Sunday, 10 May 2015

Where All Roads Lead

Apologies for my lengthy absence from the blog page, which was due mainly to my recent holiday abroad.  As most of my friends will know, I went to Rome, a city whose name has a dual meaning in the context of Siegfried Sassoon's life.  I found it tourist-ridden and dirty, much less pleasant than the Rome I last explored in 1978, but probably much closer to the way it was in the first century AD when the Empire was at its height and ox-carts jostled slaves carrying litters in the narrow streets.

It didn't make much of an impression on Sassoon the first time he visited, in 1921, either.  He was desperate, in search of inspiration for some new work, but found nothing in Rome to inspire him. War poetry was old hat, but was the thing that had given Sassoon his impetus to write great poetry.  His Canadian friend, "Toronto" Prewett, suggested the trip to Rome, but, once there, Siegfried found himself distracted by "sex-cravings".  He claimed that "I am not interested in the Roman Empire, or the Renaissance, or Baroque effects".  Perhaps the vestiges of Imperial Rome reminded him too much of the rivalry between Britain and Germany as to who could build the biggest empire.

Prewett's sudden illness forced Sassoon into contact with the only other person he knew in Rome, Lord Berners (a former paying guest of Nellie Burton at Half Moon Street).  Berners introduced him to the charming young Prince Philipp of Hesse, and their relationship brought Sassoon great happiness in the days that followed.  So much so that, in a subsequent letter to Philipp, he seems to have forgotten his initial dislike of Rome, looking back fondly on the city, "with all its beauty, the murmuring of fountains...and all that happiness".  Only thirty years later would Rome begin to have a different meaning for him.

Barbara Pym often writes, in those comic novels I love, of characters who have "gone over to Rome" and are thereafter discussed, in hushed tones, as having done something slightly disgraceful.  She was writing in the 1950s, the period when Siegfried was considering his own religious principles.  There was something of a surge going on at the time, Sassoon being one of several high-profile converts; others included the actor Alec Guinness.  He was also, of course, following in the footsteps of the great Ronald Knox, whom he hoped to persuade to be his instructor in the Catholic faith; Knox was too ill, and the mantle fell on the shoulders of Dom Sebastian Moore, who died last year and about whom I've written previously.

I do not think that the city of Rome, or any happy memories he might have had of it (he remained friendly with Philipp despite the failure of their relationship), had any role to play in Siegfried's conversion, which resulted largely from a mystical experience in which the figure of a nun, whom he later recognised as Mother Margaret Mary McFarlin, led him to the Roman Catholic Church. Concerned about the possible reaction from his friends, he was eager to tell Glen Byam Shaw and Dennis Silk about his decision on his next visit to Stratford (actually at the Welcombe Hotel which we visited on SSF conference weekend 2011).  He was particularly worried that Dennis, as a clergyman's son, would be shocked; Dennis, though surprised, was perfectly accepting, as were most of Sassoon's other friends.

Not long after Siegfried's reception into the Catholic Church, Pope John XXIII replaced Pius XII in the Holy See.  From what I understand, Pius, though he became an outspoken critic of Fascism, was not particularly progressive in his views either.  John XXIII was a complete contrast, the architect of "Vatican II" and a committed peacemaker and international statesman who was canonized in 2014, along with the late Pope John Paul II.  It is noticeable that John XXIII and John Paul II are both now the subject of considerable adulation among visitors to St Peter's, and the atmosphere around that district of Rome has changed since I visited during the last days of the papacy of the somewhat reserved Pope Paul VI.  I put this down partly to the recent canonizations, but also to the popularity of the current Pope, Francis, whose appeal seems to be based on the simplicity and humility of his approach.  He is, I think, someone of whom Siegfried would have approved.

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