Siegfried Sassoon Packs for Palestine; Isaac Rosenberg is Sent Packing

I suppose it is neither terribly perceptive nor strikingly original to note the importance of reading to writing and, in return, the utter dependence of reading on writing. Still, there is perhaps slightly more to say here than to make small jokes about the blindingly obvious–a reminder, at least, of one of the Fussell-inspired beginning places of this project: when you come to the task of describing something frightening, emotionally intense, and both utterly unlike your previous experiences and almost literally unimaginable to your future readership, you may be thrown back in confusion on the resources of your reading. In other words, all books derive in part from the books their writers read, but war books more than others.

Siegfried Sassoon likes to play the innocent or the ingenue–he failed to take a degree, he wasn’t a serious scholar, and he finds himself to be overawed by the presence of powerful intellects. Perhaps; but he is still intelligent and serious, and growing less diffident. And he’s packing literary weight, now:

February 7

Orders to embark Southampton next Monday.

Books to take to Egypt:

Oxford Book of English Verse
Keats
Wordsworth
Shakespeare’s Sonnets
Hardy, Moments of Vision
Crabbe, The Borough
Browning, The Ring and the Book
A Shropshire Lad
Meredith, Poems
Oxford Dictionary
Hardy, The Woodlanders

Barbusse, Le Feu
Pater, Renaissance
Trollope, Barchester Towers
Surtees, Mr Sponge’s Sporting Tour, Facey Romford’s Hounds
Bunyan, Holy War
Plato, Republic
Tolstoy, War and Peace (3 vols)
Scott, The Antiquary[1]

It’s quite a list: heavy on the essentials of English poetry, a few crucial “war books,” a late emphasis, perhaps, on autodidactic self-improvement, and then a few personal touchstones. The list explains where Sassoon is coming from as a poet much better than his “binary”–which is to say shaped with a heavy hand, and half-occluded–memoirs or his contemporary jottings and letters, and it is worth examining somewhat closely. Also, who doesn’t love to read a list of books?

Where do we begin? Blue-bound, of course, on India paper. The Oxford Book. Where else? This is the essential point of reference, the common ground codified and certified by the great University. And England’s poetic soil is green and fertile, if not always uncomplicatedly pleasant.

The most important poets are supplemented in their own volumes–Keats, the essential Romantic; Wordsworth, if ambition should point in that direction; Browning is perhaps a bit surprising, but he ranked quite high among the young Sassoon’s closer Romantic forebears. Crabbe, whose The Borough is a work describing everyday life in heroic couplets, is a bit of an outlier, but he might be there to strengthen Sassoon’s intention to write directly and descriptively about what the soldiers are experiencing.

Shakespeare’s sonnets, of course. Even though several are included in the Oxford Book, a lyric poet abroad might feel naked without them.

Of the later Victorians, Meredith and Hardy. Meredith, too, might be there for his unromantic emphasis on everyday life. And Thomas Hardy, Sassoon’s family friend at one remove, his more-than-polite correspondent, and something, perhaps of a poetic dream-mentor: he is becoming a Doktorvater or poetic grandsire while Rivers has become the dream father of Sassoon’s suffering soul.

But the choice of Hardy is interesting: not the enormous Satires of Circumstance, which is more essential to Sassoon’s 1916 poetry than any other examplar–and perhaps quite well remembered, by now–but the newest volume of poetry, Moments of Vision, together with The Woodlanders. Although this is one of Hardy’s later novels, it is something of a throwback to his early “Wessex” novels, treating of love in a rural setting in which, while not all goes well, to say the least, it does not end in utter calamity. It was broadly popular, too–not, in other words, one of the heavy-hitting late career novels which both sustain Hardy’s reputation to this day and helped finish him as a novelist in censorious Victorian Britain.

If there is one book that both advances the tradition of the rural English Lyric and narrows it to suit a certain sensibility–inclined to tragedy, to gently-posed but bitter irony, and toward a worship of the young male form that is at least implicitly homoerotic–it is Housman’s A Shropshire Lad. The poems are good–sometimes very good–but their influence on Sassoon’s generation is out of proportion to their merit-in-a-vacuum. (Which is not a thing that actually exists, of course. See Peter Parker’s Housman Country on all this.) Housman doesn’t really stand alongside Shakespeare, Keats, Wordsworth, and Hardy–but he does, in Sassoon’s valise.

Then there’s the Pater and the Plato–signs of an awakened intellectual appetite or ambition–bracketed by a few significant war books. Shorter, more recent, and French is Barbusse’s Le Feu (Under Fire) the first really influential realistic depiction of modern war. It’s a better book than All Quiet–which won’t be published for a decade, anyway–and should be read in its place. It’s got the horror and the intensely-lived experience, but without the heavy narrative hand on the wheel. Sassoon, Graves, and Blunden will all read this book…

It’s hard to tell whether War and Peace is there as a Modern War Essential or as a Great Book that is also a great way to spend a great deal of time in boats, trains, and dusty camps. Probably the latter, although Sassoon would have very much enjoyed Tolstoy’s own first-person fictions of warfare–the Sevastopol Sketches–had they been available.

