Of all the war’s journeys–all the war’s written journeys, that is–Sassoon‘s Progress is the most attractive. It is as charmed in its literary arc as it is torturous in its military evolution. If his trials and triumphs, his illusions and disillusions, provisional victories and sharp losses could stand for the experience of many young volunteer subalterns in a terrible war, then his writing life is graced by a luck he does not seem to have earned. He has written little and accomplished less in his twenty-nine years, but family connections and an appealing personality have already led to several important contacts in the literary world, namely Edmund Gosse, Robbie Ross, and Eddie Marsh. It was Marsh who arranged the quintessential pre-war crossing of paths, when Sassoon had breakfast with Rupert Brooke.
If that was the breakfast-before-the-war, it’s time already for tea. Today it was not patronage but chance commissions and opaque bureaucratic distribution that brought Sassoon together with another young officer recently assigned to the 1/Royal Welch Fusiliers, Robert Graves.
Walked into Béthune for tea with Robert Graves, a young poet in Third Battalion and very much disliked. An interesting creature, overstrung, and self-conscious, a defier of convention. At night went up again to Festubert with working-party. Dug from 12 to 2 a.m. Very cold. Home 4.15.
There is actually a double sleight there–Graves is in the Third Battalion in the sense that he entered the Royal Welch through the Special Reserve (the Third Battalion is the Reserve formation, rather than a fighting unit). Sassoon is thus aligning himself with the fox-hunting Regulars, who look down on such non-professionals, even though he only joined the army a few weeks earlier than Graves, and the Regiment many months later. Not to mention the fact that Sassoon has a few days with the troops and none in real combat while Graves has spent several months on active service with the Welsh Regiment and the 2/Royal Welch and was with the Regiment when the second battalion was battered on the first day of the Battle of Loos.
And that’s that. “I met this strange fellow, and we had tea. I can neither confirm nor deny that we showed each other our work in progress…” (My, er, paraphrase.) Nor does the entrance of this formidable character into Sassoon’s life does earn–yet–any mention in “Sherston’s.” The Memoirs are concerned, at this point, with his acclimation to the trenches and with establishing the characters of his own company and platoon. The tall, poetical defier of convention called “David Cromlech,” will not be introduced until months later, in the second volume of “Sherston’s” memoirs.
Graves, whose memoirs are both more and less “true” than Sassoon’s–no names are changed in Good-Bye to All That, but, then again, no diaries are painstakingly transposed and many tall tales are told–puts the meeting in its proper place. Which is to say he mentions it just after his transfer to A Company of the 1/Royal Welch, and also that he makes clear the literary character of their friendship from the very beginning. It’s a good scene:
A day or two after I arrived I went to visit ‘C’ Company Mess, where I got a friendly welcome. I noticed The Essays of Lionel Johnson lying on the table. It was the first book I had seen in France (except my own copies of Keats and Blake) that was neither a military text-book nor a rubbishy novel. I stole a look at the fly-leaf, and the name was Siegfried Sassoon. Then I looked around to see who could possibly be called Siegfried Sassoon and bring Lionel Johnson with him to the First Battalion. The answer being obvious, I got into conversation with him, and a few minutes later we set out for Béthune, being off duty until dusk, and talked about poetry.
“The answer being obvious” can–and probably does–mean two different things. That only one man in the room looked like a serious reader, and that only one man in the room looked like he could have such a name, i.e. looked Jewish. This would be an attraction for Graves, who was no anti-Semite: Sassoon was an oddity, with a touch of exoticism something like his own much-played-up Celtic connections. But still, here the clumsy enfant terrible has made a point of reminding us that his new friend also didn’t quite belong…
And as quick as Sassoon was to remind us of his social superiority–the oddness of this rather middle class Graves fellow, not a hunting man–Graves reminds us of his literary advantages. He mentions Sassoon’s privately printed poems before getting to his own.
…We went to the cake shop and ate cream buns. At this time I was getting my first book of poems, Over the Brazier, ready for the press; I had one or two drafts in my pocket-book and showed them to Siegfried. He frowned and said that war should not be written about in such a realistic way. In return, he showed me some of his own poems. One of them began:
Return to greet me, colours that were my joy,
Not in the woeful crimson of men slain…
Siegfried had not yet been in the trenches. I told him, in my old-soldier manner, that he would soon change his style.
There’s so much going on here. Graves acknowledges one thing, at least, that Sassoon will elide–their friendship is, from the first, about poetry. Graves puts his big feet in here with characteristic lack of subtlety, representing himself as an almost-important poet, when in fact he hasn’t yet had anything printed anywhere other than his school magazine. Sassoon’s privately printed verses had, at least drawn some attention, and in the literary hobnobbing game he has a leg up, as Harry Ricketts has it,
Both counted themselves as among Eddie Marsh’s up-and-coming protégés, but Graves had only been promised a meeting with the late and now great Rupert Brooke, Sassoon had actually had breakfast with him.
