Thirteen months ago I wrote in World and time about E M Forster and Madingley – in particular about the Dell in Madingley Wood which featured so prominently in his novel The Longest Journey. Today, in the fiftieth World and time post, I want to revisit Forster’s Dell.
Last Saturday I taught a day school on Cambridge Writers, and in preparing for it, I re-read Rupert Brooke’s 1912 poem, ‘The Old Vicarage, Grantchester’. I suppose it’s a poem I have known for fifty years, but I had forgotten how it is much more than just a nostalgic longing to be back in England by a love-sick, home-sick young poet stranded in Berlin –
God! I will pack, and take a train,
And get me to England once again!
The poem is a roll call of famous Cambridge writers – both famous writers who have written about Cambridge, and famous writers who were once students in Cambridge. Brooke summons up the ghosts of Byron, Chaucer and Tennyson, for a start, before evoking all the nameless (mainly clerical) donnish figures who ‘spectral dance, before the dawn’ down the lawn of the Old Vicarage itself:
Curates, long dust, will come and go
On lissom, clerical, printless toe;
And oft between the boughs is seen
The sly shade of a Rural Dean …
Till, at a shiver in the skies,
Vanishing with Satanic cries,
The prim ecclesiastic rout
Leaves but a startled sleeper-out ….
The ‘startled sleeper-out’ is of course Brooke himself who famously liked to sleep out in the open air and to walk bare-foot and to swim naked (on one celebrated occasion he went skinny-dipping with Virginia Woolf) in Byron’s Pool just above Grantchester:
And I know
How the May fields all golden show,
And when the day is young and sweet,
Gild gloriously the bare feet
That run to bathe …
What I had missed, until I came back to the poem, was a reference to a contemporary writer whom Brooke had come to admire very much: a Cambridge man, a fellow King’s man, indeed a fellow Apostle – that, is, a member of the élite Cambridge secret society, the Apostles. It is surely E. M. Forster himself Brooke has in mind when he claims that
Clever modern men have seen
A Faun a-peeping through the green,
And felt the Classics were not dead,
To glimpse a Naiad’s reedy head,
Or hear the Goat-foot piping low…
Brooke admired Forster very much (though you would not think so to read Wendy Moffat’s recent biography of Forster, A Great Unrecorded History, which makes no mention of their even knowing each other). Although Forster was a few years older than Brooke, he was still a familiar figure in and around Cambridge. He taught for the University’s Extension Lectures, forerunner of the Board of Extra-Mural Studies, precursor of the Institute of Continuing Education. He attended meetings of the Apostles whenever he could, he even stayed a few times as Brooke’s guest at Grantchester. After one such visit, Brooke wrote to his mother, “E.M. Forster the writer has been staying here two nights. He’s a very charming person – an old King’s man of 27 or 29. Get his new novel Howard’s [sic] End. It would interest you.” (quoted in Christopher Hassall, Rupert Brooke: a biography, 1964, p.240)
It was however Forster’s short stories as much as his novels that earned him his place in ‘The Old Vicarage, Grantchester’. On one occasion, when the Apostles had a summer rendezvous on Salisbury Plain (a central location, of course, in The Longest Journey) Brooke carried a copy of Forster’s latest short story in his pocket. Later, in 1914, when Brooke enlisted in the army, Forster gave him as a gift an expensive pair of field glasses, which he carried with him on his one experience of fighting, the Antwerp Raid. (It would be nice to think he was also carrying them with him on his last unfinished journey to the Dardanelles.)
But the clue which for me clinches the thought that Brooke includes a veiled and friendly reference to Forster in ‘The Old Vicarage, Grantchester’ appears in a letter Brooke wrote to Noel Olivier in 1909: “You must read E. M. Forster’s story in the English Review for July. It is very good.” (quoted in Pippa Harris , ed., Song of Love: the letters of Rupert Brooke and Noel Olivier, 1991, p.14) This is the story ‘Other Kingdom’, the genesis of which is described in The Longest Journey, when Rickie describes to his friend Agnes the story that he has been inspired to write by the Dell at Madingley. It is about a young woman who, to escape a man who wants to own and control her every thought and movement, escapes into a wood and is turned into a Dryad: she becomes a tree. It’s a proleptic and metafictional moment: Forster the novelist makes his fictional hero the author of a story that the novelist has himself not yet written but will later publish.
I have been recommending ‘Other Kingdom’ as one of the most interesting of all Forster’s short stories during my recent classes. What I have failed, however, to add is that the echoes in the story from Andrew Marvell’s poem ‘The Garden’ are both irresistible -
Apollo hunted Daphne so
Only that she might laurel grow;
And Pan did after Syrinx speed,
Not as a nymph, but for a reed …
- and appropriate. Not only is ‘the Naiad’s reedy head’ in ‘The Old Vicarage, Grantchester’ Syrinx’s, but the octosyllabic rhyming couplets of Brooke’s poem are of course borrowed directly from Marvell’s.
4 November 2010
[photo: Rupert Brooke
The Rupert Brooke Society presents a Remembrance Concert in
Tickets £14 for concert and buffet (please purchase in advance from The Rupert Brooke Museum, Orchard Tea Garden, Grantchester, or from The Secretary, Rupert Brooke Society: 01954 210176.
Concert only: £8 at the door.
For full details of all courses offered by the
The new brochure of weekend residential courses offered at Madingley Hall between now and September 2011 is now available.