Burying the Handsomest Man in England: The Greek Grave of Rupert Brooke

Brooke Anne Hardwick talks about Skyros, the burial of poet Rupert Brooke, and leaving a little of herself behind on the island.

My name is Brooke. It’s an optimistic name, a punchy name — a name delivered with a solitary syllable that slides like a trombone from tooth to tonsil. The name’s etymological roots are cheerful. From the Hebrew “Barukh,” meaning “blessed,” to the Anglo-Saxon surname for one who lives by a stream. I like my name; it suits me.

That being said, from African craters and Asian jungles to Australian capitals and Arctic tundra, the name Brooke only ever invites comparison with a bushy-browed film star from New York.

But one must never lose hope, and mercifully, after all that traipsing, I’ve discovered a remote patch where my name isn’t associated with a hirsute American actor. I’m talking about the Greek island Skyros, for, buried there in a steel-gray olive grove, perpetually solemn and silent in the sun, is English poet Rupert Brooke.

When I first arrived on Skyros, I wasn’t altogether whole. I was grasping, perhaps even gaping at the shape of midlife, but that wasn’t it. The missing thing was my finger, and it wasn’t simply missing — it was dead.

A week earlier I’d been on a yacht moored to an uninhabited island in the Cyclades and about to make guacamole. Instead of de-seeding the avocado with a horizontal thud and deft twist of the knife, I decided, for a reason as baffling as it was brazen, to strike vertically. This, combined with an unexpected swell, brought the knife down forcefully, severing the tendon at the base of my left forefinger and taking all feeling from it.

Just over a hundred years earlier, on Saturday the 17th of April, 1915, Rupert Brooke had arrived on Skyros similarly depleted. It was mid-spring, and Brooke, who had enlisted as soon as the First World War broke out, was sailing to the Dardanelles — a tactically crucial channel whose sapphire depths would shepherd a generation of men to their deaths.

In the immediate days before the bloody landing at Gallipoli, Brooke and his company had anchored on the southwest of Skyros. Feverish with sunstroke, he had rested after exercises with his officers. Brooke noted “the strange peace and beauty” where they sat, waxing lyrical about the very soil in which he would soon be buried.

That evening Brooke fell gravely ill. The fever had weakened him, and when a mosquito bite infected his blood, he was transported to a French hospital ship that was waiting for the soon-to-be injured just offshore. It was on that evening, at 27, the only patient in a floating hospital, that Rupert Brooke died.

Twelve men carried him from the ship to the spot in the valley he had so admired. Avoiding the inevitable fate, had he stayed on the vessel, of being tossed into the sea, they dug a grave, buried the poet, and assembled a small cairn with a simple cross atop. Their orders were to sail for Gallipoli in the morning, and so Brooke, dead only one day before the harrowing reality of war, escaped the brutality, but not with his life.

Only three days earlier Brooke had received news that the dean of Saint Paul’s Cathedral had recited Brooke’s sonnet, “The Soldier,” as part of the Easter Sunday sermon. The first lines, arguably some of the most well-known in English poetry, are engraved on the headstone that Brooke’s mother commissioned some 15 years later:

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England.

Not only did Brooke foresee the remote nature of his resting place, but by admiring an arid valley only days earlier, he’d even chosen the spot.

Within a day of arriving on Skyros, I, too, saw a doctor. The prognosis was vague, even fatalistic. “The feeling in your finger may come back tomorrow,” she said, “or never at all.”

Not long after, I took to the sea for an excursion. The vast sweep of blue looked like the promising depths of a wishing well, so, like a tragic at the Trevi Fountain, I took a coin and tossed it in. It sank heavily, but, from the school darting just below, an audacious chap swam past and gobbled it whole. The fish, an aquatic Trojan horse, shimmered away with the loot.

Perhaps Brooke would have been amused. Although he is celebrated as a war poet, his earlier work explored love, nature, and even, in fact, fish. He was also a keen swimmer and shared a penchant for skinny-dipping, as did Lord Byron, who in the previous century, at a similarly young age, also died in Greece.

Fancifully, Brooke’s poem, “The Fish,” described the creature before me:

Dateless and deathless, blind and still,
The intricate impulse works its will;
His woven world drops back; and he,
Sans providence, sans memory,
Unconscious and directly driven,
Fades to some dank sufficient heaven.

With my wish abducted to “some dank sufficient heaven,” I was bereft. Skyros wasn’t going to let me leave with my finger.

Skyros is elemental. The earth there is volcanic — disruptive. The island is even named after the porous stone found everywhere underfoot. In it, the bleached bones of antiquity lie buried. But, on this Aegean outcrop, of all four elements, the most powerful of them is the wind.

At one point after its Paleolithic beginnings, Skyros was instead named Anemoessa, which fittingly means “because of the winds.” The Meltemi, known by the ancient Greeks as the Etesian, sweeps the barren slopes and flutters the linen hanging where doors would, flowing through houses during siesta. It’s during these sleeping hours, when the wind paddles naked dreams into empty streets, that one feels it most.

When I visited that August, a finger missing its sense of touch, I noticed that there was only one place on the entire island that didn’t bear the wind’s brunt.

South from the populated end of the island, the road gives way to an arid, lunar landscape. Huddled shrubs mushroom from the dirt. Peculiar trees twist mutated in the breeze. A rare breed of ancient pony roams here, too. Thought to be the same horses depicted in the friezes of the Parthenon, they graze the low-lying grassland, endangered and wild.

It is here, in the strange southwest of Skyros, that Rupert Brooke lies buried.

