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22 October 2005
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In October 1940, Evelyn Waugh's elder brother Alec, then a staff captain in the Petroleum War Department, was attending a demonstration in a valley of the Wiltshire downs. Several acres of greensward had been reduced to shattered earth and the final debriefings were about to be wrapped up when a solitary horseman came cantering into view. It was Siegfried Sassoon. Waugh, who had known him well in the 1920s, was ready to signal a greeting when something in the rider's features - "the inscrutable expression on that drawn, handsome face as it looked down on the charred and littered grass" - stayed his hand. Sassoon, clearly, was lost in some unapproachable private universe. Waugh let him pass.
Plenty of other people were on hand during Sassoon's long middle-to-old age - he died in 1967, a few days short of his 81st birthday - to confirm his apparent detachment from the life that burned on around him. Anthony Powell, visiting the old man's estate in the early 1960s, noted that "for Captain Sassoon, though no longer involved in it, the first war was still in progress". Powell thought that the vague, dreamy squire, wandering around his sombre manor house, "looked like a ghost from the fields of Passchendaele or Bapaume".
As Max Egremont's new biography - unmistakably the best thing anybody has ever written about Sassoon - demonstrates, the Great War gave the aspiring poet his vocation. In its aftermath, nothing - with the exception of one bizarre relationship with a man 20 years his junior - would ever be the same again.
In strict literary terms, the author of "The General" and "Everyone Suddenly Burst Out Singing" is a textbook example of the writer as man of action whom no subsequent prize can ever quite compensate for the lost physical excitements of his youth. Sassoon, a less moneyed offshoot of the Jewish manufacturing clan (although family resources still allowed him an income of £500 a year), had uniformly dim pre-1914 prospects. A diffident Marlborough public schoolboy and an unsuccessful Cambridge undergraduate, he drifted through into early twenties publishing his poems - at this point sedate and pastoral - at his own expense and fretting about his homosexuality. His literary earnings in these early years were below £5.
The war did two things for Sassoon. On the one hand his service in the trenches, where his acts of bravery frequently shaded into outright recklessness, authenticated a sense of manhood that had previously only been nurtured by the hunting field. On the other, it provided the raw material for a series of poems on war's futility, whose importance was incalculably strengthened by the public profile of the poet.
As a serving soldier with an MC on his lapel Sassoon was, to quote Waugh again, "the perfect person" to argue the case for other serving soldiers who suspected the war was being unduly prolonged by people who were doing well out of it. The meteoric success brought by his collections The Old Huntsman (1917) and Counter-attack (1918) was stoked by controversy. Back in England, recovering from wounds, Sassoon declined to obey further orders, issued a pacifist statement, and was eventually removed by the authorities to a mental institution in Scotland. Returning to Flanders in 1918 he was wounded again - mistakenly, by one of his own troops - and went back to Blighty for good.
The war had presented Sassoon with a mental dilemma - how to reconcile his terror of the trenches with an urge to "prove himself". Post-Armistice, he was caught in an aesthetic trap: the difficulty, now the guns had fallen silent, of finding a subject. Why couldn't he create something, he wondered irritably in 1921? The question clanged on endlessly for four-and-a-half decades. His entire post-Great War life, Egremont implies, was a struggle to fit in, to square his temperament (passive, reflective, "English" in a practically antediluvian sense) and his sexuality with a world and a literary climate that he regarded with deep mistrust.
Nowhere was the strain of accommodating these different sides of his nature more apparent than in his relationship, begun in the mid-1920s, with Stephen Tennant. Egremont's account of the six-year affair between the craggy war veteran of fixed tastes and humours and this effeminate ornament of the Mayfair drawing rooms ("You despicable pieces of filth," a woman once shouted, seeing them together in the street) is perhaps the best thing in the book.
It shows on the one hand the passionate attraction between the two ("I ask only to be near him always," Sassoon once wrote) and on the other the hulking temperamental fractures - Sassoon's disapproval of Tennant's flibbertigibbet friends, "Steenie"'s habitual flightiness - that would eventually drive them apart. In the end, the narcissistic and consumptive Tennant seems to have decided that having "Sieg" on the premises, where he antagonised the nursing staff and barred the door to callers, was making him worse.
Meanwhile, the poems had given way to the two autobiographical prose sequences begun in 1928 with Memoirs of a Fox-hunting Man - commercially successful, but progressively more staid and, the critics pronounced, disconnected from the pulse of interwar Europe. "Back to the jingle of hansom cabs in the recollected calm of 1907," as Egremont characterises one of the later volumes. On the rebound from Stephen, he married a much younger woman, Hester Gatty, with high hopes of uxorious serenity, but the marriage foundered on locked bedroom doors and a writerly need for quiet. There was a single son, George, a divorce, and a great deal of ill-natured bickering.
Sensitive to his subject's ever-changing moods, in which pique, hauteur and amiable generosity routinely combined, Egremont is adept at uncovering the odd mixture of idealism and complacency that coloured Sassoon's late-period outlook on life. Had up at Salisbury magistrate's court on a motoring offence - he was a famously erratic driver - he complained "How many of them suspected that I have written poems in the last 2 months which will be glorious long after Salisbury Town hall has been pulled down and carted away?" Towards the end - a rather foreseeable destiny for this brand of visionary English mysticism - came Mgr Ronald Knox, Dame Felicitas Corrigan and the consolations of the Catholic Church. As he was dying of stomach cancer, the stink of the Flanders mud still rose in his nostrils. "This is going to be the final test of my endurance," he told his son, "and I intend to put up a really good show."
D J Taylor's 'Orwell: the life' is published by Vintage
22 October 2005
The making of a poet
Pan Macmillan, 597pp, £25, ISBN 0330375261
Reviewed by Alan Judd
I once considered attempting a biography of Siegfried Sassoon. Having now read Max Egremont’s comprehensive and perceptive book, based partly on access to private papers unavailable to previous biographers, I’m relieved I didn’t. Egremont has produced a thorough, sympathetic, balanced, engrossing account.
There are two aspects to the 1886-1967 life of Captain Siegfried Sassoon, MC (he liked to use his rank and was proud of his medal) that make him a worthy biographical subject. The first is his literary achievement, essentially his war poems and his prose memoirs. Although he felt he was a poet from the age of five, was published before the first world war and continued producing well into old age, it was really the inspiration of war that lifted him — as it has many writers throughout history — beyond the merely personal and gave him a subject that extended and fulfilled his poetic gift. His later prose memoirs vividly conveyed not only war but the period itself.
The second reason for his biographical importance is his effect on the history of that war — to be more precise, on the way the war has come to be popularly perceived. In so far as it is taught in schools now, and in its continuing allure as a subject of fictional re-creation, it has become a vehicle for vicarious protest by those who didn’t suffer it on behalf of those who did. Egremont, biographer of Major General Spears, is clearly well informed on the war and avoids contributing to what he aptly calls ‘the myth of avoidable slaughter’. His subject, how- ever, is a very significant, even a major, part of that myth. The combination of Sassoon’s poems and his 1917 public protest — ‘I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of other soldiers. I believe that this war, upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation, has now become a war of aggression and conquest’ — helped shape the war’s historiography. Egremont sensitively delineates Sassoon’s ambivalent reactions to his own role, not only as the mythology developed but at the time of his involvement.
Sassoon descended on his father’s side from a distinguished and gifted Jewish family, though he was brought up a Christian (C of E) and named Siegfried because of his mother’s admiration for Wagner. His Kentish childhood was ‘almost aggressively English’, with hunting and cricket the main preoccupations. For Sassoon, though, his poetry set him apart from his siblings and peers. Although his third birthday present from his doting mother was Coleridge’s Lectures on Shakespeare, he showed no particular promise at school and later left Cambridge without taking his degree. He mixed more with huntsmen — who found him a ‘wild follower’ — than with poets, and was proud to do so. But his poetic core would not be ignored; no matter how consistently he sought to conform with the outer world, in his inner he constantly tried to make poetry of the non-poetic.
