When Rupert Brooke Returned from the War

War Poet Rupert Brooke Died During the First World War, But Some Claimed that His Ghost Returned

“Rupert Brooke came to talk to me a few nights after his death,” wrote Aelfrida Tillyard in her diary for 9 May 1915. War Poet Rupert Brooke had been in the Royal Naval Division and en route to Gallipoli when he died.

As a poet, he is best known for his war sonnets written during the First World War, most especially the justly famous “The Soldier.”

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

Less well known, however, is the fact that he had also written poetry about the Society for Psychical Research.

Rupert Brooke is Dead

Rupert Brooke, Royal Naval Division, (First World War)

Rupert Brooke was in the Royal Naval Division during the First World War.

Rupert Brooke had sailed with the British Mediterranean Expeditionary Force on 28 February 1915 on their way to Gallipoli. He never reached his destination. A mosquito bite became infected and he developed sepsis. He was transferred to the French hospital ship, the Duguay-Trouin, moored in a bay off the Greek island of Skyros, but nothing more could be done. He died at 4:46 pm on 23 April 1915.

Before Aelfrida Tillyard had her paranormal encounter, news of Brooke’s death had already been reported in The Times. “Rupert Brooke is dead,” wrote Winston Churchill in the 26 April edition, adding, “he was all that one would wish England’s noblest sons to be in days when no sacrifice but the most precious is acceptable.”

Although Tillyard was a friend of Helen Verrall‘s and although not a member of the Society for Psychical Research was involved in psychical experiments of her own. She had never met Brooke, but was deeply affected by the news: “of all the wanton destruction wrought by the war none seems more wanton than the death of a poet.” She had just had news from her brother Eustace – Eustace Mandeville Wetenhall Tillyard, OBE, who would become Master of Jesus College, Cambridge – from ‘Somewhere in France’ and must have been at once relieved to hear from him and doubly concerned about his future.

If I Should Die, Think Only This Of Me

“If I should die,” wrote Tillyard in her diary, quoting Brooke, “think only this of me.” Tillyard expected that he had come back from the dead to apologise for missing their lunch appointment. Her biographer, Sheila Mann, thought this “a typical Aelfrida touch.” She could not see him, only hear him, and asked whether he “minded being dead’.” Brooke did not mind, instead he felt liberated: “it was glorious being free . . . and floating about looking at things.” She asked Brooke if there were “any God ‘up there.'” “No,” replied the atheist, “not exactly God, but boundless light.”

A Ghost with a Sense of Humour

Brooke was a frequent visitor in June that year. Appearing in a dream – a “true dream” according to Tillyard, using the phrasing of Margaret Verrall – the lonely ghost complained that everyone else was too busy and offered to be Tillyard’s friend. She visited the Old Vicarage in Grantchester, Brooke’s former and beloved home, and thought that “there seemed a lot of him about.”

On his next visit, she and Brooke collaborated on a poem, ‘Settled Down’, of which she remembered nothing and then another a week later: “Light like the dreamy haze on distant hills / Of unimagined blue . . .” – she could not remember the rest. She found Brooke “too funny, so eager and so excited about the spirit world and so keen to get a listener.” On his next visit he was again in “tremendous high spirits” and “awfully amusing.” “Did you ever meet a ghost with a sense of humour?” she wrote in her diary.

Rupert Brooke Seemed Rather Hurt

Perhaps the spirits were aware that Tillyard was forgetting all the important stuff. When Rupert next appeared he said that Frederic Myers – Myers had been one of the founder members of the Society for Psychical Research – had told him to recommend automatic writing. Tillyard refused. She had been re-reading Myers’s Human Personality and thought that she could not be sufficiently objective because of that. Brooke “seemed rather hurt,” but Tillyard went to bed and fell asleep.

Later, she thought she woke up, hearing Myers say “There! Now you’ve got it” to Brooke, who also had Edmund Gurney and Alfred Verrall with him. Brooke then “seemed to take possession of my brain” and Tillyard dreamt about him in the spirit world. Again she thought that she woke up and started automatic writing.

Finally, she did wake up and tried to record everything that she dreamt she had been writing: “he plunged into the river of death [ . . . ].” She was aware again of Brooke’s presence and his triumph. Taking more paper, Brooke dictated to her and she wrote: “[ . . . ] both seekers of living harmonies.” The communication ended with Brooke telling her “I don’t feel like a discarnate spirit. I feel like me, Rupert, with wings to my soul instead of legs to my feet.”

Brooke returned on 30 June to ask Tillyard to take a message to his mother. It was simple: “Write to Mrs Brooke, 24 Bilton Road, Rugby thus: I know, I love, I understand.” She did as she was asked. Mrs Brooke wrote back, apparently confirming the message as genuine, but asking her not to write again because it would “give her great pain to have her son send her messages through a total stranger.”

The first stanza of Rupert Brooke’s 1914 poem ‘The Dead’  – “Blow out, you bugles, over the rich Dead!” – is inscribed onto the base of the Royal Naval Division War Memorial in Horse Guards Parade, London.

[Full references can be found in Angels in the Trenches.]

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