When I entered the site of Brooke’s grave, I was overwhelmed by silence. The grove is not simply quiet — it is without noise. Throughout the valley a humble smattering of olive trees grows fat and gnarled. Protected from the wind, they surround the grave decisively — citadels against sound.

Then there is the grave. It sits solemn, one of poetry’s most repeated epitaphs engraved in marble on its headstone. Hauntingly, it is not only Brooke’s ghost among the olive trees but those of the men who buried him, for only two of the 12 survived the war.

Indeed, World War 1 was one of the deadliest conflicts in the history of the human race. By its end, the total number of civilian and military casualties were around 37 million. Brooke is often criticized for romanticizing the conflict, but having never seen the trench horrors that Sassoon and Owen did, surely it is only fair to appreciate him as a pre-war poet.

Later changed for propaganda’s purpose, it is also worth noting that the original title of Brooke’s poem “The Soldier” was actually “The Recruit.” With this in mind, it’s easier to reconcile Brooke as a poet writing about the journey to war and not the war itself.

When you turn away from Brooke’s grave, you see the bay of Tris Boukes. The literal meaning is “three entrances,” and the hospital boats waiting for the injured from Gallipoli moored there in the relative shelter of the two islands just offshore.

It is there in the bay, rather than in the solitary grave, that I imagine Brooke. This is not least because he saw himself from this perspective.

In his lesser known and last poem, “Fragment,” Brooke portrays the men sailing to the Dardanelles as “strange ghosts — soon to die.” Chillingly, he describes himself in absentia, watching his friends in doorways: an invisible man already dead. The poem’s haunting premonition is so unsettling that the first and last stanzas bear repeating:

I strayed about the deck, an hour, to-night
Under a cloudy moonless sky; and peeped
In at the windows, watched my friends at table,
Or playing cards, or standing in the doorway,
Or coming out into the darkness. Still
No one could see me.

Only, always,
I could but see them — against the lamplight — pass
Like coloured shadows, thinner than filmy glass,
Slight bubbles, fainter than the wave’s faint light,
That broke to phosphorus out in the night,
Perishing things and strange ghosts — soon to die
To other ghosts — this one, or that, or I.

Skyros is no stranger to ghosts. Indeed, on the eastern side of the island lies the bay of Achilli. Legend has it that this is where Achilles, who disguised himself as a woman and hid among the court of the King of Skyros, had set sail for the Trojan War. His mother had been behind the idea, desperately trying to avoid his deployment and prophesied demise. However, Odysseus found him and convinced him to join the Greek campaign. Ultimately, Paris struck Achilles in the heel and propelled him into the heroic afterlife.

On Skyros, Brooke ,too, has joined the immortal. In a square named after him, on the perimeter of the main village and high above the sea, stands the “Statue of an Ideal Poet.” Unveiled in 1931, its anatomical detail, combined with the rumor that it was modeled on a young Roman prostitute, scandalized the locals. Since then, the statue has become an object of great pride. Its construction stimulated funding for improved infrastructure, and that, combined with the uniquely Greek appreciation for pathos, is the reason the name Brooke invites such gruff respect.

Although the statue is idealized, Brooke was certainly handsome enough for it to have been in his own image. “That is exactly what Adonis must have looked like,” wrote Leonard Woolf. Frances Cornford’s poem began — “A young Apollo, golden-haired,” and Yeats famously dubbed him “the handsomest young man in England.” It seemed Brooke’s only real weakness was in dying before his life had begun.

In any contemplation of death, it is worth returning to Brooke’s poem, “The Fish.” The last stanza, in particular, evokes the eternal. In it, Brooke’s vertebrate subsumes to the deep.

The exquisite knocking of the blood.
Space is no more, under the mud;
His bliss is older than the sun.
Silent and straight the waters run.
The lights, the cries, the willows dim,
And the dark tide are one with him.

As I sat in Brooke Square, I examined what I, too, had lost to the “dark tide.” My wound appeared hopeful, a rosy slash curving expectantly at the base of my finger, but with each passing day, sensation felt further away.

The oft-mentioned motivation for travel is to “find oneself.” But perhaps, more realistically, it is simply the best way to get lost. After a mental breakdown following a series of romantic rejections, Brooke saw war as a welcome relief — a way to wipe the slate clean. In his sonnet “Peace,” he described leaving England as a type of purification —

To turn, as swimmers into cleanness leaping,
Glad from a world grown old and cold and weary.

Perhaps I, too, had turned from the weary — the cold tap of middle-age, the skulking shadows of the past. I had journeyed not to find myself but to shed the unwanted. Parts of me, I realized, “… may come back tomorrow — or never at all.”

Skyros is an island of duality. It’s both arboreal and barren, ancient and beginning. Rare ponies roam next to runways. Ancient artifacts sit next to vegan cafés. The island is geographically exposed, and yet its city, hidden behind a looming volcanic plug, has offered refuge to the mythic and mortal for millennia.

Therein lies the paradox. Skyros is both earth and wind, sea and stone, life and death. It’s an island where limbs are stolen and souls are restored — where pain is both buried and laid bare.

I am convinced that Skyros is extraordinary.

The white wind and wide water have gouged a small island of epic proportions and, as the final resting place of both my namesake and whatever feeling my forefinger once held, not only is Skyros the kind of place one wants to live, it is also, irrefutably, a good place to die.

BROOKE ANNE HARDWICK is an extroverted Australian novelist abroad. As a wordsmith with acute wanderlust, she has taught English Literature on three continents and traveled all but one. When she isn’t plundering life, she’s writing about it.

The Coil

Literature to change your lightbulb.

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