Another aspect that he felt set him apart was his homosexuality, increasing awareness of which made his poetry a solace for homosexual loneliness. Also, as with his hunting and his attitude to war, he was often ambivalent about his own sexual nature, able neither to deny it nor to give himself to it wholeheartedly and consistently. Egremont writes sensibly about this part of Sassoon’s life, particularly about his long-standing relationship with Stephen Tennant, whom Egremont knew and to whose journal he was given unprecedented access.
By 1914 Sassoon was a published poet, either unpaid or at his own expense, and in that year his latest privately printed selection earned him £5 (his costs were about £100). He had a 30-minute meeting with Rupert Brooke, who never asked him about his poetry, and enlisted in the ranks on the fateful 4 August 1914, aged 27, later taking a commission. His few poems written during that pre-action time were Brooke-like in their idealism — ‘fighting for our freedom, we are free’ — and had he died then, like Brooke, we should never have guessed at the powerful, vivid and bitter voice that excitement, fear, blood-lust and loss were to give him.
October 23, 2005
Biography: Siegfried Sasson by Max Egremont
REVIEWED BY JOHN STUART ROBERTS
Complex in his simplicity
by Max Egremont
Picador £25 pp524
Max Egremont’s masterly biography of Siegfried Sassoon will come as no surprise to those familiar with his previous work, especially his study of AJ Balfour, prime minister from 1902 to 1906. Egremont can discover warmth where others might find only a cold fish. This talent was never more required than in the search for Sassoon. The poet — more of an odd fish than a cold one — liked people, had innumerable friends and was a generous host. What he disliked was “the public”. Sassoon seemed remote from the world, yet according to his fellow first world war poet Edmund Blunden, he observed it astutely.
Such contradictions are chronicled well here, as is Sassoon’s independence. It is interesting to learn that rebellion was not natural to him, but “forced on him by the horror of the trenches”. Rebellion may have been latent in the independent and often intransigent attitude of his youth. “I know myself better than they do,” he wrote of his tutors. This assertive self-will, it has been suggested, was rooted in Sassoon’s childhood, which lacked a figure of authority.
From earliest days, Sassoon knew what he wanted: recognition as a poet. After the first world war, when that ambition had been secured, and later, when he had achieved popular success in prose, he settled on a new ambition: “to give the world the slip”. Fame, then anonymity; it’s a familiar pattern. Sassoon was sincere in his first desire, but a question-mark hangs over the second. Although artists may tire of applause, they rarely tire of attention.
Posterity has been kind to Sassoon since his death in 1967. His poetry has never been out of print since his first publication of note in 1917. His prose, too, has attained classic status, particularly Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man and Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, his account of life in the trenches between 1916 and 1917. The only exception is his biography of George Meredith, published in 1947.
There is a reason for this; Sassoon was not effective when writing about other people. His forte was writing about himself. It is hard to name another writer who lived closer to his own experiences. He imbued every one with significance, banking them in his diaries as carefully as his rich uncles banked their wealth. This is a recurring motif in Egremont’s biography, as he recounts how Sassoon drew on these deposits for his published work.
Egremont is the first biographer to gain unimpeded access to the poet’s previously unseen papers, which were offered to him by Sassoon’s son George. He has not been prodigal with his opportunity. Like a great arc-light, this biography illuminates a room previously lit by torches.
He describes the process of writing the book as similar to having been on “a long journey”. The voluminous nature of the material at his disposal — a researcher’s paradise — can prove the biographer’s nightmare as those terrible twins, inclusion and exclusion, wage continuous war, with the former often victorious. The danger is that the narrative’s arteries clog up, and the story becomes lifeless. It happens only rarely here: this is the work of an experienced storyteller, sure-footed and sensitive to the snare of clutter.
Egremont does yield to temptation occasionally. One instance of several must suffice. In an evocative sequence recounting Sassoon’s last few steps on the road towards conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1957, the tension is fractured by details about the Reverend Mother Margaret Mary, his spiritual patron. Does it matter to us that she had brothers and sisters, was the daughter of a compositor and was known to her friends as Marge?
It was a wise decision to adopt a chronological approach. Sassoon does not lend himself easily to a thematic treatment. As he said of his poetry, “all the sequence of my development is there”. Egremont has placed published and unpublished poems sensitively and appropriately in the text: it can be hard to wrench the poems away from the life.
Startlingly new revelations are rare, but there are many engaging cameos and fresh details. Some may invite controversy. Sassoon hinted to friends, Egremont writes, that on becoming a Catholic “confession, and subsequent absolution, soothed a sexual shame that still plagued him”. Sassoon attributed his predilection to being “over-sexed”. But surely that is to confuse appetite with orientation?
Egremont’s book confirms the view that the most complex thing about Sassoon was his search for simplicity. His life reminds us that man’s sentiments are mixed and confused, made up of impressions and experiences, hopes and fears. Words may explore them but never completely define them. Nobody knew that better than Sassoon; that’s how he “gave the world the slip”.
John Stuart Roberts’s biography of Sassoon is published by Metro at £9.99.
2 NOVEMBER 2005
war with himself
Peter Parker reviews Siegfried Sassoon by Max Egremont.
In January 1950, Siegfried Sassoon wrote a poem in which he described himself and Wilfred Owen as "names that found their niche / In literary history". That niche was, of course, as poets of the First World War. Had it not been for the war, Sassoon might have remained an amateur poet, producing "Melodious ramblings, published at a loss, / But gracefully reviewed by Edmund Gosse". These ramblings in fact reflected only one part of what Max Egremont rightly sees as Sassoon's divided self.
The opposing elements of his character began with his name. "Clothed in the gilded surname of Sassoon", which announced to everyone his Jewish origins, and further lumbered with the forename of a Wagnerian hero, he was nevertheless brought up in the Weald of Kent as a young Christian gentleman and educated at public school and Cambridge.
Devoted to such hearty pursuits as cricket and fox-hunting, he was also dreamy and romantic, wrote poetry and realised from an early age that he was homosexual. "We are only conscious of ourselves in contrasts and contradictions," he once acknowledged (quoting Tolstoy), and the contradictory strands of his own nature were further brought out in the trenches. He lurched between happy warrior and bitter pacifist, performing reckless acts of daring at the front while producing savagely satirical verse criticising the callousness of the generals and the complacency at home in the face of huge losses of life.
Although the mood of his poetry was often angry, he was principally motivated by the love (a mixture of the erotic and the paternal) he felt for the men under his command. "Love drove me to rebel, / Love drives me back to grope with them through hell", he wrote in one poem, justifying both his infamous "Soldier's Declaration", in which he stated he would no longer serve as an officer, and his subsequent decision to return to active duty.
Witnessing "the suffering of the troops" also turned him into a romantic socialist. He announced that he had "escaped - for ever - those reactionary and self-indulgent influences to which I was bred and educated", but that escape was severely compromised when he fell for the terminally frivolous aristocrat Stephen Tennant, a man who could well have appeared as "Self-Indulgence" in one of the pageants he was always dressing up for. A piquant juxtaposition in Sassoon's yearly accounts itemises "£105 for the Miners' Relief Fund, £160 for Stephen's diamond ornament".
Sassoon also lost his way as a writer during the 1920s, vainly attempting to find new targets for the satirical style he had wielded so effectively during the war. This sort of poetry had never in fact come naturally to him, for he was essentially a contemplative writer. As Egremont puts it, Sassoon "believed always in magic coming from a poet's sensations in solitude".
It was unfortunate that he tended also to choose as his companions the least restful of people. Cast aside by Tennant, Sassoon met Hester Gatty, who had only recently emerged from a three-year nervous breakdown. Never mind that he had no sexual experience of women, and didn't even much like them; he decided to marry her under the catastrophic misapprehension that he could "cure" her by making her happy.
