The Jolly Company
by Rupert Brooke, 1887-1915
There was never a man less likely to lend his name to a school of poetry than King George V of England. Containing within himself the thick, dutiful dulness of the Hanoverian dynasty in a very concentrated form, George's pleasures were limited to stamp collecting and the massacre of game birds. The sole specimen of his humor dates from 1935, following the resignation of British Foreign Secretary Samuel Hoare, who had been busily involved in diplomacy with the French. When Hoare's replacement showed up for the monarch's approval, George murmured: "No more coals to Newcastle, no more Hoares to Paris."
I have dim recollections of George's consort, Queen Mary, who died when I was seven. (Recollections, I mean, of seeing her picture in my Dad's newspaper and on movie newsreels.) The adjective Bertie Wooster used of his terrifying aunts seems to apply: "scaly."
Be that as it may, when George ascended the throne in May 1910, a group of young (well, youngish — mostly thirty-something) British poets decided that it was time for poetry to take a new direction, away from the (as they saw it) rather stiff, bombastic style of the Victorians to something looser and more imaginative. They attached the new king's name to their project, and the school of Georgian Poetry was born.
Still-born, is the conventional wisdom. The modernist movement in poetry was emerging at about the same time, and soon captured the hearts of the literary intelligentsia with its transgressive gimmicks and intimidating "continental" sophistication. The earnest efforts of the Georgians seemed provincial, trite, and unserious by comparison, and were mocked mercilessly through the middle decades of the twentieth century.
A canonical example of that mockery is the twelve-page epilogue to George Dangerfield's 1935 classic The Strange Death of Liberal England. Dangerfield tells us that:
Georgian Poetry 1911-1912 was published in December [i.e. of 1912] and made something of a sensation. It was bound in that particular kind of board which falls apart very easily, and most of the poems in it were equally perishable. If you read it now, you are surprised by the thought that in its time it caused a great deal of excitement; that the reading public, enchanted by this group of young or nearly young men who wrote verses of a musical and romantic nature, began to talk of "The New Elizabethans." The expression seems a curious one today. One line of Donne is worth the whole collection put together …
Dangerfield concentrates his fire on Rupert Brooke, usually taken (in large part because of Dangerfield) as the most representative Georgian Poet. He says:
Brooke's poetry was sufficiently eager to appear new, but its best effects had already been anticipated and surpassed; it was born old-fashioned. Hopkins (whom unfortunately he had no chance to read) was far more modern than he, so was Housman … These men would have seemed to the readers of Georgian Poetry the voices of the past: and yet, sad to say, it is Georgian Poetry which has slipped soundlessly into the past, while the voices of Hopkins and Housman and [Robert] Bridges remain.
But to the examiner of pre-war England, its youngest poetry is full of meaning. How faithfully that poetry sought the refuge of the past and found — in the sunlit ruins of the Romantic Revival — a place where the encroaching sounds and fears of the twentieth century were quite unheard and unfelt. There was no Poets' Rebellion. Until the very outbreak of war, the poets stayed unresponsive to the changing times; stubborn, sweet, unreal, they were the last victims and the last heroes of Liberal England.
Our later sensibilities are somewhat kinder to the Georgians. This is at any rate true outside the Academy, which nurses its own style of conservatism. Certainly ordinary English readers have never lost their affection for Brooke, some of whose verses show up in every poetry poll. The 1997 Classic FM One Hundred Favorite Poems, for example, gathered by polling the listeners to this premier English classical-music radio station, contains three of Brookes' poems: "The Soldier" at number 8, "Grantchester" at 14, and "The Great Lover" at 59. (That last one is a great favorite of Margaret Thatcher's.)
"The Jolly Company" is dated November 1908, when the poet was 21 and living in Cambridge. The poem is pure Brooke: gushing, sentimental (did he really love the stars?), "superficially superficial" (as Kingsley Amis said of one of Mrs. Hemans' verses), yet exquisitely memorable. I made its acquaintance circa 1958 in Ted Carnell's monthly magazine New Worlds Science Fiction, when sci-fi writer John Wyndham published a series of stories with titles taken from this poem. "The Jolly Company" has obvious appeal in that context, though of course Brooke never intended anything of the sort. When the U.S. manned space program was achieving its great triumphs in the late 1960s and early 1970s, I could never hear the communications of astronauts speaking from far out in space without thinking of this poem's last two and a half lines.
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• Text of the poem
The stars, a jolly company,
I envied, straying late and lonely;
And cried upon their revelry:
"O white companionship! You only
In love, in faith unbroken dwell,
Friends radiant and inseparable!"
Light-heart and glad they seemed to me
And merry comrades (even so
God out of Heaven may laugh to see
The happy crowds; and never know
That in his lone obscure distress
Each walketh in a wilderness).
But I, remembering, pitied well
And loved them, who, with lonely light,
In empty infinite spaces dwell,
Disconsolate. For, all the night,
I heard the thin gnat-voices cry,
Star to faint star, across the sky.