Siegfried Sassoon – ‘In Our Time’ and other resources

Siegfried Sassoon, victorious in his riding days, 1911.

Today at Southfields Community College we held our A-level Easter revision sessions. It was great to feedback on students’ brilliant creative writing and push on with our preparations for the exams. Indeed, good luck to everyone who have their exams upcoming. Use the holidays wisely– but remember to find time to relax, too!

Before moving on from Sassoon in the anthology, I thought it might be useful to post a few links to resources about him on the web. And, if you want to refresh a little on Siegfried Sassoon ahead of the exams, then you’re in luck. Our friends at the BBC have archived a fascinating episode about Sassoon made for one of Radio Four’s best programmes, ‘In Our Time’. Three top Sassoon scholars and Melvyn Bragg discuss the man, his life, the war and his poetry. If you’re serious about success in a month and a half’s time, you really should make an effort to listen to this.

Radio Four isn’t the only audio resource for Sassoon you can listen to on the web. If you link to The Poetry Archive, you’ll find Sassoon reading ‘Everyone Sang’ and ‘The Dug Out’, in his expressive, cut-glass English accent.

Hop on from there over to the ever-useful First World War Poetry Digital Archive, where you can look through the Sassoon digital archive and find many of the original written drafts for Sassoon’s poetry. Read the excellent brief biography there, then search for any poem you’re interested in: if you’re interested in curiosities you can, for example, find ‘Glory of Women’ written on Craiglockheart War Hospital stationary. Moreover the website also has links to a number of useful sites that you can access, here.

Once done with Oxford you can then visit the competition at the Cambridge Library site, where you’ll find a series of pages dedicated to an old Sassoon exhibition, ‘Dream Voices: Siegfried Sassoon, memory and war’. The library purchased a collection of Sassoon’s journals in 2009, and this site contains a number of his drawings and handwritten drafts of poetry. Most interesting, I think, are the journals that agonise over justifications for the war: “I wish I could believe”, he writes, “that Ancient War History justifies the indefinite prolongation of the war… Our peace terms remain the same “the destruction of Kaiserism + Prussionism” – I don’t know what this destruction represents”. There are, however, also some rather more lighthearted pictures drawn by Sassoon as a ten year old that attest colourfully to the young boy’s love of hunting. All in all, some fascinating images.

Enjoy.

–and have a nice Easter holiday!

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(David Jones)

From David Jones' cover for 'In Parenthesis' (1937)

I was given a copy of a book by David Jones recently. Called ‘In Parenthesis’, it’s quite unlike anything else I’ve ever read: part poem, part novel, and brilliantly written. The person who gave it to me– my mum!– had seen Jones featured on a BBC Wales television program called ‘Framing Wales’. You can watch this program here, on BBC iPlayer (Jones’ life as a soldier and artist being mainly dealt with from 21.15 mins onwards [Apologies: my first link went to the wrong episode, now rectified]). The program also provides a description of the infamous battle of Mametz Wood, where 400 of Jones’ fellow Royal Welch fusiliers were killed: an attack which provided some inspiration for ‘In Parenthesis’.

David Jones is a unique figure in Great War poetry. In the first instance, as well as being a writer, Jones was a trained artist.

Now, this is also true of Isaac Rosenberg, of course. Yet it’s striking how much the methods and manner of the two artist-poets differ. Rosenberg’s poetry is brilliant, but was also in one sense quite traditional: the humane mysticism and striking imagery of the great Romantic poet William Blake, for example, seems to have been channeled through his work.

Jones, however, was a modernist.

What was modernism? Well, ‘Make it new!’ was the modernist’s cry. From around a hundred years ago onward, Modernists demanded a revolution in art, in response to the rapidly changing world of the early Twentieth Century. Think of Cubism, Surrealism and Dada in art; T.S. Eliot, James Joyce and Virginia Woolf in literature. They all looked to overturn what had become a cosy notion of what art and literature should look like. So, they embraced the new: while, at the same time, often searching the past for inspiration and roots, as if looking for an anchor to hold them safe in a scary new world of newspapers, processed meat and mass democracy. Modernism would also be a response to the horrors of the First World War and the technologies and culture that created it. Understanding this makes Jones an interesting figure in early twentieth century poetry.

