Letter from Greece
Amidst the chaos and uncertainty of Greece in 2015—a double round of elections, a nailbiter of a referendum, protests, and financial cliff-hangers—2015 also marked the centennial of Rupert Brooke’s peaceful death on the island of Skyros, on April 23, 1915. The poet succumbed to complications from a mosquito bite, at the age of 27, practically the sole patient aboard a French hospital ship that was anchored in Treis Boukes Bay (a former pirate cove), at 4:46 in the afternoon. He was buried later the same day towards midnight under a cloud-shrouded moon in a sage-fragrant olive grove (a grove he himself had remarked on for its enchantment just three days before) on the deserted south side of this beautiful yet spooky island; in haste, because the troops were shipping out for Gallipoli at dawn.
My husband and I used to go to Skyros often, especially looking forward to the dithyrambic carnival festival. I forget why we stopped going exactly—it always seemed like a trek, since you had to drive to Euboia first, then catch the Lykomedes sailing from Cymae, putting you in to port on wind-swept Skyros in the dark of night. There, as I remember, one of the harbor cafes would greet the ferryboat’s arrival by blaring Thus Spake Zarathustra, adding to the island’s quirky eeriness. But if you travel by airplane from Athens (and the fares, since this is a hardship route, are subsidized and shockingly cheap), there is not even time for the flight attendants to pass out pretzels—instead we were handed our packets of on-board snacks as we exited onto the airfield. Within a half hour one could leave the woebegone and graffiti-scrawled capital and be smack in the middle of the Aegean, among wild sage and goat bells.
For the island, it was a double celebration, since the death of Rupert Brooke falls on the feast day of St. George, the patron saint of Skyros island as well as England. The saint’s day is like a second Easter, observed on its eve by a procession of the ancient icon up to the castle, the pealing of bells, and a public feast of vats of mutton, pilafi, generous drafts of sweet, fruit-juice red, holy wine, and, the next day, traditional dances by the Skyrian youth in native costume. Shuffling down the treacherously steep village alleys (one known as “Sisyphus Street”) from the monastery that night, I encountered a little boy (no doubt named Yiorgos) pedaling his tricycle round and round. He’d clearly had his share of church in recent weeks, chanting “Kyrie Eleison” over and over again with liturgical briskness.
All around town the handsome young face of Rupert Brooke gazed out from posters, with announcements of a photographic exhibit at the elementary school, as well as other events. On them, he is described simply as “Rupert Brooke, the Great English Poet.” There was something touching in this, as the official English contingent seemed less certain of how to place him among the ranks of poets, eager instead to set him in historical context.
The morning after the village feast, back at my spotless and cheerful seaside hotel, over a pastoral breakfast of sharp salty goat cheese, creamy sheep’s yoghurt with local thyme honey, fresh bread, and a boiled new-laid egg or two, I talked a bit with the lady at reception about what Rupert Brooke meant to the island. (She was busy supervising the dressing of her son, Yiorgaki, in native costume: baggy black britches, upturned shoes, embroidered vest, and a flat round black hat set at a rakish angle.) Also referring to him as “the Great English Poet,” she said, “We learned his poems at school” and showed me a tattered book which contained a biography of Brooke in Greek and English, and his poems translated into Greek by Costas Ioannou. As with many of the islanders, she was somewhat apologetic that Brooke had died on Skyros but was quick to point out that he could hardly have been buried in a better place, mourned here as a native son by the whole island. (She had known one of Brooke’s attending doctors, she added, when she was a girl: he was very old. At first minded to doubt this memory, I decided it wasn’t implausible.)
Skyros is an island of extremes: it boasts a lush green north side, where it grows its own produce, and a dry, wind-scoured south end, nearly deserted except for the sheep and goats that graze on the scrubby wild sage and thyme. It’s a good twenty-five-minute drive to get from Skyros Town to Brooke’s grave, along winding seaside roads where vehicles pause for the crossing of unhurried flocks. The area of the tomb is not clearly marked. The grave, in the valley of a dry torrent, under a cluster of olive trees, is on the edge of a naval base; if you wander off you end up in an area where photographs are forbidden. As with the original makeshift burial, at the centennial graveside commemoration, the pagan-ness of the setting—wild poppies, fragrant herbs, irreverent interruptions by the bleating of a flock of goats—mitigated any solemnity of organized religion that might have disturbed Brooke’s atheist sensibilities.
