Summer 2007 [Issue No. 12]
Siegfried and Robert ▪► Lisa Sandlin
An age ago, on a spring day in nineteen-twenty-something, Sassoon had cut Osbert Sitwell, publicly too, over Osbert’s malicious criticisms of Robert. He’d not known Osbert well then, felt a sort of attraction actually, but his line was drawn. Then Robert arrived late at Sassoon’s rooms, much later than arranged and with an offhand serving of contempt for Sassoon’s latest poems: they read like the verses of an intellectual Victorian spinster in a teary mood. Here was Robert’s generous list of corrections. Sassoon’s temper frayed. Robert, hands in pockets, innocently taken aback. Sassoon for the general good stammered a healing invitation for dinner. Robert blithely replied he was dining with T.E. Lawrence and should be off. Not half an hour later, Sassoon must collide with them in the street. Robert maddeningly affable, T.E.—rather beyond it all with his long coat and inscrutable gaze—delving politely into his literary methods, Sassoon barking answers.
The sundering of the friendship had been some of that, hadn’t it? Misunderstandings, wounded feelings. Quarrelling by post. Both more than once breaking the correspondence in the last sentence and then dashing in postscripts that incited the other to reply. Injuring each other with home truths and then tucking poems or photographs into the envelope. Exhausting to think how worked up he had become over Robert’s book. How wrong-headed, at least about his own portrait. Now he could see Robert’s treatment of him was more than fair, acutely perceptive of Sassoon’s peculiar relations with the war. But then. He wrote to Robert:
Why caricature my grieving mother as a wild-eyed, table-turning spiritualist? Paint great, dear Thomas Hardy as a funny little old man?
Great? Robert didn’t credit greatness; he considered people his equals until they showed themselves not to be.
Why include—without asking my permission—the letter-poem I wrote to you from hospital in 1918, freshly wounded and half out of my mind? The poem everything I kept myself from being—blatantly emotional, unmindful of friends, murderously direct and cutting?
Robert had felt the blade right enough. But the poem was brilliant and Siegfried’s finest work, and if he was half off his head when he wrote it, then that was a more fortunate condition for writing than using his whole head. Why couldn’t Siegfried just be who he was?
Lovely ideal. But is it so simple, considering my nature? Look what you did to Owen. Announced his homosexuality in order to add scandal to your book. The description reductive (and by implication I cannot mistake your opinion of my like temperament)—wouldn’t you say? Then to smear him with rumors of cowardice—untrue, Robert, and unfair. Owen was the finest poet of our war.
Robert had nothing against Owen. But Siegfried’s cherished restraint was only hypocrisy induced by a fear of self-revelation. His reverence for extinct traditions and extinct poets would gift him with his own extinction. Why continue with this dishonesty? They should say goodbye.
Yes. The power of the friendship gone; they no longer helped create each other. They had for a time. (How? Robert discovering in the military wilderness a soul to reveal himself to; Siegfried grafting Robert’s rough authority onto his own rage.) Perhaps, after all, they’d taken from each other no more than any two friends might in such conditions. Those conditions finished now. He agreed; they should say goodbye.
Silence; their lives were lived.
Then, to blunder into one another here at Cambridge today! Almost forty years since their first meeting. Extraordinary. He’d turned toward St John’s but been seized by a glorious shout of daffodils. Dawdled, taking in the loud sight of them. Had to tear himself away. Not late yet for his appointment, but cutting it fine, medieval sundials round every corner scolding him with their tempus fugit frowns. The jest being that the sundials were to be scrutinized by undergraduates—a pair of these flapped past, chattering—just the bunch most likely to scorn them. Anyone seventy years old understood the way of years: the unbearable drag, then snap, done, the accumulation completed almost behind one’s back.
“Not now, sir, if you please!” A man on the path yonder, speaking backward over his shoulder to a don waving a sheaf of papers.
Sassoon knew the voice in something less than an instant. As if they’d spoken this morning over coffee; as if, unbeknownst to him, it lived in a burrow in the back of his head. He squinted. The man turned, force undiminished—Robert.
The friendship had begun in 1915 with an unlikely handshake. Siegfried a child of the old century, Robert thoroughly modern. They mightn’t have been friends but for the war. Or but for a book of essays Sassoon had misplaced. Or but for David’s childish sense of rightness.
Blind luck, too, that of all the men at camp, Sassoon had been quartered with David Thomas. A boy from Wales, only eighteen but solid despite his youth and beautiful. His hair pure sunlight, brighter than the old winter light that fell around them. A nature so unaffected he was liked by everyone. The usual, dual predicament: Sassoon half in love with him, half the protective elder brother—with all the attendant secret anguish and sweetness. David, comprehending only Sassoon’s kindness, found his older friend more than perfect. Confided his girl’s name. Confessed his apprehension of the trenches, staring point-blank into Sassoon’s eyes.
That particular day Sassoon had wanted to hole up and read, far from orders and war talk, soldiers’ squabbles and officers’ sordid revelations about the newest mademoiselles of the Blue Lamp. But he’d lost his book and been terribly annoyed, then further annoyed ... no, touched and annoyed by David, breathlessly seeking him out, reporting he’d searched high and low and a good many places in between for the book, but no luck. Someone must have nicked it.
Disappointed, Sassoon meant to go straight to his charming billet with the pictures of fat sheep adorning the walls, but he and David fell into a circle of officers. He nodded to the only one he knew, Ian Hillyers, whose sister he’d once half-considered marrying but only because of Ian. Now they were no longer as close, and Ian affected a distance from him. The group made room for Lieutenant Sassoon to join them talking; his inclusion by brother officers braced him pleasantly. They were downing someone.
“Arrogant know-it-all,” one exclaimed indignantly, “and dirty as a dog, besides. ‘Don’t recall asking your advice,’ I told him yesterday, and he had the nerve to say I’d not recalled to relieve my sentries, either. Always telling you your business.”
“Believes women should rule the earth.”
“What could he know of women?” General leering and laughter.
Sassoon turned to go but stopped at a querulous voice raised in the man’s defense. He was attracted by one acting on principle against the crowd, and he stayed to hear out the defender. A red-haired subaltern with one of those complexions in which the freckles have melted together.
“H-he is right all the same about Loos. I was there and it was a bloody balls-up.”
“Yes, we know you were there, Potter. It’s how he puts it, isn’t it, grates on one to hear it. As though the chaps were fools because they’re dead.”
“But he s-says the men were splendid.”
“Perhaps he’ll be one of those fools himself once the Push is on.”
