Vera Brittain and Siegfried Sassoon Under Bombardment, in London; Olaf Stapledon on Mr. Britling; Rowland Feilding on the Things they Carry; The Master of Belhaven Has a Near Miss

Today, a century back, Siegfried Sassoon–keeping his options well open–went to Cambridge for the day to interview for a job in a cadet battalion.[1] He may have left without a degree, but Cambridge is different now, and he has come back with an MC. He seems a prime candidate for what would be a respectable and conventionally honorable “safe job”–but the trip from London to Cambridge, ironically, was less than safe. Sassoon describes the day in the wry retrospective voice of George Sherston. Or, rather, the wry retrospective way in which he puffs apart Sherston and his experience by blowing a thin layer of warm ironic air in between the first-person description of experience and the world around that half-oblivious subject:

Supervising a platoon of Cadet Officers at Cambridge would have been a snug alternative to ‘general service abroad’ (provided that I could have bluffed the cadets into believing that I knew something about soldiering). I was going there to be interviewed by the Colonel and clinch my illusory appointment; but I was only doing this because I considered it needful for what I called ‘strengthening my position’ I hadn’t looked ahead much, but when I did so it was with an eye to safeguarding myself against ‘what people would say’…

Anyhow, on a glaring hot morning I started to catch a train to Cambridge. I was intending to stay a night there, for it would be nice to have a quiet look round and perhaps go up to Grantchester in a canoe. Admittedly, next month was bound to be ghastly; but it was no good worrying about that. . . . Had I enough money on me! Probably not; so I decided to stop and change a cheque at my bank in Old Broad Street. Changing a cheque was always a comforting performance. ‘Queer thing, having private means,’ I thought. ‘They just hand you out the money as if it was a present from the Bank Manager.’ It was funny, too, to think that I was still drawing my Army pay.

But it was the wrong moment for such humdrum cogitations, for when my taxi stopped in that narrow thoroughfare, Old Broad Street, the people on the pavement were standing still, staring up at the hot white sky. Loud bangings had begun in the near neighbourhood, and it was obvious that an air-raid was in full swing. This event could not be ignored; but I needed money and wished to catch my train, so I decided to disregard it. The crashings continued, and while I was handing my cheque to the cashier a crowd of women clerks came wildly down a winding stairway with vociferations of not unnatural alarm. Despite this commotion the cashier handed me five one-pound notes with the stoical politeness of a man who had made up his mind to go down with the ship. Probably he felt as I did—more indignant than afraid; there seemed no sense in the idea of being blown to bits in one’s own bank. I emerged from the building with an air of soldierly unconcern; my taxi-driver, like the cashier, was commendably calm, although another stupendous crash sounded as though very near Old Broad street (as indeed it was). I suppose we may as well go on to the station/ I remarked, adding, ‘it seems a bit steep that one can’t even cash a cheque in comfort!’ The man grinned and drove on. It was impossible to deny that the War was being brought home to me.

But is it? No, I think it is, but with that special, rueful emphasis on the last two words–“to me.” The air raid here appears first in the context of absurdity and a classic evocation of British character: “Sherston” carefully contrasts it with his very English position as a man with “private means” who might ride to hounds or ride off to war but doesn’t expect to earn a living or face violence during the ordinary course of his privileged day. This is about, in our terms, an irruption across the experiential gulf. But it’s treated as a dastardly blow, some piece of bad form, a punch after the bell, and not as the beginning of the end of any notion of war as a reliably distant event, the early days of “total war.”

At Liverpool Street there had occurred what, under normal conditions, would be described as an appalling catastrophe. Bombs had been dropped on the station and one of them had hit the front carriage of the noon express to Cambridge. Horrified travellers were hurrying away. The hands of the clock indicated 11.50; but railway-time had been interrupted; for once in its career, the imperative clock was a passive spectator. While I stood wondering what to do, a luggage trolley was trundled past me; on it lay an elderly man, shabbily dressed, and apparently dead. The sight of blood caused me to feel quite queer. This sort of danger seemed to demand a quality of courage dissimilar to front line fortitude. In a trench one was acclimatized to the notion of being exterminated and there was a sense of organized retaliation. But here one was helpless; an invisible enemy sent destruction spinning down from a fine weather sky; poor old men bought a railway ticket and were trundled away again dead on a barrow; wounded women lay about in the station groaning. And one’s train didn’t start. . . . Nobody could say for certain when it would start, a phlegmatic porter informed me; so I migrated to St. Pancras and made the journey to Cambridge in a train which halted good-naturedly at every station. Gazing at sleepy green landscapes, I found difficulty in connecting them (by the railway line) with the air-raid…

 

Vera Brittain had less trouble finding emotional context for the same bombing raid, coming as it did in the desolation following Victor Richardson’s miserable and lonely death. But her experience–and her initial reaction, as an overseas veteran of sorts who would rather be heading toward the war than held helpless underneath it–is quite similar to Sassoon’s:

Although three out of the four persons were gone who had made all the world that I knew, the War seemed no nearer a conclusion than it had been in 1914. It was everywhere now; even before Victor was buried, the daylight air-raid of June 13th “brought it home,” as the newspapers remarked, with such force that I perceived danger to be infinitely preferable when I went after it, instead of waiting for it to come after me.