Yes, but Graves is already a Captain, and has been in a battle, and spent months in the trenches. Ah but only a Reserve Captain, and only nineteen…
All true enough. It’s a tossup, perhaps, but one that Graves is eager to win. The larger point is that they like each other, that their shared interest in poetry is a powerful attraction and that–no surprise here–this new friendship between two young men is competitive from the start, with ambition and affection jostling uneasily against each other.
And yet readers are continually surprised by it. Ricketts also writes that “Poetry sparked the friendship but, ironically, neither at first thought much of the other’s poems.” Do you think? No–there’s no irony in this. It is abundantly clear that Sassoon had talent, the proverbial “way with words,” but neither the taste nor the hard good sense to know what merits conversion into verse that–“ironically”–marks a successful poet. Graves was young and unformed, powerful but gawky in prosody as in society. Each saw something in the other, and it’s probably true that Graves, nearly friendless in France and brooding after several difficult months with the especially stuffy and anti-intellectual 2nd Battalion, needs Sassoon more, and more immediately.
I’m not sure where the assumption comes from that when a young man makes a new friend their shared interests must be mutually supportive and conflict free–but it’s a silly notion. Each thought the other interesting and was glad to talk poetry. Each also thought the other to be a little odd and to write very tasteless, uncool verse. Naturally.
But before we get to the poetry itself, there is one more issue to be disposed of, namely sexual attraction.
There wasn’t any, a fact which both men were clear about. I hate to label people with “our” identity markers when they themselves didn’t have the option of publicly labeling themselves in a similar way, or even to allow their inclinations to be known without suffering severe personal and professional consequences. The matter is made even more complicated by the changes in orientation and identity that people go through in life, and also by my hang-up here about not discussing the century-back “future” of these writers, lest it destroy our sense of living in their (centennial) present.
But anyway, needs must. At this point, for lack of a better word, Sassoon was gay. He had written “coded” but clearly homeoerotic poems, and while he takes the sexual edge off of his love for his comrade David Thomas when he fictionalizes it in the Memoirs, it is hard not to see it as a sincere and complete affection, the love of an adult man–age twenty-nine–for another man. It was not reciprocated, but then again Sassoon had almost certainly not acted on his desires at all. Whoever he wanted to have sex with, he was not looking for sex.
Graves, likewise inexperienced, was at this time in love with a younger school friend, a fact which he will boldly discuss. But, as Graves tells the story, this love was chaste, even prudish, and crazily unrealistic–a product of the bizarre combination of bottled sexual urges, ignorance, physical violence, and semi-approved homoeroticism that characterized many British Public Schools at the time. So there is–or there will be (apologies for looking ahead)–a major difference in their sexual personae. Graves, just twenty, is in love with an idealized boy, who is in fact gay and sexually active, but he–Graves–has a horror of sex and will end up realizing that this is “just a phase,” as we like to describe it. (Still?) He will, in fact–semi-spoiler here–end up indulging in a rather deafening, almost hysterical heterosexuality.
None of which should really matter, nor should it attract the attention of commentators at this point in the story. Perhaps I’m being prudish myself, but if it seems like historical overreach to assume that they should have loved each other’s writing if they hit it off as friends, it seems like an even worse instinct–a combination of basic writerly nosiness and (worse) a vague sort of homophobia–to assume that because we have two men deciding to have tea together–and because one has written about having a crush on a boy and the other will eventually love other men–there must have been a sexual spark. I don’t want to be a scold, but this is a friendship sparked by a book on a table, and propelled by two little sheaves of poetry-in-progress. If, like most Great War writers, neither had ever written about his sexual desires, we wouldn’t speculate. Nor would we dally here if they were both unimpeachably straight…
Even if one holds–irrefutably, pointlessly–that no relationships are completely asexual, their histories can’t be written from that belief rather than from the available testimony. Right here, right now, sex is not on the table–poetry is.
Graves has quoted for us a few lines of Sassoon’s “To Victory.” Which is a snarky move, but an effective one. It’s very old fashioned, silly almost to decadence. I can’t improve upon Graves’s decision to simply snicker at the first two lines, but quoting more can illustrate the other important thing about the poem: it is an anti-war poem, but only in the old sense of denying the reality of the war. The key, already, is that woeful “woeful crimson”–beautiful vowels and a lovely image, but unreal. It’s page-poetry, fantasy, not the mud and blood of actual war.
Then there’s this:
I want to fill my gaze with blue and silver,
Radiance through living roses, spires of green…
I am not sad; only I long for lustre,—
Tired of the greys and browns and the leafless ash.
I would have hours that move like a glitter of dancers
Far from the angry guns that boom and flash.
This is a poem that damns the war for its ugliness–not ugliness as a permanent blight on those who experience it, but as an inconvenience to the lovely dream-life of interrupted aesthetes.