Potter sputtered. Ian laid a hand on his shoulder and said in a dirge-like tone, “Perhaps we all of us will.” Mockery, but that shut their mouths, and he winked at Sassoon, which little gesture eased their friendship. Ian may or may not have held an opinion on the personality under discussion; he liked being contrary.
Sassoon spoke up. “Who do you mean?” He pitied the man, whoever he was, to be so disliked.
“Haven’t met our beauty? That’s him there.”
Ten yards away, a large young man fell onto the ground dead. Farmers’ children crowded round with their pretend rifles, three or four of them bayoneting. A boot quavered in the air; the soldier’s tongue protruded. After a suitable while, the dead youth rose, sat on a shell box, and began sketching on a slate. When he held up the slate, the children giggled. A tiny one with tangled yellow hair climbed beneath his arm to stall crossways on the fulcrum of his knee. He rounded his arms to boost her up; once in his lap, she tipped over, asleep.
To Sassoon’s surprise, David began to stroll toward the pariah. Uncomfortably, Sassoon followed. When he prodded David, the boy shrugged him off and nodded toward the officers’ gossip circle. “They’re cruel, Siegfried. I don’t like it.”
The young man—a captain, Sassoon noted—glanced up over the sleeping child’s head, smiled with his mouth open. His cheeks were pink from exertion. “Whisper now,” he admonished them. “Shouldn’t wake this little sprite.”
Sassoon introduced himself, self-consciousness muffling his low tone.
“Pardon, I didn’t quite—”
Sassoon cleared his throat. One of his legs, acting independently, shot out at the knee, requiring him to accompany it. “Siegfried Sassoon,” he said again.
“I say, you’re not!” The young captain appeared astonished and with his shout woke the child himself.
“Oh, Robert Graves here, so pleased ... ” Setting down the child, Captain Graves fumbled in his pocket, saying, “I found it quite deserted on a mess table and a cook about to make off with it, for what possible reason, God knows. I’ve got to meet whoever’s reading this in France, I thought, he’s sure to be of interest. Vastly more so than any of the thickheads out here. Perhaps ... doesn’t do to advertise ...” Narrowing his eyes, he peered left and right, “... perhaps even a fellow poet.”
He held out the lost book, open to the flyleaf and Sassoon’s name.
David turned, gesturing to Sassoon. He must go and tell Graves how his friend was a poet. And a foxhunter, too, rode like forty devils, understood any horse born. Sassoon’s face reddened, but the young captain drew him into a conspiratorial smile before seizing David Thomas’s hand. “You’re ... Tommy? You say your friend speaks horse language?”
Graves suggested they meet soon. He offered his hand to Sassoon, who, knee suddenly fiddley again, couldn’t help glancing in the direction of the group of officers. Their stares constrained his every movement. But Rather a force, isn’t he, passed through Sassoon’s mind, then The hell with brother officers, and he clasped Graves’s hand.
That’s how they’d discovered Robert, dying and popping up again, practicing the future. And how David Thomas became Tommy, Robert’s transformative powers evident at once.
They walked into Morlancourt for cream buns, and Robert brought out some poems. Siegfried complained of the violent images. “But he’s right that we haven’t seen for ourselves yet, Siegfried,” Tommy said. The two ignored his effort; they were off for half an hour, Sassoon arguing over cold tea, Robert lavish with pastry and passionate opinion. Tommy ate what the proprietress placed before him and looked miserably from one friend to the other.
The next week Robert read one of Sassoon’s newer war poems—published by the way, to enough acclaim (and a letter of quivering praise from art patroness Ottoline Morrell) that Sassoon offered it up with less than usual diffidence. Robert was shaving. Without setting down his razor, he lit on the poem, his face half soaped, half clean.
Sassoon looked away as Robert read, perturbed, though he was twenty-nine and the published author, and Robert’s work not yet set in galleys (twenty; he was only twenty). A snort from Robert. Handing back the poem, he said, “It’s as I’ve been telling you. You won’t write like this once you’ve been to the trenches.”
Sassoon retrieved his poem and sat down. The wooden chair was lame and slung him off balance; they were in Robert’s billet, a farmhouse still on its feet, with living furniture—straw-mattressed beds, a round oaken table, iron stove, dressing table with enameled wash basin—which would next year be blown to rubble and vapor.
“May I ask what’s wrong with it?”
Tommy unfolded from buffing a boot. “Yes, what is wrong with it, Robert? The bit about the lilies is very fine.”
Robert and Siegfried looked at his anxious face. It was difficult to say whether he was a hindrance to these discussions or a sweet and lovely help.
Robert told them what was wrong with it. He lectured from his superior height, punctuating points with a soapy razor. Sassoon’s neck began to prickle. He tucked the poem away in a breast pocket, buttoned the pocket. He was already prepared for parade, shaved, shined, and polished. Rising from the crippled chair, he protested. “See here, everything can’t be drawn as nasty and cheap and cruel. Really I don’t see how you can say it’s dishonest to express things with some beauty.”
Sassoon was earnest to the point of trembling. Conscious of appearing no Adonis like Tommy, who sat on Robert’s bed trying not to look stricken. He stood tall and plain-brown-haired and righteous, prominent ears burning while outside, some idiot blew a bugle in a ragtime refrain.
Robert turned away to squint into a cloudy mirror. “Beauty, you ought to know, Siegfried, is stone dead.”
Sassoon tried to utter serious objection, but his halt way of speaking—at its low register, a disappearing mumble; at high, a choppy abruptness—got him nowhere.
With a twitch of the lips, Robert reordered the pantheon of English literature. Milton tumbled down the rungs, Trollope behind him, Skelton climbed up. He vaulted on, razor conducting, oblivious of a strip of white beard dried to his face. Such a face—big like the rest of Robert, the cheekbones hard and round, the nose bashed crooked in a boxing match, lips full, eyes calm and daring with intelligence.
Of course Robert was having him on, but his authoritative manner amused and amazed Sassoon. He sat down again, slipped out his diary and pencil and asked Tommy for the date. “Captain Graves,” he noted—a wry glance at Robert—“takes a stick to John Milton.”
Robert laughed and turned to shave his other cheek.
Tommy bounded to his feet, warning, “We’re late!” They had to race downstairs, the three of them colliding in the narrow stairwell, and then Robert up again, so as not to present himself tieless for parade.
Sassoon checked his men, patting or reprimanding. The colonel bounced up on a fat gray horse and favored them all with a gap-toothed smile. Orders had arrived. Tomorrow, he informed the officers, they’d be heading up. A fair March day near Morlancourt, the slate roofs glinting, guns rumbling afar, and after parade a football match. Siegfried and Robert amused to see Tommy play with single-minded passion and crowd the lineman, shouting into his red face that he ought to be judging cabbages, not football. Without a word spoken, they dragged him off the bristling man. Two guardians rejoicing in their power, they braced the boy, laughing between them as they pulled him safe away.