She hasn’t been in combat, but she has been to the wars; but then again she hasn’t been under fire… In any event, membership in the categories of alienated veteran or older civilian are not a sure guide to one’s reaction to a sudden irruption of violence into a London spring day.

I was just reaching home after a morning’s shopping in Kensington High Street when the uproar began, and, looking immediately at the sky, I saw the sinister group of giant mosquitoes sweeping in close formation over London. My mother, whose temperamental fatalism had always enabled her to sleep peacefully through the usual night-time raids, was anxious to watch the show from the roof of the flats, but when I reached the doorway my father had just succeeded in hurrying her down to the basement; he did not share her belief that destiny remained unaffected by caution, and himself derived moral support in air-raids from putting on his collar and patrolling the passages. The three of us listened glumly to the shrapnel raining down like a thunder-shower upon the trees in the park — those quiet trees which on the night of my return from Malta had made death and horror seem so unbelievably remote. As soon as the banging and crashing had given way to the breathless, apprehensive silence which always followed a big raid, I made a complicated journey to the City to see if my uncle had been added to the family’s growing collection of casualties.

In a grimly amusing coincidence, this uncle is a banker, and so Vera too finds herself making small talk in a bank in the aftermath of the raid.

The streets round the Bank were terrifyingly quiet, and in some places so thickly covered with broken glass that I seemed to be wading ankle-deep in huge unmelted hailstones. I saw no dead nor wounded, though numerous police-supervised barricades concealed a variety of gruesome probabilities. Others were only too clearly suggested by a crimson-splashed horse lying indifferently on its side, and by several derelict tradesman’s carts bloodily denuded of their drivers. These things, I concluded, seemed less inappropriate when they happened in France, though no doubt the French thought otherwise.[2]

And that gives us rather a strong clue as to where Vera Brittain will turn her thoughts, now that her sacrifice of her nursing career for the love of Victor Richardson has come to nothing. Somewhere where mangled bodies and enormous suffering might seem more… appropriate.

 

But to return to Sassoon is to escape the bombs and their bad memories and head for Cambridge, where George Sherston can think of “war” in 1914 terms, when it was healthy outdoor tin-soldiering for overgrown boy scouts, and before it came to connote the indiscriminate bombing of cities.

But here was Cambridge, looking contented enough in the afternoon sunshine, as though the Long Vacation were on. The Colleges appeared to have forgotten their copious contributions to the Roll of Honour. The streets were empty, for the Cadets were out on their afternoon parades — probably learning how to take compass-bearings, or pretending to shoot at an enemy who was supposedly advancing from a wood nine hundred yards away. I knew all about that type of training. ‘Half-right; haystack; three fingers left of haystack; copse; nine hundred; AT THE COPSE, ten rounds rapid, FIRE!’

There wasn’t going to be any musketry-exercise instructing for me, however. I was only ‘going through the motions’ of applying for a job with the Cadet Battalion. The orderly room was on the ground floor of a college. In happier times it had been a library (the books were still there) and the Colonel had been a History Don with a keen interest in the Territorials. Playing the part of respectful young applicant for instructorsliip in the Arts of War, I found myself doing it so convincingly that the existence of my ‘statement’ became, for the moment, an improbability…

Sherston, concealing his combustibly mixed feelings by dint of instinct or good breeding, gets the job: the colonel “shook my hand rather as if I’d won a History Scholarship” and sends him on his way. But Sherston lingers in the groves of Academe.

Sitting in King’s Chapel I tried to recover my conviction of the nobility of my enterprise and to believe that the pen which wrote my statement had ‘dropped from an angel’s wing’. I also reminded myself that Cambridge had dismissed Tyrrell from his lectureship because he disbelieved in the War. ‘Intolerant old blighters!’ I inwardly ex- claimed. ‘One can’t possibly side with people like that. All they care about is keeping up with the other colleges in the casualty lists.’ Thus refortified, I went down to the river and hired a canoe.

 

And after those two very closely aligned bits of memoir, we have three short but disparate chunks, interludes of labor, love, and near death from around the front.

 

Rowland Feilding will not shy from criticism of his superiors any more than he would speak out openly against their conduct. But like any perceptive correspondent from the front, he will mark out, from time to time, how the lot of the infantryman grows ever grimmer.

June 14, 1917  Oultersteene.

Yesterday, we marched back here—to safety—in grilling heat. What with their box respirators with extensions, steel helmets, P.H. gas helmets, rifles, ammunition, packs, etc., there is little doubt but that the infantry soldier is getting
over-loaded for marching. His equipment grows as the inventions for killing grow.

Already, he must carry between 70 lbs. and 80 lbs. And after a long bout of inactivity in the trenches (I refer only to the lack of exercise), you can well understand that he is not in condition for weight-carrying. Moreover, he does not improve matters by lapping water out of his water-bottle at every halt, as is his habit if not carefully watched. However, the authorities are beginning to appreciate these difficulties, and to provide motor-lorries for carrying the
packs, when such are available.[3]

Is this progress, or is this only maintaining misery by adjusting impossible burdens back down to the barely tolerable?

 

As for Olaf Stapledon, although treacherous mails have lately lengthened the lag between Agnes Miller and himself (some of their letters were lost at sea to German submarines), he is still faithfully following Agnes Miller’s suggestions. Which makes him rather late to the literary bandwagon of late 1916:

…I have begun to read “Mr. Britling,” on your recommendation. It promises well…

We are very indignant because the other two FAU convoys, which were in successful bits of offensive, have had croix-de-guerre rewards… [even though] under the circumstances our work was much more arduous than theirs. It’s bad luck…  However… we ought not to bother about such things. Moderate pacifists tend to bother about such things just as tokens that they are not mere shirkers.[4]

 

The Master of Belhaven has been hard at work behind Messines all week, and today, a century back, he attended a conference at which new forward firing positions were assigned. On the way back, he had a close call very similar to one experienced by Edward Thomas.

I… got back without incident, beyond being nearly killed by an 18-pounder that was firing across the road I was on. I did not see it till I was almost in front of the muzzle and about ten yards in front; at that moment it fired. I was knocked backwards by the blast of the gun and nearly had the drums of my ears broken. People ought to lookout before firing and see that the place is clear…[5]

We’ve seen friendly fire kill the infantry, but artillery officers who are not careful run the risk of a more shocking sort of accidental demise when passing by camouflaged batteries.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 377.
  2. Testament of Youth, 365-6.
  3. War Letters to a Wife, 195.
  4. Talking Across the World, 230-1.
  5. War Diary, 316.

Siegfried Sassoon Dines in Style; Francis Ledwidge at Suvla Bay; Spade Work and the “Curry” of Nocturnal Violence Keep Charles Sorley Occupied

Francis Ledwidge and the rest of the 5th Inniskillings arrived today on the shores of Churchill’s overconfident gamble. They were too late to save the campaign, but not too late to suffer.

At daybreak the Heroic came within sight of the fifty-three-mile long tongue of land that is Gallipolli. The ship dropped anchor well out to sea but opposite Suvla Bay, about one-third of the way up the west coast. They had joined an impressive naval assembly of warships, cruisers, destroyers, troop and hospital ships. Far off to the east, half shrouded in pearly haze, lay the country of fabulous interest. As the light strengthened, they saw a long strip of golden land with a gently undulating skyline of low hills, rising out of a milky blue sea–a scene disarmingly innocent and beautiful. Suvla Bay is a small, semicircular sandy beach enclosed by two promontories shelving down to the water. Behind this beach the ground rose into hilly country encircling the shore like an amphitheatre.

Suddenly there was an ear-splitting roar as the warships opened a bombardment of the hills and the Turkish guns barked back. The sea was splashed by shrapnel, and the waterspouts of shells. The men in most of the transports were told to lie down on deck. The landing had already begun. Six thousand soldiers had arrived from Mitylene that morning. They were being conveyed from the transport ships to the beach in motor-lighters dubbed ‘beetles’ because they were painted black and had long landing ramps projecting from their bows. These could carry 500 men and were armour-plated against shrapnel and gun-fire. Hour after hour as the sun rose higher, Ledwidge stood in his heavy-equipment among the ranks on deck. They watched the continuous flashing of the Turkish guns in the semicircle of heights, answering the ear-splitting roar from the warships. But the really awesome sight was the human element: their fellow-soldiers landing in the midst of the battle. The men away off on the ships could follow the metallic glitter of the bayonets as their comrades raced inland into the rising ground beyond the beach.

The long delay was partly due to an insufficient number, of lighters, and partly to a change of plan while the landings were in progress, causing confusion. It was midnight when I Company were at last taken ashore. The ‘beetle’s’: decks were covered with pools of blood because on its return journey it carried the wounded from the beaches to the hospital ships.[1]

This long quotation is from the biography of Ledwidge by Alice Curtayne, and it reminds us of the literary tyranny of historical evidence: Ledwidge wrote many poems, but few of his letters were preserved and he does not seem to have kept a diary. We are reliant then, on the historian’s (or biographer’s) ability to reconstruct his experiences using other sources. This is important work–this is a pro-context project.

