‘The Old Vicarage, Grantchester‘ by Rupert Brooke is a light, amusing poem about a homesick Englishman traveling in Berlin. The sentimental traveler fondly remembers his former home in the countryside town of Grantchester, focusing particularly on the natural beauty of the place. The poem takes a gently satirical attitude toward its subject matter.
The Old Vicarage, Grantchester Rupert BrookeJust now the lilac is in bloom,All before my little room;And in my flower-beds, I think,Smile the carnation and the pink;And down the borders, well I know,The poppy and the pansy blow . . .Oh! there the chestnuts, summer through,Beside the river make for youA tunnel of green gloom, and sleepDeeply above; and green and deepThe stream mysterious glides beneath,Green as a dream and deep as death.— Oh, damn! I know it! and I knowHow the May fields all golden show,And when the day is young and sweet,Gild gloriously the bare feetThat run to bathe . . . ‘Du lieber Gott!’Here am I, sweating, sick, and hot,And there the shadowed waters freshLean up to embrace the naked flesh.Temperamentvoll German JewsDrink beer around; — and THERE the dewsAre soft beneath a morn of gold.Here tulips bloom as they are told;Unkempt about those hedges blowsAn English unofficial rose;And there the unregulated sunSlopes down to rest when day is done,And wakes a vague unpunctual star,A slippered Hesper; and there areMeads towards Haslingfield and CotonWhere das Betreten’s not verboten.granchester 2 . . . would I wereIn Grantchester, in Grantchester! —Some, it may be, can get in touchWith Nature there, or Earth, or such.And clever modern men have seenA Faun a-peeping through the green,And felt the Classics were not dead,To glimpse a Naiad’s reedy head,Or hear the Goat-foot piping low: . . .But these are things I do not know.I only know that you may lieDay long and watch the Cambridge sky,And, flower-lulled in sleepy grass,Hear the cool lapse of hours pass,Until the centuries blend and blurIn Grantchester, in Grantchester. . . .Still in the dawnlit waters coolHis ghostly Lordship swims his pool,And tries the strokes, essays the tricks,Long learnt on Hellespont, or Styx.Dan Chaucer hears his river stillChatter beneath a phantom mill.Tennyson notes, with studious eye,How Cambridge waters hurry by . . .And in that garden, black and white,Creep whispers through the grass all night;And spectral dance, before the dawn,A hundred Vicars down the lawn;Curates, long dust, will come and goOn lissom, clerical, printless toe;And oft between the boughs is seenThe sly shade of a Rural Dean . . .Till, at a shiver in the skies,Vanishing with Satanic cries,The prim ecclesiastic routLeaves but a startled sleeper-out,Grey heavens, the first bird’s drowsy calls,The falling house that never falls.God! I will pack, and take a train,And get me to England once again!For England’s the one land, I know,Where men with Splendid Hearts may go;And Cambridgeshire, of all England,The shire for Men who Understand;And of THAT district I preferThe lovely hamlet Grantchester.For Cambridge people rarely smile,Being urban, squat, and packed with guile;And Royston men in the far SouthAre black and fierce and strange of mouth;At Over they fling oaths at one,And worse than oaths at Trumpington,And Ditton girls are mean and dirty,And there’s none in Harston under thirty,And folks in Shelford and those partsHave twisted lips and twisted hearts,And Barton men make Cockney rhymes,And Coton’s full of nameless crimes,And things are done you’d not believeAt Madingley on Christmas Eve.Strong men have run for miles and miles,When one from Cherry Hinton smiles;Strong men have blanched, and shot their wives,Rather than send them to St. Ives;Strong men have cried like babes, bydam,To hear what happened at Babraham.But Grantchester! ah, Grantchester!There’s peace and holy quiet there,Great clouds along pacific skies,And men and women with straight eyes,Lithe children lovelier than a dream,A bosky wood, a slumbrous stream,And little kindly winds that creepRound twilight corners, half asleep.In Grantchester their skins are white;They bathe by day, they bathe by night;The women there do all they ought;The men observe the Rules of Thought.They love the Good; they worship Truth;They laugh uproariously in youth;(And when they get to feeling old,They up and shoot themselves, I’m told) . . .Ah God! to see the branches stirAcross the moon at Grantchester!To smell the thrilling-sweet and rottenUnforgettable, unforgottenRiver-smell, and hear the breezeSobbing in the little trees.Say, do the elm-clumps greatly standStill guardians of that holy land?The chestnuts shade, in reverend dream,The yet unacademic stream?Is dawn a secret shy and coldAnadyomene, silver-gold?And sunset still a golden seaFrom Haslingfield to Madingley?And after, ere the night is born,Do hares come out about the corn?Oh, is the water sweet and cool,Gentle and brown, above the pool?And laughs the immortal river stillUnder the mill, under the mill?Say, is there Beauty yet to find?And Certainty? and Quiet kind?Deep meadows yet, for to forgetThe lies, and truths, and pain? . . . oh! yetStands the Church clock at ten to three?And is there honey still for tea?