"It is almost alarming the way I draw people to me and then withdraw into my solitude," he noted ominously in his diary and, after a brief period when he felt "a flower has opened in my heart", he couldn't wait to get away from this unfortunate, demanding and difficult woman. It was only by being alone that Sassoon felt able to write, although he craved the company of his beloved only child, George, who inspired some of his most heartfelt poetry.
When his marriage ended and his son grew up, Sassoon turned to religion, which may at last have brought him peace but did little to rescue his fading reputation as a poet. Egremont generously detects the influence of Gerard Manley Hopkins on such lines as "World watcher, armed and influent to befriend; / Hope of humility, resistless Rood, / Beyond out bodements bring beatitude", but is obliged to concede that "it is the personal delight and sincerity that impress rather than the poetic resonance or skill".
Egremont is the first of Sassoon's biographers to have been granted access to the author's unpublished diaries and various other illuminating papers, and he is thus able to add significant detail to the accounts of his predecessors, not least in the matter of Sassoon's troubled sexual life.
He is perhaps a little hard on Sassoon's two trilogies of memoirs, the simplifications and evasions of which help to make them universal, rather than particular to their author, and perhaps explain their enduring popularity.
As a historian, he takes a firm line over the war, describing the "Soldier's Declaration" as both "muddled" and "startlingly naïve", and suggesting that because Sassoon's experiences of warfare were "restricted to inauspicious times" (defined as "the bloody disappointments of 1916 and 1917"), this led him to present an unbalanced but enduring view of the First World War as an unnecessary and unmitigated shambles. "The books have survived, not only as literature but as a version of history", Egremont notes, and this clearly makes him uneasy.
He sees Sassoon primarily as the creator of a myth, whether writing about the war or the idyllic rural world it destroyed but, as he acknowledges at the end of his humane and well-balanced book: "The myth is strong, even mesmeric, better and more honourable than most myths by which nations live."
The TLS n.º 5353 November 5, 2005
To endure their ache
300pp. | Picador. £25. | 0 330 37526 1
For a relatively minor writer who never held any kind of public office, Siegfried Sassoon is fearsomely well documented. He said his poems were his autobiography, and there are hundreds of them; but there are also sheaves of letters, notes, drafts and diaries, as well as one unfinished and six published volumes of memoirs, three – if not all – of the six lightly fictionalized. For years there was no biography, now there are three: Jean Moorcroft Wilson’s two immensely detailed volumes (1998, 2003), John Stuart Roberts’s much shorter book (1999), and Max Egremont’s new, “official” Life, Siegfried Sassoon: A biography.
Egremont’s shrewd and very readable portrait is in some ways the most complete of the three. His preface is perhaps a little misleading in implying that his predecessors did not see Sassoon’s autobiographical notes and late diaries, but he is certainly the first biographer to have had the full cooperation of Sassoon’s son, George. Nevertheless, Egremont maintains a critical detachment from his subject (who is usually “Sassoon” or, surprisingly often, “Sieg-fried Sassoon” in this book and only rarely “Siegfried”), while describing him with insight and sympathy.
Sassoon was in his own word a chameleon – impulsive, unpredictable, self-absorbed and exasperating, but also courageous, charming and sometimes deeply admirable. Nothing in his life was quite as it seemed, as Egremont’s introduction deftly suggests. Sassoon’s most famous prose work, Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man, was an immediate success, with its delightful evocation of the innocent, golden world of George Sherston, Sassoon’s simplified alter ego, but many of its readers would have been horrified to know that its author was in the throes of a tormented love affair with the wildly camp Stephen Tennant; seeing the couple together on a London street, a woman shouted from a passing car, “You two revolting bits of filth!”. When the supposedly dying Tennant refused to see him any more, Sassoon haunted the house, peering in through its windows like Enoch Arden, one of his favourite characters – “the hidden watcher”, as Egremont puts it, “with that sense of power in concealment, sadism and masochism mixed, the superiority of observing and the inferior role of forgoing pleasure”.
As an autobiographer, similarly, Sassoon looks in from a darkened present to an idealized, unreachable past. He was a myth-maker: Max Egremont is ruthlessly clear about that, and about the limitations of Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man: “a utopia, purged of [Sassoon’s] own awkward boyhood, purged of his homosexuality, his Jewishness, his wish to be a writer, [his mother’s] mental fragility” and the “socially demeaning, hideous” house he was brought up in. Purged also of Sassoon’s snobbery – he despised the “low class” officers in his regiment – and his occasional anti-Semitism, two characteristics typical of the age.
From utopia, Sherston goes to war, in Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, expecting a clean fight in a just cause and finding instead horror, futility and political deceit. The third volume in the Sherston trilogy, Sherston’s Progress, its title echoing Bunyan, was a stage in Sassoon’s long journey to religious faith, but it is the first two books that have been influential. “Sassoon’s war”, according to Egremont,
“means a callous, out-of-touch High Command and the sacrifice of innocents in the apparently unceasing hell of the Western Front . . . . More than anyone, even more than Owen, Siegfried Sassoon created this, through his poetry and his prose, turning it into one of the most resonant myths of our times.
Egremont is careful to distance himself from this vision of the First World War, which modern historians rail against in vain.”
The courage, compassion and intense sincerity of Sassoon’s 1917 protest against the continuation of the war are not diminished by pointing out, as Egremont does, that he liked to be both martyr and solitary hero. He longed to die in action, preferably while saving some handsome youth. Enjoying his “rather Byronic” air, in Glyn Philpot’s portrait of him, he was agreeably aware of its relevance to the protest, which he drafted while the picture was being painted. His heroism can never be doubted, but martyrdom proved elusive. “Can’t you find me a nice wheel to be broken on?” he plaintively asked Edward Marsh in 1918. He had in fact been relatively lucky, spending less than a month altogether in the front line and suffering few horrors of the kind that had tormented Wilfred Owen and many others. Spared death in the trenches, let alone in front of a firing squad, Sassoon lived to be almost eighty-one.
For a while, after the war, he worked – apparently with little energy or distinction – as Literary Editor of the Daily Herald, and spoke at meetings in support of pacifism and the Labour Party, but before long his political commitment faded. Egremont warns that the ensuing period will seem a time of “rush and occasional chaos” when people will come and go with “the flickering disjointedness of early cinema”, and he does perhaps condense rather too much information from the diaries here. But although a lot of Sassoon’s travel and socializing may seem sadly inconsequential, he did not revert to his aimless pre-war self. As well as discovering his talents as a prose writer, he discovered sex.
Egremont is well placed to describe the most intense of Sassoon’s various relationships, having met and corresponded with Tennant years ago and paid close attention to Tennant’s diaries. So, while all three biographers include the first dinner party and the nocturnal drive afterwards, only Egremont tells us that when Tennant arrived at Sassoon’s bedroom at 3am, dressed for the road, he looked in the mirror and instructed his face: “You know what you’ve got to do”. They went to Stonehenge, Tennant duly making “the most passionate avowals” (according to Sassoon’s diary) and crept back into the house at dawn. Similarly, only Egremont records Tennant’s first visit to Sassoon’s flat, on October 19, 1927, Tennant “tall, silky fair-haired, a pale powdered face, large clear grey deer-like-eyes, very feminine”, taking out a pocket mirror to comb his hair and inspect his long eyelashes while Sassoon played Rachmaninov ou the piano. Tennant said he felt like a lecherous vampire, interrupting Sassoon’s work. Such details are not important in themselves, but they give life to the larger story. Tennant emerges as rather less objectionable, and Sassoon as considerably more strongly sexed, than in previous accounts.
Egremont occasionally makes workaday facts difficult to find, and you can sometimes lose track of which year you’re in. Some things he omits without comment. Both Wilson and Roberts believe, for example, that Sassoon’s disastrous marriage was engineered by Edith Olivier and they name her among the handful of guests at the wedding, where she apparently stood in for Sassoon’s mother, who was iii. Egremont mentions neither matchmaking, nor Edith’s presence at the wedding, leaving you to guess whether he has overlooked the tale or thinks it unimportant or untrue. If you want to know when Sassoon died and how old he was, the information is there on Wilson’s last page, whereas Egremont makes you dig for it. On the other hand, Egremont alone can tell you that, at the suggestion of the Irish nurse, George Sassoon fetched his accordion and played “The Wild Rover” to his dead father, a simple, high-spirited tune in memory of Siegfried at his happiest.
