brooke when I was 17: there was a copy of his collected poems in my grandmother’s house. It was a surprise to me, because like most 17 years olds, I imagined all parents and grandparents, agreeable as they were, as a bit lacking in the poetic passion department. He was of course then – in the swinging sixties – and still is today, deeply unfashionable, but in his own day, and at the time of the Great War, he was huge. Born in 1887, he was academically brilliant, good-looking, charming and much admired by other literary figures in the pre-war years. Commissioned as a navy officer having been brought to the attention of Winston Churchill, he was on his way to Gallipoli when he died of septicaemia following an infected mosquito bite. He was buried on the Aegean island of Skiros. He was 27 years old.
He is best known for his patriotic stuff:
If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England.
But it is his dry wit and his sense of fun which allows him to venture into deeply personal areas with becoming syrupy. This, for example, written when he was in Germany, and evidently homesick:
God! I will pack, and take a train,
And get me to England once again!
For England’s the one land, I know,
Where men with Splendid Hearts may go;
And Cambridgeshire, of all England,
The shire for Men who Understand;
And of that district I prefer
The lovely hamlet Grantchester.
For Cambridge people rarely smile,
Being urban, squat, and packed with guile;
And Royston men in the far South
Are black and fierce and strange of mouth;
At Over they fling oaths at one,
And worse than oaths at Trumpington,
And Ditton girls are mean and dirty,
And there’s none in Harston under thirty,
And folks in Shelford and those parts
Have twisted lips and twisted hearts,
And Barton men make Cockney rhymes,
And Coton’s full of nameless crimes,
And things are done you’d not believe
At Madingley on Christmas Eve.
Strong men have run for miles and miles,
When one from Cherry Hinton smiles;
Strong men have blanched, and shot their wives,
Rather than send them to St. Ives;
Strong men have cried like babes, bydam,
To hear what happened at Babraham.
But Grantchester! ah, Grantchester!
There’s peace and holy quiet there,
Great clouds along pacific skies,
And men and women with straight eyes,
Lithe children lovelier than a dream,
A bosky wood, a slumbrous stream,
And little kindly winds that creep
Round twilight corners, half asleep.
The poem that I am going to sing today is this one:
It’s not going to happen again
I have known the most dear that is granted us here,
It’s the very first word that poor Juliet heard
Chateau Lake Louise, Canada, 1913.
Not much risk, I reckon, of the Canadian poet setting that one to music.
Here I am singing it: