At long last—the post you’ve been waiting for! This is the story of how I got to meet Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves.
“But wait a second, Ari,” you say. “You told us last time that Sassoon died in 1967. Have you just managed to pull a Sassoon and maintain your youthful looks for…*pause to do the math*…at least 46 years?”
No, dear readers and raptors. I have not. (Or have I? *smiles mysteriously*) But what I did have was an extraordinary stroke of luck.
One night over winter break, I found myself geeking out about WWI over the phone to my dear friend Azalea. In the course of our conversation (or—let’s be honest here—my rambling), I wanted to look up some detail or other, so I grabbed my copy of Sassoon’s biography. But as I paged throgh the bibliography, my gaze snagged on something that I did not expect: a name.
More specifically, the name of my school.
It was the delicious exhilaration of stumbling onto the exposed corner of something huge—the tip of a dinosaur fossil, or the prow of a sunken ship. I all but dove for my computer, pulling up my university’s online library catalogue and typing in “Siegfried Sassoon”. A lot of the results were biographies, or copies of Sassoon’s own books. But there, buried among them, was an entry for the university’s rare books and manuscripts collection.
And in it? Letters. Written by Siegfried Sassoon.
There was a freaking Siegfried Sassoon COLLECTION.
I think the sounds I made into the phone may have been incoherent. Or if they were coherent, they were something along the lines of, “HOLYCRAPWHATISTHISOHMYGOD.”
I mean, I certainly knew about the rare books and manuscripts collection. I’d been there once with a class to look at some T.S. Eliot first editions. And I had a vague notion that maybe you could go there on your own time and look at stuff, but I assumed it involved a lot of training and security checks and whatnot to handle old manuscripts, and I’d never actually bothered to peruse the library catalogue to see what was in there. But following the preregistration instructions on the library website turned out to be remarkably easy, and within about five minutes, the only thing standing between me and the reading room was a registration photograph and the fact that school didn’t start up for another week and a half.
Now electrified with excitement, I plunged into the catalogue, searching every Sassoon-related term that I could. Original materials by W.H.R. Rivers? YES (first edition books/reports, but no handwritten stuff). Original materials by Wilfred Owen? No (unsurprising, but sad nonetheless). Original materials by Robert Graves? YES—there was a Robert Graves Collection as well!
I had to restrain myself from going a little crazy with the “request boxes” button.
Two weeks later, finally back on campus, I was waiting on tenterhooks. The two Sassoon boxes I’d requested had to be shipped in from an off-campus storage facility; they were due to be there by Friday, and I was told I’d get an email when they arrived. But walking past the library on Thursday afternoon, I couldn’t help myself. I slipped into the cool and softly-illuminated dimness of that beautiful space, with its rows of climate-controlled shelves, and asked the security guard what I needed to bring with me tomorrow when I came to look at some materials in the reading room.
The absolutely stunning Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library at University of Toronto. Not my school’s library, but it’s a similar look/feel.
“Two forms of photo ID,” he said. “And you know, you should head downstairs and ask if your stuff is here now.”
“Oh…” (don’t get your hopes up don’t get your hopes up) “Well, they said they’d be coming in tomorrow.”
“Yeah, but sometimes things come in early. Head on down and finish up your registration there, then see if your stuff has come in.”
“Okay…” (they said Friday they said Friday they said Friday)
I left my belongings in a locker and headed down. The woman at the desk cheerfully completed my registration and took my picture. “You’re all set!” she told me.
“Umm, so, the guy at the desk upstairs said I should ask if the boxes I ordered have come in.”
“Oh, are they supposed to arrive today?”
“No, tomorrow. But he said I should ask in case they came in early…”
She checked. They hadn’t. I felt appropriately chastened for having done precisely what I’d told myself not to do. I figured it was probably for the best, since I’d planned on making an event out of the library visit tomorrow. I thanked her and trooped on home, where I recounted the story to my suitemate Hana (who, by virtue of living with me, is usually the first person to hear about any new event in my life).
Then I plopped down on my couch to check my email and found I had two new messages—two emails from the library, telling me that the boxes had arrived and were waiting for me at the service desk. The messages had been sent about fifteen minutes after I’d left.
