A few weeks ago, I posted the poem “Libido” by Rupert Brooke and mentioned a letter he wrote that described his first sexual experience. It took me a while to find the full letter, but I wanted to post it and a little bit more about Brooke’s sexuality. I hope you enjoy. I have italicized the steamiest portion of the letter.
Henry James met Rupert Brooke (1887–1915) in Cambridge in 1909, when Brooke acknowledged “I pulled my fresh, boyish stunt” and bewitched the novelist. James’s last published writing, in response to Brooke’s death in the Great War, and shortly before his own, celebrated Brooke’s “wondrous, heroic legend.” Brooke’s war poems were already famous even before he died at Skyros in April 1915, of an infection rather than in battle. Winston Churchill consolidated the icon: “Joyous, fearless, deeply instructed, with classic symmetry of mind and body, he was all that one would wish England’s noblest sons to be in days when no sacrifice but the most precious is acceptable, and the most precious is that which is most freely proffered.” His war poetry was popularized precisely because its rosy images denied the realities of war, and ironically drew many young men to join up and go to their own deaths. He was widely celebrated as a golden-haired Apollo – his photograph at age twenty-five is the first modern icon of beauty – and was desired by everyone, male and female, who came within the Bloomsbury magic circle. The following letter describes the weekend of October 29, 1909 when he decided to lose his virginity, with a friend of the same age from Rugby school, Denham Russell-Smith (the more attractive younger brother of his closer friend Hugh Denham-Smith). But Brooke, as he later described himself, was one-half outright heterosexual, one-quarter outright homosexual and one-quarter sentimental homosexual (i.e. his idealized homoerotic longing for young men is a longing for his own youth at public school). In the same year that he bedded Russell-Smith, he was determined to marry Noel Oliver, who resisted his advances. By 1911 he was in a passionate relationship with Ka Cox, who herself was having an affair with Henry Lamb, the bisexual “wife” of Lytton Strachey, and he also had a brief fling with Arthur Hobhouse, former boyfriend of both Maynard Keynes and Lytton Strachey. The first half of his Poems published in 1911, are implicitly homosexual and explicitly neo-pagan. The Bloomsberries prided themselves on their freedom from conventions, but Brooke felt trapped by the double standards of society, and could not live out his hidden desires without guilt. Sexual confusion drove him to a nervous breakdown in 1912 and six weeks of psychiatric care. It was during his convalescence that he wrote this letter to James Strachey, Lytton’s brother, also gay, as a therapeutic exorcism of his sexual identity. He decided, in effect, that he was a golden boy with a rotten core, and he came to reject Bloomsbury out of shame, and to seek purification through death in war. He was commissioned in August 1914, and his “1914” sonnet sequence shows a desire for death as the only resolution to his inner conflict.
RUPERT BROOKE TO JAMES STRACHEY
10 July 1912
How things shelve back! History takes you to January 1912 – Archaeology to the end of 1910 – Anthropology to, perhaps, the autumn of 1909. –
The autumn of 1909! We had hugged & kissed & strained, Denham and I, on and off for years – ever since that quiet evening I rubbed him, in the dark, speechlessly, in the smaller of the two small dorms. An abortive affair, as I told you. But in the summer holidays of 1906 and 1907 he had often taken me out to the hammock, after dinner, to lie entwined there. – He had vaguely hoped, I fancy, – – – But I lay always thinking Charlie [Lascelles].
Denham was though, to my taste, attractive. So honestly and friendlily lascivious. Charm, not beauty, was his forte. He was not unlike Ka [Ka Cox, with whom Brooke had an affair], in the allurement of vitality and of physical magic – oh, but Ka has beauty too. – He was lustful, immoral, affectionate, and delightful. As romance faded in me, I began, all unacknowledgedly, to cherish a hope – – – But I was never in the slightest degree in love with him.
In the early autumn of 1909, then, I was glad to get him to come and stay with me, at the Orchard. I came back late that Saturday night. Nothing was formulated in my mind. I found him asleep in front of the fire, at 1.45. I took him up to his bed, – he was very like a child when he was sleepy – and lay down on it. We hugged, and my fingers wandered a little. His skin was always very smooth. I had, I remember, a vast erection. He dropped off to sleep in my arms. I stole away to my room: and lay in bed thinking – my head full of tiredness and my mouth of the taste of tea and whales, as usual. I decided, almost quite consciously, I would put the thing through the next night. You see, I didn’t at all know how he would take it. But I wanted to have some fun, and, still more, to see what it was like, and to do away with the shame (as I thought it was) of being a virgin. At length, I thought, I shall know something of all that James and Harry] Norton and Maynard [Keynes] and Lytton [Strachey] know and hold over me.
