Ivor Gurney Hears the Music of the Stars; Siegfried Sassoon Stands Up a Board and Still Fails to See the Moon

Another digressive letter from Ivor Gurney of today, a century back, contains one of the nicest expressions of his musicality. And by “nice” I mean something that I can more or less grasp–only actual musicians would be able to follow much of his discussions with Marion Scott, and these I generally puzzle over, than omit. But not only can we grasp this one, perhaps, but we might even connect it to his war–to something, at least, that he sees before him:

Last night — O lucky me! — a Scottish Rifle sat up besides the stove with me, which glowed and made believe it was a fire. And he had travelled and could talk, and we had the same politics and the same tastes. His eyes were steady, his laugh open and easily provoked, and a smile that could not be long checked being chiefly an affair of the eyes. O well, it must have been 12.30 when we illicitly walked under the stars, watching Orion and hearing his huge sustained chord…

Gurney then writes into the letter a bass and treble clef, fitting them out with the chord he heard: a grand D Major, with the F# only present in the bass.

From this heavenly synesthesia,[1] he segues directly into verse, quoting Hilaire Belloc, then Yeats, and then delivering himself of this programmatic declaration:

The great test of Art—the Arts of Music, Writing, Painting anyway is to be able to see the eyes kindly and full of calm wisdom that would say these things behind the page. I will not try to write verse in England. Once out there, it will leak from me in vulgar streams.

With best wishes,

Your sincere friend Ivor Gurney[2]

 

And there we must leave Gurney to traipse only a few miles away to another War Hospital on the outskirts of Edinburgh. The segue is not poetic, alas, but a question of “out there–” in two senses. We will learn that the path back to the trenches can take different turns for different men and, more curiously, that it must have been clear in Scotland last night, and cloudy tonight…

Today, a century back, is the big day for Siegfried Sassoon: he recently announced his readiness to return to active service, his protest notwithstanding, and Dr. Rivers agreeably arranged a Medical Board, which is intended to end the fiction of his having a (symptomatic) “war neurosis” and pronounce him fit for duty. So off to the board he goes… or off to the waiting room, at least.

Even if you don’t know the story, you can probably guess that Sassoon–Mad Jack, the quiet poet, the petulant schoolboy–is not going to proceed according to plan.

I regret not using more of Sherston’s Progress lately, because it’s really good stuff… my excuses are that Sassoon puts few dates into it, that these are often slightly off, that he writes this section in a much more openly “binary,” flash-forward-ridden way, and that it is still, technically, a fictionalized memoir rather than a “straight” personal history.[3]

But in volume three of Sherston’s memoirs the fiction is growing thin. Rivers is Rivers, too influential to be damned by faint pseudonym. And although poetry–and therefore Owen–doesn’t enter into Sassoon’s account of “Sherston’s” stay at “Slateford,” everything else is more or less exactly where it should be. He tells us of his intolerable roommate, the relief of getting a lonely garret to himself, the consolations of literature as the weather turns against golf, etc. And very nicely, too. But about today he has different feelings.

There are two ways of telling a good story well — the quick way and the slow way. Personally I prefer a good story to be told slowly. What I am about to tell is not a good story. It is merely an episode which cannot be left out. A certain abruptness is therefore appropriate.

Well, rats! But this is protesting too much, isn’t it still a good story?

On the appointed afternoon I smartened myself up and waited to be called before the medical board. I was also going to tea with the astronomer, who had promised to let me have a look at the moon through his telescope. But I was feeling moody and irritable…

Sassoon–or, rather, just barely, Sherston–wonders if he didn’t perhaps have a touch of a cold coming on, which might explain… no, no, it doesn’t. He doesn’t let himself off and, as promised, he skips the story.

The Board was running late, he didn’t like to be kept waiting, and so he walked out: Lt. Siegfried Sassoon, M.C., former prominent pacifist and alleged neurotic, “cut” the Medical Board that was to decide his fate, with the excuse that the army shouldn’t make him late for tea.

The story is missing its middle, but it has a lovely last word. Naturally, when “Sherston” arrived, the astronomer’s telescope was not working (though, in a wry detail, Sassoon got instead a glimpse at a mysterious instrument and a lecture on the precise measurement of “infinitesimal fractions of a second”). The conclusion?

So even the moon was a washout.

But one point we can certainly take away from Sassoon’s treatment of the episode: there’s no need to over-complicate the story. A cold? An adamantine sense of social propriety? Others suggest, plausibly, a “fit of pique.” But isn’t it plausible that Sassoon wasn’t quite sure about his decision, or that he wanted more time with Rivers, the father figure who had recently abandoned him for his own sick leave, and knew that Rivers would cover for him?

In any case, that is precisely what happened. Rivers was furious with Sassoon–the only time, “Sherston” tells us, that he was so–but before the interview is over he laughs, forgives, and agrees to schedule a new Board in a month’s time.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Which reminds me more than a bit of Tolkien, who will cast his cosmological creation in musical terms, with heavy emphasis on starlight--and who brings Orion recognizably into the stars of Middle Earth.
  2. War Letters, 225-6.
  3. Another reason, I think, is that I once read Sassoon's laying-open of his youthful follies as a commendable effort in biographical soul-shriving. I'm not so sure, now: he stays in control of the effort, and seems at times to be almost political in his careful revelations, as if he is revealing what he must in such a way that he will earn commendation, while keeping the most embarrassing stuff safely hidden...
  4. Complete Memoirs, 551-2. See also Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 418.