Literal heart palpitations. I’m not even kidding.
I didn’t jump up and throw on my coat that instant, though. It wasn’t as simple as that. Because no matter how thrilled I’d been at the prospect of getting to those boxes a day early, the fact was that I hadn’t psychologically prepared myself for this to be SASSOON DAY. SASSOON DAY was tomorrow. Friday. As such, I seriously considered just staying at home and going the next day like I’d planned.
But Hana told me to go. Mark told me to go. Marieke told me to go. So buzzing bundle of nerves that I was, I pulled myself together and walked back the way I’d come.
Into the cool, softly-glowing, book-filled space. Past the security desk with the friendly guard. Deposit all belongings except computer and notepad. Down the stairs. Through the glass doors. Up to the service desk. Sign in.
Clutch box in one arm and computer in other, in mortal terror of dropping either. Proceed to reading room. Set down computer. Set down box. Clench hands. Take a breath. Lift lid of box.
Remove first folder.
Set folder on table.
Pick up letter. Gloveless. Skin touching ink and paper.
Do your damnedest to stop shaking so you can read the damn thing.
I spent that afternoon paging through the letters, postcards, and photographs of Siegfried Loraine Sassoon. It took about 30 minutes for my hands to stop trembling. It was the natural awe of handling old papers combined with the awe of those papers having been his. That was his handwriting I was deciphering, with the strange lowercase g’s and the t’s that looked more like a spike on an ECG reading than a cursive letter (dear Siegfried, did it ever occur to you that someone might actually have to read what you wrote?). His hand moved across this page some eighty-odd years ago. I’m sure I sound like I’m devolving into fangirlishness à la Wilfred Owen, but if you’ve never handled old letters before in your life, please put it on your bucket list. Until someone invents a time machine, there is nothing like it in the world for bringing home the fact that historical figures were real, breathing, flawed, funny, loving, living human beings. From Sassoon to a friend and fellow poet who was teaching in Japan at the time:
“You will be wanting a supplement to the exhausted scribble I sent you in March, and I would like to believe that some such thought has migrated from Sendai to Bavaria this evening; (and that such events can happen I willingly do believe, for if poets can’t telepathize one another, who can?) But O, that you were here in corporeal completeness, for this room is the very one for a good tongue-travel with you, & endless cups of tea. Tantalizing indeed, for only this afternoon I received ½ lb. tin of excellent China tea, sent me by a kind friend in London—to whom I’d written that everything here is Elysian except the hot drink which Bavarians pretend is tea…” *
Endless cups of tea. Infini-tea, one might say.
Since that day, I’ve made so many trips to the library that the research librarians at the service desk now recognize me. I’ve read through folder after folder of Sassoon’s stuff (and have barely made a dent), as well as Robert Graves’s stuff. Best of all, there are things in there from Graves to Sassoon. My favorite such item is a poem called “Escape” that Graves wrote after he was wounded and reported dead at the Battle of the Somme.** It begins:
“But, Sassons,† I was dead an hour or more:
I woke when I’d already passed the door
That Cerberus guards & half way down the road
To Lethe, as an old Greek sign-post showed….”
I have the transcribed text of the poem, plus a scanned image. I wish I could show you, because Graves illustrated the whole thing with xkcd-esque stick figures and other little drawings (and it’s AWESOME), but I’m not sure about the legality of posting it on the internet.
But guys, Graves “died” on his 21st birthday. College students: he was your age when he wrote this quirky, teasing poem to one of his best friends about his narrow escape from death.
The Hawthorn Ridge mine explodes at 7:20 AM on July 1, 1916, marking the beginning of the Battle of the Somme (i.e. the battle in which Robert Graves supposedly died). (Imperial War Museum)
Real, breathing, flawed, funny, loving, living human beings.