But if the resulting prose is too vague, or leans too heavily on the accounts of others–especially others who were near the action but not in it– a passage of secondary historical description can have the effect of reducing conjectured individual experience to stereotype and boilerplate.

Tomorrow we will read what the war correspondent H.W. Nevinson will make of Suvla Bay–it’s quite similar. And soon after that, Ledwidge and the Inniskillings shall go forward.

 

To France, now, for two letters from quiet sections of the line–where, alas, there is no rest for the weary–nor, really, any respite from danger. First, Charles Sorley wrote to his mother, today, a century back.

7 August 1915

We are busy, very busy, with the pruning-hook however more than with the sword, as our part of the line is quietish. Our Major-General never sleepeth; and since his Division took over this part of the line, farms have been devastated and harvests ruined, and to be in reserve means work eight hours a day: but I think our piece of ground is now inviolable. Every day almost, one meets this tired, nervous, haggard, incredibly vivacious and sympathetic chief: who knows almost all the (300 odd) officers under him by name, and visits your part of the trench with the same apologetic agreeable air as an insurance agent assessing a private house: never interfering (on the spot) or directing, only apparently anxious to learn–till divisional orders come out!

Hard “spade-work” (as school reports used to say)–“curry” in the form of occasional skirmishes at night between patrols–still keep our days full and our nights unquiet.

What follows is one of the most brilliant instances of softening an account of danger for home consumption. Sorley domesticates a tale of wild violence in order to keep the lines of communication nominally open, hinting at the realities of his life  while also refraining from unduly (whatever that might mean) terrifying his mother.

Armed with bombs and equipped with night one can do much raiding with extraordinary safety: much to the Bosch’s annoyance, or to his amusement when with infinite care a bombing party creeps up to his wire and commences with deadly effect to bomb itself. Such has happened more than once. The unfathomable laboriousness of the people opposite, infinite and aloof! Working day and night, nor heeding us.

Neither a falsehood nor the whole truth. To metaphor! Sorley can pastoralize with the best of them:

Thorns in their side we are, often pricking ourselves more than them; till we get too close, too harmful, too informed one day–and then a whip of lead! We are the gnat that buzzes, hums and stings without ceasing: they the bee, undisturbable in toil till roused, and then a deep sting which remains. Who does the greater damage none can say. Both do enough to keep alive a spark of considerable mutual irritation which this year or next year must burst into flame.

Oh, and he does light social satire, too:

So I go about collecting odd ends of trades, learning lessons in handiness. Besides of course post-office clerk, I could now earn a wage as a bricklayer: wouldn’t do badly as a common or garden sort of navvy: any offers for a job with barbed wire fences would be gratefully received: and I wouldn’t do badly as a poacher. I am now fairly at home in the midst of explosives and detonators and can make the simpler sorts of bombs: I could drain the garden path: I could neatly floor the leads: could erect loopholes in my bedroom window (by cunning arrangement of the pillows) for pot-shots at the birds, A. C. B., or anything else that might haunt the Magdalene wilderness. Our nine weeks out here have not been wasted.

Thanks again for the letters, which make better reading than all the books you send–not that I wish to decry the latter.[2]

 

Rowland Feilding, back from home leave, resumes his steady and forthcoming correspondence with his wife. Ah, but he has been back for several days–he was thrown rather quickly into the deep end of a much-contested sector of trenches.

August 7, 1915

Bethune

I… now am back in my old billet—the house with the aviary.

Two officers had joined during my absence…  The trenches which the battalion was holding (Cambrin, Z.2) were new to us, and were very lively; and the contrast between the peaceful life I was leading with you and the children last Wednesday and my occupation the following day and night could scarcely have been greater. Nowhere along the whole front are the Germans and ourselves more close together than there. Twelve to fifteen yards was all that separated us in the advanced portions of the trench, and the ground between was a shapeless waste a mass of mine-craters, including two so large that they are known officially as Etna and Vesuvius.

The ragged aspect of this advanced trench I cannot picture to you. The hundreds of bombs which explode in
and around it each day and night have reduced it to a state of wild dilapidation that is indescribable. There is
not a sandbag that is not torn to shreds, and the trench itself is half filled by the earth and debris that have dribbled down. So shallow and emaciated has this bit of trench now become that you have to stoop low or your head and shoulders poke above the parapet, and so near are you to the enemy that you have to move in perfect silence. The slightest visible movement brings a hail of bullets from the snipers, and the slightest sound a storm of handgrenades.

The conditions are such that you cannot repair the damages as they should be repaired. You just have to do the best you can, with the result that when the tide of war has passed beyond these blood-soaked lines they will soon become obliterated and lost among the wilderness of craters.

