Siegfried Sassoon

Massingham

Henry William Massingham was the editor of The Nation, (later The Nation & Athenoeum), a leading British radical weekly newspaper, between 1907 and 1923. He first commented on Sassoon’s poetry on 16th June 1917 when he wrote in The Nation that Sassoon’s war poems...

    ‘were not realism or even poetry but epigrams (“by no means the fruit of genius”) well suited to honest rage and scorn, heartfelt bitterness and indignation. Sassoon’s other work he thought merely typical of an intelligent and promising young poet.’ (Egremont 2005).

Massingham detested the idea which was popular at the time in some circles that the war had a cleansing quality. He saw Sassoon’s work as an antidote to this and viewed it as a move from literature toward genuine political protest.

Sassoon had struck up a friendship during the war with pacifist Lady Ottoline Morrell who lived at Garsington Manor near Oxford with her politician husband, Philip Morrell. Sassoon had gone there to recuperate after being wounded. The Morrells invited prominent pacifists to stay at Garsington and this developed into what became known as the Bloomsbury Group.

H W Massingham

H. W. Massingham

The Nation & Athenoeum

During the First World War Massingham changed The Nation from a Liberal, to a Labour supporting journal. H. M. Tomlinson became literary editor and contributors to the magazine included J. L. Hammond, H. N. Brailsford, J. A. Hobson, Leonard Woolf and Harold Laski. After Sassoon had mentioned that he wanted to write something that would reach a wider audience than his poems, the Morrells encouraged him to speak to the journalists Middleton Murray and H. W. Massingham. Sassoon sent his finished statement to his commanding officer on 6th July 1917 and to a number of friends and others he admired including Massingham.

In February 1919 Sassoon was dining at The Reform Club in London when he met Massingham. There was industrial unrest in Glasgow and Massingham wanted somebody to go there and report on what was taking place for The Nation. This had been a deliberate attempt to pander to the socialist leanings developing in Sassoon at this time and he fell for it. Sassoon travelled to Glasgow to record the goings on. The visit lasted three days and while he was there Sassoon met the Socialist John Langdon-Davies who thought Sassoon unsuited to political agitation. Sassoon lost his nerve and asked Langdon-Davies to write the article for Massingham and take the fee.

In April 1921 Massingham again asked Sassoon to write a report for him, this time about the miner’s strikes taking place in South Wales and Gloucestershire. Sassoon wrote three articles but found it difficult to present the case. The only good thing to come out of this experience was the inspiration to write his poem, ‘The Case for the Miners.’ Sassoon’s Socialism came from his love of his men fighting with him at the front, but his privileged background and lack of experience were hurdles that right from the beginning he was unable to clear.

Massingham published a number of Sassoon’s poems and other writings in his papers in the following order:

  • Invocation: The Nation, xxii, no. 14, 5th January, 1918.
  • I Stood With The Dead: The Nation, xxiii, no. 15, 13th July, 1918.
  • The Dug-Out: The Nation, xxiii, no. 21, 24th August, 1918.
  • Ancient History: The Nation, xxiii, no. 26, 28th September, 1918.
  • To Robert Ross (Elegy): the Nation & Athenoeum, xxiv, no. 2, 12th October, 1918.
  • Memorial Tablet (Great War): The Nation & Athenoeum, xxiv, no. 19, 8th February, 1919.
  • To A Childless Woman: The Nation & Athenoeum, xxv, no. 8, 24th May, 1919.
  • Aftermath (July 19): The Nation & Athenoeum, xxv, no. 16, 19th July, 1919.
  • Falling Asleep: The Nation & Athenoeum, xxvi, no. 4, 25th October, 1919.
  • A Case For The Miners: The Nation & Athenoeum, xxix, no. 3, 16th April, 1921.
  • In Wild Wales: The Nation & Athenoeum, xxix, no. 4, 23rd April, 1921.
  • In The Turner Rooms (At The Tate Gallery): The Nation & Athenoeum, xxix, no. 8, 21st May, 1921.
  • Christ In The Carpenter’s Shop: The Nation & Athenoeum, no. 15, 9th July, 1921.
  • Concert Interpretation (Le Sacre du Printemps): The Nation & Athenoeum, xxx, no. 17, 21st January, 1922.
  • Reynardism Revisited: The Nation & Athenoeum, xxx, no. 21, 18th February, 1922.
  • Villa D’Este Gardens: The Nation & Athenoeum, xxxi, no. 3, 15th April, 1922.
  • Sheldonian Soliloquy (During Bach’s B Minor Mass): The Nation & Athenoeum, xxxi, no. 9, 27th May, 1922.
  • Solar Eclipse: The Nation & Athenoeum, xxxii, no. 8, 25th November, 1922.
  • Three Poems - Clavicord Recital, Martyrdoms and Vigil: The Nation & Athenoeum, xxxii, no. 13, 30th December, 1922.
  • Fete Galante: The Nation & Athenoeum, xxxii, no. 22, 3rd March, 1923.
  • Hommage A Mendelssohn: The Nation & Athenoeum, xxxiv, no. 11, 15th December, 1923.

