Friday, 31 October 2014

Literary Trees

It may seem an odd subject for a post, but it is more apposite than I realised when I began.  The seed of the idea (if you’ll forgive the botanical pun) came when I read about a tree that until recently stood in Oxford’s Botanical Gardens.  A black pine (botanical name pinus nigra), it was closely associated with the writer and First World War veteran J R R Tolkien.  Those who came on our "literary walk" following the Spring School earlier this year will recall that Tolkien at one time lived and worked in rooms in Merton Street, just a stone's throw from the Botanical Gardens and barely a hundred yards from the rooms Siegfried briefly rented in 1919.

According to our friend Dr Stuart Lee, Tolkien was fond of trees from childhood and hated to see them chopped down.  The specific tree in question is said to have inspired the character of Treebeard in Lord of the Rings, though Stuart is less certain about this, pointing out that "in fact the Ents have many sources."   The tree is believed to be over 200 years old, but scientists will not be able to confirm this until they have studied the trunk - for the tree has had to be felled because limbs were beginning to fall off and its days were numbered. Now the wood will be used for an "educational project", and the specialists at the Botanical Gardens will of course also propagate from it.

It was a complete coincidence that, the day after I read about the black pine, my attention was drawn to the existence of “the Hardy tree” in St Pancras Old Churchyard, London.  The Hardy in question is of course Sassoon’s friend Thomas Hardy, who worked in the area during his early career as an architect, during the mid-1860s. At the time, the churchyard was about to be invaded by the construction of new stations for the Midland Railway.  Hardy's supervisor, Arthur Blomfield, a bishop’s son, delegated to his junior the responsibility for relocating thousands of graves in order to accommodate the railway company without upsetting the local community.  This obliged Hardy to be present at the churchyard every evening to ensure that the exhumations were carried out in privacy and with sensitivity, and it was a task that seems to have distressed him.  

Many of the headstones were placed in a circular pattern around an ash tree (botanical name Fraxinus excelsior), which still stands in St Pancras Gardens.  It has been suggested that one of Hardy’s early poems, a blackly-humorous ditty entitled “The Levelled Churchyard”, was inspired by his experience of clearing the stones; the poem was, however, written later, when Hardy and his first wife Emma lived in Wimborne, where he became involved with the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings because of work that was being done at the Minster.

"Blunden's Beech" at Heytesbury
Siegfried was fond of trees, as he was of all nature.  The third tree I thought I should bring into this post is “Blunden’s Beech”, the tree so nicknamed in honour of his friend Edmund Blunden.  Those who have been lucky enough to visit Heytesbury House will have noticed the tree or perhaps had it pointed out to them by Dennis Silk.  At Yalding, where Blunden grew up, a plaque has been installed with the text of Sassoon’s poem “Blunden’s Beech” engraved on it.  The poem was published in his 1940 collection Rhymed Ruminations.  In this poem, the tree stands in place of his absent friend.  Sitting at its base, Siegfried feels his companionship: “…and Edmund never guessed/How he was there with me…” 

Clearly there is no shortage of trees with literary connections, and I would just like to mention one more – one that many SSF members will know about but may not have seen, simply because, when we made our unforgettable visit to Boars Hill in September 2008, the summer had been too wet to allow us to walk up the muddy track that would have led us to it.  The following year, however, I managed to see it on another trip to Boars Hill, again led by the inimitable Philip Stewart, arborist extraordinaire, who subsequently succeeded in getting the view from the hill (immortalised by Matthew Arnold in his poem “Thyrsis”) officially protected by persuading the Oxford Preservation Trust to purchase the land.   This tree, described by Arnold as a “signal-elm”, has been the subject of intensive research by Philip, who deduced the location of the tree that had inspired the poem and finally established that it is actually an oak!  Siegfried, too, would have seen the tree many times when he was staying at Boars Hill, where he visited Robert Bridges, John Masefield and Robert Graves, but, despite his love for nature, he would probably not have been aware of its literary significance.

