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

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