Explore The Old Vicarage, Grantchester
In Rupert Brooke’s ‘The Old Vicarage, Grantchester,‘ a traveler fondly remembers his home in Grantchester, a rural town in England.
The speaker praises both the natural beauty of Grantchester and the people who live there while deprecating the populace of other nearby towns. The speaker resolves to return to England and ends the poem with a set of rhetorical questions about whether Grantchester still retains its wonderful charms. The title of the poem refers to a particular house in Grantchester where Rupert Brooke briefly lived.
This poem adopts a somewhat unusual tone that is seemingly simultaneously sentimental and satirical. At certain points, the poem is almost a satire of itself (or a satire of its surface-level meaning). While Rupert Brooke probably had some genuine warm feelings toward his home, there are also numerous lines that mock and ridicule Grantchester and its environs, which introduces a consistent note of irony and even subtle absurdity to the poem. The tone of the poem becomes more satirical as it goes along.
The attitude of the speaker in the poem cannot be exactly identified with the actual Rupert Brooke since the idealized remembering of the speaker is repeatedly undercut and made even to seem ridiculous. Ultimately, the poem is as much a lighthearted satire of a homesick, sentimental traveler who romanticizes his native land as anything else.
Structure and Form
Bathos is one of those most important literary devices in ‘The Old Vicarage, Grantchester.’ Bathos contrasts with the more well-known pathos. While pathos is an element in a work that evokes pity or sympathy, bathos involves the abrupt dropping down from a high, elevated tone to a focus on the prosaic or ridiculous. Many times in the poem, the speaker’s flights of fancy and imagination will suddenly be counterpointed by a discordant line or phrase that casts the preceding words in a markedly different light.
The closing line of ‘The Old Vicarage, Grantchester,’ is an excellent example of bathos. After very serious lines about ‘Beauty’ and ‘Certainty,’ and a dramatic question about whether there are still “deep meadows” to help forget “lies, and truth, and pain,” the speaker suddenly ends the poem with a prosaic question — “is there honey still for tea?” From being concerned with deep, serious matters, the speaker suddenly switches to concern with filling his stomach. The sense of bathos is heightened because of the elevated language that is used in the lines preceding the final line.
Hyperbole is another important literary device employed by Brooke in ‘The Old Vicarage, Grantchester.’ The hyperbole in the poem plays an important part in creating the humorous, satirical tone that particularly predominates in the latter two stanzas of the poem. In the fourth stanza, there are numerous instances of extreme hyperbole — Coton being “full of nameless crimes,” unspecified acts “you’d not believe” being committed in Madingley, and unknown events in Babraham that make strong men cry “like babes.”
(Cafe des Westens, Berlin, May 1912)
Just now the lilac is in bloom,
All before my little room;
And in my flower-beds, I think,
Smile the carnation and the pink;
And down the borders, well I know,
The poppy and the pansy blow . . .
Oh! there the chestnuts, summer through,
Beside the river make for you
A tunnel of green gloom, and sleep
Deeply above; and green and deep
The stream mysterious glides beneath,
Green as a dream and deep as death.