Friday, 24 October 2014

AGMs and other animals

I admit I was quite anxious about this year’s Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship AGM, even though it was a much smaller-scale affair than usual.  It wasn’t so much the food orders (Irene kindly took that worry off my hands), the accommodation arrangements (there weren’t any) or speaker logistics (we only had one speaker).  It was more to do with the possibility that, for the first time in years, the AGM might not be quorate.  The last time I recall having such a concern was in 2007 at Downside.

You see, we cunningly ensure maximum attendance at our AGMs by combining them with our annual conference, which members are normally keen to attend as long as it is affordable and is held in a convenient location on a convenient date; many now keep the second Saturday in September free in their diaries for precisely this reason.  On this occasion, however, we had to make it a separate meeting because the “Arcadia, Armageddon, Aftermath” reading at Heytesbury in August affected the events calendar as well as taking its toll on the committee resource that would normally have been spent on the conference.  In addition, the big war poetry conference at Wadham College, Oxford, created a clash that was impossible to get around.

So in fact we were lucky that a few extra people turned up at the last minute, ensuring that we didn’t need to worry about having a quorum.  Not that it would have been the end of the world if we hadn’t been quorate.  We could still have held a discussion, but, being a charity, we wouldn’t have been able to take any major decisions; anything we might have wished to do would have been subject to ratification by the requisite number of members at a later date.  The purpose of a quorum is, of course, to prevent important decisions being made in secret by a small group (the committee, for example), without agreement from the general membership.  Many organisations find it so difficult to get a quorum at their meetings that they end up having to amend their constitutions – which itself requires a quorum – in order to get anything done at all!  Our quorum (10% of the SSF’s total membership) is a little ambitious, but we’ve managed to get thirty members or more in recent years without difficulty because our conferences have been so well-attended.

At any rate, we were able to hold the AGM without any complications this year, because there were enough people who were willing to make the trip to central London in the dank days of early autumn, to enjoy a free lecture from Dr George Simmers entitled ‘ “Too terribly beastly and nasty and corpsey”: How novelists of the nineteen-twenties represented war poets.’  Talk about well worth the trip!  Even those of us who had heard part of the talk before – at the Wadham conference last month – were more than happy to revisit the subject and explore a very different angle on war poetry.

I hadn’t realised how easy Sassoon is to parody until I head George recite a poem by J B Morton, from his “Gorgeous Poetry” collection (an obvious take-off of the Georgian poetry with some soldier-poets thrown in), published in 1920.  “This book is not an attack,” Morton insisted.  I wonder if Siegfried laughed, or whether the events that inspired the poem were still too painful in his memory to become a source of amusement.  It might be all very well for him to write something like this, for example, referring to the dramatic moment when he threw his M.C. ribbon in the River Mersey:

"...the poor little thing fell weakly on to the water and floated away as though aware of its own futility.  One of my point-to-point cups would have served my purpose more satisfyingly, and they'd meant much the same to me as my Military Cross."

But was it all right for Morton to make a mockery of such things?  Probably, since the parodist himself had been transferred to army intelligence, after fighting on the Somme, for the sake of his mental health.  Sassoon had, after all, begun his own literary career with a parody of John Masefield’s work, only to become friendly with Masefield when they eventually met in Oxford just after the war.  At any rate, I don’t think there was a single person in George’s audience who wasn’t entertained by Morton’s ditty.

I will not reveal any more about the content of George Simmers’ talk, simply because it is based on research that he has been engaged in for a long time and which is still being pursued.  However, those of you who are members will have the opportunity to read more about it in a future edition of Siegfried’s Journal.  I know that you will be as fascinated as the rest of us were.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

An Italian Odyssey

You may have noticed that I've had a short break from blogging.  This is because I've been away on holiday, a holiday that took me, among other places, to Italy.  Although I never heard Sassoon's name mentioned in the course of my two-week trip, I at times felt my mind being drawn to consider the significance of the visit he made to Italy with his lover Stephen Tennant, in 1928.  

