The poet Rupert Brooke (1887–1915) visited Berlin in 1912. His famous poem ‘The Old Vicarage, Grantchester’ uses the Café des Westens as its setting.
One of the most popular and written-about ‘Georgian’ poets, Rupert Brooke (1887–1915) spent several weeks in Berlin during 1912 – in April-June and then again in November. He initially settled in a pension near his Cambridge friend Dudley Ward, who had taken lodgings at Kantstraße, 14. In Berlin, Brooke also spent some time with the writer T. E. Hulme. Back in Britain, his Bloomsbury Group connections included Virginia Woolf and Alix Strachey’s husband James, who appears to have developed a homoerotic attraction towards him.
In his letters from Berlin, Brooke reported going to the opera, attending one of Max Reinhardt’s productions of Ibsen and otherwise systematically exploring different parts of the city and hanging out in cafés. The arty Café des Westens was one of his favourite haunts. Indeed, the Café des Westens provided the perhaps unexpected setting for one of Brooke’s most famous poems, ‘The Old Vicarage, Grantchester’, which he wrote while he was in Berlin. This poem about pastoral England sets an idealised version of the unspoilt English countryside against the gritty reality of modern, cosmopolitan Berlin as experienced by Brooke in one of the city’s most iconic meeting points. The sentimental tone of Brooke’s poem and its conservative outlook make a sharp contrast with the progressive artistic culture that gravitated around the Café des Westens, which was associated with Expressionism and women’s emancipation.
Brooke gave readers a glimpse of modern Berlin in the poem ‘The Night Journey’, also written in Berlin, which appeared in the English literary magazine Rhythm, edited by John Middleton Murry. Here, Brooke was inspired by one of the city’s many elevated railway lines, which were (and are) a distinctive feature of its urban landscape. In Berlin, Brooke also started to write his short play Lithuania, the grim story of a returning Lithuanian migrant who is accidentally killed by his own family.
Taken together, Brooke’s published and private writings about Berlin give the impression that he remained aloof from the more progressive aspects of the city’s arts and literature. In his letters, he made ironic remarks about it lagging behind London and Paris in terms of culture. His poetic self-styling in ‘The Old Vicarage, Grantchester’ as a ‘sentimental exile’ captured something generally true of his attitude to the city, which was emotionally detached and dominated by a note of homesickness and by the ups and downs of his relationship with Katherine (‘Ka’) Cox. Stefano Evangelista
1—Rupert Brooke, letter to Jacques Raverat, [April–May 1912], in The Letters of Rupert Brooke, ed. Geoffrey Keynes (London: Faber, 1968), p. 377.
Brooke, Rupert, The Collected Poems of Rupert Brooke; with a Memoir by Edward Marsh (London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1918)
Brooke, Rupert, The Letters of Rupert Brooke, ed. Geoffrey Keynes (London: Faber, 1968)
Jones, Nigel, Rupert Brooke: Life, Death and Myth (London: Head of Zeus, 2014)
Bridgwater, Patrick, ‘Three English Poets in Expressionist Berlin’, German Life and Letters, 45:4 (1992), pp- 301–22