Sunday, 21 April 2013

To commemorate or not to commemorate 1914?

A few weeks ago I received an e-mail from a colleague questioning why societies like ours are arranging special events to commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War.  To quote him verbatim: " surely there must come a time when this tragic event begins to slip from our list of 'celebrations'".  Indeed there must.  Now that the last veterans have left us, along with their memories (although fortunately not without their words and deeds having been recorded for posterity), many of us are probably beginning to wonder where it will all end.  When the centenary of the end of the war has passed, in 2018, will we make a conscious or unconscious decision to tone down our commemoration so that in future the 1914-1918 conflict has a similar status in our minds to the Battle of Waterloo?

One thing I am certain of: as long as there is armed conflict going on in the world, and as long as "The West" is involved in it (which it invariably is, one way or another), there will be a place for the commemoration of Siegfried Sassoon.  So many young people see the words and actions of Sassoon, and his friend Wilfred Owen, as symbolic of something to which they aspire.  Owen is viewed, I believe, as a poetic genius whose tragic sacrifice at the age of 25 represents the need to end all wars.  Sassoon's significance is perhaps less palpable, but more enduring.  In terms of pure literary influence, Owen is clearly out in front, albeit for a small body of work - and perhaps this is part of his charm, in that the less accomplished of his works are easily ignored in favour of the finely-polished jewels that Sassoon helped him perfect, and of course helped to publish.  Siegfried's own lasting influence is of a quite different variety.

"Most people think I died in 1919," the older Sassoon used to say.  That is quite untrue; his prose work appeared in the GCE syllabus during his lifetime, but he suffered from the misapprehension that none of his later achievements measured up to his early success as a poet.  For me, and for many others, it is Sassoon the man who makes the most impact.  The "Soldier's Declaration" of 1917, which he believed to have been an impotent and empty gesture, is nowadays seen as an act of extreme courage.  Put this together with the ground-breaking poetry and the wonderful memoirs and you have a fully-rounded historical figure whose memory will, I believe, endure for many generations to come.

That is why the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship exists and will participate actively in the English Association's "British Poetry of the First World War" conference, to be held at Oxford in September 2014 (details http://www2.le.ac.uk/offices/english-association/ww1poetry/ww1poetry).  The SSF will be hosting a "panel", the exact theme of which is yet to be decided.  If you have any ideas to contribute, whether or not you are a member, we'll be pleased to consider them.  Alternatively, if you want to give a paper yourself on another subject, the instructions for submission can be found here: http://www2.le.ac.uk/offices/english-association/news-and-events/news-1/british-poetry-of-the-first-world-war-call-for-papers

As you will see from the links, several eminent speakers are already lined up for the conference, including Professor Jon Stallworthy, Edna Longley and Jay Winter, but we have quite a few more in the SSF "bag" who may be drawn out for your delectation.  Several of my correspondents have already commented that the delegate fee for the conference is too expensive.  Well, it certainly isn't cheap, but neither is hosting a conference, and I guarantee it will be over-subscribed.  Because of the timing (8th September being Siegfried's birthday), this event will replace our own annual conference next year, but as always we will be holding a range of other SSF events, including our spring joint meeting with the Wilfred Owen Association, and a special annual dinner, during 2014.  And of course, we still have our 2013 conference in Cardiff to look forward to!

Personally, I think there is still a lot to be said on the subject of the First World War and, for the time being, it holds a level of interest for the "younger generation" that should only be encouraged, in an age group for whom history and literature are not normally closely linked.  The life and work of Siegfried Sassoon can teach us more lessons than he could ever have envisaged, and the SSF's participation in the many commemorative events scheduled for 2014 will, I hope, be a very active one.
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