— Oh, damn! I know it! and I know
How the May fields all golden show,
And when the day is young and sweet,
Gild gloriously the bare feet
That run to bathe . . .
Du lieber Gott!
In the opening stanza of ‘The Old Vicarage, Grantchester,‘ the speaker imagines how beautiful the spring must be back in his old home in Grantchester. The lines about “my little room” refer to The Old Vicarage in the title. A vicarage is a house for a clergyman. In this case, the important thing to understand is that the vicarage in question is the speaker’s former residence.
The speaker focuses on the natural beauty of Grantchester. Multiple kinds of flowers and a pleasant river are described. In the final half line of the stanza, the speaker’s reverie is suddenly ended, as a German phrase (meaning “oh my God”) voiced by someone in the cafe breaks into his consciousness.
This opening stanza introduces the themes of homesickness and fond remembering that will continue throughout the poem. While later other elements of Grantchester’s appeal will be explored, here the focus is entirely on the natural wonders of the place. A feeling of absolute serenity and peace is created. At least in the speaker’s imagination, Grantchester is an idyllic place.
Here am I, sweating, sick, and hot,
And there the shadowed waters fresh
Lean up to embrace the naked flesh.
Temperamentvoll German Jews
Drink beer around; — and there the dews
Are soft beneath a morn of gold.
Here tulips bloom as they are told;
Unkempt about those hedges blows
An English unofficial rose;
And there the unregulated sun
Slopes down to rest when day is done,
And wakes a vague unpunctual star,
A slippered Hesper; and there are
Meads towards Haslingfield and Coton
Where das Betreten’s not verboten.
In the second stanza, the speaker is brought back to his unpleasant current reality, where he is sweating and hot. ‘Temperamentvoll ‘ means spirited or lively in English. However, the speaker’s thoughts do not long remain back in Berlin. Rather, his misery in Berlin serves as a counterpoint against the loveliness of his former home in England.
The flowers and other natural beauty of Grantchester are praised again. The poet imagines the ending of a day in Grantchester, with Hesper being a term drawn from Greek mythology for the evening star. Haslingfield and Coton are two small towns lying just a few miles from Grantchester. ‘Mead’ is another word for meadow. The German phrases in the final line mean, respectively, ‘enter’ and ‘forbidden,’ so the meaning is that exploring the meads in the direction of Haslingfield and Coton is possible.
The second stanza continues in the pattern of praising Grantchester begun in the opening stanza but with the added wrinkle of an emphasis on the contrast between the peaceful, pastoral English countryside and the crowded, hot urban scene in which the poet finds himself. The use of German phrases adds to the sense that the speaker is not where he should be — better if he were back home in his native land.
εἴθε γενοίμην. . . would I were
In Grantchester, in Grantchester! —
Some, it may be, can get in touch
With Nature there, or Earth, or such.
And clever modern men have seen
A Faun a-peeping through the green,
And felt the Classics were not dead,
To glimpse a Naiad’s reedy head,
Or hear the Goat-foot piping low: . . .
But these are things I do not know.
I only know that you may lie
Day long and watch the Cambridge sky,
And, flower-lulled in sleepy grass,
Hear the cool lapse of hours pass,
Until the centuries blend and blur
In Grantchester, in Grantchester. . . .
Still in the dawnlit waters cool
His ghostly Lordship swims his pool,
And tries the strokes, essays the tricks,
Long learnt on Hellespont, or Styx.
Dan Chaucer hears his river still
Chatter beneath a phantom mill.
Tennyson notes, with studious eye,
How Cambridge waters hurry by . . .
And in that garden, black and white,
Creep whispers through the grass all night;
And spectral dance, before the dawn,
A hundred Vicars down the lawn;
Curates, long dust, will come and go
On lissom, clerical, printless toe;
And oft between the boughs is seen
The sly shade of a Rural Dean . . .
Till, at a shiver in the skies,
Vanishing with Satanic cries,
The prim ecclesiastic rout
Leaves but a startled sleeper-out,
Grey heavens, the first bird’s drowsy calls,
The falling house that never falls.