“C” went into the line in early March, a good enough company. Lieutenants Cullen, a bespectacled London solicitor, and sturdy Trammel, fresh from Sandhurst, an earl’s son who looked a boxer; Pierce and Galvin, boyhood friends and inveterate card players; Smallwood, a greengrocer, now a magician of a quartermaster; Worthington-French, a roundish, pipe-smoking doctor with a disdain for General Staff; Sergeant Wilson, a former police constable whose deafness escaped the recruitment board somehow and lent him an enviable serenity; and Tommy, still kneeling for his prayers at night.
They marched ten hours for an hour’s rest before jumping off, the company they relieved disappearing in something less than a wink. The artillery had roared all night, cutting the German wire, or so they hoped. At zero the Yorkshiremen on their left went over with bayonets fixed, then they themselves, then the Highlanders on their right, pipes shrilling wonderfully, all set to follow behind the creeping barrage. Sassoon found himself a kind of officer machine keeping up a running encouragement. But the shells fell so short the men had to dodge their own artillery as well as the German. The first wave to reach the wire found openings slim as needles’ eyes; their bodies soon choked the narrow lanes. Then the Germans swung their machine guns and per orders the men behind walked into them.
Word came to fall back; by then it was evening. A row of men lay on the duckboards waiting for sacks, Bullard and Sykes with arms intertwined as though for a stroll in Piccadilly. Stretcher-bearers went over; everyone else ordered to stand by as working parties were organized. Sassoon, nerved up, couldn’t bear the trap of the trench.
Crawling out, he found Pierce and Galvin forward in a shell hole along with a couple of the men crumpled and already stiff. Pierce shot through the chest and gasping, his mouth red-rimmed, Galvin with both hands clenched on his tin hat endeavoring at every noise to pull it like a wool cap over his ears. When Sassoon grabbed his shoulder for help, Galvin bit him. Sassoon went back for rope and managed to drag the heavy Pierce across two more shell holes to their trench and into waiting hands.
“Bloody ’ell,” a voice accused Pierce as he was laid down, “Mr. Sassoon risked ’is neck. Couldn’t give it more of a go?” Dead Pierce had stopped blowing his bubbles, the red sticky down his chin like jam on a child’s.
“Let me go with you,” Tommy insisted, but Sassoon gave him other orders and took a stretcher team. He thought he should have to bash Galvin with a revolver but the terrified man clung to the stretcher. With fifty yards to go, the clouds blew away and a Boche sniper, perhaps as nerved up from the battle as Sassoon, picked off both stretcher-bearers. One only a beauty through the shoulder muscle—“Go on, leg it,” Sassoon told him, and the man started crawling in—but the other clean through the back of the head. Dropped on his knees and folded like a Mohammedan in prayer.
Sassoon twisted his face from the foul dirt. He told Galvin he’d drawn his revolver. “Get along on your own or I’ll shoot you.” Someone came hunkering toward them. Police-sergeant Wilson pinned Galvin’s arms in a practiced manner then kicked him into the trench.
Sassoon came in himself. A searing admiration in Tommy’s eyes.
“And don’t set foot out there again, sir!” a man shouted. Private Mackenzie, fifty if a day, wringing small, dirty hands, his helmet strap torn and dangling down his cheeks like auntie’s side curls. Everyone laughed. The sky was lightening at the edges.
Two mornings later, his name already in for the Military Cross, Sassoon paused before stand-to to admire a pinch of moon hanging above the German line. To let his soul be lifted. Just the sort of activity Robert was always twigging him about. And yet ... this little moon fragment seemed so near that they could with a party of men and some wire haul it down. What would they do with it? Too stupid, he scolded himself, but relief was due tomorrow, oh tomorrow. He gave up and lost himself in it entirely.
The British, they’d install the moon in a domed museum for the benefit of schoolchildren and foreign visitors. The poilus would fry it up with garlic and thyme. The Americans, if they ever arrived, oh, this was an easy one—they’d shut the moon in an army tent and sell the tickets dear. As for the Germans—
The colonel appeared, startling him. Hell, he’d meant to give his report. Haggard, puttees showing beneath a paisley dressing gown, the CO waved away the report. Sassoon stared, confused. The colonel’s sigh escaped his gapped teeth with a whistle. “Sorry but they’re bringing in your friend. Young Thomas. Shot through the throat on a wiring party. Not to worry, he’ll be fine.”
Sassoon ran; there had been no mistake. Neck and chest soaked red but ... no mistake. He had a blessed minute with him, Tommy trying to speak, Sassoon urging him to save the effort. Happy because now Tommy would be out of it, at least for a good long while. Tommy grasping his wrist, him pushing back Tommy’s hair. They carried him off.
By afternoon, news from the aid station, and Sassoon turned to greet it with a peaceful face. But Tommy was dead. The doctor, a London throat specialist, had failed to see he was choking. Tommy, thrusting a letter into the hands of a nursing sister. One of those letters one prepared in advance for the last event. Some girl back in Wales would open it, shed crystal tears for her warrior so bravely fallen, entomb the letter in a book of verse. She wouldn’t, would she, see the red ruined tunic, the horrible choking, the drool. She’d see that perfect face for all time unmarked, fair head resting gentle as a killed bird’s.
Next day Sassoon commandeered a mare and rode away into a wood. Lay facedown on the same earth and clawed the new spring grass. Wept, tore at the tender green as if it were his heart’s pain. Then rode back.
So they’d gone down carrying their dead, and the night they’d buried David Thomas, moonlight had shown up Robert at the grave, mouth twisted with grief. Sassoon had tried to think of some reason to leave Tommy back from the working party, but glancing at the ordinary roll of concertina wire, Tommy chided him, “Oh go on, Siegfried.” For safeguard, for the pleasure of touching, Sassoon had blacked Tommy’s face—oh beautiful face. Hidden now in the sack. That was what they buried.
A parson making a dumb show, the guns far too loud for sacramental words, a C. of E. parson dry and squeaking, never so near the line before. C. of E. dropped the Bible at a flashy one. Robert couldn’t be stopped from hot, sarcastic words: “O for a priest with muddy sleeves rolled!” A whiz-bang covered most of it. The sack lowered. Limp shapeless dark thing, except for the flag’s white bars catching the light, the sack went under.
