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God’s Treasure

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Abstract

After the completion of the last volume of his autobiographies, Sassoon did not immediately return to his poetry. Instead, he started work on Meredith, a biography of one of the favourite authors of his youth, George Meredith. In August 1947 he wrote to Max Beerbohm

Well, Max, I have completed my biography of Meredith, a task which I undertook with much anxiety and effected with enormous drudgery last winter […] Meredithians will find my comments elementary. But Trevelyan countenanced the proceedings with preliminary encouragement and I have illustrated adequately with copious quotations from contemporary critics. (LMB, 97)

Sassoon dedicated the book to G.M. Trevelyan (1876–1962), the eminent historian, who had been a personal friend of Meredith. In 1906 Trevelyan published his The Poetry and Philosophy of George Meredith and he contributed the explanatory notes to the 1912 edition of Meredith’s Poetical Works, published by Constable, who also published Meredith. Sassoon’s apparent need to make up for his own lack of critical competence by extensively quoting recognized critics suggests that Meredith is to a large extent an appreciative, rather than a critical work.

Keywords

Creative Writer True Believer Dreamless Sleep Collect Poem Human Decency 
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Notes

  1. 7.
    George Sassoon in a letter to the author, 26 January 1994.Google Scholar
  2. 8.
    The main source of information for this last phase in Sassoon’s career is Dame Felicitas Corrigan’s Siegfried Sassoon: Poets Pilgrimage (London, 1973). Though this is an extremely valuable book, it is somewhat hampered by the fact that its author is a true disciple of the author of Meredith, with the result that as a biographer she is even more sympathetic in her approach, and even less critical in her judgments. Still, this does not seriously affect the book, since it consists mainly of Sassoon’s poems, letters and diary-entries. All further page references in this chapter are to this book.Google Scholar
  3. 9.
    Sassoon knew The Dynasts well, quoting several passages in his 1916 diary (cf. Diaries 1915–1918, p. 81).Google Scholar
  4. 10.
    ‘To My Mother’ was an older poem, first published separately on 24 September 1928. That Sassoon decided to include it in Common Chords was probably because it was his first volume to appear since his mother’s death in 1947.Google Scholar
  5. 11.
    Sassoon was never particularly interested in philosophy, but it is interesting to see that his life’s philosophy as it here emerges — that there is no harm in finding consolation in memories which in your heart of hearts you know to be distorted and untrue — is reminiscent of the survival mechanism that the German philosopher Hans Vaihinger had formulated in his Die Philosophie des Als-Ob (1911). Vaihinger (1852–1933) said that thinking was essentially another means in the struggle for survival. If man can develop ‘fictions’ which he knows not to be true in the ordinary sense, but which do serve him to whatever purpose, this makes them useful in life, and therefore true (truth, according to Vaihinger, being all that is useful in the struggle for survival). There is no evidence to suggest that Sassoon had ever read or read about Vaihinger, but it is not at all unlikely that he had. Vaihinger’s philosophy was first presented to a wider audience in Havelock Ellis’ best-selling The Dance of Life (1923). In a footnote to the Vaihinger chapter, Ellis explains that a few years earlier, he had published an article on Vaihinger in the Nation & Atheneum, a periodical to which Sassoon occasionally contributed (Cf. The Dance of Life (London, 1928), p. 79 note 1). An English translation of Vaihinger’s book, entitled The Philosophy ofAs If appeared in 1924. But even if Sassoon was not familiar with Vaihinger’s writings, the fact remains that many of his poems as well as The Old Century are perfect illustrations of Vaihinger’s survival theories.Google Scholar
  6. 12.
    It was Grey (1862–1933) who at the outbreak of the Great War on 3 August 1914 said that “The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit in our lifetime”, supposedly to his friend Edward Tennant, 1st Baron Glenconner (1859–1920), an elder brother of Margot Asquith. In 1922, two years after Lord Glenconner’s death, Edward Grey married his widow Pamela (1871–1928). Sassoon had visited Grey at Fallodon Hall in the late 1920s, during his affair with Stephen Tennant. Cf. Hoare (1990) and Simon Blow, Broken Blood: The Rise and Fall of the Tennant Family (London, 1987).Google Scholar
  7. 13.
    This is the quality in Sassoon’s poetry that must have appealed to Philip Larkin, who named Sassoon among his twelve ‘exemplars’. A desire to submerge his individuality in the cyclical movement of Nature is also the underlying theme in Larkin’s own later poetry. See my ‘The Return to the Native’ in In Black and Gold: Contiguous Traditions in Post-War British and Irish Poetry, C.C. Barfoot, ed. (Amsterdam, 1994), pp. 95–117.Google Scholar
  8. 14.
    Though Sassoon presents this explanation as one that satisfies him completely, this was not the last time he wondered about his soul’s survival in heaven. In The Tasking he still asks “How do you handle my dispersal — / Nameless, unlanguaged, and deminded? / Shall psyche thrive, no more purblinded? / Answer me that, 0 Universal” (‘The Dispersal’, 11. 9–12).Google Scholar
  9. 15.
    The influence of Henry Vaughan is also present in the use of the definite article-noun form in many of the poems’ titles.Google Scholar
  10. 16.
    The lower-cased “he” in the last line quoted seems intentional, since it occurs both in the Collected Poems and the Corrigan printing. The previous line, however, refers to God as “He” and “His”; which makes it likely that the lower-case “he” is an uncorrected typing error.Google Scholar
  11. 17.
    Henry Head (1861–1940), an eminent neurologist, knighted in 1927. He had been a friend and associate of W.H.R. Rivers, who introduced him to Sassoon. He and Geoffrey Keynes had saved Virginia Woolf after her suicide attempt in October 1913. During the war he treated the war poet Robert Nichols. Head became a close friend of Walter de la Mare. Sir Rupert Hart-Davis calls him “After W.H.R. Rivers the chief father-figure in S.S.’s life” (D3, 34 note 5).Google Scholar
  12. 18.
    These opening lines are in mood and setting remarkably similar to those of Philip Larkin’s ‘Church Going’. Though Larkin named Sassoon as one of his favourite poets, ‘Church Going’ was actually written a few years before ‘Lenten Illuminations’.Google Scholar
  13. 19.
    In The Pilgrim’s Progress, Evangelist refers to Christian’s pilgrimage as “the way of peace” (Penguin ed., 1965, p. 53).Google Scholar
  14. 20.
    The eight poems were: ‘Rogation’ (1959), ‘Arbor Vitae’ (1959), ‘Unfoldment’ (1960), ‘A Prayer at Pentecost’ (1960), ‘Awaitement’ (1960), ‘Proven Purpose’ (1964), ‘A Prayer in Old Age’ (1964) and ‘Sight Sufficient’ (1957). An Octave was published in a limited edition of 150 copies.Google Scholar

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© Paul Moeyes 1997

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