The third stanza begins with a quote from another foreign language. In this instance, the lines are ancient Greek, meaning “I wish I was born.” These lines are drawn from one of a set of short epigrammatic poems spuriously attributed to Plato. The full poem, translated, reads, “You gaze at stars, my Star./ Would that I were born the starry sky,/ that I with many eyes might gaze at you.” The purpose of quoting from this brief love poem is to establish Grantchester as being loved as the beloved in the poem is loved. The speaker now explicitly wishes he were back in Grantchester.
For the speaker, Grantchester is such a magical place that even men from the modern, scientific world will see mythical creatures such as fauns, naiads (female water spirits), and the god Pan (who is referenced in the phrase “Goat-foot piping low”). Next, he imagines dozing off and seeing figures from the past who attended the University of Cambridge, which is located in the town of the same name a few miles from Grantchester.
References to three major English poets are made in this section. The “ghostly Lordship” is Lord Byron, an early 19th-century Romantic poet who is reputed to have swum in a pool at Cambridge and who definitely swam the Hellespont, a narrow gap between the continents of Europe and Asia now known as the Dardanelles.
The Styx is a river in the underworld in Greek mythology. ‘Dan Chaucer’ refers to Chaucer, the earliest great poet of the English language. In this context, ‘Dan’ is not a name but an honorary title applied to a legendary historical figure (Chaucer’s first name was Geoffrey). Tennyson was the most famous poet of the Victorian age who, like Byron, attended Cambridge.
In the last lines of the third section, the poet imagines a haunted spectral dance featuring the vicars who presumably once dwelt in The Old Vicarage returning to life. This apparently evil, Satanic revelry is broken up by the arrival of the dawn, which is indicated by “the first bird’s drowsy calls.”
As in the use of German in the previous stanza, the foreign lines used by Brooke in the third stanza act to draw a contrast between the particularly English appeal of Grantchester and foreign lands. The intense love a person can have for their home is one of the great themes of the poem.
However, in this third stanza, the poet also connects Grantchester to the larger tradition of Western culture by making several references to classical mythology. The natural scene around Grantchester is filled not just with actually existing plants and animals but with the imaginings of an educated mind. In addition, the three poets mentioned, while all having a local connection to Cambridge, are also famous figures who had an influence beyond just England.
While the first two stanzas of the poem dwelt on the natural beauty of Grantchester — which can be directly experienced — the third stanza is concerned with things that can only be accessed through imagination (mythological creatures and past historical figures). This stanza is thus much more fanciful. Essentially, the speaker of the poem is sitting in Berlin, imagining himself having a visionary experience back in Grantchester — a sort of act of imagination within an act of imagination.
God! I will pack, and take a train,
And get me to England once again!
For England’s the one land, I know,
Where men with Splendid Hearts may go;
And Cambridgeshire, of all England,
The shire for Men who Understand;
And of that district I prefer
The lovely hamlet Grantchester.
For Cambridge people rarely smile,
Being urban, squat, and packed with guile;
And Royston men in the far South
Are black and fierce and strange of mouth;
At Over they fling oaths at one,
And worse than oaths at Trumpington,
And Ditton girls are mean and dirty,
And there’s none in Harston under thirty,
And folks in Shelford and those parts
Have twisted lips and twisted hearts,
And Barton men make Cockney rhymes,
And Coton’s full of nameless crimes,
And things are done you’d not believe
At Madingley on Christmas Eve.
Strong men have run for miles and miles,
When one from Cherry Hinton smiles;
Strong men have blanched, and shot their wives,
Rather than send them to St. Ives;
Strong men have cried like babes, bydam,
To hear what happened at Babraham.
But Grantchester! ah, Grantchester!
There’s peace and holy quiet there,
Great clouds along pacific skies,
And men and women with straight eyes,
Lithe children lovelier than a dream,
A bosky wood, a slumbrous stream,
And little kindly winds that creep
Round twilight corners, half asleep.
In Grantchester their skins are white;
They bathe by day, they bathe by night;
The women there do all they ought;
The men observe the Rules of Thought.
