For ever England

John Lucas

  • Sherston’s Progress by Siegfried Sassoon
    Faber, 150 pp, £2.25, March 1983, ISBN 0 571 13033 X
  • The War Poems of Siegfried Sassoon by Rupert Hart-Davis
    Faber, 160 pp, £5.25, March 1983, ISBN 0 571 13010 0
  • Siegfried Sassoon Diaries 1915-1918 edited by Rupert Hart-Davis
    Faber, 288 pp, £10.50, March 1983, ISBN 0 571 11997 2

With the appearance of Sherston’s Progress in 1936, Siegfried Sassoon completed what Howard Spring, writing in the Evening Standard, called ‘the most satisfying piece of autobiography to be published in our time’. Other reviewers and commentators, then and later, seem to have agreed with Spring’s assessment. Not Hugh MacDiarmid, however. In a poem which contrasts those who went to fight in 1914 with the International Brigaders, MacDiarmid writes:

Despite the undeniable honesty, the little literary gift,
What is Sherston’s Progress but an exposure
Of the eternal Englishman
Incapable of rising above himself,
And traditional values winning out
Over an attempted independence of mind.

MacDiarmid is both right and wrong. Sherston’s Progress is undoubtedly an exposure of the eternal Englishman, at least as Sassoon imagined that Englishman. But the Memoirs are really more fiction than fact, and the publication of his war diaries now allows us to understand just how carefully Sassoon created his image of Sherston as Englishman out of chaotic material and experiences which threatened his sense of identity. In his celebrated book The Great War and Modern Memory Paul Fussell claims that the trilogy of Memoirs ‘is in every way fictional ... it would be impossible to specify how it differs from any other novel written in the first person and based on the author’s own experience.’ That is astute but it oversteps the mark. After all, nearly all first novels are by writers about whom nothing is known. If they become famous it is because of their novels. Sassoon, on the other hand, was already famous. Everyone knew that he was the war hero who in 1917 had chucked his medals into the Mersey and written a public letter of protest about the conduct of the war. Sherston’s Progress is about a war hero who lives with the consequences of having chucked his medals into the Mersey and written a public letter of protest about the conduct of the war. How can that be fiction? The truth is that Sassoon wants it both ways. He invents, suppresses, adapts, not so much to make a pure fiction as to make sense of a life. He is remaking himself. And in the Memoirs he finally produces an image of that kind of Englishman with which, as MacDiarmid saw, his later self can be at ease.

It is not that Sherston was either
A weak or a cowardly person.
It is rather that his rebelliousness was only
Superimposed on his profoundly English nature.

Sherston’s Progress completes the image which first appeared in Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man. The cheerful if shallow sportsman becomes the tearaway scapegrace of the middle volume, living by and for values formed on the sportsfield, worried that those values are becoming warped, and then modulates into the repentant veteran, ready to accept that his protest against war was not quite the thing: that it could indeed look a bit like throwing away your wicket because you disapproved of your captain’s tactics. As reported in Sherston’s Progress, the meeting with Rivers, the famous psychiatrist, becomes the crucial episode in recalling Sherston to himself. He now accepts that it is not necessary to approve of tactics which he may simply not understand, and after a brief spell in the pavilion – ‘retired hurt’ – he plays on until the match is over, wicket intact. For all the possible irony of its title, Sherston’s Progress finally endorses Pilgrim’s journey towards the Celestial City which can be attained only by hard slog and which, when it is reached, looks very like an England of sun-drenched meadows, good sport and flannelled gentry.

There is an obvious element of self-parody in the creation of Sherston, and this is hardly surprising. It is one way of fending off criticism, of coping with unresolved difficulties. Or rather, it resolves them by adopting a pose of wry detachment. Looking back from 1936 at that young and callow infantry officer, the author can allow himself the luxury of mockery. Yet in 1917 matters had been very different. What the Diaries record is the muddle of a man who chose an identity and then found that he could not function within it. Infantry Officer Sassoon is undoubtedly one kind of eternal Englishman. That is to say, he takes on values and a tone of voice which in the early years of the war seemed appropriate to the great adventure. In December 1915 he is full of zest:

I want a genuine taste of the horrors, and then – peace. I don’t want to go back to the old inane life which always seemed like a prison. I want freedom, not comfort. I have seen beauty in life, in men and things ... The last fifteen months have unsealed my eyes. I have lived well and truly since the war began; now I ask that the price be required of me.