Massingham left The Nation & Athenoeum in 1923, dying a year later, but the paper went on to publish much more of Sassoon’s work under a different editor.

Below: ‘H.W.M. A Selection From the Writings of H. W. Massingham,’ which belonged to Sassoon. This book was published in 1925 by Jonathan Cape and edited by Massingham’s son, H. J. Massingham, (H.W.M. died in 1924). The letter with it, dated 16th February 1922, was sent to Sassoon by H.W. Massingham commenting on a poem Sassoon had submitted for publication, ‘Reynardism Revisited,’ (published in The Nation & Athenoeum 18th February 1922), The book carries the Sassoon ownership monogram.

HWM Book and Letter
HWM Letter Front
HWM Letter Reverse

Above: Letter from Massingham to Sassoon, February 16, 1922.

Massingham’s handwriting was appalling and not all of the letter above can be deciphered. However, it does begin with “My dear Sassoon,” and the following final two sentences can be understood:

“Also, its this sort of thing that wants doing, and nobody dares to do. I’ll take all you care to write. Yours, H.W.M.”

The Case For The Miners

Something goes wrong with my synthetic brain
When I defend the Strikers and explain
My reasons for not blackguarding the Miners.
‘What do you know?’ exclaim my fellow-diners
(Peeling their plovers’ eggs or lifting glasses
Of mellowed Chateau Rentier from the table),
‘What do you know about the working classes?’
 
I strive to hold my own; but I’m unable
To state the case succinctly. Indistinctly
I mumble about World-Emancipation,
Standards of Living, Nationalization
Of Industry; until they get me tangled
In superficial details; goad me on
To unconvincing vagueness. When we’ve wrangled
From soup to savoury, my temper’s gone.
 
‘Why should a miner earn six pounds a week?
Leisure! They’d only spend it in a bar!
Standard of life! You’ll never teach them Greek,
Or make them more contented than they are!’
That’s how my port-flushed friends discuss the Strike.
And that’s the reason why I shout and splutter.
And that’s the reason why I’d almost like
To see them hawking matches in the gutter.

Reynardism Revisited

A colour-print for Christmas.... Up the rise
Of rich green pasture move quick-clustering hounds
And red-coat riders. Crocus-yellow dyes
A patch of sunset laced by leafless trees.
One wavering tootle from the huntsman sounds
A mort for ‘most unsatisfactory sport.’
And draws the pack’s last straggling absentees
Out of the glooming purple of the covert.
Sad trails the cadent peeweep of a plover
Above the dim wet meadows by the brook,
While evening founders with a glowering look.
Clip-clop; along the glistening-puddled lane
The kennelward hoofs retreat. Night falls with rain.
 
Refortified by exercise and air,
I, jogging home astride my chestnut mare,
Grow half-humane, and question the propriety
Of Foxes Torn to Bits in Smart Society.
 
Spurts past me Fernie-Goldflake in his car...
I wonder if these Nimrods really are
Crassly unconscious that their Reynardism
Is (dare I say it?) an anachronism.
Can they rebut my heterodox defiance
Of Hoick and Holloa as a Social Science?
Or do they inwardly prognosticate
The Last (blank) Day; green shires degenerate
with unmolested poultry; drag-hound packs
Racing a bloodless aniseed aroma,
While Cockney Gilpins gallop in their tracks;
And British Foxes, mythical as Homer,
Centuries-extinct, their odysseys forgotten.
 
My friends the Fernie-Goldflakes think me mad.
‘Extinct! The idea’s preposterous! It’s rotten
With every sort of Socialistic fad!’
 
Shelley was called ‘an atheistic worm’
By Goldflake’s grandpapa...
                             Stands Shelley firm?

Below is a page from one of Sassoon’s journals covering the period 9 May 1918 to 2 February 1919 (held in the Cambridge University Library). This lists the magazines and newspapers at the time that had published his poems. Lines three and four show “The Dug Out” and “I Stood With The Dead,” both with the letter ‘N’ at the side denoting they had been published in The Nation. I have now acquired copies of both of these newspapers (bottom of this page).

Journal

The Nation

The Nation

What a find! Here I have managed to obtain four copies of the newspaper ‘The Nation.’ Within these pages three of Sassoon’s most famous poems were published for the first time.

Henry William Massingham was the editor of The Nation, (later The Nation & Athenoeum), a leading British radical weekly newspaper, between 1907 and 1923. Massingham detested the idea which was popular at the time in some circles that the war had a cleansing quality. He saw Sassoon’s work as an antidote to this and viewed it as a move from literature toward genuine political protest.

The Nation Vol. XXIII, (Keynes C70) No. 15 Saturday, July 13, 1918; 377-404pp - Poetry, I stood with the Dead by Siegfried Sassoon. Vol. XXIII, (Keynes C73) No. 21 Saturday, August 24, 1918; 537-560pp - Poetry, The Dug Out By Siegfried Sassoon. Vol. XXV, (not collated) No. 25 Saturday, September 20, 1919; 717-748pp - Short Letter to the Editor Siegfried Sassoon. Vol. XXVI, (Keynes C106) No. 4 Saturday, October 25, 1919; 105-132pp - Poetry, Falling Asleep by Siegfried Sassoon.

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