Of the three biographies, Wilson is likely to remain au unrivalled source for facts and references, Roberts is interesting on Sassoon’s last years and his conversion to Roman Catholicism, but it is Egremont who excels at narrative, shaping the events of Sassoon’s life into an absorbing story, richly detailed yet not overloaded. One last example of the three biographers’ methods: a notorious incident on the Somme in 1916, when Sassoon abandoned his company and went ahead to capture an enemy trench single-handed, twice ignoring orders to return. Then, lacking a messenger to send back for reinforcements, he sat down in the trench and, according to Robert Graves, “began dozing over a book of poems”, later earning a furious rebuke from the Colonel. Sassoon attributes the exploit to Sherston in Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, without mentioning the poems. Roberts disposes of it in a few lines, saying nothing about its oddity, the Colonel, or Graves. Wilson devotes nearly three pages to it and a resulting poem, suggesting convincingly that the poetry book is a Gravesian invention, and that the Colonel decided Sassoon was too unreliable to be sent into the line again (she is less convincing in denying that there was a reprimand, unless she means a formal one: Sassoon noted in his diary that he was “cursed considerably” by the Colonel).
Egremont reduces Sassoon’s adventure to about a page, maintaining the pace with lively detail and keeping his eye firmly on character and narrative. For him, this is not a moment to detain the reader with poems, real or invented, or with worries about factual accuracy. What matters is Sassoon’s extraordinary character and his response to the thrill of battle, “addictive, heroically solitary, without introspection or regret”. The Colonel’s fury is paraphrased from Memoirs of an Infantry Officer on the reasonable assumption that at this point Sassoon is not writing fiction. If anything, Egremont moves a little too fast here, making no reference to Sassoon’s unreliability, an important question that would have been worth pursuing. After all, for an officer to leave his company in defiance of orders was a serious offence, and Sassoon was lucky to be let off with nothing worse than a cursing.
Egremont frequently does focus on the poems, as Sassoon would have wished, but many of them are unknown and some are pretty undistinguished, so they have to be dealt with briefly, often just as a group of titles with a few comments. This works unexpectedly well, keeping the reader aware on Sassoon’s central concern without obstructing the narrative. Sassoon could never quite get away from those “Dim glades of ecstasy” that figure in a 1905 poem and the “foggy allusiveness” complained of by one of his earliest critics and encouragers, Edmund Gosse. Sassoon’s interest in contemporary poetry scarcely got beyond Hardy, whom he venerated, and Housman, whose poems went with him throughout his time in the Army. His reading was considerable (how many undergraduates even in 1907 would have read The Ring and the Book twice in five months?) but rarely up to date. Even on his own admission he was not particularly clever —“More brain, O God, more brain!” Virginia Woolf once lamented of him. Tennant repeatedly told him to modernize his verse, but Sassoon could never do so, nor understand why he was not appointed to the Order of Merit alongside Eliot. He dreamed that if Owen had survived, the two war poets together would have taken a stand against Modernism, but It was a false dream: Owen would have been fascinated by The Waste Land, soon settling down to imitate and absorb, as he always did with a new style.
The cutting edge of the war poems is unique in Sassoon’s work, coming as it did from the internal war between the fox-hunting gentleman turned officer, trained never to contemplate defeat, and the would-be left-wing protester, “convinced that we are losing”. Critics have often overlooked that conviction, but it was a crucial factor: if Sassoon had been confident of victory, he might never have made his protest - indeed, years later he decided it had been a mistake. He saw the worst of the war, as Max Egremont observes, yet he escaped the worst of its horrors, so he felt guilt as well as anger and despair. Above all he felt driven, as he had written in 1913, to “strive for pity’s sake, / To watch with the hopeless and the outcast / And to endure their ache”. That striving met his inner needs, but it also produced the poems for which he will always be honoured.
5 November 2005
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Siegfried Sassoon by Max Egremont
The field of Siegfried Sassoon biography can be compared to the old saying about waiting for a bus. Nothing comes for ages and then they arrive in rapid succession. For 30 years following Sassoon's death in September 1967, at the age of 81, no authoritative biography of him appeared. Both Rupert Hart-Davis, Sassoon's literary adviser, and later the biographer and poet Jon Stallworthy were originally intending to produce officially sanctioned versions of his life, but both subsequently abandoned their projects.
Then, in the late 1990s, two biographies appeared. In 1998, Jean Moorcroft-Wilson published the first of a two-volume life, taking Sassoon to the end of the First World War (the second volume appeared in 2003). Soon afterwards, John Stuart Roberts produced his Siegfried Sassoon, which described itself as the first complete portrait and argued that the "real Sassoon" was not the reckless hero of the trenches, but the post-1918 figure who learned the loss of hope and whose spiritual quest uncovered the joy of "sightless seeing". At the same time, a major critical study appeared, by Paul Moeyes. It spanned Sassoon's entire output, from the derivative, Romantic and Pre-Raphaelite-inspired early verses, through the famous war satires, to the late poetry, tracing the pilgrimage of the later years. And if this wasn't enough, Sassoon's experiences in the First World War, in which he was awarded the MC and then became an outspoken opponent of the war, refusing further orders and risking court martial, formed the basis of a number of novels and plays, the most famous of which, Pat Barker's Regeneration, was in turn adapted as a film, in 1997.
So the first question to ask about Max Egremont's book is, is there anything more to say? The answer is both yes and no. The broad trajectory of the life, familiar from the earlier biographies, and, for the earlier years, from Sassoon's own prose trilogies, remains unaltered, breaking down into five main sections. The first is the dreamy, foxhunting youth who wrote "melodious ramblings". In the second phase, the war years, which were to overshadow the remainder of his life, Sassoon enlisted, suffered disillusionment, and became a famous poet. In the 1920s, the third period, he embarked on a confused, experimental, even chaotic lifestyle, centring on his strangely ethereal romance with the aesthete and exotic beauty, Stephen Tennant (who, as Edith Sitwell had it, played "Little Lord Fauntleroy" to Sassoon's "Aged Earl"). The collapse of this relationship in the early 1930s, led into the penultimate phase, and Sassoon's marriage in 1933 to Hester Gatty, which produced a son, George, before their relationship crumbled, amid accusations on Sassoon's part of his wife's possessiveness, during the Second World War. Sassoon's final years were marked by his conversion to Roman Catholicism, reclusiveness, and intense love for his son.
Where his new biographer scores is in his depiction of Sassoon from his middle years. Writing with George Sassoon's cooperation, and drawing on Sassoon's unpublished diaries from 1926 onwards - Hart-Davis's Faber edition only reached 1925 - Egremont is able to present a fuller and more sympathetic portrait of Sassoon's troubled sexuality. This was a story that Sassoon himself longed to tell - "another Madame Bovary dealing with sexual inversion, a book that the world must recognise and learn to understand" - but he was torn by the conflicting elements in his character, between the more reticent, private side of his personality, inherited from his English ancestors, the Thorneycrofts, and the more relaxed, Eastern influences of his father's family. Instead, Egremont tells it for him: "In Sassoon, the wish to protect, then strengthen and change a weaker person - usually a man - was very strong, taking the place of robust, equal friendship or love". The relationship with Tennant, which appears to have produced in Sassoon a revulsion against his homosexuality, appears to be the most obvious example of this. However, ultimately, Sassoon found it impossible to establish a lasting romance with Tennant, in the face of Tennant's narcissism, selfishness and outrageous eccentricity.