It was, for Siegfried at least, a difficult journey, thanks largely to the demanding young man who accompanied him.  Stephen was used to being cosseted and waited on, and this was the role he expected Siegfried to play throughout what should have been a holiday for both of them.  They had already driven through France and Germany in Sassoon's latest acquisition, a red Packard automobile, before crossing from Austria into Italy in early September, with the aim of attending a performance of young William Walton's Facade, a collaboration with Sassoon's old friend Edith Sitwell.  (It occurs to me that Siegfried's style of driving might have suited Italian road etiquette very well.)  

The Faҫade project had been on the go since 1921, and the suite had been performed before, but two new segments had been written and were to be premièred at the Siena Festival.  As a patron of the 26-year-old composer and a close friend of the poet, Siegfried’s presence at the occasion was expected, and Siegfried himself had been looking forward to it.  Siena is not much more than 200 miles from the border, and they had allowed themselves plenty of time. However, thanks to Stephen's preferred mode of travel, involving a lot of luggage and many stops, the pair failed to reach their destination in time.  Whether Stephen caused the delays deliberately, perhaps because he wanted to demonstrate that he was more important to Siegfried than the latter's long-standing circle of friends, or simply through a lack of consideration, I am unsure.  At any rate, Siegfried was extremely angry.  His failure to attend the performance caused a falling-out between him and Edith; he would have to work hard to make it up to her. Nevertheless, he went ahead with his plan to spend the subsequent days as a visitor at the castle of Montegufoni, owned by Sir George Sitwell, Edith's father.

After Montegufoni, the couple moved on to Bologna, Padua, and eventually Venice, where their stay, according to Jean Moorcroft Wilson, marked a turning-point in their relationship.  

Siegfried had visited Venice twice before, once in 1922 with “Toronto” Prewett (on which occasion he bumped into both Osbert Sitwell and Ivor Novello), and again in 1926 in the company of Lady Ottoline Morrell and her husband.  The trip with the Morrells had not been an easy one.  Sassoon had found himself pig-in-the-middle as the couple quarrelled with one another, their daughter, and other members of the party.  Still at the time involved with Glen Byam Shaw, he wrote to the latter from Verona and Bologna to tell him how much he missed him.  

Sassoon had also, in 1921 and 1922, been to Rome, and commented that he was not interested in the vestiges of the Roman Empire, the Renaissance or the Baroque, but in “the physical aspect of Italy”.  He was particularly taken with the gardens of the Villa d’Este, which would be featured among the illustrations for his 1923 collection, Recreations.  It was here that he had been introduced on his first visit, by Lord Berners, to Prince Philipp of Hesse, who briefly became his lover.  Although Philipp turned out to be uninterested in a lasting relationship, he and Siegfried would remain on amicable terms.  Philipp later married Princess Mafalda of Savoy, the daughter of King Victor Emmanuel III, and settled on the royal estate just outside Rome.

As a result of his familiarity with Venice, Siegfried was now hoping that Stephen would appreciate the great works of art to which he planned to introduce him; in this, at least, he was not disappointed, and it went some way to making up for his disappointment at not arriving at Siena in time.  On the other hand, Stephen was apparently too wrapped up in himself to be sympathetic when Siegfried recalled his mother’s experiences –  Theresa had been in Venice when she discovered her husband Alfred was having an affair with an American novelist; now she wrote to her son to tell him about a painting she had seen there.  However, it was also in Venice that the positive reviews of the newly-published Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man reached them.  
In the following year, Siegfried and Stephen returned to Italy, this time to Rappallo, where they had been invited to stay with Max Beerbohm.  Siegfried was in a state of great annoyance over the recent publication (and success) of Robert Graves’ memoir, Goodbye to All That, which included personal information about Sassoon and his family, to which he strongly objected.  Only when he met W B Yeats in Rapallo did he learn of Graves’ recent domestic problems.  Meanwhile, Sassoon was working on the second volume of his own memoirs, which would cover some of the same ground as Graves’ book.  He continued to work on it as he and Stephen travelled on to Naples and subsequently to Sicily, and also toyed with poetry, producing “Presences Perfected” and “We Shall Not All Sleep”.  Another poem, “In Sicily”, sums up his feelings about their relationship.  One of the "Ariel poems", it was printed in 1930 in a limited edition, with Stephen's own illustrations.  You can buy a second-hand edition for around £250!