Thursday, September 8, 2016

A fool’s paradise of poetry

‘Heavens! what fortitude one needs, to become a decent writer. One runs madly through green thickets, enamoured of the bird-notes which last but a few moments; one stumbles, picks oneself up, and emerges into a barren waste; one ruminates miserably for a while, dragging desolate feet through the dust of dead dreams. And then, if one is lucky, one plunges into another fool’s paradise of “poetry”.’ This is Siegfried Sassoon, a British poet born 130 years ago today, writing so lyrically about the difficulties of writing poetry. Although a brave and decorated WWI soldier, he is best remembered for diaries and poems describing the true horrors of war.

Sassoon was born at Weirleigh, Kent, on 8 September 1886, and educated at Marlborough College, and Clare College, Cambridge. He was the eldest of three sons born to a wealthy Jewish father and Catholic mother. After leaving Cambridge without a degree, he spent nearly a decade doing very little, other than hunting, socialising and writing occasional verse. With the onset of war, he enlisted as a cavalry trooper in the Sussex Yeomanry, but then, in 1915, injured his arm in a riding accident. After convalescing, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the 3rd Battalion (Special Reserve), Royal Welch Fusiliers, and was posted to the Western Front. He was considered a reckless soldier, but was awarded the Military Cross for rescuing a wounded man under heavy fire.

Significantly, while in France, Sassoon met Robert Graves: they encouraged each other’s love of poetry, and Graves’s more gritty style is known to have influenced Sassoon. In 1917, he was wounded and returned to England, but, by then, he had grown hostile to the realities of war and the British Army. His poetry began to reflect this change of ideas, and, with the war still raging, he published several controversial poems realistically describing life in the trenches, such as The Old Huntsman and Counter-Attack. Nevertheless, once recovered, he served further in Palestine and France, often being found inspirational by the soldiers under his command. Towards the end of the war, after a further period of convalescing, he sent his commanding officer a letter - Finished with the War: A Soldier’s Declaration. This was relayed to the press, and read out in Parliament. Some called for Sassoon to be court-martialled, but it was decided at the highest level that he was unfit for service, and he was sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital near Edinburgh to be treated for shell shock. At Craiglockhart, he met Wilfred Owen.

After the war, Sassoon lived briefly in Oxford, but then settled in Tufton Street, Westminster, from 1919. He became literary editor of the Daily Herald, a role that brought him into contact with many literary names of the day; and he, himself, became something of a literary celebrity. He spent the best part of two decades writing autobiographical or semi-autobiographical books, such as Memoirs of an Infantry Officer and Siegfried’s Journey. He married Hester Gatty in 1933, and they had one son before the marriage was dissolved in the 1940s. He lived the last years of his life in relative seclusion at Heytesbury in Wiltshire, converting to Catholicism in 1957. He died in 1967. Further information is available from Wikipedia, Poetry Foundation, the Sassoon Project Blog, or the Sassoon Fellowship.

Cambridge University Library claims to hold ‘the world’s richest assemblage of Sassoon’s manuscripts and archival papers’, including a run of diaries ‘stretching from 1905-1959’. The Cambridge Digital Library has made available images of 23 of Sassoon’s journals, focusing on the war years, but spanning 1915-1932. It says of Sassoon that he was a ‘gifted diarist’ and that the journals provide ‘a fascinating resource’ of WWI literature. However, the library does not provide any transcriptions of the diary pages.

‘Unlike edited printed transcriptions,’ it says ‘the digitisations allow the viewer to form a thorough sense of the nature of the physical documents. Sassoon wrote in a small but neat and legible hand, frequently using the notebooks from both ends. His war journals were used for a wide variety of purposes: in addition to making diary entries Sassoon drafted poetry, made pencil or ink sketches, listed members of his battalion and their fates, made notes on military briefings and diagrams of trenches, listed locations and dates of times spent at or near the Front, noted quotations, and transcribed letters. The wartime notebooks were small enough to have been carried by Sassoon in the pocket of his Army tunic, and many had enclosures such as letters tucked into the outer cover or inner pouches; some bear tangible evidence of use in the trenches, from the mud on notebook MS Add.9852/1/7 to the candlewax spilled on MS Add.9852/1/9, presumably as Sassoon sat writing in his dug-out by candlelight.’

Printed transcriptions, however, are available in three volumes, edited by Rupert Hart-Davis and published by Faber and Faber between 1981 and 1985: Diaries 1915-1918, Diaries 1920-1922, and Diaries 1923-1925. Here are several extracts from the latter. (Hart-Davis notes, however, that most of the text of the third volume was taken from ‘fair copies’ Sassoon himself made of the original diaries in 1931 and 1932. It is assumed, he says, that the originals were discarded.)

28 July 1923
‘A grey, soaking morning of wind-slanted rain. I stare out at the narrow lawn and the beeches, and the occasional gigs and motors that pass the gate. E.B.
 [Edmund Blunden] is busy in his room, concocting a review of R. Graves’s new poem for The Times Literary Supplement. The wind blusters among dark green boughs from a featureless white sky. A straggling pile of flapping rooks crosses the opaque pallor, travelling into the wind.

I ought to feel satisfied. E.B. is here, backed by our four years of flawless friendship, to discuss poetry and cricket, and the last war, and the next one. Half-a-mile away T.H. [Thomas Hardy] is busy in his study, finishing the one-act play about Tristram and Iseult which he has written for the Dorchester Players (‘but I have stipulated that they mustn’t perform it in London’). He has offered to read it to us. (Florence H. says ‘Reading is not one of T.H’s strong points’.) Rain-drops fall in white streaks from the thatch of Barnes’s old Rectory. The postman has brought the mid-day post, but the letter I was waiting for has not arrived.