Egremont writes with the kind of chronological precision that can become monotonous, though his authoritative progress through Sassoon's life is unlikely ever to be bettered. He is especially effective in demonstrating the extent to which Sassoon's version of the First World War, encapsulated in poems like "The General" - of an unimaginative, incompetent High Command presiding over an avoidable slaughter - has become the presiding perception of the war. Revisionists can shout as loudly as they like, but the news recently that a large number of reading groups have nominated Sassoon's war poems as their favourite poetry anthology suggests that those who wish to counter the continuation of this myth will have their work cut out for them.
enough to do
Max Hastings reviews Siegfried Sassoon: A Biography by Max Egremont.
Most educated people know a line or two of Siegfried Sassoon's poetry: 'He's a cheery old card, grunted Harry to Jack, as they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack./But he did for them both with his plan of attack.'
It is hard to overstate Sassoon's influence upon modern Britain's view of the First World War. Born in 1886, he was foremost among the group of poets that included Robert Graves, Edmund Blunden, and Wilfred Owen who articulated the horrors of the conflict in a manner that inspired a widespread belief in its futility.
Sassoon has been the subject of five biographies since his death in 1967. Sceptics may ask how another can be justified. Yet Max Egremont's work outclasses its predecessors. This is not merely because, through Sassoon's son, George, he has had access to previously unseen papers and diaries. It derives from the quality of the author's analysis of his subject's muddled life.
Many modern admirers, not least Pat Barker in her wildly overpraised novels based on Sassoon's experience, see him as a tragic bard of sanity amid the horror of total war. He is especially lauded for his semi-public declaration of opposition to the conflict in 1917. He wrote that he believed the Allies were no longer pursuing objectives of liberation, but rather of conquest, pursuing ends 'which I believe to be evil and unjust'. This revolt, by a serving officer of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers with a Military Cross, irritated the authorities and caused Sassoon to spend some months in the care of the psychologist Dr Rivers at Craiglockhart Hospital, before he decided to return to active duty.
Egremont deals crisply with Sassoon's 'declaration': 'as a political document, the statement is quite startlingly naive… the jingoism of the home front, however brash and aesthetically unpleasant, was a sensible response to the war'.
Most modern historians with respect for evidence believe that the victory of Germany's military dictatorship would have been a catastrophe for Europe. The price paid for Allied victory may have been horrendous, but it was certainly not 'futile'. In 1917, Egremont notes, Germany occupied almost all of Belgium and much of northern France, and was amenable to peace only on its own terms.
Sassoon's life was characterised by emotional lunges. On the battlefield he displayed reckless courage, shouting 'View Halloa!' as he tossed grenades into the German trenches on private raids, and was twice wounded in action. 'I want to get a good name in the battalion,' he wrote, 'for the sake of poetry and poets, whom I represent.'
Back in England, however, he fell into the hands of the passionately anti-war group led by Bertrand Russell and Lady Ottoline Morrell. Sassoon, ever susceptible to flattery, became their instrument. In later life, he recanted his protest and was embarrassed by it.
None of this diminishes Sassoon's merits as a poet, nor his stature as the author of the great fictionalised autobiography, Memoirs of a Foxhunting Man. But it makes it hard to characterise him convincingly as a martyr to British militarism. It also seems mistaken to perceive Sassoon's as the authentic voice of the 'lost generation'. Most British 1914-18 veterans were as appalled by their experiences as he was, but retained a faith that their sacrifice was not in vain.
Sassoon became a famous literary figure in the 1920s. This indulged his narcissism, but never brought contentment. He was rich, and lent money to suppliants from Robert Graves to the Sitwells. His detractors claimed, however, that he perceived this as a means of asserting his own power.
He possessed an intense sexual drive, enjoying long affairs with Glen Byam Shaw and Stephen Tennant, and a dalliance with Ivor Novello. In 1933, he astonished friends by marrying Hester Gatty, 20 years younger than himself. This aberrational heterosexual relationship brought him a son whom he adored obsessively, but inflicted lasting misery upon both partners.
Sassoon's principal difficulty, in the half-century between 1918 and his death, was that he never found enough to do. Books and poetry occupied only a few hours a month. For the rest, he brooded unhappily, and presided as squire of Heytesbury in Wiltshire. Although he always possessed devoted admirers, he quarrelled bitterly and often. He even upset his local cricket team by quitting the field to walk home when he grew bored in the midst of a match.
Genius is granted wide social latitude, but some of Sassoon's literary peers doubted that his achievement justified his conceit and self-absorption. Only in the last years, when he embraced Catholicism, did he achieve a serenity denied to his son and estranged wife.
Unease about his own pedigree caused Sassoon to speak disdainfully of the 'Jewish gold' which supported his parody of Edwardian squirearchical life into the 1960s. Homosexuality probably contributed more to his personal torments than memories of the trenches. Yet, in the public mind as well as his own, he was indelibly associated with the war, and never wrote memorable poetry about anything else.
This is an outstanding and original biography of a writer whose work will survive, but whom, like so many celebrated men of letters, it is probably better for admiring readers not to have met.
January 1, 2006
'Siegfired Sassoon: A Life,' by Max Egremont
Review by DANIEL SWIFT
Siegfried Sassoon was a terrible driver. Max Egremont's thorough and often tragic new biography of the World War I poet reads at times like a catalog of crashes: In April 1927 he drove into a lamp post in Hyde Park in London, and then in February 1929 into a pond. In early 1933 he drove into a bus, and in October 1959 narrowly missed another collision with a turning car. Sassoon drove, writes Egremont, with "a dangerous mixture of daring and vagueness" and his inattention suggests also a larger biographical truth. Sassoon lived life bravely, but with only one eye on the road ahead.
Sassoon biography is a well-worked field. Egremont's "Siegfried Sassoon: A Life" is the authorized biography, and the preface thanks George, Sassoon's son, for access to previously unpublished personal papers. Egremont follows Jean Moorcroft Wilson's two-volume life, published in 1998 and 2003, and John Stuart Roberts's 1999 biography, both of which open with that same biographer's boast: a grateful acknowledgement to the son of access to unpublished materials. Sassoon himself spent much of the last half of his life writing three heavily autobiographical quasi-novels and three volumes of memoirs, the most famous of which, "Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man," is the foundation of his literary reputation today.
There may be a simple reason for this rush to biography, for Sassoon spent his childhood in a time and a place - Edwardian England - that is wondrously foreign to us now, and as a young man he did extraordinary things. Sassoon was born in September 1886. His father was from a wealthy Jewish family, and he spent his childhood in a gloomy Gothic house in Kent. For his third birthday, his mother gave him Coleridge's "Lectures on Shakespeare." He began writing poetry young - 11 poems, according to Egremont, in March 1897 alone, when he was 10 years old - and hunting foxes. This is an old England, and Egremont captures it with love and without judgment: everyone had a nickname and played golf and went to dances at grand houses. As a schoolboy at Marlborough, Sassoon carried brass knuckles to protect himself from his anti-Semitic fellow students. Later, at Cambridge, he "read William Morris in a punt and went to the Trinity Boat Club Ball." One of the pleasures of reading Egremont is the reminder that once upon a time, people really did live like this.
Then came World War I. Sassoon enlisted on Aug. 4, 1914, the day Germany invaded Belgium, and in late 1915 found himself on the Western Front. Because of his skill with horses, he was made a transport officer, but he sought out active duty and became famous for his solitary missions across the front lines, on which - sometimes in broad daylight - he would storm the German trenches, throw grenades and crawl home under fire. Exhausted and shell-shocked, he returned home as an invalid in July 1916; he returned to the front, was again sent back to England, and then spent the summer of 1917 in a sanitarium in Scotland (an episode that became the subject of Pat Barker's 1992 novel, "Regeneration"). In early 1918, he insisted on returning to the front again, and resumed his earlier habit of lunatic single missions. As he wrote to a friend, "chasing Germans in the moonshine with bombs is no mean sport."