Of course, I said nothing.
Next evening, we talked long in front of the sitting room fire. My head was on his knees, after a bit. We discussed sodomy. He said he, finally, thought it was wrong . . . We got undressed there, as it was warm. Flesh is exciting, in firelight. You must remember that openly we were nothing to each other – less even than in 1906. About what one is with Bunny (who so resembles Denham). Oh, quite distant!
Again we went up to his room. He got into bed. I sat on it and talked. Then I lay on it. Then we put the light out and talked in the dark. I complained of the cold: and so got under the eiderdown. My brain was, I remember, almost all through, absolutely calm and indifferent, observing progress, and mapping out the next step. Of course, I planned the general scheme beforehand.
I was still cold. He wasn’t. “Of course not, you’re in bed!” “Well then, you get right in, too.” – I made him ask me – oh! without difficulty! I got right in. Our arms were round each other. “An adventure!” I kept thinking: and was horribly detached.
We stirred and pressed. The tides seemed to wax. At the right moment I, as planned, said “come into my room, it’s better there . . .” I suppose he knew what I meant. Anyhow he followed me. In the large bed it was cold; we clung together. Intentions became plain; but still nothing was said. I broke away a second, as the dance began, to slip my pyjamas. His was the woman’s part throughout. I had to make him take his off – do it for him. Then it was purely body to body – my first, you know! I was still a little frightened of his, at any sudden step, bolting; and he, I suppose, was shy. We kissed very little, as far as I can remember, face to face. And I only rarely handled his penis. Mine he touched once with his fingers; and that made me shiver so much that I think he was frightened. But with alternate stirrings, and still pressures, we mounted. My right hand got hold of the left half of his bottom, clutched it, and pressed his body into me. The smell of the sweat began to be noticeable. At length we took to rolling to and fro over each other, in the excitement. Quite calm things, I remember, were passing through my brain. “The Elizabethan joke `The Dance of the Sheets’ has, then, something in it.” “I hope his erection is all right” – and so on. I thought of him entirely in the third person. At length the waves grew more terrific; my control of the situation was over; I treated him with the utmost violence, to which he more quietly, but incessantly, responded. Half under him and half over, I came off. I think he came off at the same time, but of that I have never been sure. A silent moment: and then he slipped away to his room, carrying his pyjamas. We wished each other “Good-night.” It was between 4 and 5 in the morning. I lit a candle after he had gone. There was a dreadful mess on the bed. I wiped it clear as I could, and left the place exposed in the air, to dry. I sat on the lower part of the bed, a blanket round me, and stared at the wall, and thought. I thought of innumerable things, that this was all; that the boasted jump from virginity to Knowledge seemed a very tiny affair, after all; that I hoped Denham, for whom I felt great tenderness, was sleeping. My thoughts went backward and forward. I unexcitedly reviewed my whole life, and indeed the whole universe. I was tired, and rather pleased with myself, and a little bleak. About six it was grayly daylight; I blew the candle out and slept till 8. At 8 Denham had to bicycle in to breakfast [in Cambridge] with Mr Benians [his tutor], before catching his train. I bicycled with him, and turned off at the corner of –, is it Grange Road? –. We said scarcely anything to each other. I felt sad at the thought he was perhaps hurt and angry, and wouldn’t ever want to see me again. – He did, of course, and was exactly as ever. Only we never referred to it. But that night I looked with some awe at the room – fifty yards away to the West from the bed I’m writing in – in which I Began; in which I “copulated with” Denham; and I felt a curious private tie with Denham himself. So you’ll understand it was –p not with a shock, for I am far too dead for that, but with a sort of dreary wonder and dizzy discomfort – that I heard Mr Benians inform me, after we’d greeted, that Denham died at one o’clock on Wednesday morning, – just twenty-four hours ago now.
SOURCE: Paul Delany, The Neo-pagans: Friendship and Love in the Rupert Brooke Circle (London: Macmillan, 1987).