After spending a while with Henry Williamson, I’ve been looking at another Great War writer rewriting his history – Siegfried Sassoon.
Siegfried’s Journey is an unsatisfactory book. Written in 1945, after the collapse of his marriage, and written to make money, it is an attempt to make sense of the crucial years 1916-1922, though more notable, perhaps for its omissions than its inclusions. It re-tells part of the story of his wartime years, though with little to say about battle and omitting the parts most fully covered in the Sherston trilogy. Then he goes on to describe his return to Oxford, his campaigning for Labour, his literary editorship of the Daily Herald, and his lecture tour of America.
The story of his wartime protest is re-told, with some differences from the version in Memoirs of an Infantry Officer. We get more of a sense of his being starstruck by his new Bloomsbury friends,and more sense of his emotional instability at the time. He is still clearly in sympathy with the impulse that led him to the gesture, though, by 1945, considerably less certain about the political sense of his demand for a negotiated peace:
I must add that in the light of subsequent events it is difficult to believe that a Peace negotiated in 1917 would have been permanent. I share the general opinion that nothing on earth would have prevented a recurrence of Teutonic aggressiveness.
Even the slaughter on the Western Front seems rather different at the end of another war:
And let it be remembered that the soldiers of the 1914-18 War were, time and again, the victims of what seems to have been amateurish mismanagement and incompetence. It was at their expense that England taught herself to wage modern warfare. Against this I made my individual protest. But I must now admit that it was just as well that she did learn.
The description of Sassoon’s return to Oxford and his work for the Daily Herald is unenthusiastic, perhaps because he feels out of sympathy with his younger self’s wish to ally himself with the Labour Party. (The General Strike of 1926, marked, I think the definitive and final end of his flirtation with socialism; I doubt that his heart was ever really in it.)
The best pages in the book are about the writers he met. There is an engaging chapter describing Wilfred Owen, and good accounts of Thomas Hardy and Hilaire Belloc. I like the story of his meeting with Robert Bridges, who showed his disapproval of Sassoon’s war poems by assuming, when introduced, that his name was Siegfried Digweed.
The lecture tour in America seems sometimes rather dutifully transcribed from diaries, but there are some striking pages – the most remarkable of which is an account of a reading at the Cosmopolitan Club, New York, at the end of which the critic John Jay Chapman took to the stage and began to berate Sassoon for his attitude towards the War. The interruption was made more dramatic by the fact that Chapman, who was one-handed, wore a hook at the end of his arm, which he waved threateningly, like J. M. Barrie’s pirate. Chapman had lost a son in the War, and so had a deep emotional investment in its value and rightness. (I’ve read that Chapman’s Harvard friends sometimes called him ‘Mad Jack’ – which was, of course, also Sassoon’s nickname when in romantic soldier mood. The two of them were perhaps well-matched).
Much of this is readable, but the book’s title seems misleading. Siegfried’s Journey hardly suits the story of a man going nowhere, trying to redefine himself after the war, and not succeeding. He comes across as aimless, not fitting into postwar society, and still emotionally stuck in the war years.
What is most obviously missing is any account of his emotional life. The immediate post-war years, Jean Moorcroft-Wilson reckons, were when Sassoon’s homosexuality first found physical expression, with Gabriel Atkin and others. In 1945, to write of such matters was risky, and so Sassoon does not write of them. The strongest emotion expressed in the book is his (sometimes rather gushing) admiration for older writers.
An alert reader in 1945 might, of course have picked up clues from the company that Sassoon kept; names like Robbie Ross, T. E. Lawrence, Eddie Marsh, Ivor Novello and Noel Coward litter the book. But this most crucial aspect of Sassoon’s life goes unexplored, and this reader at least was left puzzling. Which of the friendships described were just friendships and which were affairs?
This gap in the book reflects, of course, the gap in Sassoon’s poetry. The ‘satirical’ verse of the 1920s is not only light but trivial. Big subjects, and subjects that really matter to the poet, are avoided. The Labour movement, to which he was devoting much of his time, is remarkably absent from the poems (except for ‘The Case for the Miners’, which is about his own inability ‘to state the case succinctly’, so that he can only ‘shout and splutter’.
For all its incidental pleasures, this book makes sad reading.