Reading the Collections, Week 4: Siegfried Sassoon, Poems
I am that man who with a luminous look
Sits up at night to write a ruminant book.
I am that man who with a furrowed frown
Thinks harshly of the world – and corks it down.
I am that man who loves to ride alone
When landscapes wear his mind’s autumnal tone.
I am that man who, having lived this day,
Looks once on life and goes his wordless way.
I decided to read this small collection of poems by Siegfried Sassoon, not so much for the poetry but because I’ve always meant to investigate the story behind the manuscript and how it made its way up to St Andrews. I often use this work for teaching, because it’s a lovely volume from a well-known author and has an interesting story. But I’d never actually read it, and it was time to see if what I said about it was true!
Sassoon (1886-1967) is best known as one of the Great War poets, initially leading his men with a reckless but inspiring courage, but after losing close friends he become disillusioned and turned his talents to anti-war protests. He also wrote novels and biography, and kept diaries for most of his life, many of which are available online from Cambridge University Digital Library. He also features in the First World War Poetry Digital Archive where you can see some of his manuscripts.
Local tradition has it that during the Second World War, St Andrews University Librarian George Bushnell offered safe-keeping for manuscripts kept in Blitzed London and the South-East. Certainly various literary manuscripts arrived here in 1940-1941. I couldn’t find a copy of Bushnell’s outgoing letter, but there are letters from some of the authors enclosed with the works they sent up. The war is not mentioned in any of them though they seem pleased to have been asked; Herbert Read says ‘since you are the first (except an American library) to honour me by asking for a MS, you shall have this untidy bundle if you would like it’, but no mention of air raids and escaping the bombs. Which was just as well since the University Library suffered bomb damage from a raid on St Andrews on 25th October 1940, causing damage to around 1000 books.
An entry in the Library Minutes for May 1941 explains what Bushnell had been up to – in his spare time he had been cataloguing the library’s manuscript collection. It came to a paltry 400 items! Not sure how we got from 400 up to the 3km we now have. He determined to do something about this and so wrote to numerous living authors around Britain, asking somewhat cheekily for a manuscript. No mention of paying for any of these. By May 1941 he had received a considerable number, listed here in the minutes.
This manuscript is elegantly laid out, with one short poem neatly handwritten on each leaf. I have always thought our volume was Sassoon’s own handwriting – and it is, as you can see by comparing the poems with his inscription in a copy of his latest book Rhymed Ruminations, sent to Rosamund Hussey, in 1939 on the eve of war. He enclosed a letter too which expresses his sadness that the world is descending once again into war.
Sadly there is no undiscovered unpublished masterpiece here. All the poems come from previously published works. Yet this selection and order of poems appear nowhere else, suggesting they were personally chosen and arranged by the author; the hand painted frontispiece and monogram ‘SS January 1941’ at the back suggest again it was specially put together, whether for Bushnell and St Andrews or for someone else.
Sassoon had written to H E Palmer in December 1940 that his latest collection, Rhymed Ruminations, was a ‘considered sequence’, and I feel sure our manuscript contains a carefully selected sequence of related poems, signifying something to Sassoon. There are 19 poems, not a nice round number like 20. Their choice must surely have been influenced by his state of mind in early 1941, when news from the current conflict would have brought back echoes of the Great War. Sassoon suffered from depression during the Second World War, so I would have expected them to reflect that first great cataclysm in the light of the second, but that’s not all that is here in this collection.
This is the order of poems and the collections they come from:
Brevities from Rhymed Ruminations, 1939
The Dug-Out from Picture Show, published 1919
In me past, present and future meet, from The Heart’s Journey, 1927-1928
The Power and the Glory, The Heart’s Journey
Alone, from The Old Huntsman and other poems: Lyrical Poems, 1917
It has been told and will be told again, The Heart’s Journey
A flower has opened in my heart…. The Heart’s Journey
At the end of all wrong roads I came, Vigils, 1935
Vigil in Spring, Vigils
December Stillness, Vigils
War Experience, Vigils
Long Ago, Vigils
The Merciful Knight, Vigils
November Dusk, Rhymed Ruminations
A Local Train of Thought, Rhymed Ruminations
Old World to New, Rhymed Ruminations
Earth and Heaven, Rhymed Ruminations
As for reading the poems, they did not have the same initial impact as the early war poems, which are full of anger and bite at the futility of trench warfare and the senseless waste of life. These are reflective, nostalgic, melancholy, passive, often abstract. Only one comes from the war poems, The Dug-Out; the rest are from more meditative collections. The poetic voice sounds detached, weary, looking for silence, for peace, for sleep, for release. Common themes pervade them, of lost innocence of youth, burdened with years and experiences, a solitary existence, distant memories; there are juxtapositions of night and day, gloom and glare, light and dark, spring and autumn, youth and age, nature and renewal against endings, dusk, decay, death. Yet as I read them again, I began to find them haunting in their quiet introspective way, as in this verse from Long Ago.
Youth, once mine, once wonder,
Ignorant, brimmed with tears,
Long have you wandered, laden
Head and heart with your years;
Yet in this moment’s vision,
Youth at the window stands,
Holding the world in his hands.
I would like to suppose Sassoon decided to pick and write out this selection especially for St Andrews, rather than being just something he had lying around. I would also like to think they are a meaningful collection, representing not only Sassoon’s reaction to the war, but also a spiritual journey, seeking, hoping, searching for some meaning to life, conveying his thoughts on soul, faith, God, but without any conclusion.