Reading about Sassoon, it is impossible to avoid moments like this, where the lived experience appears wildly distant from his reaction to it. Even as he was fighting the war, and proudly wearing the Military Cross awarded for his heroism, he was also writing the antiwar poems that would be published in the 1916 volume "Morning Glory." The foreignness of Sassoon's early-20th-century world is echoed in his apparent isolation from his own times. Egremont notes the books that Sassoon carried to battle. Before the Somme, he read Thomas Hardy's "Tess of the D'Urbervilles," and he also read Chaucer, Shakespeare's tragedies and Tolstoy on troop trains and in the trenches.
Sassoon was of the same generation as Wilfred Owen and Robert Graves, but his work lacks the passionate grittiness of Owen's poetry or the lightly worn elegiac humor of Graves's great war memoir, "Goodbye to All That." While there is an occasional anger in Sassoon's poetry and his memoirs, there is also a formality that reads, now, as distinctly old-fashioned. The great motorcar of modern life moved on, leaving Sassoon stranded in a ditch. Touring the East Coast of the United States in 1920, Sassoon was shocked by jazz dancing, and he was unable to read more than a few pages of "Ulysses."
Sassoon continued to write: three volumes of a fictionalized autobiography that were published together in 1937, and then three volumes of memoirs that culminated with "Siegfried's Journey" in 1945. He spent two decades retracing his early years, and passed the Second World War reminiscing about the First. Egremont follows Sassoon through an unhappy love affair in the late 1920's with Stephen Tennant, a vain young man with long eyelashes and pomaded hands, to unhappy married life in a house with 11 servants, and ultimately to his conversion, in 1957, to Roman Catholicism. He is a sympathetic, thorough biographer of a man tragically isolated from his own times: if this is a sometimes cold, passive record, then it is because Sassoon too often stood at the outside of his world, looking in. "I never broke/ Out of my blundering self into the world," Sassoon wrote in 1914, before he was old enough to know it. "But let it all go past me, like a man/ Half asleep in a land that's full of wars."
Daniel Swift has written for The Times Literary Supplement, The Nation and Bookforum.
By Barbara Fisher | December 25, 2005
Siegfried Sassoon: A Life
By Max Egremont
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 639 pp., illustrated, $35
Siegfried Sassoon, who lived until 1967, will always be known as the poet of World War I, the shattered innocent who wrote ''The Old Huntsman" and ''Counter-Attack." As an officer at the front lines of the Western Front, he witnessed and wrote of the horrors of the trenches. Returning home in 1917, wounded for the second time, he accused the British of prolonging the war for political ends. Lucky to avoid a court-martial, he was luckier still to find himself sent to Craiglockhart, in Scotland, and put under the sensitive care of Dr. W. H. R. Rivers. Rivers, treating him for a nervous breakdown and shell shock, saved his sanity and his life.
This part of Sassoon's life is well known. Less familiar is his background (wealthy Jewish father, privileged English mother); his self-tormenting homosexuality; his at first blissful, then wretched marriage; his adored and rebellious son; his final conversion to Roman Catholicism. Even as a young man, he led an oddly divided life -- a poet, a frustrated homosexual, a sporting country gentleman, a guest at the grandest English houses, and a Jew. Later, actively pursuing a homosexual affair with the histrionic aesthete Stephen Tennant, he maintained his position as a war hero and country squire.
Egremont, who had access to private letters and papers not seen before, seems to have made use of all of them, providing an almost too exquisitely detailed account of Sassoon's life. But the poet who wrote of ''the unreturning army that was youth; / The legions who have suffered and are dust" seems worthy of the excess.
Even at the age of 12, Siegfried Sassoon took his vocation seriously. Jean Moorcroft Wilson is enthralled by some newly discovered verses by the great war poet
SASSOON: The Making of a War Poet 1886-1918
and The Journey from the Trenches 1918-1967
by Jean Moorcroft Wilson
Duckworth, £10.99 each
THE WAR POEMS
by Siegfried Sassoon
Faber & Faber, £9.99
SIEGFRIED SASSOON’S mother decided early in his life that he was to be a poet, presenting him on his third birthday with a copy of Coleridge’s Lectures on Shakespeare.
Partly to avoid disappointing her, he started his first book of poems at 9 — an age when his two brothers were forging mock cannonballs in their makeshift workshop — dedicating it “For Mamsy”. His second followed a few months later for her birthday in March 1897. Altogether there were — or so I thought when I wrote my 1999 biography of Sassoon — nine childhood notebooks written between 1896 and 1899. Described by Sassoon as “scribblings” and “automatic poetising”, these little notebooks do anticipate some of his characteristic interests and concerns as a poet, in particular nature and a slight fixation with death. They also represent an invaluable apprenticeship, helping to prepare him for the memorable war poems to come.
A tenth juvenile collection has now resurfaced in Australia. A tiny exercise book measuring approximately 6in by 14in and just 18 pages long, its charmingly illustrated title page announces itself grandly as Verses on Various Occasions, a sign of how seriously Sassoon took his vocation at the age of 12.
None of the poems is published, although some are repeat performances. To a Nightingale, for example, had appeared in earlier notebooks, indicating that even at 12 Sassoon was able to recognise a genuine poetic impulse when it escaped to give fresh life to well-worn themes and was already truly inspired by natural beauty:
the trees a song so fair
Through the still night like purest water
Each moment, lovelier and more perfect
Borne on a breeze came floating on the
air . . .
This find is of particular interest for several reasons. It is almost certainly Sassoon’s last childhood effort at composition before a new tutor, the hearty athletic Cambridge graduate Clarence Hamilton, made him feel that writing poetry was rather “priggish”. (It would be another three years before his inspiration was reawakened by reading Thomas Hood at Marlborough College.) Its history also provides new insights into Sassoon’s character and upbringing.
The inheritor of this treasure, Gay McAuley, a professor of French and performance art at the University of Sydney, emigrated to Australia in 1968. It was a legacy from her aunt, the daughter of the original recipient, Sassoon’s nursemaid, Emily Eyles. Painstakingly transcribed in February 1899, Verses on Various Occasions was the aspiring poet’s wedding present to Emily.
Born in 1878, Emily was the daughter of a blacksmith, and grew up with two or three younger brothers in Brightling, East Sussex, a village Sassoon never tired of hearing her describe. An intelligent child, she stayed on at school as a pupil-teacher before coming to work for Sassoon’s mother at her home, Weirleigh, near Matfield, Kent.
She was nominally a parlour maid, but Siegfried remembered that she quickly became his mother’s “only effective ally”, in preventing him and his two equally mischievous brothers “from turning the whole house into a bear garden”. (The upwardly mobile Emily always described her job as “nursery maid”, apparently a more prestigious position in the servant hierarchy.) The abrupt departure of her nanny and a reluctance to follow the middle-class practice of sending them to school had left Theresa Sassoon to deal single-handedly with three rowdy boys, aged 9 to 12. This made her particularly grateful to Emily who, according to Sassoon, had inherited her blacksmith father’s “fortitude”.
Despite the air of innocence and fragility given by her blue eyes and fair hair, she had no difficulty in handling the Sassoon boys with the necessary firmness. Although “very lady-like in every way”, she greatly enjoyed listening in later life to broadcasts of prize-fights, Gay McAuley recalls, a side of her that helps to explain how she could “deal so cheerfully with three wild boys, growing up without discipline of school” — or of father.
Alfred Sassoon had abandoned his wife and sons before Siegfried was 5, leaving Theresa, in her loneliness, closer to her servants than most. She was also more enlightened than many of her Victorian contemporaries in her dealing with them. When Emily married, not only did Theresa attend the wedding but also acted as one of the witnesses. Her present to the bride — an invitation to choose her favourite painting at Weirleigh — shows how close they had become.
The family’s recollections of the picture, which hung in a place of honour in Emily’s dining room, suggest that she chose a work by Theresa herself, a professional painter before her marriage. It showed a boy standing in a doorway, and may well have represented Siegfried, who often served as his mother’s model.
