Trouble down there

Ferdinand Mount

  • Siegfried Sassoon: The Making of a War Poet 1886-1918 by Jean Moorcroft Wilson
    Duckworth, 600 pp, £9.99, September 2002, ISBN 0 7156 2894 1
  • Siegfried Sassoon: The Journey from the Trenches 1918-67 by Jean Moorcroft Wilson
    Duckworth, 526 pp, £30.00, April 2003, ISBN 0 7156 2971 9
  • Sassoon: The Worlds of Philip and Sybil by Peter Stansky
    Yale, 295 pp, £25.00, April 2003, ISBN 0 300 09547 3

My father had no gun, or any land to shoot over. So when he decided that it was time for me, then aged 15 or 16, to learn how to shoot, he had to cadge. We borrowed an old 12-bore from a local farmer, a rickety weapon the lock, stock and barrel of which were barely connected, and my father then asked his neighbour, Siegfried Sassoon, who lived in the next village, whether we could loose off a few cartridges in his woods. They had become friends through a shared interest in steeplechasing, cricket and poetry and also perhaps through a shared experience of war, though my father’s had been briefer and much less horrific.

So with Siegfried’s blessing for a couple of hours on a misty November afternoon we patrolled the undulating woods that he had planted up behind Heytesbury House when he bought it, flush for the first time after he got married, to the astonishment of his friends, in the mid-1930s – his own late forties. Not much wildlife about and we were thinking of heading home when a plump cock pheasant whirred across the ride looking for a spot to roost. I raised the gun, but while I was still fumbling with the safety catch an elderly figure leaped out with startling agility from a bend in the avenue. He wore a battered felt hat and a bright scarlet scarf thrown round his neck and even at that distance you could see how handsome he still was. He moved towards us, stumbling into a run and waving his hand in agitation. ‘Please don’t shoot, he’s so beautiful,’ he cried, almost at the same moment as my father called back ‘Hullo Sig.’

I had not yet read Memoirs of a Foxhunting Man or I might have been reminded of the narrator describing how as a boy on his second day out hunting he sees a fox run across his path; someone ‘holloa’s and before he can stop himself he exclaims: ‘Don’t do that, they’ll catch him.’ The narrator tells us later that before he went to France to fight he had ‘never shot at a bird or an animal in my life’ – so his first targets were humans. Sassoon’s attitude to blood sports, as to most other things, was not without its complexities. All I felt at that moment was extreme annoyance at the in-and-out running of the adult world. If he was going to deny me the only decent shot of the day out of reverence for life, why on earth had he let us come at all? I could not be expected then to understand that it was Sassoon’s besetting trait to repent of any gesture almost as soon as he had made it, to start wanting to extricate himself from any love affair or other allegiance the moment he had embarked on it. He lived in a haze of dissatisfaction, abnormally sensitive to outside influence but repelled as quickly and violently as he had been attracted.

He asked us to drop in for tea when we had finished, but to come in by the servants’ entrance because he was alone in the house and there was no one to answer the front door (again a characteristic carry-on, suggesting both poverty and solitude but also an unshed grandeur – there appeared to be no question of him answering the door himself). Somehow we ended up in what was clearly the drawing-room, which seemed empty until our eyes focused enough to see the celebrated gaunt hawk’s profile outlined against the long window. Thus discovered – I saw from later encounters this was how he liked to be come upon – he pushed a plate of dry cucumber sandwiches at us and began to talk in a shy undertone. At first I thought this awkwardness was because he was out of practice in company. His wife, Hester, had long since been turfed out and their only son, George, was away and for the moment estranged, too. But this was Sassoon’s normal way of talking (his poetry readings at the height of his fame had often been more or less inaudible), and it was no obstacle to a formidable eloquence when he got going. He talked in a way I had never come across before, without any reserve or hesitation, roaming across all sorts of subjects: verse techniques, the difficulty of finding servants, staying with Max Beerbohm, the Test series, his first meeting with Thomas Hardy, the shortcomings of his wife/son/ daughter-in-law, his neglect by the critics – this last a recurring theme. ‘They don’t understand what a talent I have for light verse.’ He had no pudeur about expressing his resentments or his enthusiasms. To a casual teenaged visitor his self-centredness was somehow much more sympathetic than it sounds when recorded in cold print. But it was wearing to live with, not least for himself.

Why was Sassoon like this? In the public mind he remained not only one of the most celebrated poets of the Great War but also an abiding emblem of courage and protest against the carnage. He remained a legend you were surprised to find still alive, a fact he was not slow to comment on with his habitual self-irony. And though his later poetry had never been in fashion, the first two of his fictional autobiographies, Memoirs of a Foxhunting Man and Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, became instant minor classics. On rereading Foxhunting Man (1928), I found it a little too innocently nostalgic and sometimes clichéd (it was his first prose book), but Infantry Officer (1930) reads as well as ever, crisp, caustic and lyrical. Some of the set-pieces – his return a year later to the network of trenches where he had first seen such horror and which were now a harmless warren several miles behind the Allied lines, or his watching his company trudging back from the Somme an hour before daybreak – are unsurpassable.

In his Oxford Book of 20th-Century English Verse, Philip Larkin included seven of Sassoon’s poems; only Yeats and Hardy had significantly more. True, Larkin’s anthology was denounced by Donald Davie and others as a counterblast against Modernism. But it can’t be denied that Sassoon’s war poems share with Kipling’s the quality of being conspicuously memorable: the Oxford Dictionary of Modern Quotations includes a dozen of them, mostly in their entirety.

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