Unpublished Siegfried Sassoon poems get first reading - and show anti-war sentiment was toned down before publication
Phrases like 'you're great at murder' were later scratched from 'Atrocities'
Sunday 06 July 2014
Two unpublished poems by Siegfried Sassoon will be given a public reading for the first time today by the actor Samuel West, among them the first draft of "Atrocities", in which Sassoon is much more direct about the visceral act of killing the enemy than in the later, published version.
Phrases that were later scratched include "you're great at murder". And the final lines, which the owner of the original manuscript, Annette Campbell-White, says finish "quite limply" with "still talking big and boozing in a bar", contain the phrase "gulp their blood in ghoulish dreams". Where Sassoon originally wrote "How did you kill them?", he later revised this to "How did you do them in?"
Ms Campbell-White, a Sassoon specialist and collector, bought the poems at auction last year. "The war department or publishers thought that 'Atrocities' was a little too harsh, and so when it was published it was modified," she said. At the time of the Bonhams sale she also acquired a large exercise book, Sassoon's "daybook" from the 1920s, containing two dozen or so poems illustrated by the poet himself. Among them is a homage to Beethoven – "hail him heroic, honour him as great" – which West will also read at a music and poetry event in Buckinghamshire.
"The poems are very good. I am amazed they have never been published," said Ms Campbell-White. "They are about all aspects of life, nature … a sort of poetic diary."
Today's event, called "Peace in Our Time?" forms part of the Garsington Opera summer season in a theatre in the grounds of the home of millionaire art collector Mark Getty, heir to John Paul Getty, at Wormsley, near High Wycombe. Garsington has an association with Sassoon through the socialite Lady Ottoline Morrell, owner of Garsington Manor from 1914 to 1928. It was at the manor that the operas were staged, from 1989 to 2011, before moving to Wormsley.
At Garsington Hall, which he visited regularly, Sassoon was encouraged by Lady Ottoline to take a stand against the way in which the First World War was proceeding. He had served with distinction until openly questioning the purpose of the war in 1917. He had received the Military Cross, but threw his medal into the Mersey. Only admission to the psychiatric hospital at Craiglockhart near Edinburgh spared him a court martial. He died in 1967.
Garsington was a haven for artists, intellectuals and conscientious objectors, including D H Lawrence and Lytton Strachey. Conscientious objectors, including members of the Bloomsbury circle, escaped prosecution by working on the farm there.
Sassoon threw his Military Cross into the Mersey In 1917, Sassoon wrote a letter called "Finished With the War: A Soldier's Declaration". In it he said: "I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority because I believe that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it. I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that the war upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation has now become a war of aggression and conquest. I believe that the purposes for which I and my fellow soldiers entered upon this war should have been so clearly stated as to have made it impossible to change them and that had this been done the objects... would now be attainable by negotiation."
"Sassoon's best poetry was written at the time of the war," said Ms Campbell-White. "It was something to do with the stress, adrenaline and terror of that time that made the writing of the First World War poets so extraordinary. Sassoon remained a fine poet, but if Rupert Brooke, for example, had come back, what would he have become?"
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