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Featured Poem: 'The Old Vicarage, Grantchester' by Rupert Brooke

April 27, 2009
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As you’re no doubt aware, last Thursday, as well as being St. George’s Day, was a day of literary anniversaries. One of them was the death of Rupert Brooke (1887 – 1915). So this week’s poem is ‘The Old Vicarage, Grantchester’, written in 1912 while Brooke was in Germany and thinking – with almost delirious nostalgia – of home.

Best known for the patriotic sonnet ‘The Soldier’ (“If I should die, think only this of me”), Brooke had lived at Grantchester’s Old Vicarage, Cambridgeshire, a few years earlier – and would die just a few years later, on 23rd April 1915, from an infected mosquito bite, while sailing to Gallipoli as part of the British Mediterranean Expeditionary Force.

But his poem recalls an England, or at least some corner of it, that can never die; because it never really existed, except in the imagination. Which means we can go there whenever we like: we can “lie/Day long and watch the Cambridge sky,/And, flower-lulled in sleepy grass,/Hear the cool lapse of hours pass,/Until the centuries blend and blur”…

The Old Vicarage, Grantchester

(Café des Westens, Berlin, May 1912)

Just now the lilac is in bloom,
All before my little room;
And in my flower-beds, I think,
Smile the carnation and the pink;
And down the borders, well I know,
The poppy and the pansy blow. . .
Oh! there the chestnuts, summer through,
Beside the river make for you
A tunnel of green gloom, and sleep
Deeply above; and green and deep
The stream mysterious glides beneath,
Green as a dream and deep as death.
— Oh, damn! I know it! and I know
How the May fields all golden show,
And when the day is young and sweet,
Gild gloriously the bare feet
That run to bathe. . .Du lieber Gott! (1)

Here am I, sweating, sick, and hot,
And there the shadowed waters fresh
Lean up to embrace the naked flesh.
Temperamentvoll (2) German Jews
Drink beer around; — and there the dews
Are soft beneath a morn of gold.
Here tulips bloom as they are told;
Unkempt about those hedges blows
An English unofficial rose;
And there the unregulated sun
Slopes down to rest when day is done,
And wakes a vague unpunctual star,
A slippered Hesper; and there are
Meads towards Haslingfield and Coton
Where das Betreten’s not verboten. (3)

eithe genoimen (4) . . . would I were
In Grantchester, in Grantchester! —
Some, it may be, can get in touch
With Nature there, or Earth, or such.
And clever modern men have seen
A Faun a-peeping through the green,
And felt the Classics were not dead,
To glimpse a Naiad’s reedy head,
Or hear the Goat-foot piping low: . . .
But these are things I do not know.
I only know that you may lie
Day long and watch the Cambridge sky,
And, flower-lulled in sleepy grass,
Hear the cool lapse of hours pass,
Until the centuries blend and blur
In Grantchester, in Grantchester. . .
Still in the dawnlit waters cool
His ghostly Lordship swims his pool,
And tries the strokes, essays the tricks,
Long learnt on Hellespont, or Styx.
Dan Chaucer hears his river still
Chatter beneath a phantom mill.
Tennyson notes, with studious eye,
How Cambridge waters hurry by . . .
And in that garden, black and white,
Creep whispers through the grass all night;
And spectral dance, before the dawn,
A hundred Vicars down the lawn;
Curates, long dust, will come and go
On lissom, clerical, printless toe;
And oft between the boughs is seen
The sly shade of a Rural Dean . . .
Till, at a shiver in the skies,
Vanishing with Satanic cries,
The prim ecclesiastic rout
Leaves but a startled sleeper-out,
Grey heavens, the first bird’s drowsy calls,
The falling house that never falls.

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.
In Grantchester their skins are white;
They bathe by day, they bathe by night;
The women there do all they ought;
The men observe the Rules of Thought.
They love the Good; they worship Truth;
They laugh uproariously in youth;
(And when they get to feeling old,
They up and shoot themselves, I’m told) . . .

Ah God! to see the branches stir
Across the moon at Grantchester!
To smell the thrilling-sweet and rotten
Unforgettable, unforgotten
River-smell, and hear the breeze
Sobbing in the little trees.
Say, do the elm-clumps greatly stand
Still guardians of that holy land?
The chestnuts shade, in reverend dream,
The yet unacademic stream?
Is dawn a secret shy and cold
Anadyomene, silver-gold?
And sunset still a golden sea
From Haslingfield to Madingley?
And after, ere the night is born,
Do hares come out about the corn?
Oh, is the water sweet and cool,
Gentle and brown, above the pool?
And laughs the immortal river still
Under the mill, under the mill?
Say, is there Beauty yet to find?
And Certainty? and Quiet kind?
Deep meadows yet, for to forget
The lies, and truths, and pain? . . . oh! yet
Stands the Church clock at ten to three?
And is there honey still for tea?

Rupert Brooke, 1912

(1) Dear God!
(2) high-spirited
(3) entering is not forbidden
(4) if only I could be

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. David Schorr permalink
    January 15, 2012 5:46 am

    ειτηε γενοιμεν should be in the original Greek, not transliterated into the Roman alphabet

  2. David Jewell permalink
    July 24, 2012 12:19 am

    Agree with David Schorr, but he hasn’t got the Greek quite right. Should be ειθε γενοιμην.
    Also don’t like the translation of ‘Das Betreten’s not verboten’. This is surely the German sign for ‘Forbidden to walk on the grass'; and Brooke is saying that in England it isn’t forbidden to walk on the grass. Only that’s odd because at Kings where he was a fellow it definitely is forbidden to walk on the grass in the front & back courts and there are now signs in several languages to tell visitors so. (Though there are nuances here. It may not have been forbidden in Brooke’s day, and in any case as a fellow he would have had the privilege not accorded to undergraduates of being allowed to walk on the grass!)

  3. Adam permalink
    March 1, 2013 12:19 am

    He should not have got the Greek right and it was entirely correct to leave the German somewhat incorrect. It is a young mans poem about freedom and remembered peace tinged with humour and suffused with the golden light of memory. To be riged in translation goes against the stream his thoughts are adrift upon

    In any case there are no quads at Granchester and one may certainly walk upon the grass if one is so inclined.

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