Friday, 15 May 2015

Poetry and Polymaths

I was listening to Classic FM the other day, when the name of Stephen Hough came up.  Hough is best known as a classical pianist, one of the world's most successful in that field.  However, radio presenters often mention the fact that Hough is a "polymath".  Without wishing to be condescending, I feel I should start with a definition of the term, which is not exactly in common use, partly because there are relatively few polymaths around.

Broadly speaking, a polymath is a person who is skilled or knowledgeable in a number of diverse subjects.  "Renaissance man" is another term often used for a person of this kind (for some reason, I never hear the phrase "Renaissance woman", though there were undoubtedly many women around during the Renaissance who fitted the bill).  Leonardo da Vinci is the most celebrated Renaissance man - not only an artist and philosopher, but a scientist and inventor.  Henry VIII is often mentioned in the same breath; Henry became king by an accident of birth, but he was also a sportsman, a musician and composer, a writer and a philosopher of sorts.

Stephen Hough's claim to be a polymath rests on his achievements as a teacher, writer, composer, painter and theologian.   On reading more about Hough, I discovered that he has an awful lot in common with Siegfried Sassoon.  He is, among other things, gay, a Catholic convert, and a poet.  That's leaving aside Hough's musical ability, and we know that Sassoon, despite his habitual self-deprecation, was no mean pianist.  Hough, not surprisingly, has a blog, in which he doubtless displays greater erudition than I am capable of.  Sassoon, were he alive now, would certainly be blogging as well as, or instead of, keeping a written diary.

I have never heard Siegfried Sassoon described as a Renaissance man, but I thought it would be interesting to examine his claims to the title of polymath.  For a start, he was an all-round sportsman - a rider, a cricketer, a golfer.  Sport isn't an area we tend to think of as "knowledge" but it unquestionably involves skill and tactics as well as physical prowess.  He was also an effective soldier who, although often impetuous, showed outstanding leadership qualities.  He received the kind of education we tend to associate with the Renaissance.  In his case, he excelled in the arts, being a talented sketcher and painter as well as a musician, but of course it was in literature that his main interest lay, and that from his earliest years.  

Children in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, if they were fortunate enough to be in full-time education, had greater intellectual expectations thrust on them than we tend to burden the present generation of youngsters with.  Sassoon was reading Thomas Hardy's novels at an age where most modern teenagers would have difficulty following the basic plot, let alone appreciating the language or understanding the message.  The children's literature of the time, though often powerful and imaginative (Lewis Carroll and Kenneth Grahame spring immediately to mind), was mostly designed to please parents rather than to entertain children.

It was in this cultural environment that Siegfried Sassoon grew up and received his schooling. Although he did not do particularly well at school, and dropped out of university, it is worth examining what he did learn, formally and informally, and how it affected his writing.  Several speakers at our conferences and other events have referred to the classical education received by public schoolboys of the period, and have demonstrated how this spilled over into the poetry of the First World War.  Siegfried benefited from that classical education, although he led a relatively sheltered life in rural Kent and was not widely-travelled before his military service.  His lively and enquiring mind caused him to start collecting books, attempting to extract the maximum value from each one. It is true that in some cases the binding appealed to him as much as the content, but perhaps that was just one more aspect of his varied interests.

When it came to war poetry, however, Sassoon was closer to some of the less well-educated poets than to other Oxbridge-educated Renaissance men such as Edward Thomas and Rupert Brooke.  He found his niche in the literary world when he began to write poems that appealed to the general public and didn't require access to a classical dictionary in order to understand the references.  So, whilst he can hardly be denied the title of "thinker", he demanded little of his audience.  Reading one of Sassoon's short satirical war poems is almost like listening to a joke and appreciating the punchline.

Now that I come to think about it, I've often noticed how many of today's most popular comedians are well-educated.  Oxbridge graduates include Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie, Stewart Lee and Richard Herring, Al Murray and David Baddiel, Sandi Toksvig and Sue Perkins.  Most of these could also lay claim to the title of "satirist".  The genre of satire was forged in the classical world of Greece and Rome, among people who were equally well-educated with an equally wide field of interests and skills.

I don't think any of us needs to worry about not being a polymath.  If it wasn't relatively unusual, they wouldn't need such an obscure word for it.  At the same time, I don't think there can be much doubt that Siegfried Sassoon qualifies, and it is the secret of the broadness of his appeal.  He could talk to the troops under his command as comfortably as he could to a Cabinet minister and he wrote for the man in the street as much as he did for his friends.  Many of us have a wide range of interests without necessarily having an in-depth knowledge of any one subject, and perhaps this is why Sassoon speaks to us as individuals; one reader may appreciate him as a sportsman, another may admire his political ideals, still others will simply love the way he uses language in his poetry and prose.  Yet perhaps the most appealing thing about this (sometimes rather vain) man is his humility, his ability to look back on his past self as naive and crass, and his apparent lack of any sense of merit on his own part for any of his very real achievements.  

A few years ago the SSF committee gave Dennis Silk, our President, a surprise gift of a set of cufflinks engraved with the logo of the Fellowship (an artist's impression of Sassoon's famous monogram). Afterwards, Dennis remarked that Siegfried would have been disbelieving.  "They gave you this?!" he would have said.  The implication was that "Sig" - as Dennis remembers him - would have been astounded to think that a whole society had grown up in his honour, and that Dennis had been rewarded for being a living reminder of the polymath that was Siegfried Sassoon.
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