PETER FROST, in poetic mood, takes us back to the year the first world war started and how it bound the short lives of two great poets
The long hot summer of 1914 has been described as a picnic perfect. It’s a poet’s description.
In the iconic windmill in the pretty little North Norfolk holiday village of Cley next the Sea, poet Rupert Brooke was staying with another poet, Frances Cornford and her classics professor husband, confusingly also Francis.
From the windmill the three of them would walk for miles along the dunes. They bought fish from local boats and picked wild marsh samphire. They argued about poetry and about their hopes for the future. They enjoyed frequent picnics.
Early in August 1914 Brooke woke from a strange and frightening dream. He had dreamed that Britain had engaged in a great and terrifying war.
When he came down to breakfast his hosts told him the disastrous news. His dream had become reality. Britain really was at war.
The shocking revelation led to a broody silence from Brooke that lasted nearly all day. Finally Frances, in an attempt to cheer him up, said “But Rupert, you won’t have to fight?”
Brooke looked at her in incredible disbelief. “No,” he told her, “we shall all have to fight.” How right he turned out to be.
Rupert Brooke was born on August 3 1887. His father was a housemaster at Rugby School. After leaving Cambridge University, Brooke made friends among the Bloomsbury group of writers — some admired his poetry, others his good looks. Virginia Woolf boasted to Vita Sackville-West that she had taken the handsome poet skinny-dipping.
In 1909 he moved to the village of Grantchester, near Cambridge, which he celebrated in one of his best known poems, The Old Vicarage, Grantchester:
Stands the Church clock at ten to three? / And is there honey still for tea?
Brooke had suffered a severe emotional breakdown in 1912 and took a tour of Germany, the US and Canada. Back in England he went to stay with his friends and mentor in their holiday Norfolk windmill.
Once war was declared Brooke joined the navy. In February 1915, he took ship for the Dardanelles. On board he developed blood poisoning from a bite. He died on April 23 1915 on a hospital ship off the Greek island of Skyros. He was just 28.
They buried him in an olive grove on the Greek island. He had famously written:
If I should die, think only this of me / That there’s some corner of a foreign field / That is forever England.
Nine months later in December 1915 when the late poet’s friend Frances Cornford gave birth to a son she named him Rupert John Cornford. She hoped he too would become a poet.
Today we certainly remember John Cornford (he rarely used the name Rupert) as a remarkable poet but also a martyr of the Spanish civil war — the first Englishman to fight and die in Spain.
At Stowe public school, encouraged by his mother, Cornford started to write poetry but they fell out about what kind of poetry it should be.
At Stowe he also discovered politics. This was 1929 — the Great Depression. Young Cornford discovered Marx and Engels, who taught him that only socialism would cure the economic problems of the time.
The 1931 general election was a disaster for Labour and Cornford looked for a more radical solution. Aged 16 he joined the Young Communist League.
As well as politics and poetry, Cornford did well in history. At just 16 he won a history scholarship at Cambridge.
He had other ideas, and set off for that hotbed of left and communist thinking, the London School of Economics.
He was just 17 when he arrived at LSE. He joined the Marxist Society, the anti-fascist and anti-war committees. He became editor of the student newspaper.
Just 17, he met and fell in love with older Communist Party activist Ray Peters. They were soon living together, and moved to Cambridge together when he started at Trinity.
Cambridge communists were working hard to combat the rise of unemployment and the spread of fascism. There were anti-war demonstrations, articles for student publications, chalking anti-fascist slogans on college walls, even speeches at the Cambridge Union.
Cornford and Peters were honing their skills as orators and agitators. They demonstrated themselves revolutionaries in both their private lives and their public politics.
Cornford wrote only nine poems while at Cambridge but also an important essay on revolutionary literature. Poetry, he declared, needed to support “the dynamic and vital forces of society against the reactionary inertial forces.”
One of his Cambridge poems spells it out: Here we break for good with the old way of living, / For we’re leaving only what wasn’t worth having.
Peters became pregnant. The comrades were happy to flaunt their rejection of conventional moral standards but the pressures of their lives and political activities didn’t help the relationship.
All too soon they decided to separate. Son James would be brought up by Cornford’s parents.
Cornford now had a new love, Margot Heinemann, also a communist. She worked in Birmingham and he tried for a job there with the Workers’ Educational Association to be near her.
He didn’t get the Birmingham job. Instead he decided to spend another year at Cambridge. He and Heinemann planned to holiday in Belgium and the south of France in the summer of 1936.
Fascist General Francisco Franco had other ideas. The Spanish civil war — the armed rehearsal for World War II — had started. Franco set out to overthrow the democratically elected Republican government of Spain.
Cornford headed for Spain with a letter from the News Chronicle identifying him as a freelance journalist as his cover story.
On August 8 1936, just three weeks after the war started, he was in Barcelona. In Republican Spain he saw in reality the kind of society he had campaigned for as a member of the Communist Party.
He wrote home to Heinemann: “One can understand physically what the dictatorship of the proletariat means.”
After just two days in Barcelona, he set out for the Aragon Front and the real fighting.
Always one to act impulsively he forgot his plans to join Heinemann in the south of France. Instead he enrolled, not with the communist forces his natural allies, but in the mainly Trotskyist Poum, becoming the very first Englishman to volunteer to fight for the republic.
Suddenly the reality of becoming a fighting man hit him. He wrote to Heinemann: “From the age of 17 I was in a kind of way tied down, and envied my contemporaries a good deal their freedom to bum about, and it was partly because I felt myself for the first time independent that I came out here.
“I came out with the intention of staying a few days, firing a few shots and then coming home.” But he had realised a cruel truth: “You can’t play at civil war.”
Serious sickness and a high fever saw him first in a local medical post and then back in Barcelona and invalided back to England on September 16. He had spent only six weeks in Spain.
He had been ordered home by Spanish comrades. They thought he would be more valuable recruiting British volunteers for the International Brigade.
On October 5, Cornford returned to Spain to help train foreign volunteers. The training was abruptly suspended early in November when reinforcements were urgently needed for the defence of Madrid. On November 8, he and his men marched into the capital.
When 150 British volunteers arrived Cornford and the other English comrades joined them to form an English-speaking unit. Almost immediately they were ordered to the Cordoba Front.
Cornford was exhausted. Officers suggested that he remain behind but he refused and on Christmas Eve he and his unit attacked the fascist command post of the province. They came under murderous fascist gunfire.
On December 28 a fascist machine gun bullet tore through his skull. Rupert John Cornford was just 21. His body was never found and indeed only 47 of his brigade survived the massacre to carry on the fight.
This summer my wife Ann and I had a perfect picnic. Sat on the dunes overlooking Cley windmill, we ate, drank and read some of Cornford’s and Brooke’s poems.
On that perfect North Norfolk summer afternoon, as the two poets’ words echoed down over the decades, we decided that you can never really kill a poet nor an idea whose time has come.
This article first appeared in the Morning Star 29 August 2014