Friday, November 13, 2015

`It Was the Minor Figures Who Intrigued Them'

Two poets and veterans of the Great War, both stalwart bookmen:

“Book-collecting, too, a hobby [Siegfried] Sassoon had taken up in his teens, kept them swapping stories and `finds’ from 1919 onwards. It is revealing of both men that, according to [Edmund] Blunden, neither of them was primarily interested in costly first editions, but in the neglected by-ways, a taste which reflected their literary interests as a whole. Though both had a proper respect for the major writers of the past, it was the minor figures who intrigued them.”

The passage is from Siegfried Sassoon, the Journey from the Trenches: A Biography (1918-1967) by Jean Moorcroft Wilson (Routledge, 2003). What impresses me about both men, who met only after the war, is their intense, casual bookishness. Both are out of sorts in the absence of printed matter. In the second of his three volumes of fictionalized war autobiography, Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (1930), Sassoon writes of a scene on the Western Front:

“Late that night I was lying in the tent with The Return of the Native on my knee. The others were asleep, but my candle still guttered on the shell box at my elbow. No one mumbled `For Christ’s sake put that light out’; which was lucky, for I felt very wide awake . . . A sort of numb funkiness invaded me. I didn’t want to die—not before I’d finished The Return of the Native anyhow.”

Sassoon went on to meet Hardy shortly before the Armistice, visiting him at Max Gate, the novelist’s home in Dorchester, and they remained friends until Hardy’s death in 1928. Blunden and Sassoon’s devotion not to name brands (those are simply assumed) but the “neglected by-ways,” also stirs my readerly/writerly loyalties:

“As an ex-scholar of Christ’s Hospital, Blunden was especially fond of a fellow-Bluecoat, Charles Lamb, who duly became Sassoon’s staple reading. And Blunden’s devotion to the eighteenth century generally and to John Clare in particular also infects Sassoon, whose poem `To an Eighteenth Century Poet’ is written in praise of another minor figure from the period, William Cowper. And both were drawn to Henry Vaughan, who became the subject of a Sassoon poem greatly admired by Blunden, `At the Grave of Henry Vaughan’.”

Of course literature is vast, but more in the way of a sprawling city of neighborhoods than a galaxy. That Blunden and Sassoon shared enthusiasms is hardly surprising. Blunden wrote about and edited work by such undervalued writers as Lamb, Christopher Smart and William Collins. In 1927, he published On the Poems of Henry Vaughan (an essay and translations of Latin poems). Sassoon published a biography of George Meredith (1948) and befriended the “prince of minor writers,” Max Beerbohm (a volume of their letters was published in 1986). What interests me is one writer’s enthusiasm for another, not the academic tedium of “influence.” Who we read and who we choose to write about constitute a reliable litmus test of sensibility. Neither Blunden nor Sassoon was an essential poet but both wrote essential memoirs and possessed interesting minds. Shortly after the Armistice, Sassoon met Walter de la Mare, surely among the most “neglected by-ways” in English literature. They remained friends, and Sassoon later wrote (Diaries 1920-1922: Faber, 1981):

“De la Mare is the most wonderful and interesting and sympathetic and mystery-haunted manuscript he has ever written. He is a human being to whom I respond with the utmost enthusiasm. I am bubbling over with excitement when I meet him.”

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