The sad epilogue to this story is one that I’m slowly uncovering as I go through these letters and biographies, because in the years following the war, Graves and Sassoon’s relationship came apart at the seams. In incredibly painful ways that hurt my heart. I’m hesitant to explain any part of it just because my knowledge is so sketchy at this point that I’ll inevitably tell you something incorrect. But my rough understanding is that, while their friendship had been rocky in the late 1920s for several reasons, the publication of Graves’s autobiography Good-Bye to All That (written to be as controversial as possible so it would sell better) included material about Sassoon that was inaccurate in some places and highly personal (e.g. private correspondence) in others, all without Sassoon’s knowledge or consent. Sassoon was furious and deeply hurt. He contacted Graves’s publisher, who agreed to remove the worst of the offending material.
But the damage was done. A flurry of angry letters ensued between the two men. And thus it is that, on July 26th of 1937—nearly a decade later—Graves wrote to Sassoon from the United States:***
I should like to see you when I come over for a month (Aug 13th to Sept 13th or so) not to chew over the fat of the past but to settle a sort of moral debt I owe you—and perhaps you owe me—namely, to see whether there is any remnant worth saving of the confused affection that there was once between us….”
The last part of that sentence is one of the things that hurts my heart.
I only have access to Graves’s half of the conversation, and I don’t know (yet) whether they did actually meet up. But I know their friendship was never restored to what it had been during the war. Honestly, that’s something that this entire WWI obsession has been forcing me to think about and confront: sometimes, change is painful and things don’t ever fully heal. You can lose a leg that won’t ever grow back. You can lose your innocence when you see unspeakable horrors. You can lose a bosom friend to time and distance and unkind words. And there’s something about this idea that profoundly disturbs me. Which is not to say that I think everyone else in the world is fine with it—just that, as an instinctual peacemaker with a morbid fear of physical and emotional damage, it’s an incredibly difficult idea for me to grapple with. I’m not done grappling. And I suspect that’s at least part of why I pursue this topic.
I hate to end on a sad note, so for what it’s worth: the consolation I find in Graves and Sassoon’s relationship is that while they were friends, they were very good friends. I think there’s a lot of value in that. And thus I end with an excerpt from the letter (now held by the New York Public Library) that preceded the “Escape” poem I quoted earlier:
Aug 4th ’16
Queen Alexandra Hospital
A ripping hospital, this. By the way, I died on my 21st birthday. I can never grow up now.
My dear Sassons,
I hope you haven’t taken the casualty lists seriously again. They are fools. I’m as right as rain & hope before many days to be up in glorious Merioneth again baking in the sun & storing up a large mass of Solar energy against our great Caucasus trip après la guerre. The rumour of my death was started by the regimental doctor & the Field Ambulance one swearing I couldn’t possibly live…
…Eddie tells me you were quite sad about my demise—dear old thing, I hope you didn’t avenge me with bombs or do anything rash!…
…Please reassure Holmes & Julian & Edmund Dadd & Joe Cottrell that they haven’t yet seen the last of me…Best of luck, & remember the men who cried out to the red-bearded hangman, “Non, tu ne me pourras pas tuer”: don’t succumb however many wise doctors give you up. Memento Caucasorum!
Yours v. aff[ectionate]ly,
Dear Robert, Wilfred, and Siegfried,
It has been a pleasure having you on the blog. Thank you for writing poetry. Thank you for being awesome. Thank you for being human.
Missed part of the Ari and Siegfried Sassoon series? Here’s the rest:
Part I: Story of a Friend Crush
Part II: Mad Jack, Poet, Soldier, Non-Spy
Part III: Shellshock and Poetry
Part IV: you’re here!
*, **, *** I prefer not to put the full citations on my blog (for privacy reasons), but if you are for some reason desperate to know, feel free to email me.
† Graves’s nickname for Sassoon
DISCLAIMER: I am not a historian—merely a nerd. I’ve read quite a lot about Sassoon, but I certainly don’t know everything, and this blog series is in no way an authoritative narrative. If you want to learn more from people who actually know what they’re talking about, here are some of the resources you should look at (this is the closest I’ll get to a Works Cited page):
Egremont, Max. Siegfried Sassoon: A Life. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2005. Print.
Graves, Robert. Good-Bye to All That. New ed. Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1957. Print.
The letter from Graves to Sassoon is from The First World War Poetry Digital Archive, University of Oxford (www.oucs.ox.ac.uk/ww1lit); © The Berg Collection, New York Public Library / The Robert Graves Copyright Trust