I was struck by the omission of the “The Soldier” from the service. It was indicative, I think, of the difficulty facing the British in placing Brooke as a poet, especially in the context of other World War I commemorations. (British Ambassador John Kittmer had just returned from events on the island of Lemnos.)
Was Brooke’s most famous poem simply too obvious, a cliché for the occasion? The verses were already famous by Brooke’s death, having been read aloud that Easter Sunday a couple of weeks previous by the Dean at St. Paul’s Cathedral, then published in the Times. I had spent the weeks before the trip recommitting the sonnet to memory, and having discussions about it, trying to defend it from the old charges of sentimentality and dulce-et-decorum-est-pro-patria-mori patriotism.
The poet Charles Sorley (who was killed at the Battle of Loos) sums up this judgment with “He has clothed his attitudes in fine words: but has taken the sentimental attitude.” By 1987, in her New Criterion review of Paul Delany’s The Neo-Pagans: Rupert Brooke & the Ordeal of Youth, Gloria G. Fromm could confidently refer to “the exalted Brooke of the last five sonnets, from whom there has been almost universal recoil.”
The poem is so well-known as to hardly need quoting; indulge me:
If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.
And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.
The poem’s classical elegance isn’t undercut for me by the repetition of England. Maybe because I am an American, I find the chimes on those syllables more nostalgic than patriotic, even if that is arguably just another kind of sentimentality. Indeed in “A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware” (a line I admire metrically for the masterful shaping of that large, unaccented syllable “shaped”), “England” seems to be essentially a genial local designation for Nature.
That a poem called “The Soldier” (changed from Brooke’s original and more suggestive title, “The Recruit,” by the editor of New Numbers, where it first appeared) hews entirely to peaceful images from before and after battle, represents restraint to me rather than denial of the horrors of war, which are suggested by opposites—bodies washed by rivers and warmed by suns will be fouled with blood, cold to the touch—laughter and gentleness and friends adumbrate their antitheses: sneers, savagery, foes. (Though Brooke did not see active battle, he had witnessed war’s smoldering aftermath in the retreat from Antwerp.)
It is worth, too, considering the curiously Classical (non-Christian) philosophy of this anonymous English soldier. The English heaven on which the poem concludes is stubbornly a local sky, rather than a celestial afterlife, if suggestive of a mild clime (this green and pleasant land) that gives rise to gentle people. The soldier has no vision of a soul—his clay shall return to dust, and his “heart” be a pulse in the Eternal Mind. Flipping through Brooke’s poems in Greek, I see that Ioannou translates the sonnet beautifully. In Greek, the repetition of “Anglia” (“England”) has a different effect perhaps—a distant foreign place name. To keep the rhyme in Greek, word order is changed: the poem ends not on an “English heaven,” but “hearts at peace.” It’s hard to see how these verses glorify war or suicidal self-sacrifice.
Rather, it seems that the recoil-worthy sentiments attach to the poem from the context of its appearance, framed by the pulpit of authority at St. Paul’s shortly before Brooke’s death, and Winston Churchill’s propagandistic obituary in the Times mere weeks later. (The disastrous Gallipoli invasion was his brainchild.) It is the obituary that is suspect sentiment tricked out in fine phrase: “He expected to die: he was willing to die for the dear England whose beauty and majesty he knew: and he advanced towards the brink in perfect serenity, with absolute conviction of the rightness of his country’s cause and a heart devoid of hate for fellow-men.” And, more chillingly, “he was all that one would wish England’s noblest sons to be in the days when no sacrifice but the most precious is acceptable, and the most precious is that which is most freely proffered.”
Brooke may have expected to die (though the speaker’s “If I should die” is hardly “When I am dead”), but this “blitheness” (Churchill’s word) toward self-sacrifice is nowhere evident in “Fragment,” written in the month of his death, in which he muses shipboard with melancholy on himself and his comrades “Heedless, within a week of battle,” their beautiful strong bodies soon to “be broken, / Thought little of / pashed, scattered,” already passing like colored shadows, faint as phosphorescence on the waves, things “soon to die / To other ghosts—this one, or that, or I.” This was the poem that Neil Maybin of the Rupert Brooke Society chose to read at the graveside, a poem whose uncertainty and unfinished state stands in thought-provoking contrast to the polish and militant reputation of “The Soldier.”
