Sunday, 4 February 2018

Withdrawal Symptoms

Are you starting to experience withdrawal symptoms as the number of First World War-related activities and events thins out with the centenary of the Armistice now in sight? Or are you suffering from overload and will you simply be glad to hear the last of it?
Not to worry, in either case. The Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship has the good fortune to be associated with a man who, despite his quip to the effect that "most people think I died in 1919", still had some of his greatest achievements ahead of him when the Great War ended. We will have centenaries to celebrate for many years to come, and, who knows, by the centenary of his death in 2067, his work may be attracting an even bigger audience than it already does, but for quite different reasons.
By the time the war ended in 1918, many of the great war poets had sung their song and passed away. Isaac Rosenberg, Rupert Brooke, Edward Thomas, and many lesser-known but equally talented poets had fallen in battle and would never write another poem. Wilfred Owen's work remained to be discovered by the global audience it now has, but that event was not too far away. Sassoon, meanwhile, was struggling for inspiration; he might well have thought that the most meaningful period of his life was over.
Yet it was only now, right at the end of the war, that he became personally acquainted with two figures who would be of major importance to him: Thomas Hardy and T E Lawrence. These meetings were perhaps a little overshadowed, in these immediate post-war years, by the loss of two men who might have given him some guidance for the future - Robert Ross, who died in October 1918, and William Rivers, who died in 1922. Both deaths were very sudden, and floored Sassoon, their emotional effect being as great as the wartime deaths of close friends like Owen and David Thomas. The new friends he made over the years never quite made up for the losses; how could they?
He did not know it, but this was to be the period when he discovered the depths of his literary talent and fulfilled the early promise of his war poetry. To Sassoon, writing a popular memoir cannot have seemed such a great achievement. Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man, though it won literary prizes and went so quickly onto school syllabuses that his own son found himself studying it for O-level, did not make its author particularly proud. Sassoon said that "my real biography is in my poetry", but this can only be true if one takes into account all the lesser-known poems from the post-war period as well as the classic war poems.
So we may not go on celebrating centenaries quite as busily as we have been doing these past few years (which will be something of a relief for anyone involved in organising commemorative events), but there will still be notable achievements for us to mark: the publication of Owen's Poems in 1920, edited by Sassoon with the indispensable assistance of Edith Sitwell; Sassoon's involvement with the South Wales miners' strike of 1921; and of course the publication of Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man in 1928. Perhaps the latter centenary will be a good opportunity to get together with the Robert Graves Society, who will undoubtedly be recognising the centenary of the publication of Graves' war memoir, Good-Bye to All That (in which Sassoon so prominently features) in 2029. Thank you, Sig, for keeping us so busy.

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