They love the Good; they worship Truth;
They laugh uproariously in youth;
(And when they get to feeling old,
They up and shoot themselves, I’m told) . . .
In the fourth stanza, the speaker moves from merely wishing he were back in Grantchester to resolving to return. While he strikes a patriotic note with the line about “Splendid Hearts,” this stanza soon assumes a much more ironical, satirical, and humorous tone than that found in the three stanzas.
By way of explaining why he prefers Grantchester, the speaker criticizes the people of the other towns found in the county of Cambridgeshire, employing terms that are extremely insulting but also ridiculous because of how hyperbolic they are — such as Coton being “full of nameless crimes.” Apparently, these small towns are scenes of untold terror.
When the poet turns to praise Grantchester, his language remains hyperbolic. Grantchester is described as being essentially a perfect place, with “peace and holy quiet” and men, women, and children who are all flawless. Portentous claims such as that the men “worship Truth” and overly serious phrases such as ‘Rules of Thought’ make crystal clear that the poet’s praise is tongue in cheek. Even the winds are “kindly.” Finally, however, placed in parentheses as if it is an unimportant side note, the poet claims the good men of Grantchester commit suicide when they grow old.
In the amusing fourth stanza, “The Old Vicarage, Grantchester” takes a turn. Before this stanza, it was possible to take the praise of Grantchester at face value. But in this stanza, satire and humor take over, as seen especially in the violence, criminal behavior, and unnamed horrors that are alleged to occur in small, quiet towns in the countryside. Absurd lines such as “Strong men have blanched, and shot their wives;/ Rather than send them to St. Ives” are among the most memorable in the entire poem. Finally, even the praise of the idyllic Grantchester is subverted and undone in the sardonic final couplet.
It is interesting to note that while the poet focused on the natural beauty and the historic past of Grantchester, a more straightforward tone of sincere praise (rather than irony) predominated. Yet when the people of Grantchester and the nearby areas come into focus, the approach becomes one of ridicule. In fact, all the humans that figure in the poem are treated similarly, with only the dead poets Byron, Tennyson, and Chaucer coming in for genuine praise. Implicitly, even the speaker of the poem himself is gently ridiculed, as the poem reveals the traveler to be overly sentimental to the point of absurdity.
Ah God! to see the branches stir
Across the moon at Grantchester!
To smell the thrilling-sweet and rotten
River-smell, and hear the breeze
Sobbing in the little trees.
Say, do the elm-clumps greatly stand
Still guardians of that holy land?
The chestnuts shade, in reverend dream,
The yet unacademic stream?
Is dawn a secret shy and cold
And sunset still a golden sea
From Haslingfield to Madingley?
And after, ere the night is born,
Do hares come out about the corn?
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?
In this last stanza of ‘The Old Vicarage, Grantchester,’ the speaker turns from celebrating the people of Grantchester to again praising the bucolic beauty of nature around the town. He imagines how wonderful it would be to see scenes like the moon or to smell the river in Grantchester. Most of the stanza consists of a series of rhetorical questions about whether Grantchester is still as beautiful and wonderful as the poet remembers it. ‘Anadyomene’ references an ancient statue of the goddess of love, Venus. The poet asks if elm trees still stand in the “holy land” of Grantchester, if the river still runs, and if the meadows that help a person forget lies, pain, and (presumably painful) truths still exist. Finally, the speaker ends the poem by imagining an afternoon scene of tea at the specific time of ten to three.
In this final stanza of the poem, the pointedly amusing, satirical attitude toward Grantchester reaches its culmination. The speaker’s celebration of Grantchester is subverted by amusing contrasts. Memorable lines such as the description of the river — “thrilling-sweet and rotten/ Unforgettable, unforgotten/ River-smell” — are among the most striking in the entire poem. Another example is the “water sweet and cool” being “gentle and brown,” rather than blue, as a beautiful pool of water would be expected to be described. The contrast with the river of the first stanza, which was said to be “green as a dream,” is notable.
