In 1913, after a emotional upset, the English poet Rupert Brooke visited North America. He wrote travel diaries for the Westminster Gazette, an influential Liberal newspaper based in London. Best known for his idealistic poems “The Soldier” and “The Old Vicarage, Grantchester”, he was also a great travel writer.
Rupert Brooke (1887-1915) had the makings of a Mark Twain. He had an eye for character and an ear for acerbity, returning from his trip “as promiscuously qualified”, in the words of Henry James, “as variously quickened, as his best friends could wish for fine production and fine illustration in some order still awaiting sharp definition.” That promise was never to be fulfilled, but more than an inkling can be discerned in his Letters from America (1916), which abound in impressionistic descriptions of landscape and, especially, water.
Travelling by river from Montreal to Toronto, he enters Lake Ontario, which he finds ominous and unnatural, as if it had a perceptibly wicked soul:
“The lake was a terrible dead-silver colour, the gleam of its surface shot with flecks of blue and a vapour enamel-green. It was like a gigantic silver shield. Its glint was inexplicably sinister and dead, like the glint on glasses worn by a blind man… Our boat appeared to leave no wake; those strange waters closed up foamlessly behind her. But our black smoke hung, away back on the trail, in a thick, clearly-bounded cloud, becalmed in the hot, windless air, very close over the water, like an evil soul after death that cannot win dissolution… The lake around us was dull, though the sun shone full on it. It gleamed, but without radiance.”
Brooke visited Niagara Falls, where he described how the human race is apt to destroy what it most admires by surrounding it with “every distraction, incongruity and vulgarity”. There follows a one hundred and seven word sentence about “touts insinuating and touts raucous” that rivals Mark Twain at his very best. Little has changed. From Niagara to Winnipeg, Regina, and the Rockies, and again it is water that catches his eye in the form of Lake Louise:
“Imagine a little round lake 6000 feet up, a mile across, closed in by great cliffs of brown rock, round the shoulders of which are thrown mantles of close dark pine. At one end the lake is fed by a vast glacier, and its milky tumbling stream; and the glacier climbs to snowfields of one of the highest and loveliest peaks in the Rockies, which keeps perpetual guard over the scene… In the lake, ever-changing, is Beauty herself, as nearly visible to mortal eyes as she may ever be. The water, beyond the flowers, is green, always a different green. Sometimes it is tranquil, glassy, shot with blue, of a peacock tint. Then a little wind awakes in the distance, and ruffles the surface, yard by yard, covering it with a myriad tiny wrinkles, till half the lake is milky emerald, while the rest still sleeps.”
Seated in a café in Berlin one year earlier, Brooke sketched his poem “The Old Vicarage, Grantchester”. It reveals the same qualities of observation and perception, ending in a nostalgic cri de coeur that every English schoolchild used to know:
“Oh, is the water sweet and cool,
Gentle and brown, above the pool?
And laughs the immortal river still
Under the mill, under the mill?
Say, is there Beauty yet to find?
And Certainty? and Quiet kind?
Deep meadows yet, for to forget
The lies, and truths, and pain? … oh! yet
Stands the Church clock at ten to three?
And is there honey still for tea?”