There is now a trim marble tomb within a fenced enclosure on the gravesite under the olive trees, with a cross, a Hellenistic epigram inscribed round the base, and a plaque engraved with “The Soldier.” (This proper grave was commissioned by the poet’s formidable and religious mother.) Originally, the spot was marked by an ad hoc cairn of marble stones, and a white wooden cross, on the back of which, in Greek, a Lemnian who had been brought over with the British forces had written, in pencil: “Here lies the servant of God, Rupert Brooke, Sub-lieutenant in the English Navy, who died for the deliverance of Constantinople from the Turks.” Whatever his countrymen might make of him, as far as the Greeks are concerned, Brooke is a Philhellene on the Byronic model.
There are only a scant handful of public statues in Greece to foreigners. The only other two I know of are in Athens—the marble monument to Byron at the edge of the National Gardens, where he gazes up at winged Hellas who crowns him with a wreath, and the blocky bronze statue to Harry Truman, in honor of the Truman Doctrine, that was blown off its base in 1986 and regularly used to be vandalized when anti-American sentiment was high. (Greek anger is now focused on its own politicians, or on the Troika with which the goons collaborate; the generous Marshall Plan now stands in stark contrast to the hated austerity measures.). The third is the bronze statue to Rupert Brooke and Eternal Poetry, an impressive, almost austere, male nude clutching a scroll (though lacking a writing implement), by the Greek sculptor Michael Tombros, and modeled not on Brooke, but a young Athenian model and dancer: a manly muse.
Brooke’s reputation, or symbolism, rather, as doomed promise destroyed by war, reached its zenith in the interwar period. An international committee (Cavafy was a member) founded by Belgian poet and intellectual Paul Vanderborght organized the creation and establishment of the memorial, which was to be set on a plinth of Skyrian marble—400,000 drachmas (a princely sum) were raised by public subscription for the monument alone. Then there was the question of where to put it. It seemed pointless to set it up in a deserted olive grove; rather it should be visible to the public, in the island’s main town. For that purpose though, land would have to be acquired, and a new plaza, overlooking the sea, established and shored up on the precipitous sides of the rock.
The unveiling ceremony in April of 1931 involved its own problems: 300 visitors and scores of eminent guests, many international, would attend, politicians, ambassadors, intellectuals and cultural celebrities. The prime minister, Eleftherios Venizelos, was coming; the charismatic poet Angelos Sikelianos (a sort of brother-in-law, as it happened, to Isadora Duncan) was among the poets who would read poems in Brooke’s honor. A week later, a cohort of 200 French intellectuals was to convene on the island for an event honoring Rupert Brooke. But the island was utterly lacking in modern infrastructure or amenities—how were such VIPs to be hosted? In a flurry of activity, new docks were built, dirt paths cobbled, sanitation “improved,” and electricity installed. (Some Greek islands didn’t get electricity until thirty, even forty, years later.) Skyros passed in a year from time immemorial to the twentieth century.
A contemporary report of the Greek newspaper Patrida described the statue as “A youth, naked as Adam before sin, and before he discovered that fig-trees had leaves.” The newspaper asserted that no one was scandalized by the statue’s nakedness, but others remember it differently. Evidently one of the donkey drivers transporting the visitors ventured to ask, might not the statue be better with skivvies? And according to journalist and local historian Anna Faltaits, the elderly Skyrian ladies present at the dedication exclaimed words to the effect of, “Mama mia! But he’s buck-naked!” and hastened (after the unveiling ceremony had dispersed) to re-cover it with a bedsheet. When the work was first exhibited in Brussels, observers assumed that the extended left hand would gesture toward the Aegean. But perhaps the organizers realized it was a step too far for the callipygian backside of the statue to confront the town. In situ, the statue faces away from the sweeping Eastern horizon, from rosy-fingered dawn, from Gallipoli.
One feels Brooke would not be displeased at any of this—the mildly scandalous naked male statue would have suited his skinny-dipping scoffing at society’s mores and conventions; the massive investment in Skyros’ communal infrastructure, its modernization, would, I think, have met his approval as a Socialist.
It was clear that with the 100th anniversary commemorations (organized with the British Embassy and regional authorities), the island hoped for a return of this international interest and attention, rolling out its hospitality and welcome to the score or more official visitors—the British ambassador, British and American military representatives, the Anglican canon, and assorted Greek journalists. The original feast served to the guests at the festival of 1931 included 40 spitted lambs and 70 okades (195 pounds) of lobster, of which “not a leg was left.” (One islander I spoke to quipped that Skyros exports two things: professionals and lobsters.) Something comparable was on offer for this centennial commemoration—the Homeric repast began with local lamb chops and meatballs as hors d’oeuvres, while the main course was, it turned out, roast lamb and kid casserole, rather than, as the guests briefly conjectured, lamb or goat. (The vegetarian journalist to my right looked beleaguered, despite the assortment of salads spread on the table.)