Siegfried was equally attached to Emily. She was only eight years his senior, and much closer to him than any other woman, apart from his mother, in a predominantly female household. She would often join in his games with his brothers, helping them to find their cricket ball when it was lost in the sweet-briar hedge, or taking them for bicycle rides.
The Sassoon boys had taught her to ride a bicycle in the first place. Having discovered them driving their grandmother’s brake-less bathchair down a steep hill near Weirleigh, their mother, initially reluctant, had decided that bicycles might be less dangerous. Emily was also taken for swimming lessons with them in the muddy Medway near by although, like Siegfried, she hated the activity.
Siegfried particularly appreciated her practice of reading the boys’ favourite books to them when they finally felt like sitting still in the evening: The Coral Island, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Around the World in Eighty Days, Treasure Island, Black Beauty and, less predictably, The Diary of a Nobody. A “gently, loving and generous person”, according to her granddaughter, Emily was very lively and gaily performed these and many more tedious tasks.
Sassoon’s gratitude emerges in his autobiography and contrasts strongly with his often resentful or distrustful attitude towards other women. Apart from his mother’s eccentric friend Helen Wirgman, who won him over with her passionate piano-playing and understanding of his childish moods, Emily was the only person outside his immediate family to whom he presented his poems.
His deep affection for her is a much earlier proof of his ability to relate to a woman nearer his own age than was previously known. And his admiration for the daughter of a blacksmith shows that he was not such a snob as he sometimes seems.
Siegfried’s brothers’ wedding present to her was a pair of copper bowls made in their workshop from the purloined catches from Weirleigh’s drawing-room windows. The wedding, originally scheduled for late 1898 or early 1899, had to be postponed until January 1902. Theresa, clearly apprehensive about being left in charge of her sons without Emily, had made arrangements for the eldest, Michael, to start at boarding school in 1899. Siegfried and the youngest, Hamo, were to follow a year later.
Emily’s planned wedding explains what I had previously found a puzzlingly uncharacteristic decision on the part of the over-protective Theresa — to let her sons go. By the time that Emily and her new husband Clarence Dawson, the son of a coal merchant from nearby Headcorn, left to live in Ulcombe, Kent, all three were safely off their mother’s hands.
Weirleigh remained precious to Emily. Her passion for gardening was inspired by its wonderful garden and the second witness at her wedding was Weirleigh’s head gardener, Ned Farris. (For Sassoon, who loved the garden as much as Emily, it became a symbol of lost innocence in later life.) Theresa herself represented an ideal for Emily, not only of how to run a well-ordered household but also how to be a mother. Throughout her life she treasured Theresa’s painting, Michael and Hamo’s copper bowls, but especially Siegfried’s little notebook, written out so lovingly for her all those years before.
Published: 20 February 2013
In May 1919, Siegfried Sassoon, in the somewhat unlikely role of literary editor of the left-wing , received in his office a small parcel containing two privately printed chapbooks of poetry. Accompanying them was a letter signed “E. C. Blunden (scholar-elect, Queen’s College, Oxford)”.
A decade younger than Sassoon, Edmund Blunden had also fought in the First World War and concluded his letter “With gratitude not only for your vivacious criticism in the, but also for your great efforts throughout the war to bring the ferocity of the trenches home to a public more disturbed about rations than Passchendaele”. In his celebrated memoir of those times, , Blunden characterized himself as “a harmless young shepherd in a soldier’s coat”, but he was a good deal more shrewd than he sometimes pretended, and this salute to the older and much better-known Sassoon was nicely calculated.
Already married, he was almost certainly unaware of Sassoon’s susceptibility for young men, but in any case turned out to hold no sexual allure. “With Blunden I am my better self”, Sassoon wrote in his diary three years later; “I feel an intense sympathy and affection for him; but it is kinship of the mind; the gross elements of sex are miraculously remote.” That kinship was based on their war experience, their sense that they were both writing in the same literary tradition, a love of cricket and the English countryside (particularly Kent, where both men had been brought up a mere six miles apart), and collecting old books. They exchanged letters regularly until Sassoon’s death almost half a century later, and this three-volume edition omits only around a hundred of the 1,100 that have survived.
“The man who really endured the War at its worst was everlastingly differentiated from everyone except his fellow soldiers”, Sassoon wrote in Robert Graves was prepared to say in his contentious 1929 memoir of the war, but Sassoon and Blunden never would. “My experiences in the First World War have haunted me all my life”, Blunden confessed the year before he died, “and for many days I have, it seemed, lived in that world rather than this.” These letters are inevitably suffused with the war, not merely in recollections but also as a ready source for jokey metaphors. “The battalion is going over the top at 3 but there’s plenty of time for me to share in this big push”, Blunden characteristically writes of a forthcoming cricket match, and as late as the 1960s he refers to a government tax rise as a “gas attack”.
The war also continued to define them as writers. The literary fate of those poets who survived the war was in some ways little different from those who died in it: despite long careers and many later volumes of verse, both Sassoon and Blunden are chiefly remembered as War Poets. Sassoon in particular had great difficulty in establishing himself in the immediate post-war years. Renowned for the poems of protest he wrote as a serving officer, he found himself more or less forced into the false position of a satirist. There were plenty of targets for satire in the 1920s, but none elicited from him the furious indignation the trenches had. Nor, in spite of complex affairs with a succession of men, did he find again quite the level of tenderness that was an equally important though often overlooked aspect of his war poetry (“The Dug-out”, “A Subaltern” and “The Last Meeting”). “Am I to be given credit for having written from my ?” he wondered when disappointed by Ian Parsons’s selection of his poems for the anthology (1965). It may have been easier for the far more prolific Blunden to find other subjects, but as , Martin Taylor’s excellent edition of Blunden’s war poetry (1996) shows, he continued to write about the trenches throughout his life. “The subject as you rightly assert is ”, Sassoon remarked.
In his childhood memoir (1938), Sassoon wrote of his “queer craving to revisit the past and give the modern world the slip”, and this retreat from the present is also a feature of his and Blunden’s poetry, which remained determinedly “old-fashioned” in a way – to their incomprehension and dismay – Graves’s did not. As the war receded and the modernism it left in its wake took hold, the two poets felt themselves increasingly sidelined. “What this modern consciousness?” Sassoon asked in 1932. “I have been perusing patiently (Auden, S. Spender, etc.) It is clever and adroit verse, but its modernity seems to me to go little deeper than a poster in the modern style.” Twenty years later he is grumbling about being “out of fashion with the modernist minds, and definitely discouraged by the autocracy of Eliot under which we exist and are ignored” – though in fact Eliot was a director at Faber, which had recently published Sassoon’s . In 1957, he was delighted to find a modern poet whose work – with some reservations – he liked: Philip Larkin. He nevertheless confessed: “O, the relief of getting back to Wordsworth from these ‘modern consciousness’ acrobatics which meet my eye everywhere. It is like living out of doors in the country after attending a party of jabbering gin drinkers”.
For both men, what Sassoon called “the authentic procession of English poetry” marched through the English countryside, steering well clear of metropolitan cocktail parties. Apart from Wilfred Owen, for whose posthumous reputation (as these letters amply and touchingly show) both men were primarily responsible, the modern poets they regarded as authentic were Thomas Hardy, Walter de la Mare, Robert Bridges and A. E. Housman. In spite of feeling ostracized by those who “ran” English poetry, Sassoon was invited in 1958 to become one of the judges for the Queen’s Medal – along with John Masefield, David Cecil, Neville Coghill, Osbert Sitwell, C. Day Lewis and Vita Sackville-West, a gathering that suggests that the lunatics had not taken over the asylum in quite the way he imagined. “You would do well for literary justice if you named Mrs \[Frances\] Cornford”, Blunden advised him. “A pity Sir J. Squire writes no new verse . . . .” (In the event Cornford was awarded the medal.)
