Siegfried Sassoon

America

Wellesley College News, May 6th, 1920 - On 28th January, 1920, Siegfried Sassoon arrived in New York. “A lecture tour seemed a way to escape and make money, not only for himself but to help his friends who, imagining him to be rich - because of his name - turned to him often. Now he was giving money to Graves, Atkin, Prewett and a new beneficiary: W. J. Turner.” (Egremont, Sassoon 2005 p241.)

Mr. Pond of the Lecture Bureau, who was organising the trip, told Sassoon that he would be excellent in the United States. Unfortunately, when Sassoon arrived in America Pond had only been able to arrange two lectures “because the country was saturated with British authors.” Pond was on the verge of bankruptcy and it fell to Sassoon to arrange any further bookings he could.

I believe that very little of what Sassoon said during these lectures has been recorded. The details of where he went, what he said and the other observations recorded in these publications therefore are very important as they provide genuinely new information.

Wellesley College News 1920

First part of article on Sassoon

Wellesley College News

May 6th, 1920

Siegfried Sassoon at Wellesley

POET DENOUNCES THE “GAME OF WAR”

Mr. Siegfried Sassoon, “a gallant soldier who hates war and a poet who would rather write poems than read them,” honored the college greatly when, in Billings Hall, Wednesday evening, April 28, he gave a reading from his poems. The young Englishman, soldierly, modest, erect, with a face at once sensitive and powerful, and an intonation most attractive in its sudden brevity, charmed his audience from the moment he began to speak. That he was obviously quite unhappy on a platform made his listeners only the more sympathetic with him.

Mr. Sassoon commenced, rather apologetically, with the earlier pre-war poems written, he said, “in an attempt to escape from the realities of life into the realms of loveliness.” The graceful lyrics ranged from the sheer beauty of A Poplar and the Moon to the whimsical humor of Sporting Acquaintances. The audience, responsive to every change of mood, paid the poet the supreme tribute of silence.

With the change in Mr. Sassoon’s life necessitated by the great war there came an equally radical change in his poetry. Brought face to face with reality of the most appalling kind, he found it even more horrible than he would had he ever before met the undisguised truth of life. Instead of trees and moons he wrote of the elemental emotions of men; he described with graphic flashes things that soldiers would give much to forget. He learned to hate war, relentlessly, bitterly, but never with despair. In 1914 he was a happy dreamer. The war made him a thinker.

“War is not a game,” he told his attentive listeners, “because there are no rules. It is the most calculating sort of business, requiring efficiency alone for its successful perpetration. And efficiency in war must mean frightfulness. There is no romance in the trenches, there is no heroic glamour. It is war we should hate, not Germany; it is war itself that is the crime, not the individual acts of wrong. Those men who went to the front full of idealism, who gave their lives for everlasting peace, have been done-in - betrayed - if wars are not made impossible.”

The quiet, bitter intensity with which he spoke, coupled with the knowledge that he had the authority of experience, made the war poems that followed painfully convincing. He described them as an attempt to face realities even at the expense of violating certain canons of poetic ruling. No one can regret that he sacrificed the form of his earlier work for the power of the later. Fearlessly he has described the destructive, brutalizing results of war. There has been no accusation made more grim than that of Suicide in the Trenches, no exposition more horrifying in its realism than The Underground Trench [Sassoon did not write a poem with this title and I believe it was probably ‘The Rear-Guard’]. The poet drew a bitter contrast between poems such as these and one that he wrote before he reached the front. Until he went to France he was exalted in the thought of service of a mighty cause. Experience gave him disillusion, and an absolute conviction that war is a great crime. It is this conviction that fills his poems, this message that he is delivering to those who come to hear him. It is not alone the artist that we value but the man, courageous, honest, with spirit undefeated in the face of heavy odds.

Picture Show - By Siegfried Sassoon

Picture Show

Picture Show - By Siegfried Sassoon, published in 1920 by E. P. Dutton & Co. New York. This book is not new to the web site but on thumbing through it recently I found tucked between the pages a newspaper clipping from 1920 cut from the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle (New York), and a leaflet relating to the Rochester Children’s Memorial Scholarship Fund. Sassoon had presented a lecture at the Powers Hotel for the Rochester Branch of the Associate Alumnae of Vassar College. The cutting reported the event which can be seen in full below. Always look through your old books, you never know what you might find hidden there!