Whether Bunyan’s second book (generally he’s a one book author, except for Protestant Allegorical or Siege Warfare completists) is there because Sassoon knows that it’s an allegory from static warfare (they all tried to use Pilgrim’s Progress when they could, but it’s a quest narrative, and they were going nowhere, so only the Slough really appealed) or whether because he just thought there might be some as-yet-untapped veins of Christian allegory in the tradition suitable for the smelting-into-satire, I am not sure. But I incline to the latter, once again.

Let’s see: then there is Trollope, and Scott, which are entertaining things; holes, perhaps, in his literary education, or middleweights to spar with before Tolstoy if he gets a bit windy.

Last, and very certainly least, are two novels by Surtees, who sits uncontested upon the throne of middlebrow Mid-Victorian fox hunting literature.

I am not going to pretend that I have read all the books on this list. However, since the point of such lists (or, at least, of publishing and then re-posting them) is to posture at imagined adversaries with pointy paper antlers, I will assert that I have read most of them, mostly, and thereby imply that those readers who haven’t have a lot of work to do.

But when I confronted my own failings in regard to Sassoon’s list, I decided that, rather than pay close attention to Meredith (or some of the other poets) or Trollope, I would read Surtees. Sassoon loves reading him–I believe he calls him his favorite author, somewhere–and perhaps this might offer a window into the meeting of the minds of the allegedly binary Sassoon: he is reading, but he’s reading about hunting. Well, I have to report… not so much. A few chapters in, Mr. Sponge is entertaining, but not memorable–kind of like Dickens arrested at the Pickwick stage, dressed in a clean waistcoat, told to mind his manners about all that social reform stuff, and rusticated. But then again I haven’t gotten to the allegedly excellent hunt scenes, which may be the missing link between Renaissance epic and cinematic car chases that I have been looking for all these years…

A preliminary conclusion, then: it’s a false lead to look for literary inspiration in the two hunting novels. Sassoon is bringing along old favorites to reread, and the very fact that they treat of the war-analogous activity of hunting in its innocent mid-Victorian days (and, more importantly, in the long moments of prewar innocence during which they were first read) suggests that he is not reading the, with any thought toward his own writing (not that that means that they won’t have any influence). The analogy is probably to modern soldiers who might bring along Ender’s Game or (closer to home, here) The Lord of the Rings.

 

This post should probably end lightheartedly, with a challenge to lay bets upon just how much he will actually read during his time in Egypt and Palestine. But we have instead a weird and ominous transition through tenuous connections. Sassoon is off to Palestine–not only the ancient homeland of his father’s people, but also rather near to the much more recent homeland of his father’s (but most especially his great-grandfather’s) family. And he is bringing books on Greece, Russia, and many an English covert.

Isaac Rosenberg, whose Jewishness is not something he could deny,[2] is now reaching actively toward it. But that’s not the real irony–the real irony is that just as Sassoon has accepted Palestine when he really wants France, Rosenberg is desperate to escape France for Palestine. He has many hopes, transfer-wise, but has begun to focus them on the Jewish battalion, which is to be sent to serve in that theater of the expanding war.

There is another much more direct connection between Sassoon and Rosenberg, but I am fairly certain that this connection–Eddie Marsh–would never have made much of it. Sassoon’s snobbery (which might, in a familiar irony, contain an anti-semitic strain) would not have appreciated being connected with the rough-edged and impassioned Jewish poet-artist from the slums, nor would their styles have been congenial.

In any event, Rosenberg is putting his hopes in Marsh. Can Churchill’s secretary save him from France and his declining health? Perhaps, but not today. Today’s transfer will get Rosenberg out of the trenches, but not out of a fighting unit destined for more combat in France. He was sent from the 11th King’s Own Lancasters, about to be disbanded in the reorganization of infantry brigades from four to three battalions, but not to any cushy billet: The 1st King’s Own may be in rest in Bernaville at the moment, but they are an old Regular battalion and part of the 4th Division, and their services will be required should the Germans attack, as they are expected to do shortly.

Rosenberg will feel the dissolution of his old unit much as David Jones did, and it will affect his writing. Perhaps because of the endless war, his separation from his old unit, the doldrums of February and the promise of an attack in March–for any of these reasons, or all, or none and simply from the nature of his mind and powerful, grim poetic gift–his writing, too is dwelling increasingly on historical suffering and destruction and on Jewish themes. Which go rather well together. When Rosenberg finishes and mails the next batch we will have a date on which to read them, but for now it is a long lonely train trip for him, and a wait for us for his poetry, undated and unrecorded as he is sent from unit to unit and task to task…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 210. Jean Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 440, reports that he abandoned some of the weightier (in a literal sense) volumes, but then bought them in Egypt--he is a man who sticks to his list, evidently.
  2. Not that Sassoon is an apostate or a traitor to his people or anything so dramatic as that. He had few memories of his father and almost no contact with traditional Judaism. He was not Jewish by any then-accepted standard, and was raised as an Anglican by his mother. But he was socially able to treat his Jewishness, such as it was, as only an exotic part of his family's past, and his extreme Englishness of manner probably made it hard for all but the truly impassioned anti-semites to hate him once they knew him. If a man writes better English poetry than you, plays better cricket than you, and rides to hounds, hurling old slurs is bound to look a little silly... Not that other forms of anti-semitism wouldn't have dragged him down in other situations, but if there were more than sneers thrown at him by other "gentlemen," he doesn't have anything to say about it.
  3. Moorcroft Wilson, Isaac Rosenberg, 390-1.