To Sassoon’s delight, Larkin had told him that “it was an evil day when English poetry fell into the hands of the Americans and Irish”. These letters often give the impression that the two correspondents were absurdly insular and reactionary, though in fact Blunden spent extended periods living and working in Hong Kong and Japan, while Sassoon enjoyed travelling in Europe and put up money for William Walton’s , describing the oratorio as “a triumph”. As Sassoon eloquently put it, however: “the Russian ballet leaves me cold in comparison with the buzzing of a bee in a parlour half-flooded with dusty sunshine”. This was indeed just the sort of scene he captures so well in his autobiographies and the best of his post-war poetry. Both men were committed to a deeply felt “Englishness” that defined them and their writing as much as the war did. The two facts are not unrelated, the war having blown apart the old English country ways they loved and ushered in the modern international urban world they distrusted. Paul Fussell rightly identified Blunden’s as “an extended pastoral elegy in prose”, and the same could be said of Sassoon’s Sherston trilogy, both memoirs attaining their particular poignancy from their acute sense that the war destroyed the rural world and the natural rhythms that had once governed it. In 1926, Blunden had produced a volume defiantly titled , in which John Betjeman found “that true tradition of pastoral verse carried on into the present century”. Other titles – , , , , , , – demonstrate Blunden’s determined identification with the countryside. Little wonder that, driving across the Weald of Kent, Sassoon should report: “The hay was being made, and every cottage was a poem by Blunden”.
The connection between art and landscape, and the continuity it represented, is emphasized by Sassoon when describing a June day on Salisbury Plain: “how beautifully it refused – heart and soul – to look in the least like any sort of modernist painting – It merely offered itself for honest reproduction by a trained eye and traditional English brush-work. I doubt whether even a master painter could have painted it unless he was truly English in his bones and breath.” As for painting, so for poetry. When in 1940 F. R. Leavis in the described T. S. Eliot as “the greatest living English poet”, Blunden protested that “my feeling is that to this day T.S.E. is an American and his verse is not part of our natural production”. Sassoon agreed, replying that whatever the merits of Eliot’s poetry, it was “not the same thing that comes from essentially English feeling. A Herefordshire apple is itself, and so is a Burgundy vine. We write our lines out of our bones, and out of the soil our forefathers cultivated. Let Eliot write out of his New England ancestry”. At his best, Sassoon did indeed write out of those bones and that soil, and his poetry is at its weakest when that connection was abandoned for the numinous.
“Some day, I suppose, I shall emerge as a readable letter writer, and there will be extracts from my diaries – if I have the opportunity to present them – and people will know all they need to know about me”, Sassoon predicted in 1952. So far, only three volumes of his diaries have been published, and while this collection of letters seems very detailed, it presents a very incomplete portrait of the correspondents. In an exemplary brief preface, Max Egremont suggests that the most crucial difference between the two writers was that “Blunden married young and, through three marriages and various affairs, loved many women whereas Sassoon was homosexual”. Blunden’s marriages and affairs form part of the correspondence, with Sassoon offering congratulation or commiseration as the circumstances demanded, but – the protracted and painful relationship with Stephen Tennant apart – Sassoon’s private life before his own disastrous marriage is barely mentioned. Carol Z. Rothkopf’s notes give little help here. For example, Gabriel Atkin, the first man with whom Sassoon had a physical relationship, which lasted some seven years and would (in the words of one of Sassoon’s biographers) “change his life irrevocably”, is described merely as “artist, friend of Sassoon from 1919” (their relationship in fact dates from 1918). Similarly, Glen Byam Shaw is described as “a lifelong friend of Sassoon”, which is accurate as far as it goes but gives no sense whatever of the passionately romantic beginnings of this key relationship. Nor do we hear much about Blunden’s sometimes selfish treatment of women or his damaging weakness for alcohol.
These volumes do, however, provide insights into Sassoon’s marriage. It is now absolutely clear, for example, that he married hastily and on the rebound, after being brutally dismissed by Stephen Tennant, who was at the time being treated for tuberculosis. On September 25, 1933, Sassoon was still determined to “possess my soul in patience while Stephen returns to life (and I hope Fitz House)”, where Sassoon was living. Exactly a fortnight later, however, he proposed marriage to Hester Gatty. Hester had just emerged from a three-year mental breakdown – something Sassoon omits to mention to Blunden, writing instead of his bride’s “sweetness and light and gentle seriousness (combined with common-sense and humour)”. She provided Sassoon with a son, who rapidly became the centre of her husband’s emotional life and was loved with an obsessiveness that left little room for her. In addition, she never (as Sassoon saw it) understood or accepted that he needed extended periods of solitude to work or simply to read and ruminate.
The outbreak of war in 1939 put a further strain on the marriage, Hester’s patriotic relish for military action all too clearly reminding Sassoon of those he had pilloried during his own war in such poems as “Supreme Sacrifice”, “Their Frailty”, and “The Glory of Women”. “All women seem to be the same”, he told Blunden. “They allow the war to obsess their minds. However hard they may try – (and they don’t try) the most sublime masterpiece of art must be a mere afterthought compared with the successful bombing of an oil refinery or an aerodrome.” When Sassoon and his wife finally separated, Blunden continued to see Hester, for whom he had some sympathy. As a result, a friendship Sassoon had repeatedly described as “flawless” was seriously threatened: the letters between the two men dwindled and then, in August 1947, stopped altogether for four and a half years.
Even with this gap, the text of these letters runs to a daunting 1,131 closely printed pages, and it is perhaps inevitable that the footnotes provided are uneven in their quality and accuracy. At her best Rothkopf is succinct and witty, as when a feeble jibe about one of Sassoon and Blunden’s frequent butts is tersely footnoted “Another (very) little Drinkwater joke”. She assiduously identifies literary quotations and cricketers and tracks down every obscure volume Blunden and Sassoon collected; but her biographical notes are often too abbreviated. For example, “A. H. Clough was a poet. He attended Rugby from 1829 to 1836” is less than helpful, while “Bob Trevelyan (1872–1951), the model of a forgotten poet”, neglects to mention that he in fact wrote as R.C. Trevelyan or that he was an intimate of Sassoon’s friend E. M. Forster. Elsewhere, the awarding of biographical notes seems rather arbitrary: Tipoo Sahib is footnoted but Nana Sahib (in the same letter) is not.
Alongside the occasional slip or misprint are some unfortunate errors. For example, Christopher Isherwood is not a “novelist . . . now probably best remembered for (1951), which became the musical (1968)” ( is a play by John van Druten based on Isherwood’s Berlin stories, while premiered in 1966); the poem “about the girl with the taffeta slacks” which Blunden describes Vita Sackville-West reading at an event in aid of the Free French in 1943 is not “The Land” (which, at around 2,500 lines, would have occupied rather more than its fair share of the programme) but “Full Moon”, a short poem published five years earlier; imaginary titles, rather than numbers or first lines, are given to the poems in , with “And is my team still ploughing?” wrong on all counts. It ought also to be clear that when Sassoon writes “I never saw any of our Soldiers driven into action by our own Vickers”, he is referring to machine-guns not “Aircraft”.
A shorter, single-volume selection of these letters would have been more readable, but future biographers and historians will be grateful to Carol Z. Rothkopf for gathering together and making available a correspondence that is distributed among several university libraries and a number of private collections. While Sassoon and Blunden’s obsessive sending up of such minor figures as Humbert Wolfe and Robert Nichols, however well deserved, proves wearying, there is plenty of fascinating material here about their complex relationship with Robert Graves, their love of Thomas Hardy, their heroic championing of Wilfred Owen and their lack of enthusiasm for Isaac Rosenberg (despite Sassoon having provided a brief but highly laudatory foreword to the 1937 ). Both men lived to observe with the wry scepticism of old soldiers the fiftieth anniversary of the outbreak of what Sassoon was by then calling “our horrid old War”. They were once more in demand, but as literary relics rather than poets still at work. History had claimed them half a century before and it never let them go.
’s most recent book is , 2009. He is an advisory editor to the and is on the editorial board of the .