The praise for Grantchester in this stanza that is not explicitly undercut is so over-the-top that it still qualifies as a subversion of the literal, surface-level meaning. Lines such as “holy land” and “immortal river” invest the countryside of Grantchester with such an overload of grand poetic meaning and beauty that the effect is the opposite of what it might seem if interpreted at face value. The stanza is certainly still beautiful and evocative, but it is clear the mind of the sentimental speaker has created an imaginative realm that is far beyond the prosaic reality of Grantchester.
Yes, though it should not be viewed as a purely accurate autobiographical retelling. Rupert Brooke really did live in a house in Grantchester called The Old Vicarage in 1910, and he really did write a poem reflecting on Grantchester while traveling in Berlin. He also actually swam in the pool mentioned in the third stanza. The Cafe des Westens was a coffeehouse frequented by many poets and artists, including Brooke. But whether Brooke ever actually sat in the coffeehouse and specifically dreamed of Grantchester as he describes in the poem is unknown.
No, Rupert Brooke first titled his poem ‘Home‘ and then ‘The Sentimental Exile‘ before deciding to name his poem after his former residence in Grantchester. Knowing that ‘Home‘ and ‘The Sentimental Exile‘ were considered as titles shed light on the purpose and meaning of the poem, pointing to the importance of the theme of a homesick, sentimental traveler remembering his home with definitively rose-tinted glasses. The poem is about Grantchester, but it is also about a traveler overcome by sentimental, not especially accurate, memories of home.
Just three years later, the poet would die in World War I, a war that pitted his nation against Germany, the country in whose capital he had composed ‘The Old Vicarage, Grantchester.’ When the war broke out, Brooke immediately enlisted. Reflecting the mood of a nation that eagerly joined the war, he wrote a set of idealistic, enthusiastic poems that immediately earned him fame. In April 1915, Brooke died of blood poisoning in Greece.
Opinions of Brooke as both a poet and man have gone up and down over the years. Before 1914 his poetry was thought to be sentimental and lacking in depth. In the early stages of World War I, he became an exceedingly popular figure. His fame and reputation were enhanced by his death. Brooke became a living symbol for youth tragically lost. Later, however, as the war came to be viewed as a senseless slaughter, Brooke’s poetry was judged naive by many.
Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider reading the following related poems:
- ‘The Soldier‘ by Rupert Brooke is the poet’s most popular poem. Today Rupert Brooke is best remembered for his war poems, of which ‘The Soldier’ is the most famous. After his early death, the poet would become ineluctably identified with this patriotic poem, in which he describes his anticipated death as a beautiful thing, being a worthwhile sacrifice for England. Rupert Brooke is commonly associated with the hope and optimism that characterized the English attitude to the war in the early going. He would die well before that optimistic mood faded, with his poems reputed to have encouraged many young men to enlist. While ‘The Soldier‘ is very different from ‘The Old Vicarage, Grantchester,’ both poems do celebrate England, though ‘The Soldier‘ does so generally while ‘The Old Vicarage, Grantchester‘ focuses on a specific place in England.
- ‘Dulce et Decorum Est‘ by Wilfred Owen. Rupert Brooke is not the only English poet associated with World War I. Wilfred Owen is the most famous of the poets of the war. Like Brooke, he would not survive to see Armistice Day. But Owen’s approach to the war contrasted greatly with Brooke’s. Owen highlighted the futility and absurdity of the conflict. In ‘Dulce et Decorum Est‘ describes a mustard gas attack and specifically attacks in the closing lines the sort of patriotic zeal for the war that Brooks celebrated. ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ serves as a good counterpoint not only to Brooke’s war poems but also to the lightness of ‘The Old Vicarage, Grantchester,’ written just a half decade earlier, but in feeling and tone being a world away.
- ‘The Dead‘ by Rupert Brooke is another of the poet’s well-known poems, written in 1914 after he enlisted in the military. These enormously popular poems were best-sellers in England. They serve as a great contrast with the style of poem that seemed had seemed appropriate just a few years earlier when Brooke had written ‘The Old Vicarage, Grantchester.’ These war poems are often taken as perfectly capturing the mood of England as World War I began, while lighter poems like ‘The Old Vicarage, Grantchester‘ evoke the England of the pre-war period.