‘The Great Lover’ by Rupert Brooke is a long, three-stanza poem that is contained within sections of vastly different lengths. The first stanza contains twenty-five lines, the second: forty-seven and the third: four. Brooke has chosen to imbue this poem with an overarching rhyme scheme of aabbcc, alternating end sounds as the poem progresses. There are instances though in which the pattern dissolves, such as between the first and second stanza and in the concluding lines of the second stanza.
These variations are present in the moments in which the speaker is re-addressing a topic. For instance, between the first and second stanza, he is changing directions. Rather than describing what it is that has made him a “great lover,” he is listing all the physical objects and experiences he has loved. The change in rhyme and the addition of a strong indention make this transition all the more noticeable.
Throughout the majority of this piece, the mood is optimistic. The speaker is bragging about and celebrating the life he lived. It is clear he is happily sharing the great highs of his life with the reader. When the poem comes to its conclusion though the scene darkens. The speaker looks into his future and discusses what comes after death for both himself and those things he has so cherished.
Summary of The Great Lover
The poem begins with the speaker stating that he has been a “great…lover.” A reader will soon come to understand that this refers to intimate partners as well as experiences. First, he takes the time to describe how his love is at night brighter than any other star in the sky. Anyone who saw it would remember it and pass on their astonishment at its brilliance.
The speaker goes on to state that he has loved many things and wants to write their names on a banner and wave it in the wind. This way they will always be remembered. In the next lines he lists out a great number of objects and experiences he has seen and had in his life. These range from “blue-massing clouds” and “furs to touch” to “footprints in the dew” and pools of water.
Although the speaker has spent the first two-thirds of the poem bragging on the variety of things he loves, the mood changes in the last section. Here, he tries to come to terms with the fact that he is going to lose everything in his life when he dies. When he passes into the realm of death all the “loves” of his life will abandon him. They will become “faithless” and remain on earth.
He is saddened by this prospect but also somewhat cheered as he knows he’ll find new loves wherever he ends up. His parting gift to his past life is that his “loves” will be known by all to be splendid.
Analysis of The Great Lover
Lines 1- 7
I have been so great a lover: filled my days
So proudly with the splendour of Love’s praise,
The pain, the calm, and the astonishment,
Desire illimitable, and still content,
And all dear names men use, to cheat despair,
For the perplexed and viewless streams that bear
Our hearts at random down the dark of life.
The poem begins with the speaker stating, very directly, that he has been “so great a lover.” This makes clear that the title is a reference to the speaker’s own abilities as a lover of others and objects. He explains through the next lines what it is he did to make himself so “Great.” First, he says that he “filled” the days of his life with the “splendour of Love’s praise.” There were happiness and goodness but also “pain, the calm, and the astonishment.” These features of love were topped off by “Desire” that had no limit. It was never fully sated, but he was still “content” with what he had.
He was also in possession of all the “dear names men use” to refer to the “streams / that bear” their hearts down the path of life.” Here he refers to the torrent of emotions that is ever-changing in meaning and context. It supports and carries one through the darkest parts of life.
Lines 8 -15
Now, ere the unthinking silence on that strife
Steals down, I would cheat drowsy Death so far,
My night shall be remembered for a star
That outshone all the suns of all men’s days.
Shall I not crown them with immortal praise
Whom I have loved, who have given me, dared with me
High secrets, and in darkness knelt to see
The inenarrable godhead of delight?
It is with these emotions and his powerful love in mind that he describes his darkest moments as being the brightest stars. Even when things were bad, they were still better than an average person’s day. He says that the “night” he existed in will be remembered for its glory and how it “outshone all the suns of…men’s days.”
In the next lines, he turns his attention to those who he has “loved.” He does not state who these people are, but they have given him “High secrets” and “knelt to see the godhead of delight.” He wants to crown them with endless and “immortal praise.” They are deserving of remembrance for the rest of time. “Godhead” refers to the quality of being God and in this case, God is “inenarrable” or incapable of being described. “Delight,” is elevated to a god-like level.
It is impossible to escape the sexual connotations in the last two lines. Brooke sets these moments up throughout the text, reminding the reader that his love is emotional and physical.
Love is a flame:—we have beaconed the world’s night.
A city:—and we have built it, these and I.
An emperor:—we have taught the world to die.
So, for their sakes I loved, ere I go hence,
And the high cause of Love’s magnificence,
And to keep loyalties young, I’ll write those names
Golden for ever, eagles, crying flames,
And set them as a banner, that men may know,
To dare the generations, burn, and blow
Out on the wind of Time, shining and streaming . . . .
In the last section of this stanza, the speaker refers to the “love” he had as a “flame.” Together, he and his lovers have brightened the nights of the world and built “A city” together. These couplings have resulted in the construction of a better world and even “An emperor.”
In the following lines, the speaker describes how he is going “forth” from his current life, for the sake of those he “loved.” He is will continue on, carrying the banner of “Love’s magnificence.” In an effort to preserve the way he felt about all the past lovers he is going to “write those names” onto the banner and wave it out on the “wind of Time.” It will exist forever even after he and everything he knows is gone. This time is an allusion to what is to come in the final stanza of the piece. The discussion of life eventually makes its way towards death.
These I have loved:
White plates and cups, clean-gleaming,
Ringed with blue lines; and feathery, faery dust;
Wet roofs, beneath the lamp-light; the strong crust
Of friendly bread; and many-tasting food;
Rainbows; and the blue bitter smoke of wood;
Radiant raindrops couching in cool flowers;
And flowers themselves, that sway through sunny hours,
Dreaming of moths that drink them under the moon;
Here, Brooke begins the second stanza of the piece with an introduction to the things he “loved” and a very notable indention. The stanza is also significantly longer, containing forty-seven lines. The speaker is changing tactics and giving the reader a list of all the things, physical objets and experiences he loved as well. It extends out to the “white plates and cups” and “many-tasting food.”
