Ivor Gurney Declares for a New War Poet; Siegfried Sassoon Declares for an End to the War

Ivor Gurney wrote to Marion Scott once again today, a century back, with thanks for all her help in preparing his poems for publication. But it’s his reading that he really wants, once again, to discuss–and today he is reading a contemporary writer of note:

12 June 1917 (P)

My Dear Friend

You, of all my friends, write the most interesting letters…

I see Siegfried Sassoon has published now. Do try to see it, and if you can do so, spot a poem on the subject of a man unconscious from the time of his being wounded till he was in train in Blighty: then recognizing what part of the scheme of things he saw by the advertisements. It is very good…

Will people continue to write letters when Peace comes…?

Peace

I’ll write no letters in that happy season
When Peace illumes the world like the Sun’s Lamp.
Laziness will be in part the reason.
But — shall I pay a penny for a stamp?

No, no, it cannot be! And if some female
Is soft enough of head to lose her heart
To Me, she’ll have to settle as to the Mail
And pay for both. I’m damned if I shall start!

Your sincere friend Ivor Gurney[1]

 

So here’s an unusual irony. As Gurney writes light-heartedly of peace and praises a fellow soldier’s poems, that soldier is planning his counter-attack on the war. Siegfried Sassoon spent the weekend at Garsington, the home of Lady Ottoline Morrell, the most persistent anti-war voice among his friendly advisors. Today, back in London, she organized a lunch which included several of the most prominent dissenting voices in British politics: Morrell, H.W. Massingham, John Middleton Murry, and Bertrand Russell all lunched at the Eiffel Tower in Percy Street, an irresistible phalanx of advisors for the diffident poet and quondam hero of the trenches.

In the Memoir, which plays down Lady Ottoline’s influence (Sassoon is willing to portray himself as easily influenced, but he seems to prefer that Great Men do the influencing, and not eccentric noblewomen), it is Massingham/Markington who puts Sassoon/Sherston in the way of “Thornton Tyrrell,” i.e. Bertrand Russell.

‘You know him by name, I suppose?’

I was compelled to admit that I didn’t. Markington handed me Who’s Who and began to write a letter while I made myself acquainted with the details of Tyrrell’s biographical abridgment, which indicated that he was a pretty tough proposition. To put it plainly he was an eminent mathematician, philosopher, and physicist…

Most eminent. And now, too, the “great brain” of the anti-war movement.

In the Memoir, Sherston is soon taking tea with Tyrell, and angling for a place at his feet.

He asked for details of my career in the Army, and soon I was rambling on in my naturally inconsequent style. Tyrrell said very little, his object being to size me up. Having got my mind warmed up, I began to give him a few of my notions about the larger aspects of the War. But he interrupted my ‘and after what Markington told me the other day, I must say’, with ‘Never mind about what Markington told you. It amounts to this, doesn’t it — that you have ceased to believe what you are told about the objects for which you supposed yourself to be fighting?’ I replied that it did boil down to something like that, and it seemed to me a bloody shame, the troops getting killed all the time while people at home humbugged themselves into believing that everyone in the trenches enjoyed it.

Tyrrell poured me out a second cup of tea and suggested that I should write out a short personal statement based on my conviction that the War was being unnecessarily prolonged by the refusal of the Allies to publish their War Aims. When I had done this we could discuss the next step to be taken. ‘Naturally I should help you in every way possible,’ he said. ‘I have always regarded all wars as acts of criminal folly, and my hatred of this one has often made life seem almost unendurable. But hatred makes one vital, and without it one loses energy. ‘Keep vital’ is a more important axiom than ‘love your neighbour.’ This act of yours, if you stick to it, will probably land you in prison. Don’t let that discourage you.  You will be more alive in prison than you would be in the trenches.’

Mistaking this last remark for a joke, I laughed, rather half-heartedly. ‘No; I mean that seriously.’ he said. ‘By thinking independently and acting fearlessly on your moral convictions you are serving the world better than you would do by matching with the unthinking majority who are suffering and dying at the front because they believe what they have been told to believe…'[2]

So it goes for the angry, gentle, biddable George Sherston. In reality, a team of influential friends–we might call them co-conspirators–is nudging the diffident young officer and promising new pawn/defector toward his epistolary semi-martyrdom. Siegfried Sassoon may not have been an assertive man in such contexts, but neither was he a passive dupe. The rage is his, and the urge to make some sort of protest.

But his friends–or his friends and their friends, who flock, now, to this decorated, presentable, and writerly young officer because he represents an irresistible opportunity–give him the hard shove he needs. After all, his feelings toward the war began to turn more than a year ago when David Thomas was killed, and, without assiduous “help” he might drift from portrait-sitting into privately disillusioned cadet-training…

There is no time to waste, and Sassoon got to work. It was probably tonight, a century back, that another strange crossing of paths took place:

With [Middleton Murray] and Katherine Mansfield (of whose great talent as a story-writer I was still unaware) I spent a self-conscious sultry evening in a candle-lighted room in South Kensington. He was sympathetic and helpful in clarifying my statement and reducing it to a more condensed form. Katherine Mansfield was almost silent. The only thing I can remember her saying was ‘Do you ever think about anything except the war?” Nothing now remained but to make a fair copy and take it to Bertrand Russell, who had undertaken to act as my impresario…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters, 166-8.
  2. Complete Memoirs, 476-9.
  3. Siegfried's Journey, 52; see also Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 373.