Shaun Hunter’s excellent new book: Calgary Through the Eyes of Writers, exposed us to the English poet Rupert Brooke who passed through the city in 1913. Brooke, born in 1887, lived a charmed life. Both sporty and artistic he earned a scholarship to Cambridge where he became active in Varsity theatre.
His performances on stage caused both men and women to swoon. Irish poet W.B. Yeats described Brooke as “the handsomest young man in England.” Sexually adventurous, the young actor-turned-poet had affairs with both men and women, falling in easily with the bed-hopping Bloomsbury set. Virginia Woolf fondly remembered skinny dipping with him at University. Her husband, Leonard, thought Brooke “exactly what Adonis must have looked like in the eyes of Aphrodite.”
Brooke took a train trip across Canada in the summer of 1913 to escape the drama of his famous literary circle back home. He disembarked in Calgary and wrote about it in a serial called “Letters from America” published in the Westminster Gazette. He praised Calgary’s newly built public library (in Memorial Park), calling it the best in the country.
Amusingly in his chronicles, he described a Calgary/Edmonton rivalry, which is seemingly perennial to this day.
The inhabitants of these cities are proud of them, and envious of each other with a bitter rivalry. They do not love their cities as a Manchester man loves Manchester or a Münchener Munich, for they have probably lately arrived in them, and will surely pass on soon. But while they are there they love them, and with no silent love. They boost. To boost is to commend outrageously. And each cries up his own city, both from pride, it would appear, and for profit. For the fortunes of Newville are very really the fortunes of its inhabitants. From the successful speculator, owner of whole blocks, to the waiter bringing you a Martini, who has paid up a fraction of the cost of a quarter-share in a town-lot—all are the richer, as well as the prouder, if Newville grows. It is imperative to praise Edmonton in Edmonton. But it is sudden death to praise it in Calgary. The partisans of each city proclaim its superiority to all the others in swiftness of growth, future population, size of buildings, price of land—by all recognised standards of excellence. I travelled from Edmonton to Calgary in the company of a citizen of Edmonton and a citizen of Calgary. Hour after hour they disputed. Land in Calgary had risen from five dollars to three hundred; but in Edmonton from three to five hundred. Edmonton had grown from thirty persons to forty thousand in twenty years; but Calgary from twenty to thirty thousand in twelve…. “Where”—as a respite—”did I come from?” I had to tell them, not without shame, that my own town of Grantchester, having numbered three hundred at the time of Julius Caesar’s landing, had risen rapidly to nearly four by Doomsday Book, but was now declined to three-fifty. They seemed perplexed and angry.
Brooke spent a year travelling the world, arriving back in England as World War I was breaking out in 1914. He enlisted, composed some well-received war poetry, and died in Greece. He had been on his way to the battle of Gallipoli but contracted sepsis from an infected mosquito bite.
Dead at 27, his poetry became immensely popular in England. His earnest biographers posthumously scrubbed any reference to Brooke’s male relationships. In recent years, love letters and secret memoirs have been released by the British Museum, casting Brooke in a much gayer, tormented, light.