Jones looked to write about his own wartime exeriences in a new way. ‘In Parenthesis’ is the remarkable result: and it remains a novel that is, remarkably, truly novel, or new. As with all experimenters in art, Jones divides critics: Paul Fussell, for example, doesn’t think much of him, while Jon Stallworthy thinks him excellent. We’ll get to study Jones in good time on ‘Move Him Into The Sun’, as we make our way through Stallworthy’s anthology– but enough here to have an introduction to the man and his art, courtesy of the Beeb. Enjoy.

The First World War From Above

The moaning in my last entry was, it seems, premature. Last night the Beeb showed a new documentary on the First World War: ‘The First World War From Above’. I haven’t had the chance to see it yet, but it’s here on iPlayer, and is narrated by Fergal Keane, who is an excellent journalist. As a documentary it should be worth watching.

That sounds a little grudging, perhaps. OK, to come straight to the point: the big idea behind the documentary (why do all documentaries need a ‘big idea’ today? Why do all cookery programs need a ‘mission’?) annoys me a little. The documentary is about showing the war as it was seen from the skies– from Zeppelins, observation balloons and aircraft. This should indeed give us some interesting pictures of World War One– looking at things literally from a different angle, after all– but however novel the perspective, I wonder if the basic idea isn’t really quite trivial.

Let’s hope ‘The First World War From Above’ turns out to be a little more informative and useful than all those ‘Second World War in Colour’ docs. I’ll write my verdict in the Comments section– perhaps I’m just being an old misery! Give your verdict there too.

Poppy wars: the battle over remembrance

Poppy Appeal?

As Armistice Day approaches, the question of how we should remember the First World War has again hit the news.

Channel 4 News presenter, Jon Snow, does not wear a poppy when he reads the news. Many presenters on television choose to at this time of year, but he does not. This has led to controversy in recent days, summed up in this BBC report, ‘TV’s Snow rejects ‘poppy fascism’‘.

You’ll remember that the poppy is worn as a symbol of remembrance for the deaths of soldiers during war. The blood-red flower has been associated with death in war at least since Waterloo: it flourishes in turned over ground, such as fields churned up by horses and artillery, or, a century later on the Western Front, folded and cratered by massive shell explosions. Fed by lime and human fertiliser, the poppy famously began to cover Flander’s fields.

John McRae’s famous poem, ‘In Flanders Fields’, led to a wider identification of the poppy with the butchery of the First World War, especially in his homeland Canada. The poem begins:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row…

By twists and turns, but directly inspired by the poem, the Royal Canadian Legion eventually began giving paper poppies as symbols of remembrance for the dead of the First World War. This custom spread worldwide, and hence the poppy is still worn today.

The question at the heart of the controversy is whether and why a poppy should be worn today. Snow isn’t against the wearing of poppies; he says he doesn’t wear any kind of symbol. Some people are angry that he seems to have rejected the poppy: in doing so, they say, he is rejecting the dead that the poppy represents. Tempers are high. What do you think about this issue? Some people say the whole thing has been whipped up by the media. Does it matter that Snow won’t wear a poppy on the news? The Daily Mail weighs in, here: a historian defends Snow, here.

Meanwhile there seems to be a more bothersome problem with remembering the First World War on television. Where are the stories and accounts of WWI on the mainstream terrestrial stations? A week before the anniversary of the end of the First World War, and the BBC hasn’t shown a single new documentary on the conflict. Less emotive perhaps, but more important for the nation’s remembrance than the fact that a telly newsreader isn’t wearing a flower? Perhaps.

At any rate, in a nice irony, Channel 4 has repeated a fascinating documentary on the First World War, ‘Not Forgotten’. Presented by Ian Hislop, it looks at the history of the reviled ‘conchies’, or conscientious objectors to the war. These were people who objected totally to the fighting, and decided to take no part in it, for personal or religious reasons. They suffered social isolation– and worse. You can watch the episode on the web at Channel 4 online.