In twelve days Sassoon went into the lines again, and he swallowed tea laced with rum, blackened his face. Cheered his men, a word for this one and that one and for you and you. Up the fire step, over the parapet. He, the gentlest of beings, inspiring them to a raiding career. The men called him Mad Jack; Mackenzie dithered with disapproval.
Crawling homeward in lovely pitch black, his thoughts as usual in these situations not quite on the beam, it came to him—what the Germans would have done with the moon. The Germans would load it into one of their big guns and plunge it down to drown the little English in its brilliance.
Both Sassoon and Graves made the dead boy poems. Sassoon’s, after a mid-point burst of uncurbed murder, gentled into the loveliness of David’s face. Robert’s charged straight-on—usurped Goliath’s story and turned the hero theme on its head. Indeed, Robert had got a very fine poem out of his own death—though he would insist he’d died on his twenty-first birthday, all dramatic nicety and Robert’s disdain for fact. To Robert fact was changeable as a fairy rune, subject to the higher law of artistic necessity. Who could decipher the law’s intent? Why, Robert ...
They’d met on a hill at midnight in July 1916 when the battle of the Somme had been raging for three weeks. “And how are the peace talks coming?” Robert asked.
Sassoon laughed, giving him what little he’d heard, and mentioned in passing the deserted village he’d ridden through to get here, the willows in the church lane full-leafed and green, bent and sighing like refugees. Thinking aloud, sure neither would survive the show to come. “Strange, not to see it all again—England, what matters to you—”
“Children,” Robert said, in a bitter, yearning way that surprised Sassoon. He hadn’t thought to regret children.
Then Robert refused to talk about the war; he was to be in the thick of it the next day. His men slept a ways off, and with the campfires flickering, he chose to see them as Alexander’s troops, spread out under a starry Macedonian sky. Ignore the shell boxes tumbled about, Robert commanded—for they, instead of some ancient, sacrificed olive, provided the fires’ fuel—and the artillery’s mad red booming. Put that down to the old gods at play.
“All right.” Sassoon smiled in the dark. “Dispense with time and place.”
“We’ve got to walk the world, Sassons. We must travel.” Robert leaned forward, gesturing, crooked face aglow, black hair brushing his forehead. He spilled over with words, all quite matter of fact—what they’d do after this, where they’d travel. They could work together by the mosques of Persia. Sassoon would learn the lingo; Robert would take care of that in Spain. There they’d track Roman aqueducts to swooning Moorish arches, a harem of roses peeking through. They’d need none of this rot: wire cutters and shovels and gas masks and map cases. Robert threw back his head. “Maps! Who wants maps!”
Sassoon was exhilarated by Robert’s romance, with Robert’s wanting him as partner in adventure and art. They could do anything, couldn’t they? Before he’d met Robert, he hadn’t assumed he could do a thing until he’d done it.
Robert all force and fancy, combined with plans and formulations. Working out with a pencil stub how likely he was to be killed in any situation. Straight-faced. Quoting the odds as though God’s bookmaker had slipped them to him on a stone tablet.
While he, Siegfried, plodded along absorbing and feeling. On one stint in the line, he’d come upon three of his men just in from a late working party and bitter-mouthed about missing their tea. He’d managed to run and catch Supply as they were going down, ran like a madman and got them their dixies of tea. Their faces when he brought it. No one who’d not lived here could imagine the magnitude of his tiny deed. How it enlarged and softened him to have done it. So odd: a golden dawn with larks stretching their necks suicidally between shell crashes, a field of mustard not four miles back and the ditches heart-red with poppies. How as he ran he knew himself a young man on a summer’s day, strong and full of purpose. And that purpose three cups of lukewarm tea.
They’d parted, very late. The night sky intermittently a bled-white color followed by fresh red explosions. Sassoon’s outfit in reserve. Robert for it, up the line.
In the fifth autumn of the war, Owen would memorably describe the phenomenon. His nerves, he wrote to Sassoon, were working wonderfully: he didn’t bother to remove the cigarette from his lips as he scrawled Deceased over his men’s undeliverable letters. Sassoon knew the drill. He’d wept for Tommy but not for Robert. By the time news of Robert’s death reached him in a grubby note, Sassoon had dispensed with mourning as a bad job all around, inconsistent with soldiery and a poison to self-defense.
He’d had, that maddening afternoon, a poem jangling his head, which if ever committed to paper, he’d let Robert see. Their companies weren’t so far apart; he was sure to get an hour to ride over once they were both out of the line and in billets again. Graves couldn’t say he sang too sweetly now. Sassoon had been trying to write the thing for the last hour, but his loathsome dugout insisted on being filled with people.
The doctor had ambled down to condemn the jam. Rotten stuff Supply was sending up. Had Sassoon heard—perhaps the Boches had captured Crosse and Blackwell? Sassoon was obliged to guffaw with him. Oh yes, and a quantity of greatcoats was wanted, gone astray, apparently. The quartermaster was affecting innocence, but Brigade had worn down their pretty pink fingertips on typewriting machines, screeching for them. “Good God, greatcoats in July.” After an interminable pipe, the doctor took himself off.
He bent over his diary again, a phrase sounding blessedly whole before heavy footsteps obliterated it. Mackenzie, reporting on stores of wire needed for that night. And if he might inquire, sir, any word on their going over? “Nothing yet,” Sassoon said, noting the man’s tired face. He was looking seedy. Could hardly be helped in this place, and Mackenzie only a few years junior to Methuselah. Sassoon sent him out with a message for headquarters, wiped his wet forehead, and set to it again. The sweat kept his grip tricky. He was stuck on a line ending, and when he’d begun, words had been pouring out of him. As though inside him the poem existed complete and aglitter, needing only to be funneled into his desperate ear. Now what had he meant to say in this line?
Would he never be alone? Eerily distracted again, Sassoon looked up to find himself contemplated by a mouse, its largish head cocked. It was staring toward him with a kind of neutral sympathy, a ... studiousness, as though it wouldn’t have dreamed of interrupting but it must just stop a moment because Sassoon was so very interesting. Now where was his mind? He chunked a clod at the mouse.
Trammel and Cullen, pince-nez perched on his nose, ran in, smuggling between them Sanderson’s gramophone. They’d have a tune before he missed it. Didn’t Sassoon have more light than these dwarf candles?
Setting his teeth, he capped his pen. “A reeking oil lamp, if you wish to save Fritz the work of gassing you.”
“Rude, isn’t he,” Trammel remarked. “I say, I won’t save you a dance.”