A bad sector indeed. Feilding now shows a flash of imagination–one that we will see strike a number of other writers. The British middle and upper classes have an established tradition of continental travel, and memories of such peaceful and puttering activities are (like gardening, like country rambles) often recalled by some mechanism of ironic appreciation–imagine doing that here, where everything is just right for it, and yet so utterly unimaginably different

. Feilding imagines not the past but the future. What will the battlefield tourist (for what, a century after Waterloo, is easier to imagine?) make of these horribly exiguous trenches? Irony upon ironies:

The tripper who will follow will pass them by, and will no doubt pour out his sentiment on the more arresting concrete dug-outs and the well-planned earthworks of the reserve lines well behind.

Oh a very good point indeed: ruins must be impressive, and the army’s most hard-fought traces will be scarcely remembered in years hence. How many visitors accrue to Hadrian’s wall, a strategic fortification with no real battles to its name? And how many have sought out the earthen ramps and ramparts of Caesar’s massive, desperate fights at Avaricum or Alesia?

But back to the past, the recent past, the irony of proximity in this commuter’s war of attrition:

I did a bit of bombing myself during the thirty hours I was there—a rather different occupation to our tea-party in the grotto at Rainhill! Who would have imagined, two years ago, that I should actually so soon be throwing bombs like an anarchist?

Feilding goes on to describe the various communications between the two sides, including a frankly “treacherous” attempt to lure the Germans into a peaceful posture by serenading them with a band and then launching coordinated grenade and small-arms fire at the resulting applause. But he also takes an interest in the informal communications between sides. As an officer of the Guards he must officially disapprove of such fraternizing and peace-making, but, oh, it goes on:

In these conversations the soldiers on both sides address one another familiarly, as “kamarade,” or “Tommy” or “Fritz.” On the whole, the remarks made to men of my Company during the three days they were in these trenches were vacuous but rather amusing. Once the Germans called out “Coldstream form fours”: so they apparently knew who was opposed to them…

One of our men asked: “Aren’t you sick of it, Fritz?” and got the answer: “Yes, aren’t you?” Another man shouted: “Wouldn’t you like to have peace?” to which the reply was: “We aren’t ready for peace, but let’s have it to-night!” Then they asked if we had lost a corporal… This was a corporal of the Scots Guards who had crawled to the edge of one of the craters the night before we relieved his battalion, and had been bombed and killed at a range of two or three yards. His Captain, Harold Cuthbert, who is a very gallant fellow, had subsequently crawled out and collected some of his private belongings. Drury Lowe, of the same regiment, told me to-day he had heard that the Germans had put up a notice saying that they had buried this man properly. I cannot vouch for this, but the body had disappeared by the time I arrived from the very prominent position it had occupied on the lip of the crater.[3]

 

Finally, today, back to England, for a meal much to the aesthetic benefit of one of our most artistic young officers. Siegfried Sassoon dined in Cambridge tonight, advancing one “of several important relationships which must have put his Officer’s Training programme firmly into the background.” The dinner was at Wayside Cottage, home of Sidney Cockerell, a businessman who had become Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum and the heir to the tradition of the Pre-Raphaelites. Cockerell had worked with William Morris and John Ruskin, then later for Wilfred Scawen Blunt, and was about as refined and aesthetically knowledgeable as it was possible to be.

Our diffident Sassoon, who has been enjoying his sporty “outdoor” identity among the well-bred philistines of the Royal Welch, found himself suddenly thrown into a “trance of stimulation” after an evening of handling the original works of Morris and Rossetti. Cockerell awed the younger man, who described him as “a bearded and spectacled magician,” but he seems to have respected him too, although it’s hard to tell what he thought of Sassoon’s early poetry. Still, it must have been nice to have such a well-mannered and eager acolyte among the hordes of training troops, and the two forged a fast bond over not only the Pre-Raphaelites but also over their shared love for Hardy, whose outlook was, of course, very different. Sassoon will be invited back several times during his Cambridge sojourn, including tomorrow.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Curtayne, Ledwidge, 122.
  2. The Letters of Charles Sorley, 294-7.
  3. War Letters to a Wife, 29-32.
  4. Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, 198.

Siegfried Sassoon: Breakfast with Eddie and Rupert (and the Super-Tramp!)

The indefatigable Eddie Marsh had many protégés among the young male painters and poets of London, and he maintained an extremely active social life, shuttling between the high society and government world (he was Churchill’s personal secretary) while also hobnobbing with artists and writers from every social stratum. Marsh’s intersecting elitisms–everyone he socialized with possessed either social position or talent–makes for an interesting sort of diversity. We have seen him take Isaac Rosenberg, a Jew from the slums, under his wing, and at breakfast today were the poet W.H. Davies, a self-dubbed “super-tramp”[1] who had been a practicing hobo and lost a leg to a freight train; the painter Paul Nash, out of the urban middle class; the erstwhile fox hunting gentleman Siegfried Sassoon; and, of course, Rupert Brooke.