Please tell the world about Skyros was the message over and over again, though I was the only foreign writer in attendance, and not even on the official press junket. Here the urgency of the crisis—the need for tourism—peeped through the island’s traditional tapestry of pride and self-sufficiency.
Skyros’ central physical position in the Aegean belies its marginality, serving often as a mere footnote to myth and legend. That the Dardanelles were, for all intents and purposes, Troy, tickled the romantic notions and classical education of the young Edwardians being sent there, though many would not return. (Patrick Shaw-Stewart, whose claim to literary fame is a single, searing poem, “Achilles in the Trench,” written en route to Gallipoli and inscribed in his copy of A Shropshire Lad, was among the burial party of a dozen mostly Australian petty offiers. Of the five who remained to pile stones on Brooke’s grave, only two would survive the war.) It was on Skyros that Achilles’ mother, the sea nymph Thetis, hid her son from recruiters for Troy, until wily Odysseus ferreted him out. Further back in legend, Skyros is where Theseus met his end, hurled from the massive rock of the Skyrian acropolis (now the site of the old Castro) by King Lykomedes. While at various times under Byzantine, Venetian, or Ottoman control (cultures that enriched local traditions), Skyros became part of the newly-established Kingdom of Greece in 1832. Skyros still feels, even with its convenient airport (it remains, after all, a strategic military base), far-flung and windswept, strange yet hospitable, as distant from urban and depressed Athens as it seems possible to be. The temptation is not to sing its praises but to keep it secret and unspoiled.
After the Brooke events, wandering through the whitewashed, sharp-shadowed streets, I came upon the woodcarver’s shop. (Skyros is famed for its unique flavor of folkloric crafts—in embroidery, ceramics, and woodcarving.) We had bought a Skyrian chair from Manolis Manolios a dozen years ago. Traditional Skyrian chairs are low to the ground—they serve well for children’s furniture, even though intended for adults—with the back at a correct and comfortable angle. That chair had become my son’s, and it only seemed right that I should get one for my young daughter too. There were only three chairs at the shop—his last chairs, he said, since he was retiring. Nudging me toward the most ornate—intricate with birds, curlicues, and flowers—he offered to sign it and carve my daughter’s name on the back. (“I only sign the good pieces,” he said, “not the tourist merchandise,” dismissing a shelf of knickknacks and jewelry boxes.)
He had left school early and, after a stint at sea, had become apprenticed to a woodcarver. He himself had no apprentice, no one, evidently, apprenticed anymore. (“You need a high-school diploma even to get a job as a street sweeper with the municipality,” he explained with a shrug. Skyriots wanted their children to go into medicine or law, one of the professions.) He reckoned he was among the last of the island’s traditionally-trained woodworkers, that the art died with him. “But this chair,” he said, brightening, “will last forever. It’s a rock!”
I went for a leisurely stroll to buy some of the local thyme-encrusted “graviera” cheese, so he could execute the inscription. But on my return, I discovered he had yet to pick up the chisel. He was reading, clearly waiting for me to sit down on one of his indestructible seats and keep him company while he carried out the commission. About the shop were scattered some half-dozen books (coated in a silky film of sawdust), all by or about the same author, the Kefalonian poet Nikos Kavvadias (1910–1975), who had travelled the world, serving on freighters as a radio operator. I flipped through one idly.
“Ah! Do you read Greek?” he said. (Our conversation was in Greek, but that was of course no indication.) I said I did after a fashion.
“Well,” he sighed, “to understand Kavvadias you have to know about ships and sailors. You wouldn’t be able to read Kavvadias,” he added, shaking his head. “He’s not Cavafy.”
It was a sanguine reminder that for all Rupert Brooke’s serendipitous importance to the island, and the island’s warm adoption of him, he was still a vessel whereby international events, politics, and interest intersected with the local. It was Greek poets who spoke to the Greeks, Greek poets, and the untranslatable language of the sea.
 The author expresses grateful acknowledgement to Anna Faltaits, the British Embassy in Athens, and Rupert Brooke: An English Poet in Skyros Island by Costas Ioannou (Cultural Centre of Skyros Municipality, 1998).