The gramophone spewed out a tinkly ditty. Sassoon gazed without hope at his fragment. The guns could be heard above the silly song, but they daren’t play it louder since Sanderson would find them. Cullen and Trammel were performing a creditable foxtrot until a strong report brought a chalk lump down into Cullen’s spectacled face. Sassoon, brushing dirt from his diary, was implored to help locate the pince-nez before they were trod upon. Cullen, stumbling about, beating the air like a blind man.
Just then, in a regular music hall turn, Sanderson barged in, not as Scotland Yard but to deliver Sassoon a note he’d received by mistake. “Sanderson, Sassoon—you’d think they could make an effort to read more than two letters of someone’s name.”
Sassoon covered his poem with the folded note—likely more sterling advice from headquarters about the defense of greatcoats. Sanderson’s ranting had veered off into slackers back home, one whom he knew personally, able-bodied, strong as a horse and only feigning dim eyes. The bounder had this week spoken obscenely to Sanderson’s dear wife. Sanderson’s usual manner was reserved, almost shy, but now he was certainly worked up. One wondered what the wife had said back.
Trammel’s cheeks bulged; he nudged Cullen. Old Sanderson would soon spot his prized possession, and the chase would be on.
Trammel glared when Sanderson sank down on a shell box. Sanderson folded his hands and said, “What shall I do if she throws me over?” He spoke, hangdog, to the dugout wall.
“Order her by postal card to stop at home.” This was Cullen, bored.
“No, charge back to Brighton and bayonet them both.” Trammel, demonstrating the particular body parts to be skewered.
Sanderson shaking his head no, his boots angling in at the toes. His drooping jaw allowed a mustache tip to lodge in his mouth. He tossed his head to whisk it out, a movement which recalled to Sassoon a draft horse he’d seen on march here, trying to shudder free of a bullet.
“If you knew my bit of an Elsie girl, you’d ... I ... what I mean to say ...” Sanderson fought off the mustache again. “I’d gut the bastard if I could, that is, if I get back home. But if I don’t, you see ... I mayn’t get back home, rum luck to say it, but that’s ... “ Sanderson turned, hands laced tight like a child’s in church, eyes dumb and shining.
Cullen and Trammel lost some of their wind out. Sassoon looked away. Here was an honorable soul, with right on his side and in the most delicate grief. Yet one didn’t feel the least tender about him—Hello, what now, Trammel was making a horrid face to the back of Sanderson’s head. Sassoon practically jumped over to stop him from booting the man.
Squinting round, poor Sanderson exclaimed, “It’s astonishing, isn’t it, in this awful place, to find ... to find ...” He couldn’t say what he’d found, and his hands jerked out in front of him. “You’re the best chaps in the world, really. Never forget you.”
His glittering gaze swept them all, and, Sassoon saw, the gramophone as well. Then exchanged a questioning look with Sassoon—was he being called to notice some game was on? When Sassoon nodded, Sanderson produced a wry, tired smile.
“Right.” Pushing on his knees, Sanderson stood and came through after all—gawked toward the table as though Mr. Asquith sat cross-legged on it peeling an apple, and roared, “My gramophone!” He pounced on Trammel, who squeezed by him, delighted his victim had finally played up. Cullen of the great dim eyes was left to pay the crime.
“Would you mind conducting the court martial in some other location?” Sassoon patted Sanderson’s back. Fine chap and all that but doomed to form attachments which inspired none in return. Who wished to be a Sanderson? Sassoon was relieved to see them out. Boiling down here. He returned to his scribbling. Dash it. The meter in these last three lines—Robert would judge they’d been penned by an infantryman on forced march. Oh, why go on? He shut his diary on the wretched poem and opened the piece of paper with his name on it.
Graves died of wounds High Wood 20 July.
Sassoon sat for some long time aware. Rumbling and smoke and lyddite and paraffin and an under-smell of chloride of lime, the moldy supports and the rafters, black and yellow in the candle-shine, bricked pattern of sandbags—a part of himself drained quite away. What remained was anger that Robert had left him in this place; he found he’d crumpled the note.
The time loomed and receded on Sassoon’s watch dial. He should go up and see to things, to any of the fifty details awaiting decision, but his heavy body refused to budge. His bones seemed to branch pain through him, and ... he couldn’t take it in, really.
Robert. Not on earth? Not warming his hands at Alexander’s ghostly fires, jawing at the troops?
He ripped the poem from his diary. Never be right, deserved its fate. He put away the diary and trudged up the dugout steps. The steps were devilishly tall and jiggled. Night air rushed at him, and he fell facedown in the trench.
Cullen, or was it Trammel, some grinner, hauled him up and into the doctor’s dugout, where he was found to have a temperature of 104. He was ordered down the line. He rode bareback on a transport horse, and for a time it was lovely to be up and riding again. Unfortunately, the horse halted to turn its long, sad face and ridicule the singy parts of Crossing the Bar. “Old Tennyson is all right in his place, but surely ... ”
Of course Robert would come back to life.
Sassoon had been almost done with hospital, fever cured, and cherishing an extended sick leave—he’d walk in the sun. Ride. Sit in the garden under the beeches while his mother in some unflattering hat clipped blooms for her basket. Did people still do that? People who were not men of military age, apparently ... He was fetched to the telephone. Happy to see he was, after all, steady on his feet.
A good friend’s voice babbling about Robert. “Shot hell out of a lung. Parents received the CO’s standard epistle, ‘gallant soldier’ and all that. ‘Regiment shall be lost without him,’ etc. Lost without Graves!” The friend hooting with laughter. “But he’s pulled through.”
Sassoon’s face froze in its affable expression. The wall barged against his shoulder. No one but Robert could have done it. Not Tommy—he would not have imagined he could. But Robert was champion of his own life and expected everyone else to be the same.
He would live: discovered among the dead on a stretcher in a stifling corridor, lacquered with blood, chest and leg torn open, a jag of shell through one eyebrow. Still making, after twenty-four hours of neglect, faint breath. Bumped in an ambulance to an even hotter hospital tent where, gasping as he was, he’d managed to badger a doctor into sending him on. They’d packed him, on the very stretcher he’d been lying on for days, into a hospital train where, hemorrhaging but annoyed by a “Last Post” blown out of key, he’d ordered the bugler arrested. Directly he was able, Robert reprimanded the Times for his hasty obituary, noted with delight that the sincerest letters of condolence received by his parents had been posted by his enemies.
Why didn’t you write? Robert, glancing away from him.
Should he have said because he was obliged to hold the bits and pieces of himself together out there . . . even when the bit that was Robert decamped? He didn’t. He’d mumbled something about how one gets set on people who become so suddenly posthumous. How it was not a sound way to go about being alive these days.
Robert knew that. Shoving hands in his pockets. But he’d thought of Siegfried soon as he’d commandeered a pen to scratch with.