Since we last saw Eddie, in fact, he seems to have devoted nearly all his non-working hours to advancing Brooke’s social prominence. He had already greatly advanced Brooke’s career with the Georgian Poetry anthology and by celebrating his continuing development as a poet during Brooke’s post-breakdown year on the road (Sassoon had, some months before, been read an epistolary poem by Marsh, and suffered jealousy of both Brooke’s skill and his position in Marsh’s affections). Now, since Brooke had broken with many of his Rugby and Cambridge friends (affairs badly ended, a paranoid conviction that Lytton Strachey was out to get him–that sort of thing), he was willing (more than willing, actually) to meet the many titled and ministerial types that Marsh knew, and to circulate among the first rank of the literary world–and, naturally, to charm them all, out of both habit and a healthy instinct for the furtherance of his fame. It will be dinner with the Asquiths in a few days, at number ten Downing street, and lunch with its future inhabitant Churchill; cosy chats with Shaw and Yeats and D.H. Lawrence and G.K. Chesterton and J.M. Barrie (post Peter Pan, so it is difficult to allege any connection between Rupert and Peter) and, tomorrow, lunch with Henry James… but today, one of those sleepy and uninspiring road matches between the really big games, it’s just breakfast with the moderately famous but tiresome Davies and two unknowns.

So it’s not Brooke’s story–although he wrote a much-cited pastiche of one of the tales told by Davies that morning, he did not write about meeting Sassoon. Amidst the dozens of formidable and famous introductions, the quiet, awkward, self-published Kentish poet would not have left much of an impression.

But for Sassoon, meeting Rupert Brooke, star of the Georgian poetry movement, was “clearly a key moment,”[2] the first of several frustrating–or otherwise inspirational–run-ins with other poets.

Sassoon, who lived next door, had not only heard of Brooke’s doings from Marsh but had caught sight of “the wonderful Rupert” on the street a few days before, looking “so self-contained and care-free.” The invitation to share kidneys and bacon with the Young Apollo left Sassoon “agog with excitement.” And yet, as readers of Sassoon (or, I-suppose-by-now, of this project) will guess, the story isn’t really about Brooke, but about Sassoon’s state of innocence (or foolishness).

The story and the set-up are both predictable: they are the same age, but while Brooke shone at Cambridge and has become the foremost new poet, Sassoon left without a degree and has stagnated. Not only is his own verse florid and out-of-date (only his recent Masefield pastiche, The Daffodil Murderer, showed enough facility with language to get him onto Marsh’s calendar) but Sassoon lets us know that he was not then up to appreciating the “abundant graces” of Brooke’s work. He is jealous of the man–“I was unprepared to find him more than moderately likeable. Eddie’s adoring enthusiasm had put me somehow [!!!] on the defensive.”–and prevented by poetic prejudice and his “unagile intellect” from appreciating what so many admire about his poetry. So the whole thing isn’t just “that time I had breakfast with Brooke,” but, rather, yet another “anecdote against myself,” an encounter that shows the bumbling immaturity of the young Siegfried.

Breakfast was already well under way when I became aware that Rupert Brooke had entered the room.

(If we were being clever, we might suggest that “breakfast” is poetic compression for “the twentieth century,” “Rupert Brooke” for “things the twentieth century values.”)

He had slipped in unnoticed, for the door was behind me… I looked up, and he was at my elbow, composedly awaiting the jubilant ‘Welcome home from foreign parts!’ with which his friend Davies greeted him. Eddie then introduced me to him; he shook hands rather shyly. From the first I got the impression that the great Rupert Brooke was quite a modest chap after all.

This, as Sassoon probably realizes, is the quintessential Brooke magic. Brooke–again the slipperiness and opportunism and sly disarming awareness of it–had once written to his friend Geoffrey Keynes that “I attempt to be ‘all things to all men,'” and here he is a shy, quiet, modest chap.

Sassoon goes on to describe him:

He was wearing an open-necked blue shirt and old grey flannel trousers, with sandals on his bare feet, and hadn’t bothered to brush his brown-gold hair… his eyes were a living blue and his face was still sunburnt from outdoor life on a Pacific Island.

Sassoon and Brooke are both quiet. Davies natters on (Nash plummets from all the accounts–he is either excised or completely forgotten by Sassoon) while Brooke tucks in and Sassoon wonders why he feels so inferior to this humble, slovenly (sandals!) fellow. Brooke, of course, cleaned up real good for society events, but he reverted to the dress of a Fabian socialist (a creed he professed, or had professed, but not lately with any energy) and bohemian poet for these sorts of occasions.

The slow-moving Sassoon soon hits on the meaning of his discomfiture:

I felt that I myself had reacted against that sort of thing too much–by trying to become a hard-boiled sportsman, dressing the part, and getting the name of my London club put on my visiting-card. Brooke had obviously done better by being a Cambridge intellectual and suppressing the fact that he’d played cricket and football for Rugby. The difference between us seemed to be that his idea of adventure was to go half across the world and write vividly about it, while mine was to go somewhere in Warwickshire, gallop after a pack of hounds, and stop being a writer altogether!

