People do love our annual joint meetings with the Wilfred Owen Association, at The Lamb in Bloomsbury. Actually, 14thMarch this year was the third time in twelve months that the SSF had visited the pub, since we held our AGM there in the autumn. No one seemed to mind making an extra visit, given the opportunity to visit a historic and atmospheric building with a great atmosphere and at the same time enjoy good food and drink as well as the company of friends and some great talks from top-rated speakers.
I dare not include myself in that last group, as I was very much a stand-in last Saturday. The room was comfortably full (not too crowded, as it has sometimes been in the past) for a lecture by Professor Elizabeth Vandiver of Whitman College, Washington, USA, the author of the 2010 classic, Stand in the Trench, Achilles: Classical Receptions in British Poetry of the Great War, now re-issued in paperback. Her subject was “The underworld journey in Owen, Sassoon, Graves, and Aldington”. Professor Vandiver spoke about how these poets approached the topic of the afterlife in their work, and I will not attempt to give a full résumé here, as those of you who are members will see one in Siegfried’s Journal soon enough.
One of the matters Elizabeth focused on was the way in which the individual poets’ educational background affected their treatment of death and the afterlife. Wilfred Owen, being a grammar school boy, treats the subject more straightforwardly than the others with their public school background – with the possible exception of Sassoon, who appears to be bending over backwards not to reveal his classical education in his satirical war poems. I agreed wholeheartedly with Elizabeth’s view that this was deliberate. Sassoon’s concern was to convey his feelings about the war in language that everyone could understand, and his success in doing so was his great achievement. Today (in my opinion) he remains the most accessible of the major war poets.
Insights into the classical education of the boys who would go on to become junior officers as well as poets have been given in past SSF meetings and conferences by speakers such as Vivien Whelpton, Michael Copp and Gladys Mary Coles. Thinking back to these, I was surprised that I seemed to have overlooked such an obvious aspect of Sassoon’s war poetry as his avoidance of any intellectual element that might create a barrier between him and his intended audience. Elizabeth’s comments were a revelation, and, in my own subsequent talk (on the subject of Sassoon’s relationship with Thomas Hardy), I was able to go some way towards demonstrating the correctness of her observations by quoting a passage from his diary from which it is clear that, though he may not have been an academic success, he had not forgotten his knowledge of the Classics. This appears to demonstrate that it was a conscious decision on his part to leave the classical references out of his poetry, at least during the war years.
It was good to see so many familiar faces at The Lamb, but also several new ones. Unlike many other literary societies, we have a good gender and age balance among our membership, which has stood us in good stead so far and should continue to do so. The grandly-named "Empire Room", where we always have to open the windows because of the mass of warm bodies within, has become a home from home, whilst landlord Leigh and his team, dashing around trying to serve thirty different menu choices, are now familiar faces. Long may the joint spring meeting continue!