You’re very thin.
Robert plucked the slack in his tunic. They laughed.
The first thing they did together was stuff themselves at a buffet. Sassoon outraged at the fat, permanently home-service officers consuming barrels of oysters and vats of champagne; Robert had had to pull him away to their own table. Soon after that, they braved the pacifists’ den, when Sassoon took Robert to meet his friend Lady Ottoline Morrell and illustrious guests, who included her lover Bertrand Russell.
A man who lived his convictions, lean Bertie Russell with the thrusting nose had revealed to them England’s rejection of peace in 1916, and now he could not see their point of view. How could they return to an evil war pursued by a stupid government blithe with their young lives?
“Back in the line by spring.” Robert, chin lifted, spoke for them both.
Sassoon’s head was as whirled by the pacifists as by Lady Ottoline’s estate. They sat in her garden, the ilex and elms torch-gold in the autumn sunlight; the lady herself in balloon-like trousers, hair coppery as a gypsy’s pot and fingers wreathed in scarabs.
Russell lit his pipe. “You say you’re against it, and yet you’ll return?” His tone was thoughtful. He cocked his head.
Why, he’d seen the famous man before, Sassoon realized. Not in newspaper photographs either, but in memory. Or was it that he resembled someone? Which? He was wracking his tired brain when it came to him.
Russell was gazing at them in the same detached way the mouse had in his dugout, the night he’d taken fever. The night Robert died. His eyes were mouse-colored, too ... Oh, stop it. The man owned enormous intellect and was treating them very kindly.
Russell gestured with the pipe. “Let me ask you this. Suppose your commanders were to order you to quell a strike by, for example, munitions workers. There you’d stand in an English street with your rifles pointed at Englishmen. Would you obey orders to fire?” Eyebrows raised, Russell settled back.
Robert replied straightway. “Hardly more difficult than killing Germans.”
That still, steady gaze from Russell. Exclamations from the others. Trust Graves to put their new acquaintances’ backs up.
How to explain that men enduring the trenches hated those back home with cushy jobs? Politicians, munitions workers, eating their dinners by the hearth at night, pockets stuffed with money. That they felt more of a bond with the Boches plugging it out opposite them, in the same dirty misery?
We don’t belong here—that came to Sassoon suddenly. The elms burning so tall, the white chrysanthemum afloat in the bowl by the tea service, these civilized people with convictions who could never understand. We’ve arrived from another world, and it clings to us still.
It was nothing Sassoon thought of: he simply heard it. Some voice speaking, yes, someone’s supercilious tenor, some red-nosed, bellied colonel at the buffet. Then the counter-voice, a stumbling private caked with sludge, obscene ... He slipped out paper and jotted phrases. Robert, finger in air, was doing quite well without assistance.
The lawn and its occupants receded—he could see its shape, this poem, not a long one, and its ending. Ferocious ending. When he looked up finally, dazed, Robert had done philosophizing at the philosopher. He’d told him much the same, but Siegfried’s poem would tell it better.
What a picture Robert made. A swelling above the eye where they’d left a metal bit embedded, his tunic mended front and back where the shell traveled through. Authority incarnate, only wheezing.
Russell took Graves’s lecture well. Shook his head and replied mildly, “I can’t understand you.” But he poured them both more tea. Then jumped up. He couldn’t stay for dinner—one imagined great affairs in London—but Russell shook their hands and invited them to visit.
More tea, more biscuits, a tactful turn of conversation—a chorus of agreement upon the fine weather. Robert’s rough whisper: Sassons. I want to go home to France. Sassoon gripping the frail shoulder of Robert’s chair, the autumn day more beautiful as it faded. A sun-dazzled amber one saw though like time.
Sassoon saw Robert off in January: hardly healed and already back to the sausage machine. He’d shaken Robert’s hand; one didn’t wish luck on these occasions. He lingered on the platform in the cold and smoke, picked up a fiery pamphlet Graves had scanned and discarded—Nations consuming their youth! Etc., etc. Trashy production, but, Sassoon thought, not mistaken, was it?
In late February Robert was home, weak lungs strained. In March Sassoon’s new, biting style was gathering notice in the literary magazines, while the poet lodged in a French billet, marveling at the dumb persistence of spring. Despite himself, elegies came flooding back, and he recorded its beauty secretly. In April his new book rested on a London publisher’s desk, and Sergeant Wilson’s successor waited as ordered. His name was Sergeant Rimby, and he was smoking, cigarette white against his minstrel face.
Sassoon was going out on patrol, taking along silent, stolid Sergeant Rimby with a bag of Mills’ bombs. Young Drury begged to go—fancy that. His mate killed the week before and Drury, chin wiggling with fear, quavered he wanted some of his own back. Sassoon assigned him first watch. He’d not allow a sixteen-year-old to go slinking about; no one would. Drury peeped again.
“Kip it in, ye little fucker, what good’ll ye be?” Rimby being kind.
Sassoon required to play the officer. Raising an eyebrow, giving the boy a black and empty look. Drury shut his mouth.
He and Rimby threaded in and along the trench, climbed the fire step and over, crawled out. They went forward on hands and knees or on their stomachs, tumbling into shell holes for breath and to be below the line of machine gun fire, should any crank up. Simple thing, patrolling. Sometimes one snaked out and sketched diagrams of an emplacement; Sassoon had been known, over ardent protest, to retrace his maneuver in order to adjust a detail. But tonight they were searching for a German sap that harbored a sniper. Better than moldering in the trench, waiting for the enemy to come crawling at them.
They came upon their mirror image, a Boche patrol quite in range, two or three, just outside their wire. One sentry leaning on a spade. Rimby sent his Mills’ off and then Sassoon, but he stretched up to toss—why? —and the sentry leaned not on a spade but his rifle. The moon though slim was serene and clear enough. At the stunning impact, Sassoon thought he’d been hit from behind, but the bullet tore straight on through the collarbone. He managed not to topple; steadied himself and threw the rest of his bombs. Rimby pulled him away, and they got back somehow.
Sassoon trudged down the trench to the dressing station, then toward the aid post on the rutted, pitted road churning with lorries and limbers, doing their ant work in the dark. The wound only just twinging. His head whirling with what he’d tell the doctor—he’d not abandon the regiment, his men. Fix it up and send me back. That was it, he’d be seen to and rejoin them.
