Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Siegfried's Friends

I promised a while ago to say something about Siegfried Sassoon's friendships.  I suppose I have been putting it off because there are just so many of them that it's a daunting task.  Dennis Silk, speaking on the subject at an SSF annual conference in Marlborough a few years ago, was unable to squeeze all his material into the time available, whilst Philip Stewart, who took us on that wonderful literary tour of Boar's Hill, referred to Sassoon as not only being at the centre of a vast web of acquaintances but being a person that everyone liked.  It is as though, for all his faults, people were drawn to him.  We do not get a strong sense of this from his work; it seems to me that he is always on the outside looking in, admiring people like Norman Loder and Rupert Brooke from afar, never thinking of himself as an object of admiration or (in the case of Lady Ottoline Morrell, to name but one) desire.

I can only hope to scratch the surface in this blog, so I will concentrate on those who come most immediately to mind, rather than trying to assess their relative importance in Sassoon's life.  To begin at the beginning, we know little of his childhood friends.  He was, after all, kept away from children of his own age in his early years by being taught at home.  He seems not to have been very close to his older brother Michael, but to have had a more confiding relationship with his younger brother Hamo.  There were substitute father figures - Tom Richardson the groom, for one.  Yet in the pre-war days no one friend seems to stand out strongly, although Siegfried clearly had great affection for Loder, Bobbie Hanmer, and Gordon Harbord, all friends who shared his love of sport.

The war brought Sassoon into contact with others of his age group, and he quickly found a kindred spirit in Robert Graves.  Graves' own account of their first meeting describes how he sought out Sassoon as the owner of a volume of Lionel Johnson's essays he had spotted lying around.  Siegfried himself recorded his first impression of Graves as "an interesting creature" and "a defier of convention"; bearing in mind Graves' later career, the latter description reveals considerable insight on Sassoon's part.  Graves became heavily involved in Sassoon's case when the latter made his "Soldier's Declaration" in the summer of 1917, and some believe he was instrumental in preventing a court-martial.

In my most recent post, I wrote about Siegfried’s association with Lady Ottoline Morrell and how it influenced his own life, both directly and indirectly.  It was through her that he met people like Bertrand Russell and John Middleton Murry, who would be keen to see him make his outspoken protest against the war.  These were not friends as such; Siegfried deferred to them in the same way he would have done to anyone he considered more learned than himself, and, in this respect, he was very unsure of himself. Nevertheless, after the war, when he no longer wished to think about his recent past, he remained friendly with Lady Ottoline.  Neil Brand, in his play "Between the Lines", interprets their relationship in a touching scene that will be clearly recollected by anyone who has heard or seen it performed.  The dialogue between them is the dramatist's invention, but it is completely believable.

Other, older,  friends also disapproved of Sassoon's protest.  Robbie Ross, Oscar Wilde’s former lover and literary executor, was one such.  Ross, a Canadian by birth and a prominent art critic, had first met Siegfried before the war and had been a kind of mentor to him, one of several older men Sassoon seems to have seen as substitute fathers (another being Edmund Gosse, who had given him advice and encouragement in his early poetic career).  He was angry when he heard about the “Soldier’s Declaration”, feeling that Siegfried had been led by malign influences to put himself in danger.  Yet Ross himself was in serious potential trouble because of his homosexual activities, and the stress of this must surely have contributed to his sudden death, aged only 49, just before the war ended.  It was a major blow to Siegfried as well as to Ross’s many other friends, who included Robert Graves and Wilfred Owen, both of whom had been brought within Ross's circle by Sassoon.

The friend who perhaps influenced Sassoon most strongly at this period, and whose presence helped him to get over the deaths of Ross and Owen, was the psychiatrist William Rivers, who had treated him at Craiglockhart.   I recently came across this passage in Sassoon’s memoirs.

“In the daytime, sitting in a sunny room, a man could discuss his psycho-neurotic symptoms with his doctor, who could diagnose phobias and conflicts and formulate them into scientific terminology. Significant dreams could be noted down, and Rivers could try to remove repressions. But by night each man was back in his doomed sector of horrorstricken Front Line, where the panic and stampede of some ghastly experience was re-enacted among the livid faces of the dead.”

This gives us a clue as to the true value of Rivers’ presence in Sassoon’s life.  It was ironic that he, like Ross, should die suddenly – in Rivers’ case, at the age of 58 – leaving Sassoon with strong feelings of bereavement.  Other friends appeared to fill the void, one of the most notable being T E Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”), who shared much with Sassoon.  By the time Lawrence, too, was taken from him suddenly, Sassoon had married Hester Gatty and was moving into a new phase of life, finally becoming a father, a role to which he had aspired for many years. 

The friendship that interests me most, naturally, is the one Sassoon shared with our SSF President, Dennis Silk, who has often told the humorous tale of his first meeting with Siegfried in 1953 (engineered by Sassoon's other great post-war friend, the poet Edmund Blunden).  Dennis, in his usual self-deprecatory way, refers to himself as “the idiot boy” to whom Siegfried could confide his feelings about the past without feeling judged or threatened.  And it is Dennis, more than anyone, who has been responsible for the existence of the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship – simply because anyone who hears the affection with which he talks about his friend “Sig” cannot fail to want to hear more and to find in themselves an increased admiration for the man as well as the poet.

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