Similar sentiments are on show in some of the early poems. ‘Absolution’ (dated April-September 1915) sees the soldiers as

                            the happy legion, for we know
Time’s but a golden wind that shakes the grass.

In its vague uplift this is close to Herbert Asquith’s poem of 1915 about the ‘Volunteer’ who is rescued from a life of humdrum clerking and who in death is described as having his lance ‘broken in life’s tournament’. War is a chivalric affair: although in ‘The Prince of Wounds’ (dated 27 December 1915) Sassoon sees a road ‘that’s dark with blood’, the blood has spilt from the bodies of soldiers ‘on warfare’s altar sacrificed’. In its way, ‘The Prince of Wounds’ is as inept, if not so offensive, as Owen Seaman’s ‘To the Shirker: A Last Appeal’, which ends by telling the reluctant soldier to go and serve his country:

Come, then, betimes and on her altar lay
Your sacrifice today.

Seaman’s poem was written in late 1914 and its exhortations were quite unnecessary. Men were offering themselves in such huge numbers that the Army simply couldn’t cope. Many of them had read Brooke’s famous sonnets and saw themselves as swimmers into cleanness leaping. Sassoon was one of hundreds of thousands who entered the war ardent for some desperate glory.

By the latter half of 1916, however, his attitude had changed, as had that of the vast majority who lived through the promises and muddy failures of the Somme, and who were coming to realise that the war which was supposed to bring them ‘Home by Christmas’ was lengthening to no apparent end or purpose. On 16 July 1916, Sassoon writes:

I’m thinking of England, and summer evenings after cricket-matches, and sunset above the tall trees, and village-streets in the dusk, and the clatter of a brake driving home. Perhaps I’ve made a blob, but we’ve won the match, and there’s another match tomorrow ... So things went three years ago; and it’s all dead and done with. I’ll never be there again.

It is, of course, a very partial view, a pastoral dream dear to English hearts which MacDiarmid almost certainly had in mind when he spoke of those ‘traditional values winning out/Over an attempted independence of mind’. He could not have known how close Sassoon came to achieving that independence.

By 1917 the sweet dream of England had turned utterly sour. There is an extraordinary diary entry for 30 March of that year. Under the title ‘Dream Pictures’, Sassoon imagines writing a book of ‘Consolations for Homesick Soldiers in the Field’:

I would turn them loose in some dream-gallery of Royal Academy pictures of the late 19th century. I would show them bland summer landscapes, willow and meadowsweet reflected in calm waters, lifelike cows coming home to the byre with a golden sunset behind them; I would take them to gateways in garden-walls that they might gaze along dewy lawns with lovers murmuring by the moss-grown sundial; I would lead them ’twixt hawthorn hedgerows, and over field-path stiles, to old-world orchards where the lush grass is strewn with red-cheeked apples, and even the wasps have lost their stings. From the grey church-tower comes a chiming of bells, and the village smoke ascends like incense of immemorial tranquillity. And at the rose-grown porch of some discreet little house a girl in a print-dress is waiting, waiting for the returning footsteps along the twilight lane, while the last blackbird warbles from the may-tree.

Two years previously Ernest Rhys had put out an anthology for soldiers, called The Old Country. It included an introduction by Sir Arthur Yapp of the YMCA which spoke of the soldier in imagination seeing ‘his village home’ (most soldiers came from industrial cities); and the contents supplied an England of fields, hedgerows and village steeples. Sassoon’s ‘Dream Pictures’ is a ludicrous parody of the kind of anthology that The Old Country typifies. Moreover, he now sees the England with which he had identified becoming a parody of itself. In May 1917 Sassoon goes to stay with Lord and Lady Brassey. Lord Brassey is ‘a pattern Englishman, no doubt, very wise in the ways of his generation, a useful servant of the State, but a strange figure to Youth in Revolt, and Youth torn by sacrifice. His wisdom has had its day ... Death presses him hard.’

Very interestingly, as Sassoon begins to distance himself from this England he begins to practise fiction. The diary for 15 May has an entry called ‘A Conversation’, which I have no doubt is based on talks he had with Lady Brassey, but which is presented as third-person dialogue.

