Retirement has its benefits and drawbacks, but one of the benefits is time to re-visit home book shelves and re-read some volumes perhaps last read twenty or thirty years ago. I have a small collection of twentieth century biographies, one of which concerns the quest for faith of Siegfried Sassoon (1886 -1967). Sassoon is best known for his stark and brutally honest poetic accounts of life as an officer in the trenches of the First World War.
As the war dragged on he became disillusioned with what he saw as its needless prolongation to enrich vested interests. So much so that he threw his medal for bravery into the River Mersey and penned a public condemnation of the military command and the government. Not knowing quite what to do with a decorated officer expressing such opinions, it was decided that Sassoon had experienced a mental breakdown, and he was admitted to Craiglockhart Hospital in Scotland. Fortuitously while there he met and was able to befriend and advise the younger poet Wilfred Owen, who returned to the front and was killed in the closing weeks of the war.
Sassoon’s war poems are now widely known and are included in the GCSE curriculum, as are those of Owen. Little is heard though of Sassoon’s later work, much of which concerns his sometimes faltering but always insistent journey towards faith. Sassoon made a perhaps unwise marriage in the 1930s, with his only child George settling in Scotland with his mother after the couple’s divorce.
One can only wonder how Sassoon felt as the world was again plunged into a second World War in 1939. After the war he retreated to live a solitary life at his country seat in Wiltshire, Heytesbury House, where he battled with the leaking roof, damp and defective plumbing. Happily he did not live to see the dissection of his estate by the Warminster by-pass, which took place in the 1980s.
The book I am re-reading is called ‘Poet’s Pilgrimage’ which includes extracts from letters between Dame Felicitas Corrigan of Stanbrook Abbey, who also edited the book. The later Sassoon poems are included, as are letters between Sassoon and other luminaries of the period such as the then aged Thomas Hardy.
Sassoon’s final coming to faith was completed in his 70s, and culminated in his being received into the Roman Catholic Church. The summation of this is contained in a five part poem called ‘Lenten Iluminations’, part of which is quoted below.
As we enter into our own Lenten devotions, his description of being ‘scultptured with Stations of the Cross’ makes me think of St Mary’s, where we are surrounded by these stations on the walls, week in and week out. A visit to just such a place, presumably in the West Country, must have at least partly informed his inspiration for the poem –
‘I never felt it more than now, when out beyond these safening walls
Sculptured with Stations of the Cross, spring-confident, unburdened, bold,
The first March blackbird overheard to forward vision flutes and calls.’