Saturday, 24 December 2016

A Letter from Wales


In the above title I am referring, not to this present post, but to a poem addressed to Siegfried Sassoon by Robert Graves after the First World War and published in his 1925 collection Welchman's Hose (a curious title which I initially misread as Welchman's House, a mistake I'm sure others will have made). It was one of several poems he wrote to Sassoon, and shows indisputably that - whatever their later relationship - he thought of the latter not only as a friend but as a kindred spirit, one who had been his comrade through the best and worst of times.
Graves had officially died during the war.  His condition was so bad after being wounded at the Battle of the Somme that it was thought impossible he would recover and he was left for dead in a dressing station until, many hours later, the medical staff noticed that he was still breathing. By the time he was well enough to contact his friends and family, his commanding officer had written a letter of sympathy to his mother and a notice of his death had appeared in The Times.
I confess that, had I not been fortunate enough to attend the launch, earlier this month, of Charles Mundye's new edition of Graves' War Poems, coincidentally published by my local publishing house Seren, I might not have paid such close attention to these poems, many of which I have never read previously. In fact, I don't think I had ever read "A Letter from Wales" right through, and a re-reading throws new light on the fellow-feeling between the two wartime friends. As Sassoon would later do in his prose works, Graves bestows pseudonyms on both - Sassoon becomes "Abel Wright", which sounds a rather backhanded compliment (especially when you consider Sassoon's earlier poem "Ancient History"), and Graves himself is "Richard Rolls". He refers to the wartime diaries in which Sassoon, firmly believing his friend to be dead, began work on a verse epitaph - before finding out that he had in fact survived.
The poem continues the fantasy that Graves did in fact die and was replaced by a doppelganger who resembles him outwardly but is different inside - not only that, but Sassoon also died, perhaps more than once, and was replaced by another lookalike. The two impostors holidayed in Wales "pretending a wild joy/That they had cheated Death..." The idea is an illusion, as they are both damaged beyond repair and, in attempting to blot out their war experiences, have become something different and unnatural. Worse still, the denial of what they remember has adversely affected their friendship: "there was a constraint in all our dealings," he laments.

This was before the great falling-out between Graves and Sassoon that resulted from the publication of Good-Bye to All That and was never really mended. Here, however, we seem to find Graves in apologetic and regretful mode, and Sassoon's response must have been one of recognition. Although fully aware of Graves’ tendency to upset his friends unintentionally, he had become less tolerant of him since the war, and Graves’ explanation for this rings very true.
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