Tea at Max Gate. Lady Stacie there, a descendant of R. B. Sheridan - and a fashionable lady, formerly a great beauty. She gushed to T.H. about his novels at the tea-table. He shut her up by saying ‘I am not interested in my novels. I haven’t written one for more than thirty years.’ 6-7.30 in golden weather E.B. and I bicycled to Upper Bockhampton, as E.B. hadn’t yet seen T.H’s birthplace. After dinner T. E. Lawrence turned up (from the Tank Corps camp near Wool). He rang the bell, left a message with the maid that he would come to lunch tomorrow, and departed. I dashed out and caught him as he went through the gate. He looked well - a queer little figure in dark motor-overalls, his brown and grimy face framed in a fur-lined cap. He had a passenger waiting in his side-car, and only stayed a minute.’

30 January 1924
‘The last ten days have been mostly night for me. January 20 was the last day on which I ‘lunched’ before 4 p.m. Mrs Binks encourages me to carry on my routine as if the Turners weren't here, and brings me up kippers etc. at 5 p.m. (rather to the annoyance, I suspect, of Turner). But I’ve been making full use of my D.N.B. exploration impulse.

It was in October 1920 that I began to file my way out of prison by a systematic effort to form an individual vocabulary. In the last few days (particularly when I read the New Statesman proof of ‘Primitive Ritual’) I have felt as if the door is beginning to swing slowly back.

Yesterday morning, after lying awake from 4.15 to 7.15, I got up to get a drink of water in the bathroom. Watching the milkman looming at our gate in foggy twilight, Chatterton came into my thoughts, with a sense of exquisite emotion. I skipped him in the D.N.B. when I was searching for clowns, criminals, eccentrics, and forgotten poets, and knew little of his work or the details of his life. But the picture in the Tate Gallery has always appealed to me, with its glimpse of summer daybreak through the garret window, and the ‘home from the ball’ beauty of the dead boy on the bed. So I have since read about him in the D.N.B. (‘It is wonderful how the whelp has written such things’ said Dr Johnson) and cursed Horace Walpole for not sparing him twenty guineas which might have saved a second Spenser to the world; and ended by reading ‘Sweet his tongue as a throstle’s note’ in the Oxford Book of English Verse. As I went to the club ‘I thought of Chatterton, the marvellous boy’, and when I got there I searched the library for books about him.

All this excitement has ended in a sonnet and I am feeling pleased. How rarely one gets that sort of excitement about literature. (And how little authentic information there is about Chatterton.)’

11 February 1924
‘Have been reading a book about ‘Perdita’ Robinson - light historical journalese - which has made me feel the futility of the ‘epigrammatic elegies’ I’ve sweated at since January 21. Of those fifty-one pieces scarcely half-a-dozen now seem tolerable. I suppose the Chatterton sonnet is all right (I sent it to Gosse, who thought it ‘very beautiful’). But most of the fifty-one short pieces are mere trivial scribbles - a parlour game. But I suppose I have picked up some smatterings of history from the D.N.B.

Heavens! what fortitude one needs, to become a decent writer. One runs madly through green thickets, enamoured of the bird-notes which last but a few moments; one stumbles, picks oneself up, and emerges into a barren waste; one ruminates miserably for a while, dragging desolate feet through the dust of dead dreams. And then, if one is lucky, one plunges into another fool’s paradise of ‘poetry’. And at the end, perhaps, one will meet death with half-a-dozen ‘immortal’ lines scribbled on half-a-sheet of note-paper. Lucky is he who does that!’

12 February 1924
‘Went to Hammersmith with the Turners, and saw Congreve’s The Way of the World - very refreshing.’

19 February 1925
‘Ten minutes late, I was convoyed into the luncheon-room at the Marlborough Club. There I found Sir Edmund Gosse entertaining Admiral Sir William Pakenham, Walter Sickert, Philip Guedalla, and Philip Gosse. These ingredients mixed none too well, and Sir Edmund was all anxiety to set conviviality in motion. When making me known to the Admiral (rubicund, hard-bitten, genial, and unostentatious) he revived the faded glories of my fox-hunting - ‘Mr Sassoon is the only living poet of any eminence who hunts’ - whereupon (somewhat confused by the Bohemian proximity of Sickert and the Whistler tradition) I clumsily blurted out ‘I only do it to save my face!’ (an obscure utterance which implied that I have done my little best to compromise with the Philistines, but was allowed to pass without comment).

Guedalla, elegantly Semitic, with a fat pearl in his tie, was sedulous in politeness to the Admiral, but out of range of Sickert, with whom he’d fain have discussed Max Beerbohm. Philip Gosse sat silent, as though waiting to be utilised when required. Sickert talked to me in undertones. He began by congratulating me on my poem in the New Statesman a few weeks ago (‘On Reading the War Diary of a Defunct Ambassador’ - it was on the same page as an article about him). This caused me to feel that the said poem wouldn’t be well received by members of the Marlborough Club. With E.G. there, Sickert made no attempt to shine as a raconteur. He is either first or nowhere. But he told me (I forget how it cropped up) a story about a woman in Paris who was crazily wrought up about the visit of the Czar and Czarina. ‘She flung herself into the Seine. When her body was recovered, it was found that her drawers were made of the Russian flag.’ This reference to drawers seemed to make the Admiral more at his ease, and the topic was pursued in a series of anecdotes. The Admiral’s was about a critical moment in the Battle of Jutland, when his fellow-Admiral broke the tension by remarking, ‘I am told that Princess Mary wears pink flannel drawers.’ ’

The Diary Junction

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