She was a Great Lady. And he was only a poet; but he knew that life was taking shape within his heart ... For a while he thought that she understood ... ‘But death is nothing,’ she said ... he was struck dumb: he had forgotten that he spoke to an alien intelligence, that would not suffer the rebellious creed that was his.

It is as though Sassoon is unable to acknowledge his own rebellion. Perhaps this should not surprise us. For the rebellion was against all he had chosen to believe in and identify with. In short, it was against himself. The following day he reports a release from ‘the furies that pursued me. I am an Orestes freed from the tyranny of doom.’

It is also interesting to discover that as soon as the famous letter of protest is written, on 15 June, and he is posted first to Litherland and then to Craiglockhart War Hospital, the diary stops. Hart-Davis does not make it clear whether Sassoon destroyed any diary he might have kept at that time. He says merely that ‘from this point there is no surviving diary until December,’ and he adds that the outline of the missing months can be sketched in by reference to the Memoirs. This strikes me as disingenuous. For if we look at Sherston’s Progress we find that the tone of the narrative is radically different from the frenzied, muddled rage of the Diary. Rebellion is now seen as faintly ridiculous, a boyish peccadillo. ‘Once, when I saw that one of my best friends had been killed, I lapsed into angry self-pity, and told myself that the War was “a sham and a stinking lie”, and succeeded in feeling bitter against the unspecified crowd of non-combatants who believed that to go through with it to the end was the only way out.’ Succeeded in feeling bitter: as soon as the matter is put that way, and once the protest is pinned between quotation-marks, the narrator emerges as an older, wiser man presenting for our amused scrutiny his ironic account of a youthful self whose anger can be put down to insincerity or blamed on others. (Sassoon was nearly 31 when he wrote his letter.) ‘Of course the weak point about my “protest”,’ the narrator goes on, ‘had been that it was evoked by personal feeling. It was an emotional idea based on my war experience and stimulated by points of view which I accepted uncritically.’ Well, it is certainly true that the Diaries show the Infantry Officer outraged by his personal experiences at the front, and that his clearest, most reasonable argument against the war emerges in the letter – in the composition of which he was undoubtedly helped by the Garsington set, particularly by Bertrand Russell. Yet the version of events which the narrator of Sherston’s Progress chooses to set down hardly does justice to those same events insofar as they can be recovered from the Diary. The reason is clear. The later text consistently revises in order to create an image of a sardonic but essentially good-humoured man who, with the help of others, managed to overcome a series of petulant, selfish outbursts against matters he did not really understand.

What finally brings Sherston to his senses, we are told, is his encounter with the pacifist Doctor Macamble. Macamble comes to see Sherston at Slateford Hospital, and advises him to abscond.

I had only to take a train to London, and once there he would arrange for me to be examined by an ‘eminent alienist’ who would infallibly certify that I was completely normal and responsible for my actions ... I suppose I ought to have waxed indignant, but all I thought was, ‘Good Lord, he’s trying to persuade me to do the dirty on Rivers!’ Keeping this thought to myself, I remained reticent and parted from him with the heartiest of handshakes. Did I ever see him again, I wonder? And have I been hard on him? Well, I can only say that nothing I can do for Doctor Macamble could be worse than his advice for me – had I been imbecile enough to act on it.

But why is Macamble’s advice so absurd? To answer that question is to open up the large and probably unbridgeable gap between the Sassoon of the Diaries and the narrator of Sherston’s Progress. It is clear that in the later text the narrator does not wish us to take his protest seriously. At all events, he isn’t serious about it. That is his way of coping with what would otherwise seem a fearful solecism, a shocking offence against his Englishness. Yet, to his credit, Infantry Officer Sassoon had been entirely serious when he wrote his letter. Robert Graves and other friends understood that much, which was why they were so keen to get Sassoon certified as insane. If he was mad he could not be held responsible for his actions. So Macamble’s advice makes perfectly good sense. For Sherston to be proved sane would be bound to cause the authorities the maximum embarrassment. Unfortunately, it would also cause the later Sassoon great embarrassment. The advice is therefore dismissed as imbecilic.