Picture Show and Inclusions

Rochester Democrat and Chronicle (New York), 1920:
 
Youthful Poet Entrances With Unusual Verse
Proves to be Short-Haired ‘Regular Fellow.’
Piano Stool His Lectern
From behind this barricade he takes punch at Prohibition and pokes good-natured fun at himself and the work of his pen.
 
He didn’t look the least bit like a poet, this young Siegfried Sassoon whom the Rochester Branch of the Associate Alumnae of Vassar College presented to literary Rochester in the Ball Room of the Powers Hotel last evening, at least not like to poets that mope through the intense acts of our problem plays, tossing back from their intellectual brows the long mane of raven-black hair.

Mr. Sassoon looked like a very likable chap, the sort who might take a flier in oil stocks and know the batting average of most of the big leaguers. Nor did he act as the popular conceptions of a poet would require him to act. He had his four or five slender volumes in verse with him and after the brief introduction by Miss Ruth Crippen, president of the Rochester branch, he did not funk his job but started immediately to carry on, even though he was not keen about it (this last approximates the way Mr. Sassoon might say it).

Piano Stool Saves the Day

To begin with there was no reading table, but this difficulty was overcome by piling a piano stool, one of the old revolving kind, on a table, and it was behind this barricade that the poet read. At first Mr. Sassoon declared he would have to introduce himself by a few well-chosen words. They were the words of ‘The Passing Show,’ which the

The Powers Hotel

The Powers Hotel, Rochester, New York

poet acknowledged he had the audacity to write. Mr. Sassoon expressed his regret that some people had found in this poem an argument in favour of prohibition. He himself naively admitted that he was not averse to taking a drink, especially before he began a reading such as he gave last night, at which, by the way, the audience was preponderantly women.

For half an hour Mr. Sassoon went on in this charmingly intimate way, reading the lighter of his verses and introducing each with some quaint turn of expression. There was his impressionistic thing on John Barrymore’s appearance in Shakespeare’s ‘Richard III.,’ which Mr. Sassoon said was ‘more armor than Shakespeare,’ and in which the characters seemed to die in clashing brassware.

Then followed three exquisite vignettes of England and her poplar trees, her hedges, the thrushes and larks, and the moon, which ‘are to show you that I do enjoy a decent piece of scenery,’ the poet exclaimed parenthetically.

Other poems of this class were one he called ‘Limitations,’ and before reading it he said he didn’t know what his audience would make of it. Neither would an observer. ‘Early Chronology’ was more obvious and was good fun with its satire at those men who guide sleepy students through the scientific spaces of excavated history. The last of this group was one called ‘Sporting acquaintances,’ in connection with which Mr. Sassoon confessed that before the war he was quite a wild young man. Finishing this poem, he laughed quietly and said, ‘But this isn’t a lecture at all, is it? Perhaps you have all come here under false pretenses. There should be some arrangement for having money refunded and that sort of thing! Well, I’ll give you a little rest now,’ and down he sat for several minutes.

Forging Ahead Among Literati

That was one side of their refreshing English youth who has a splendid military record behind him and is now forging his way ahead in the literary world. It was a delight to listen to his musical voice and his perfect diction as he read those poems of his which were written in the quiet days before the war or in the time since demobilization. When he came to the war poems, by which (and these are his own words), ‘I became - became - well, became - known,’ he was a different man. There was no smile or humorous word of introduction for them. He did speak briefly before he turned to the war verse and in his few remarks one could realise the hatred he felt for the whole thing. ‘War,’ he said bitterly, ‘is not a sport or a game. It’s a business and requires business efficiency; it must be done as quickly and as well as possible.’

Hearers Can’t Get Enough

He read about twenty of his war poems, which he says fall into three classes: Satirical, descriptive and retrospective. Through all of them runs the note of protest at the killing of men and the horror and brutality of fighting. The poet was particular to declare that there was no propaganda in his verse, nor is there anywhere even a faint suggestion of the philosophy of a pacifist. Among the most impressive of these poems were ‘In the Pink,’ ‘Does it Matter?’ ‘Suicide in the Trenches,’ ‘To Any Dead Officer,’ ‘Aftermath’ and ‘Some Looks at the War.’ [Was this last one a general discussion about his war experiences? No such poem exists].

The audience was very frankly won by the clean-cut young Englishman last night and would have had him read on and on. He did do several poems that were requested, but then retired behind his table and piano stool and the most insistent of those in the hall, who were a good deal like Don Marquis’ ‘little crowd of serious thinkers,’ were forced to leave.”

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