But, treacherous heart, by some circuitous mastery of the brain, it delivered lovely pictures of quiet and peaceful solitude where one could write and read a book and sleep a night through. He hushed it by stopping to lead along a broad Cameronian, a piece of shell thunked square through one eye, bellowing on the road. Once touched and spoken to, the man came along. They edged into a ditch as a horse reared and the cursing driver leapt down to beat it. In a haze of shock Sassoon watched the night explode, the sky burnt red behind him. He could not prevent an anonymous singing that took voice in his chest below and to the left of the broken collarbone: for the time being, again, again, you are out of the bloody war.
A minor reason to be glad Robert wasn’t dead: he’d taken such pleasure in Sassoon’s success. The little book had caused quite a stir, that summer of 1917. As Robert had declared, Beauty had wrenched off its sock and stretched a miserable toe to the trigger. The actual had charged into Sassoon’s writing—and not the actual of a gold-crested wren or a languorous English willow bending to a trickling English brook. He had written of victims, blood, and mangling; of stupid, brute, puffed-face commanders; of sacks and shallow pits. Virginia Woolf called his poems art, and Eddie Marsh, the illustrious man’s secretary, wrote to tell him that Winston Churchill had memorized them. Most gratifying, though, was that he’d offended an encouraging number of comfortable civilians. How could he speak against the war and so crudely? Had he no Love of Country? No Honor?
Sassoon’s body healed nicely, but his mind and conscience were besieged; from time to time, to put it bluntly, he saw things. Felt mad with wondering: had they not enough of their own Roll of Honor? Did they actually want more? Why didn’t they venture out to the line and bury a few disarranged lads?
What he’d seen—of men blown apart and blinded and maimed. That night in the estaminet just before they’d gone up the line, Ian Hillyers rattling the best from a tin kettle piano, the estaminet solid with smoke and reeling men shouting out the verses and David—Tommy, whom he and Robert had sworn to each other to protect, Tommy shouldered between them, bright-eyed with wine and singing harmony like a Welsh angel. Ian, his lover-that-was, had met Sassoon’s eyes once, not archly but with a level stare of acknowledgement that cleaned things between them. Sassoon nodded but involuntarily felt them together; his breath caught. All that night Ian played, strong fingers flying over the keys, combining the love of it with the wine and the whiskey and their common destination and their lack of any common cares. Only it was difficult not to see how the men’s faces went slack in the intervals as the tune was changing.
Two months later, Ian Hillyer’s arms were gone, and the day he’d heard of that, Sassoon had seen a pair of hands disinter from the exploded earth and fly a bit.
Nations consuming their youth. No more.
He took the seat as directed, feeling large and rough and booted, keenly aware of the goose-turd-green uniform, the Military Cross ribbon pinned to his breast. Proud to be a soldier—could he be more perverse? He’d requested this meeting yet as he glanced round at Russell and eminent colleagues, he felt shamed for them—the unmuddy black and gray of their suits, the bright little watch fobs.
He listened as they cautioned: Lt. Sassoon must be certain of his intent. If he would publicly protest the war, he must know what he would be letting himself in for. It wouldn’t be pleasant for his family. He would face court martial, likely prison. Parliament and the general population might very well construe his protest as treason.
He did understand? All of them leaning forward save Russell, who tapped his pipe. An officer with a record such as his might do the Pacifist Cause great good, but naturally they would never ask him to make such a sacrifice.
The writing was hard going. At first Sassoon thought he had too much to say, but after an hour of anguish, he arrived at a single sentence: The War Must Stop. Neither would that do. What a close, ugly room this was. He capped the pen and paced. Very possibly Russell had given him too much credit and would soon see though him, a crashing failure, couldn’t string two hundred words together. What would he do if he couldn’t write the damned thing? Why, go out again and be killed at once. Bitter satisfaction bloomed, something along the lines of how sorry they would be ...
They? Too ridiculous.
Sassoon flicked at the damp lock of hair pestering his forehead, then halted before the window-glass. Look at him, as untidy as Graves. He adjusted his belt buckle to a central position beneath the tunic buttons. The public they floated quite away, to be replaced with the inevitable they, there in the glass.
Old Mackenzie, auntie of First Battalion, gray, anxious face peeping over the parapet as a working party straggled back. Jones from “C” company, seventeen and looked twelve, choking on his first Woodbine … Sergeant Wilson behind the hospital screen, whispering in a roar to the bandaged Jones ... Sanderson dull-eyed and knowing before his last show, pressing on the reluctant doctor his treasury of a pound note and sixpence and a much-handled missive to his bit of an Elsie girl ... Cullen, fair and slight, blind without his specs but creeping forward, slung on his back the helpless Trammel, shrapnel through both legs, ragging Cullen on with complaints that he felt like the turtle’s shell ... Trammel dead but Cullen—surely an imposter in this lot, alive as of Friday fortnight. And at line’s end, not wanting to trouble, Tommy, smiling…
He sat down, unscrewed the pen and wrote it. Not for himself entirely but for the crowd in the window; they brought the words. By then it was midnight, the small room hot as a packed church. Sassoon felt sick with nerves. Next day he posted his protest to his commander, to the newspapers. He posted a carbon to Graves. He was Finished with the War.
Then, no use prostrating his mother one day before he had to, he decided he’d stay on in the hotel. Sassoon dutifully forwarded his address to headquarters, and with nothing to do but wait for his Statement to take effect, he clutched Palgrave and began to memorize Keats, a balm against the shame of prison.
In the days that followed, that seemed to be all he could do besides wait—and receive letters. His correspondents felt compelled to express their invaluable opinions on this latest poem, his Statement.
The hotel garden featured an ill-tended path to the Mersey, straggling with roses. The summer day could not have been finer, or Sassoon in less a position to respond to it. He sat on an iron bench and unfolded a handsome linen paper. “Damned Turntail,” the letter began. Sighing, he glanced up from it to see a bloat-faced corporal sprawled against a birdbath. He returned to the letter, which rustled in his hand. “Infamy,” he read, and “the irreproachable English dead”; he thought of Pierce, Bullard, and Sykes, good Sergeant Wilson with his lucky deaf ear; yes, they were dead, irreproachably dead. Sassoon couldn’t resist; he looked up here. Exactly: the tip of the corporal’s nose quite black. “The most abject of cowards ...” He forced himself to reexamine the spot. Thankfully, the corporal had taken himself off to other regions.
The pale blue sky glorious. He stared at the next letter—why open it? The orders to report had arrived. He would not report, of course, unless to reiterate in person why he was refusing to report. In a kind of stupor, he ambled toward the river, but here the dead proved less obliging, and Sassoon edged back from two young soldiers, tunics sodden red, lying across one another on the river path. He returned to the hotel sitting room and took up residence in a wing chair.
