And is there honey still for tea?
Many lovers of English verse will hardly need reminding that the title above cites the final line of Rupert Brooke’s “The Old Vicarage, Grantchester (Café des Westens, Berlin, May 1912)’ Normally poets do not specify the place where they happen to find themselves at the time of writing a poem, so why did Brooke attach importance to this detail”? May this not have something to do with the way the reference to his whereabouts in Berlin prepared the ground for the opposition of the “here” in Berlin and the “there” in Grantchester, an opposition that does much to engender a mood of nostalgia and a longing for a lost Eden:
However, the Café des Westens and the Orchard Garden in Grantchester, the leafy meeting place frequented by Brooke, Virginia Woolf, E. M. Forster, Bertrand Russell, and John Maynard Keynes share one common feature. Both were hotbeds of intellectual discussion between artists, writers, and doyens of high culture; each became an oasis of tolerance and a refuge from judgmental attitudes towards those whose religion, sexual orientation and unorthodox lifestyles met with establishmentarian disapproval or distain.
Today we may read the poem with the support of historical hindsight. 1912 had been preceded by a decade of revolutionary developments, in technology, art, scientific advance and new explanations in various domains including psychology and physics. Roll over Newton, now it’s Einstein’s turn. A scintillating new world of progress on every front was in prospect despite one or two indications that all in the garden was not quite so lovely after all. The British were shocked early in the year by the news of Captain R. F. Scott’s failure to pip Amundsen to the post in Antarctica and of his subsequent death. Then came a much greater disaster in April with the loss of the Titanic.
But now it was May, the month of nature’s renewal, flowering buds and thoughts of love. In fact, Brooke was in town to participate in a wedding ceremony at which a friend of his tied the knot with his German bride. He was still globetrotting as a way of recovering from an intense nervous breakdown precipitated by a crisis in his love life. Berlin was witnessing a dry run of the uproarious Twenties in the Weimar Republic. In the poem, there is an explicit mention of ‘German Jews in the enjoyment of beer drinking, perhaps an allusion to the prominence of Jews in the world of entertainment and the stage. Jean Gilbert’s operettas were all the rage and even made inroads into the London scene, proving that his Jewish identity was no obstacle to success in his career. For all Berlin’s surface of unbridled jollity and hedonism, Brooke did not feel at home in the city; the poem makes this obvious enough.
The opening lines are not about Berlin at all. With the list of verses cast in tetrameters, the opening twelve lines praise Grantchester in bloom and leaf as it appears in his mind’s eye after the manner of Milton’s ‘Allegro’ or Keats’ Endymion. We read:
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.
Then with a bang the mood changes totally. Expletives intrude with jarring effect, first in English and then German with ‘Damn’ and ‘Du lieber Gott.’ Later we read: “Here tulips do as they are told’ and German words crop up again in the lines:
…; and there are
Meads towards Haslingfield and Coton
Where das Betreten’s not verboten.
These digs at German exactitude in the observance of minor laws and regulations do not in themselves amount to proof of any rejection of all things German though elsewhere he may have called for the building of more Dreadnoughts. For that matter, his poem was not sparing in digs and in-jokes at the expense of some locals in Cambridge and Grantchester either. He sensed, as did many others at this time, mounting tensions between Germany and Britain but his apparent Germanophobic attitude may have had more to do with personal frustrations and his adherence to a high-minded romantic notion of patriotism than to any form of xenophobia. We recall the other most famous line penned by Brooke: ‘That there is a corner of a foreign field / That is forever England,’ in ‘Soldiers,’ so frequently anthologized and quoted as a sublime expression of patriotism. Such blue-eyed idealism could not long survive the withering fire of machine guns and the ruthless advance of modern war machines, for which Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen would later find more telling words.
Returning to thoughts of Grantchester, he recalls ‘ghostly’ Lord Byron and Lord Tennyson, fellows of Trinity College. By now a creepy and elegiac element has entered the poem. His mention of Lord Byron noted for his habit of having a dip in a pond close to the village of Grantchester, recalls a fellow poet whom Brooke would follow into death under not dissimilar circumstances. Both poets died as soldiers in a foreign region (rather than ‘field’) but all the glory showered on their memory cannot hide the fact that they met their deaths away from the battlefield, succumbing either to a doctor’s overzealous application of bloodsucking leeches or to blood poisoning caused by a mosquito bite.
A parting thought on the poem. What makes the final anticlimactic line so memorable? Amid the deepest gloom, the Englishman retires to a very special comfort zone, one generated spontaneously at the very thought of tea, especially when partaken of a sunny afternoon in a garden. It is odd, though, that the poet was so specific about the time of day by the hands of the nearby church clock. Why ten to three? He needed a word to rhyme with ‘tea,’ of course, and many a joy, when relished in our minds, recalls not some climax of sheer delight but the anticipation of a such a joy shorty before it arrives. Honey contemplated from afar is sweeter than honey at the point of being dissolved in one’s palate.