But the episode becomes even more revealing once we look at some of the letters which Sassoon wrote between June and December 1917, and which Hart-Davis puts into the Diaries to help plug the gap left by an absence of entries for that period. For we then find that the imbecilic idea had in fact been Sassoon’s own. On 19 October he reports to Graves that Rivers says: ‘I’ve got a very strong “anti-war” complex, whatever that means. I should like the opinion of a first-class “alienist” or whatever they call the people who decide if people are dotty.’ A week later he tells Lady Ottoline Morrell frustratedly that ‘they will never court-martial me. The only chance would be – after being passed fit – to get an outside opinion from a man like Mercier. I don’t quite know how they’d act if he said I was normal.’ (Hart-Davis refers to Mercier as a ‘physician for mental diseases’.) There is no mention in either letter of anyone who corresponds to Macamble, and it seems safe to conclude that Sassoon invented him. He would form a strong contrast with Rivers, on whom he plans ‘to do the dirty’. We are told that Macamble was ‘a doctor not of medicine but of philosophy ... which may have been the cause of his being so chock-full of ideas and adumbrations’. Very like a Cambridge philosopher of marked pacifist tendencies, it may be.

In this reading, Rivers becomes the wise physician who brings young Sherston to his senses – there is a good deal in the Progress about schoolboyish pranks at Slateford – and who cures his muddled protest against the war. Sherston can therefore explain his protest in terms that look like explaining it away: ‘the fact that it was everybody’s business to be prepared to die for his country did not alter the inward and entirely personal grievance one had against being obliged to do it.’ That deflective ‘one’ shows how difficult Sassoon finds it to cope with a protest which, as his letter makes absolutely clear, was not personal, but was written ‘on behalf of those who are suffering now’, and was directed against the ‘political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed’. ‘The necessary supply of heroes must be maintained at all costs,’ Sir Edward Carson announced early in 1917.

In view of all this it seems reasonable to suppose that the war poems of Siegfried Sassoon would prove an embarrassment to the author of Sherston’s Progress. Yet reading them through I can see that they fit with the image of the eternal Englishman which the Memoirs promote. Some years ago D.J. Enright remarked that although most of Sassoon’s satires hit the mark, the target he aimed at was usually a sitting duck. It is true. The poems operate from a standpoint of decency, and that is both their strength and their weakness. Sassoon attacked Blighters, warmongers, the Junkers in Parliament and incompetent generals, and he speaks for soldiers who

  went arrayed in honour. But they died, –
Not one by one: and mutinous I cried
To those who sent them out into the night.

The darkness tells how vainly I have striven
To free them from the pit where they must dwell
In outcast gloom convulsed and jagged and riven
By grappling guns.

The language is both vaguely metaphoric (with the coming of war darkness has fallen on Europe) and literal. Sassoon and his men were forced to do much of their work by night: crawling across no man’s land in order to check wire-installations, recover bodies of the dead and wounded and spy on enemy movements, and they often had to take cover in shell-holes (‘the pit where they must dwell’ is both the hell of war and a crater). The poem does its best to give off a sense of pity and anger for the men, but the language is weak, repetitive, and fatally betrayed by the notion that war ought really to have been a glorious adventure. The soldiers went ‘arrayed in honour’, very like those crusaders whose images were repeatedly used for recruiting posters and popular propaganda art of the period. They should have been allowed to fight and die in single combat. (One by one.) Sassoon’s poem clings to the feeling, so common in 1914 and for some time afterwards, that the war somehow offered an escape from modernity: it provided a chance to turn from a world that Brooke had stigmatised as ‘grown old and cold and weary’, and choose a life which Julian Grenfell imagined would be one of ‘colour and warmth’, where the soldier would discover, ‘when fighting shall be done, /Great rest, and fullness after dearth’. In short, it was to be a cavalry war, a springtime of opportunity to test sporting and individual skills. But the fox-hunting man became an infantry officer, the war turned out to be a machine-war and thus of a confirmation of modernity, and it is that which Sassoon protests against in ‘To Any Dead Officer’:

    I’m blind with tears,
   Staring into the dark. Cheero!
I wish they’d killed you in a decent show.

There is a great deal to be said for decency. The case against it, as MacDiarmid saw, is unwittingly set out in Sherston’s Progress.