This is muddled: does Sassoon resent Brooke’s bohemianism, or just his commitment to a unified self-presentation? And if everyone remembers that you were a capable athlete at school, it’s easy enough to “suppress” (i.e. not talk about–there was no airbrushing of Rugby team photos) this fact and still receive credit for athleticism and modesty.

If Sassoon imagined that Brooke was very much at ease with himself, he was very wrong, and perhaps playing into the aura of poetic perfection which Brooke subsequently gained.

And then there are the things that Sassoon must know but would not tell us in his memoir. Sassoon’s six volume account of himself omits sex entirely, but one can fairly confidently assume[3] that, although he is at this point in his life probably entirely without sexual experience, he is beginning to come to terms with his attraction to men. He will never complete that coming-to-terms, but surely part of the attraction of Marsh’s milieu was that it was welcoming to not-completely-closeted gay men. Here is Sassoon spending time with an older, well-connected “celibate homosexual” and his beautiful, bohemian, bisexual young friend.[4] Clearly there is another, truly “suppressed,” aspect to the innocence of Sassoon as contrasted with literary London and Marsh’s circle–he is not quite up to date, or in touch, or nimble enough when it comes to intellectual attainment, and poetry, and society… and sex.

Perhaps, still, we are to assume (taking into account the author’s intentions, here) that his thickheadedness extends to “missing” the fact of Brooke’s bisexuality, or of Marsh’s devotion to him, or of Brooke’s calm acceptance of the adoration of several other men and women. In which case Sassoon doesn’t yet recognize his own homosexual tendencies (or Brooke’s) and is jealous of him merely as a man who has had a scandalous affair (with a woman) and written erotically charged poetry from the South Seas (then known as “Gauginism”). But, whether acknowledged and hidden, half-realized, or entirely subconscious, there is more to the jealousy here than Brooke’s poetry and full comfort in different modes of dress. Beauty matters, usually. But none of this is discussed openly in Sassoon’s account.

Once Marsh goes off to the day’s work at the Admiralty, Davies and Nash soon clear out, and the two poets are left to talk about poetry. Sassoon makes a hash of this, too, by seizing on a Kipling reference (Brooke mentioned that the white men he had met in Tahiti were “rather like composite characters out of Conrad and Kipling”) as a chance to score easy points by disparaging that sort of Victorian nonsense. Brooke, of course, gently defends Kipling, and Sassoon, too abashed too admit that, yeah, he likes some of Kipling’s verse too, is reduced to mentioning that the two remaining breakfasters must have overlapped at university.

They did, briefly, and it turns out that Sassoon remembers Brooke from his appearance as a “herald” in a Cambridge production of the Eumenides–done all in Greek, naturally.

In fact, if I had been a little quicker off the mark, this project might have begun on November 30th, 2006, the centennial of that opening night, with young Rupert making the most of his walk-on role. This was the first time Eddie Marsh (a Cambridge man as well) laid eyes on “the radiant, youthful figure in gold and vivid red and blue, like a Page in the Riccardi Chapel.”[5] Other teachers and friends of Brooke remember first laying eyes on the freshman during this performance, and, coincidentally, George Mallory, who will briefly traverse this project at several points before his climb to fame, was there too.[6] Now Sassoon:

This was something I’d entirely forgotten, though it came back to me vividly, now. For the Herald had been such a striking figure that everybody in Cambridge had talked about him. But I didn’t mystify him by exclaiming ‘So I had seen you before!’ I merely thought how odd it was that I had never connected the Herald in his gorgeous red and gold with the young poet whose work had since then startled and attracted me.

Meanwhile I was only one more in the procession of people who were more interested in him than he was in them… To him I was merely an amateur poet who had scarcely arrived in publication, strongly flavoured with the Philistinism of the hunting field. His intellectual development was years ahead of me, and his character was much more fully formed than mine. I was still slowly unlearning the mental immaturities which he had got rid of before he was twenty-one. From me, as I then was, he could have acquired nothing. So there we were, and my present notion is that I felt rather like a Lower fifth Form boy talking to the Head of the School!The Weald of Youth, 220-32.

