Saturday, 19 April 2014

At the Grave of Henry Vaughan

April was beginning to show signs of bringing some lovely spring weather when I decided to make my third trip up to Llansantffraed, near Talybont-on-Usk, near Brecon, to visit the grave of Henry Vaughan (1621-1695).  Siegfried Sassoon visited the grave in August 1923 and it inspired him to write one of his best-known post-war poems.  I have taken that poem as the basis for a monograph I'm producing for the Cecil Woolf "War Poets Series", and I'm hoping it will be published in time for the paper, on the same subject, that I'll be giving at the British Poetry of the First World War conference at Oxford in September.  As I'm only a panel speaker, it won't be a long lecture - we are only allowed twenty minutes, which will no doubt be a relief to some of the audience - but it is going to be difficult to cram everything I would like to say into the time available.  You can regard this post as a preview.

In the beginning, I had been mystified as to what attracted Sassoon to Vaughan's work at this particular time in his life.  Even allowing for the fact that young men of the early 20th century were not only brought up to be interested in poetry but were familiar with poets that we now regard as old-fashioned and/or obscure, it seemed an odd coupling.  In 1923, Vaughan was far from being a popular poet and it was probably Edmund Blunden who introduced Sassoon to him after they both returned from the First World War and struck up their lifelong friendship.

On further investigation, I found so many parallels between Vaughan and Sassoon that I was quite overwhelmed.  Sassoon himself may not have been aware of some of these, even after he got to know Vaughan's work.  The 200-year gap between Vaughan's death and Sassoon's birth is not the obstacle I thought it was to their fellow-feeling.  Both were, in their way, war poets, though Vaughan in a much less obvious way than Sassoon.  Both came to detest the very idea of war and long for the pastoral idyll of which it had robbed them.  Both lived as country gentlemen, were great horse-lovers, and spent too much money on this favourite pastime.  Each had two brothers, one of whom died as a result of a war, and, although they were two very different wars (in Vaughan's case, a civil war as opposed to a world war), both men were very close to the action and shared some comparable experiences.  Is it any wonder that Sassoon felt drawn to Henry Vaughan?

Add to this that Vaughan was a Welshman (probably Welsh-speaking) and Sassoon had been on active service at the Western Front with the Royal Welch Fusiliers and you see an additional attraction.  Not only that, but Vaughan's grave at Llansantffraed happened to be on the way to Manorbier in Pembrokeshire, where Sassoon was heading to visit another poet friend, Walter de la Mare.  Naturally, he stopped off, in order to try to capture something of Vaughan's spirit, and he obviously succeeded; but the poem was not written during the actual visit.  It is dated around a week later, when Sassoon had taken time to reflect on the experience and refine his immediate response into a polished 14-line sonnet that encapsulated his feelings so successfully that the poem has become one of his most acclaimed.

Sassoon enthusiasts will be pleased to learn that the locals not only recognise Vaughan's reputation as one of Wales's foremost poets, albeit somewhat after the event, but that a reading of Sassoon's poem, "At the Grave of Henry Vaughan", generally forms part of the annual commemoration that takes place close to the anniversary of the older poet's birthday.  For those who wish to investigate further, there is a Vaughan Association with its own Journal and a conference coming up (see http://vaughanassociation.blogspot.co.uk/p/thevaughan-association.html)
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