The Poet at World’s End

There is nothing like an English wilderness. For even in the midst of barren flatlands, there is something of the Shire about it.

Norfolk is on the way to nowhere, though once it was the gateway to everywhere. Few world travellers venture to this extraordinary outpost of England, which really is the way things once were here. Here, just outside the Georgian town of Holt, everyone lives in picture-box villages with cobble-dash houses; the timeline has simply ambled on from mediaeval times until now with little interruption.

Times jostle together to create a companionable timelessness.

One of the nearest coastal points for us is Cley-Next-The-Sea, which hasn’t been since the 17th Century. It is a strange little end of the world. The waves which lapped against the harbour walls have been stultified by sand and silt, but the buildings of the harbour are still there.

It was once one of the busiest ports in England: for there the merchants from the low countries would dock their ships and exchange grain, malt, fish, spices, cloth, barley and oats.

And it has the most outlandish of charm. Each building is cobble-dash, with Dutch gable roofs everywhere. Impossibly characterful cottages jostle their neighbours, setting puzzles for the passing tourist: how does a mediaeval stone arch remain in what appears a Georgian fascia? Why are there everywhere references to St George and the Dragon? Did they build the huge picture windows to match the big skies?

The main road to Kings Lynn winds chaotically through the centre but it cannot rob Cley of its end of the worldishness. For it faces the great salt marshes, wild and wet, and beyond them the North Sea.

Standing sentry over the village is a 19th century windmill for grinding corn. Five storeys, with four sails driving three relentless pairs of millstones using the wind which tears in off the sea.

And it is this England, the little wild kind, where a poet sat on the day war was declared in August 1914.

Rupert Brooke: whom WB Yeats had dubbed ‘the handsomest man in England’, a member of the Bloomsbury set who had skinny dipped with Virginia Woolf.

He was staying in Cley with friends, the poet Frances Cornford and her husband. And rather horrifyingly he had dreamt about the war, and woke to find it all not a dream, but real.

He did not speak to the Cornfords all day; until Frances said to him: “But Rupert, you won’t have to fight?”

And Brooke replied, simply:”We shall all have to fight.”

The war took him away from this strange little England, across the seas to the Aegean, on his way to Gallipoli. The Times Literary Supplement carried a couple of his war poems in March and April 1915, and he was becoming famous.

But in late April 1915, he was bitten by a mosquito, and contracted sepsis, and died one day at about teatime off the Greek island of Skyros. It was a brilliant day with a wonderful cool sea breeze, but it was not home.

Brooke was buried the same day – the expeditionary force had orders to leave immediately. And now he sleeps in an olive grove, on a Greek island.

I wonder if he would rather have slept at home?

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16 thoughts on “The Poet at World’s End

  1. A haunting post Kate. I didn’t know this about Brooke and it makes me feel that his famous ‘corner of a foreign field’ was so very prescient. Maybe most of those young men knew they would not live long, which is very sad.

  2. I’m sure he would rather have been buried at home, but a Greek island in an olive grove sounds like a lovely place to spend eternity. Cley-next-the-Sea must be an enchanting place. The windmill was cutting edge technology in its heyday and now we’re borrowing what worked for energy in the past and putting up wind farms to make some energy for the present. Everything in life always seems to recycle. I bet the old grindstones were pretty noisy, yes?

  3. Your recent posts seem centered on death ~ a prick from a needle, the sting of a mosquito, and the bequeathing of family jewels.

    I suppose that history and her story all end the same way . . . gravely in the grave.

  4. Those Norfolk towns, Kate, are always new to me, even after working for almost a hundred years on Directory Enquiries. Never heard of Holt or Cley-next-the-sea, but they also have an olde familiar rynge to them.

    1. It was. What a strange thing to be just beginning to be a recognised poet, and to have to leave just as the party was starting. Still, if the alternative was Gallipoli, where he was headed….

  5. I always think the stories that surround someone dying from some small and ordinary event disturb me the most. A mosquito bite! I read that President Calvin Coolidge was depressed and slept much of the day. The story is that his son died from sepsis from a blister developed during a tennis game. Rupert seemed to be a very thoughtful and deliberate man…felled by an insect! Makes me think!

  6. What a dashingly handsome man Rupert was. I just spent some time investigating him and his work, Kate, and wonder how I missed this English poet. You really did “spray the mist” with this post, making me yearn to read more of Rupert (and Colin Firth would play him well, don’t you think?) and to investigate his poetry, not to mention visit Cley-next-to-sea. Thank you.

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