Fair enough–especially if we are careful to note that Sassoon has good instincts (he is attracted to the Herald’s physical grace, and later to the poetry) that are repeatedly let down by a failure of intellectual follow-through. And we might add that he also seems rather like “a young man deathly afraid that he is dull talking to an equally young man under great pressure to be charming and witty at all times,” or, indeed, “an overgrown boy of many innocences talking to a burned-out veteran of a dozen love affairs, a golden boy feeling inexplicably tarnished, to whom success has brought no sense of permanent belonging, reassured identity, or existential security.” But that would be a mouthful…

Brooke, in the end, has to be a writer–or at least he is lucky that he is a writer. We will follow him, usually, through his letters, in which he can be himself in the sense of temporarily being “one man” as he focuses on being the addressee’s image of a perfect correspondent. And the lyric poetry–however affected, however little the then shockingly “plain” language feels archaic and poetic now–could express something of his real self, even if partially cloaked by poeticism and wit. Any biography would collapse under the weight of observers’ opinions without some of the man’s own words.[7]

As for Sassoon, he was still at a loss for words, poetically as well as conversationally, but meeting Brooke stirred him, at least, to produce a sonnet, “‘Sporting Acquaintances’, in which he mocked both his fox-hunting and literary selves in an imitation of Brooke’s best satirical manner.”[8]

Sassoon closes the chapter of his memoir with some reflections on the “latent irony of the situation.” But to unpack that statement we would indeed be getting ahead of ourselves…  instead, having nothing to do the rest of the day, Sassoon heads to the zoo… a fine idea.

Soon he will run out of funds and return home to Kent, where we will pick him up on the eve of war. Brooke’s engagement calendar is rather more full.

References and Footnotes

  1. Yes, absolutely that "Supertramp." It seems necessary to note that Rick Davies' band, like his poetic double-namesake, seems to naturally position itself in the history of its art as a late flowering of a form that is being simultaneously--and much more successfully--revolutionized by other artists. Alas for the less radio-friendly prog-rockers and the more Victorian Georgians, just as the modernists and the punks were getting into gear.
  2. I'll take this opportunity to cite Harry Ricketts' Strange Meetings, page 3, a historical/fictional anthology of meetings between Great War poets. This breakfast, naturally, is the first chapter of the book. Ricketts is able to add a 21st century sensibility and some apt poetic criticism to previous recountings of the event, but if I weren't myself at this very moment cribbing from Sassoon's memoir and Hassall's early, semi-official Brooke biography I would complain about Ricketts' heavy reliance on them... And his clunky scene-setting--we are told, for instance, during both the entrance and the exit vignettes that there are 69 steps up to Marsh's flat.
  3. Based on post 1914 evidence, sorry!
  4. Brooke had numerous love affairs of admirably Desboroughian ambiguity--some were epistolary fixations, some featured only unrequited lust, some certainly turned physical, and two (probably) involved pregnancy. Rickets includes an argument that Brooke may have had only one full sexual experience with a man and was never that sexually interested in men, but merely torn between innate puritanism, disgust for women, and ordinary lust. Well, sure: there were several sexual affairs with women over the last few years (as historical gossip demonstrates beyond any yawning doubts) and there is only one letter in Rupert's hand that includes a long and explicit account of gay sex. And yes, like many of his male contemporaries, he was conflicted about sex and evinced a nasty misogyny when given half an opportunity. This is a lot of evidence about sexual unhappiness, but it does not amount to proof that Brooke no longer enjoyed sex with men, and seems like a step toward the "it was only schoolboy experimentation" dismissal, which several of Brooke's gay friends and lovers (as in "men who loved him") would surely dispute. But anyway.
  5. I hadn't thought of this until just now, but, although the chapel in question is real Italian Quattrocento, Brooke's beauty and museworthiness would have been perfect for the pre-Raphaelites: if he had been a woman, and two generations older, he would have been an excellent model and muse for Morris and Burne-Jones. As it happened, he was a man--so his poetry was taken seriously, his sexual indiscretions overlooked, and his looks often given second place to his thoughts and words--but, still: perhaps this explains his strong reaction against Victorian poetry and its celebration of mere prettiness. Despite not taking to his art or his poetry, Brooke was still influenced by Morris's socialism, however--but then, William Morris influences everybody. But this is an unusually horrible digression.
  6. In a minor feat of biographical energy, Hassall, Rupert Brooke, 107, quotes the diaries and memoirs of several other Cantabrigian writers struck by the as-yet-unknown herald. Everybody mostly wrote everything down, even then (and with real pens!), but everyone always wrote down any Rupert Brooke sightings, even before he was Rupert Brooke.
  7. And there are many biographies. Trying desperately to set some research limits, I am avoiding even looking at most of them, but it occurs to me that, if none of them yet tend in this direction, Brooke should be the subject of a meta-biography or personal reception study that tracks the ways in which the interpretations of his life evolve. Explicit spoilers about Brooke's future begin... now...  Hassall's biography amounts, along with the initial Letters, to a sort of "official" or "authorized" view, condoned by Brooke's literary executors. But other groups of letters, especially to men and women he loved, have increasingly complicated that initial, expurgated version, even as our general idea of what to make of his sort of poetry, sexuality, and psychology have changed enormously over the decades. Well, perhaps I'll look at another biography or two and see what's up...
  8. Ricketts, 19.