He also states he loves the “radian[ce]” of the raindrops and how they rest in the “cool flowers.” There is also love for the “Flowers themselves” and how they “sway” in the sunniest part of the day. The speaker is outlining a whole environmental cycle here. This shows the true extent of his care for the world as well as the detailed nature of his eye. He takes the time to get to know the “moths that drink” from the flowers.
Lines 10 -19
Then, the cool kindliness of sheets, that soon
Smooth away trouble; and the rough male kiss
Of blankets; grainy wood; live hair that is
Shining and free; blue-massing clouds; the keen
Unpassioned beauty of a great machine;
The benison of hot water; furs to touch;
The good smell of old clothes; and other such—
The comfortable smell of friendly fingers,
Hair’s fragrance, and the musty reek that lingers
About dead leaves and last year’s ferns. . . .
The list continues into the next ten lines. Here he mentions the love he feels for the “sheets” and the “rough male kiss / Of blankets.” There are also the “furs to touch” and the “good smell of friendly fingers.” Brooke is engaging with every sense trying to make these images as visually interesting as possible. A reader will envision these situations and take pleasure from their texture and oftentimes, luxury.
One should also take note of the power the list carries. He goes through three different lines, all of which begin with “The.” The stanza is gaining power as if coming to a climax of some kind. Instead, it drifts off with an eclipse in the nineteenth line.
And thousand other throng to me! Royal flames;
Sweet water’s dimpling laugh from tap or spring;
Holes in the ground; and voices that do sing;
Voices in laughter, too; and body’s pain,
Soon turned to peace; and the deep-panting train;
Firm sands; the little dulling edge of foam
That browns and dwindles as the wave goes home;
And washen stones, gay for an hour; the cold
Graveness of iron; moist black earthen mould;
The second stanza begins its conclusion at this point. The speaker has become completely enraptured with the detailed listing he has provided. It is bringing him as much joy as the objects and experiences themselves. The next lines give the reader a look at the more ephemeral elements of what the speaker loves. He mentions the “laugh” of “Sweet water” and the “body’s pain, / Soon turned to peace.”
It is clear the speaker is in love with emotion and experience in general. If something provokes a response in him, he enjoys it. That might be pain one day and pleasure the next. He can move quickly from an “hour” of joy to the “cold / Graveness of iron.”
Sleep; and high places; footprints in the dew;
And oaks; and brown horse-chestnuts, glossy-new;
New-peeled sticks; and shining pools on grass;—
All these have been my loves. And these shall pass,
Whatever passes not, in the great hour,
Nor all my passion, all my prayers, have power
To hold them with me through the gate of Death.
They’ll play deserter, turn with the traitor breath,
Break the high bond we made, and sell Love’s trust
And sacramented covenant to the dust.
The list begins to degrade in the final lines. The statements become shorter and more to the point. It is as if he is spitting these items out now. They are flowing from his mouth without his control and are jumbled together with semi-colons. The statements are bold and one has trouble moving fluidly from one to the next due to the punctuation.
He speaks of his love for “footprints in the dew” and “brown horse-chestnuts.” There are a number of natural elements contained within this section. It ends with the mention of “shining pools on grass.”
One of the most important factors of the speaker’s love is that it is mostly directed at things that cannot last. Trees will die, holes will fill and rainbows will disappear. The speaker understands this and states that all “these shall pass.” That does not make them less important. They will remain with him “in the great hour” when he dies.
The speaker immediately backs out of this statement saying instead that not all of his loves will remain with him “through the gate of Death.” When he dies only a certain percentage will last. Others will “play deserter” and break the connection they “made” together. There is a significant amount of personification here.
Aside from the initial lines that alluded to love between the speaker and a partner, the rest of the poem is made up of non-human life and objects. The objects have been given the capacity to betray and become unfaithful in the narrative. This helps to express the deep emotions the speaker feels surrounding his “loves.” He truly sees them as being animate, at least in a simplified sense of the word.
——Oh, never a doubt but, somewhere, I shall wake,
And give what’s left of love again, and make
New friends, now strangers. . . .
But the best I’ve known
Stays here, and changes, breaks, grows old, is blown
About the winds of the world, and fades from brains
Of living men, and dies.
In the final section of the second stanza, the speaker moves forward in time. He imagines the moment he wakes up in heaven and looks around him. There will be “somewhere” something of the love he once knew. It might just be his own capacity to love. His love will be shared with “New friends” who are now “strangers.”
The mood of the poem is going steadily downhill at this point. Although he accepts the fact that he cannot keep his original “loves” forever it still makes him sad. They were the “best” he had known and they will “Stay” on earth. The people and experiences and objects will change and break until they are “blown / About the winds of the world.” Eventually, nothing is going to remain of his much-loved life.
O dear my loves, O faithless, once again
This one last gift I give: that after men
Shall know, and later lovers, far-removed,
Praise you, ‘All these were lovely’; say, ‘He loved.’
In the last four lines, the speaker seems to be mourning the loves that have abandoned him. He calls them “dear” and “faithless” as they did not want to carry on with him into the afterlife. While he is upset, he does not hate the things he used to care so deeply for. Instead, he tells them that he has one last “gift” to give. This will be that in the future after he and many others are long dead there will still be “later lovers” to “Praise you.” The new lovers will know that the things the speaker loved “were lovely.”