So what effect did meeting Graves have on Sassoon’s poetry? Sassoon has denied us any direct, immediate evidence, and Graves has quietly claimed to have made, in his “old-soldier’s manner,” all the difference in the world.
So, who is right?
Well, the circumstantial evidence is heavily on Graves’s side. Here is the poem which Sassoon first drafted this very day, a century back. (Although the text given below incorporates changes made later on.)
Drafted before tea in Béthune? I doubt it.
Darkness: the rain sluiced down; the mire was deep;
It was past twelve on a mid-winter night,
When peaceful folk in beds lay snug asleep;
There, with much work to do before the light,
We lugged our clay-sucked boots as best we might
Along the trench; sometimes a bullet sang,
And droning shells burst with a hollow bang;
We were soaked, chilled and wretched, every one;
Darkness; the distant wink of a huge gun.
I turned in the black ditch, loathing the storm;
A rocket fizzed and burned with blanching flare,
And lit the face of what had been a form
Floundering in mirk. He stood before me there;
I say that He was Christ; stiff in the glare,
And leaning forward from His burdening task,
Both arms supporting it; His eyes on mine
Stared from the woeful head that seemed a mask
Of mortal pain in Hell’s unholy shine.
No thorny crown, only a woollen cap
He wore—an English soldier, white and strong,
Who loved his time like any simple chap,
Good days of work and sport and homely song;
Now he has learned that nights are very long,
And dawn a watching of the windowed sky.
But to the end, unjudging, he’ll endure
Horror and pain, not uncontent to die
That Lancaster on Lune may stand secure.
He faced me, reeling in his weariness,
Shouldering his load of planks, so hard to bear.
I say that He was Christ, who wrought to bless
All groping things with freedom bright as air,
And with His mercy washed and made them fair.
Then the flame sank, and all grew black as pitch,
While we began to struggle along the ditch;
And someone flung his burden in the muck,
Mumbling: ‘O Christ Almighty, now I’m stuck!’
The last line came later than today, it’s true. And the meat of the poem, the experience, came from the working parties of the last few nights. And the (rather forthright!) Christian imagery is deep in the bones of English poetry…
But can this “distinct change of direction” really not have something to do with the pushy, (over)-confident young captain and his own rather dreadful “shocker” poems full of misery and gore?
“Here at last is War poetry based on actual experience rather than literature,” writes Jean Moorcroft Wilson, one of Sassoon’s biographers. Well, yes–except for the fact that there is no need to separate the inseparable. (False dichotomy, etc.) Like any poem–like any poem other than the utterly naive or the intensely allusive–“The Redeemer” is a product of the writer’s experience and his reading. And this one surely shows the influence of a friendly rival as well. It’s a little obtuse to imply that a gospel-referencing poem in simply rhymed iambics is not “based on literature–” it’s not where it comes from but where it is trying to go that makes all the difference.
Sassoon has turned about, or settled in–he has, in any case, found a new direction for his poetry. Not back to the halcyon nineties or the beautiful, operatic, pre-war days, not longing to find its way to a shelf of prettily-printed leisure verse. But into the trenches, to see what the poet can see.
It’s worth reminding ourselves, finally, what the new poem is not. It is not bitter, it is not angry, it is not disillusioned. The soldier is idealized, his motivations are simple, pure, and untroubled–for England–and his journey (that word again) consists of hardly a step. It’s realism, but not yet three-dimensional, not yet plastic or swift.
Siegfried Sassoon leads a charmed life. Aimless and well-supported, he saw the war as a way out of the doldrums. And the war has shielded him from its worst, so far, instead delivering him into a battalion that has–within three days–provided him with a sense of “home,” the stuff for better poetry, and a friend to spur him onward.
It’s Robbie and Siegfried’s day, but I can’t resist one burst of bitter wit from Ralph Hamilton, the Master of Belhaven, who has been enduring–with much diary-ward complaint–a series of freezing and poorly organized marches into reserve. His battery, half-destroyed on the 15th, has been rearmed, but it’s the entire division which is rotating out of the trenches. And yet there is neither comfort nor rest to be found:
Moringhem, 28th November, 1915
A truly dreadful day. To begin with, it had been freezing hard all night after yesterday’s thaw, and the road was one sheet of ice. The horses could not keep their feet, and fell every few yards… It was a twenty-two-mile march and in my whole life I have never felt such cold… twenty degrees of frost, and… there was a strong wind… that went through one like a knife…
On arrival we were horrified to find that this–our rest-camp for a month–is about the worst thing in billets we have struck since we came out. It is a tiny and poverty-stricken village, where one can buy nothing. Even bread cannot be had…
Harvey and I have clean and Spartan rooms in the priest’s house, but it is miserably cold… He is a cheery soul, and played marches on his harmonium. Very painful to listen to, but he meant it well. We retaliated with Wagner on our gramophone.
…The cold depresses me; I would rather be in action again–if it was warm.