first encounters: When Henry James met Rupert Brooke

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For two decades young admirers - some English, some transplanted Americans such as he was - had clustered around Henry James. They are reflected (discreetly) in his stories. It was thus irregular but not entirely unexpected that an invitation to visit Cambridge in the spring of 1909 should come not from a don or a dean but from a few undergraduates and librarians. For James, who had spent a single (dull) year at Harvard nearly half a century before, the prospect of acting the "intellectual Pasha" within the ancient walls of this English Cambridge was not unwelcome. The schedule proved formidable. There were breakfasts, tours, concerts, dinners, late-night bull sessions. New acolytes converged on each event, and James found himself not a little harried. Then, at lunch one day at Pembroke, he was introduced to a handsome young man from King's, Rupert Brooke - a poet, he was informed.

That James should eye Brooke in particular was not surprising. Everyone did. There was a careless grace about him, a sweetness, a radiance even. Was he thought of as a good poet? James asked his hosts later. He was not. "Thank goodness," the novelist remarked with his usual wry humour. "If he looked like that and was a good poet, too, I do not know what I should do."

On the final day of the visit, Brooke suggested a punt on the Cam. The corpulent James reclined on velvet cushions and, through half-closed eyes, admired alternately the small Palladian bridges and the loose-limbed young navigator before him, wearing white shirt and flannels and, in deference to his guest, shoes. Brooke's habitual undress and his inclination for moonlight bathing with friends of both sexes went unmentioned. Later he described the afternoon to a friend. "I did the fresh boyish stunt," he said, "and it was a great success."

As indeed it was. Six years later, when Brooke - by then a splendid sonneteer - died in the war, James, recalling that occasion when he had "very unforgettably met him", truly grieved