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Tuesday
Jul242012

Rupert Brooke and THIS SIDE OF PARADISE

The title of Fitzgerald's first novel comes from the last two lines of a Rupert Brooke poem, "Tiare Tahiti." Those lines are quoted on the novel's title page--and the poem itself enters into the novel at several points in mostly light but a few very complicated references. If you want to read the full text of the Brooke poem, click here.

Rupert Brooke just before World War IBrooke himself may loom over the novel even more than his poem. He is referenced several times by characters--and yes, was himself not only a commanding literary figure but also something of a symbol for Fitzgerald and his crew. Together, these novelists, poets, and playwrights were known as the "lost generation," probably so-named by Gertrude Stein, although the phrase only occurs in Hemingway's writings as a quote from her--and she, never one to back down from renown, accepted the label as her own creation, whether she actually ever said it or not.

Rupert Brooke was may well have been both the incarnation and the talisman for such a lost generation. He was an English poet, born in Rugby, Warwickshire, in 1887. (Roughly the same part of England where George Eliot was born.) From a rather middle class family, he nonetheless gained admission to Cambridge and there founded the now-famous Marlowe Society, a theater club. A dashing figure, known as much for his good looks as his poetry, he soon became part of the Bloomsbury group. Virginia Woolf once bragged about skinny-dipping with him.

A sketch of Rupert BrookeAfter some tortured love affairs among the Bloomsbury women, Brooke had a mental breakdown, recuperated in Germany, and then toured the United States where he carried on torrid sexual affairs with a long list of men and women. But it was during and just after these events that Brooke really came into his own. While expressing his bisexuality fully, he also bagan publishing gorgeous, evocative, and heart-rending poetry about World War I. It is for these poems (in the collection "1914 and Other Poems") that is he most remembered.

Quickly rising to national fame, Brooke was given a commission in the navy by Winston Churchill himself, then First Lord of the Admirality. He sailed with the British Mediterranean Expeditionary Force in February, 1915. On his way to the Gallipoli landing, he developed sepsis from an infected mosquite bite and died off the Greek island of Sykros in September, 1915. He is buried on the island.

You can see why this tragic, lost life, with its denied future, literary success, and rootless sexuality, became something of a symbol for Fitzgerald--and his peers. And not only them. Brooke's life or poetry has made it into hundreds of cultural references since his death, appearing in dozens of novels besides Fitzgerald's, in Pink Floyd songs, Pet Shop Boys rants, and even in one of the first honest film explorations of homosexuality, "Making Love."

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