It seemed another unkind illusion when Robert burst into the sitting room. Sassoon sat bolt upright, crackling with nerves, a marble sheen on his cleft chin. But it was. Robert, come to support him in this nasty business. Sassoon could have wept to see him.
As to the next event, Robert’s rushing into the hotel with some mysteriously privileged information, they’d reinterpreted it in their minds and in their books. In his book, Sassoon decided that Robert’s “information” had been pure invention, a bluff to rescue him from the demonic pacifists. He credited Robert with real nobility-of-feeling, just the sort of sentiment Robert’s book knocked in the head. But as Robert and his book were busy murdering sentiment, he would go and credit Sassoon’s solitary rebellion as an act of surpassing moral courage. Quite a lot of crediting for a dying friendship, or perhaps just a stylish way to kill one.
But in 1917, Sassoon believed. He believed Robert had come for love of a friend.
So he had. Robert had put down Sassoon’s carbon and brushed at his watering eyes, his own frail health having transformed him into a chronic weeper.
Damn the pacifists! Callous opportunists who would use Siegfried’s war record, his overstrained condition to promote their hopeless cause. They aren’t soldiers. They cannot possibly understand what such a stance will cost him.
Look at him. Making war against the War. Sincere, stammering Siegfried versus Lloyd Bleeding George, the King, and the Government of England.
O Sassons, you’ve torn it now.
Loping in, Graves, tie askew, shirttail flapping, dashing fingers through his black hair. Some casual, bizarre pleasantries. The rustle of lowering newspapers. Heads turning toward the unsightly young captain.
They went off to the river where raised voices could be accommodated. There by the flat, gray Mersey with Sassoon talking nineteen to the dozen about what a time he’d had, Robert suddenly rounded on him. This whole blasted anti-war show, he’d got to give it over.
“I thought you’d come to see me through.” Startled, Sassoon sat down on a rock and stared up as though from a schoolboy’s chair toward his friend’s twitching face. “You, more than anyone, should understand why I’ve done this. Why I’m prepared to stick it.”
Robert paced nine steps forward, pivoted and repeated that number. “No mistaking that. You’ve rather a reputation, if you didn’t know.”
“Hardly.” The new poems were wonders, nothing short. The men talked no end, Robert said, of Lt. Sassoon and his single-handed capture of a Boche trench, how before a stunt he didn’t, as some officers did, drill them senseless, but marched them into a wood and read to them from the London Mail. “If allowed, the men might carry your likeness on crucifixes.” Robert’s gaze met his with a helpless tenderness that included himself among them.
Robert, what, shy? Sassoon was further shaken.
“What I’m aiming at is, how many will understand? How many of the men won’t think you’ve deserted them?” The pacing ceased; Robert glared down at him. “Devil a one, Siegfried.”
“That’s the worst of it.”
“Then you owe it to them to go on. Act the gentleman, Sassons, damn them all.”
“The gentleman?” Sassoon found no irony in Robert’s face. “Are you telling me: ‘Bad form, old boy, to quit the war’?”
Robert flushed and thrust his shoulders away.
Hardly an intellectual reason to continue the war’s savage farce, but then was his? Sassoon covered his eyes. In a flash, Tommy returned to him, the fine jaw tightening, the boyish defiance.
They’re cruel, Siegfried. I don’t like it.
Did Sassoon’s principle boil down to that?
Dismal spot for a gesture: greasy, dimpled water, odor of munitions wafting from a factory nearby. But one did not condemn the war while advertising it on one’s chest. Sassoon ripped the Military Cross from his tunic and pitched it far out as he could manage. And see ... oh, what did he expect? The silly button did not sink but bobbed away.
Robert winced and resumed his pacing. “If you think you’re going to stop the war, Siegfried ...”
Mindlessly Sassoon found himself counting Robert’s steps. In his numeric trance, Robert stumbled and almost fell. Caught himself with a hand on Sassoon’s thigh; Sassoon caught his wrist. They both colored and flinched away.
The muggy river carried TNT fumes; that war-odor caused nervous tears to bathe Robert’s eyes. He spun then and blurted,” Look here, Siegfried, I’ve had it from a big bug, from the highest authority, you’re to be committed as mad. They won’t court martial you. Not with your record, they won’t risk it. They want to avoid the pacifist publicity. They’ll hush it up with an officers’ convalescent home. Do you follow? The asylum.”
Sassoon’s mouth opened. Fixed upon the rock as if by nails, shoulders square, boots polished, his shave a beauty and his eyes bright with hallucination, he canted his hard chin and stared at Robert. Understanding at once, Robert flung out his right hand. Spread it flat in the acrid air onto a high church Bible neither could see but both were fast dying for, and swore. No prison. No anti-war martyrdom. If Sassoon persisted, only the lunatic asylum. On the highest authority.
Swallowing on a dry throat, folding his hands, Sassoon dropped his gaze. If that was how it was. He should have known. The blighters had found a way to fix it—his grand play, his anguished gesture done down. He’d give over martyrdom, then. He exhaled through his mouth; it was over.
Robert’s hand slowly abolished the Bible. “We’ll go together. Face the Board.” Intent, trembling, he studied Sassoon to be sure, then turned away not quite concealing the elation in his eyes.
Then it was done, passed in a daze, Sassoon greeting his embarrassed commander with rococo deference, Robert shrewdly sizing up the tribunal—who was hopeless, who sympathetic, whom to play to. Dizzy with having to portray Siegfried as mad to this insane assembly. Verdict: shellshock. Prescription: Craiglockhart, an officers’ convalescent home.
Sassoon chugged up to Dottyville to meet the doctor who would calm his soul. Slept, played golf, wrote fearsome poems, and talked with this expert on neurasthenia, who both drew and daunted him with his fatherly kindness and intelligence. Calmed him beyond understanding and recommended he return to the war. How could the man have known this was the only course? The only course. Sassoon had never been sorry, but he’d had to work it out for himself then, so much doubt and effort.
Return? After his rebellion?
The struggle began again. Those men he’d seen in the hotel window-glass, they pulled at him. They’d searched the line from Ypres to Frise and not found him. Not found Mad Jack in the line. Puzzled and respectful in the hospital quiet, they walked the dim corridors to his room. Though he’d not retract a word he’d written about this wicked war, Sassoon understood that as long as the war lasted, one was either out in France, sure to be shot and trod in the mud but awake, free of guilt and pretense and slimy patriotism. Or one lurked at home, hunched and gnawed. Once one knew how it was, what need to make bloody sense of it?
But as he told the doctor, As regards this war, I’m right. I know I’m right.
Strange, some five years later, to discover himself in the doctor’s book and learn how his conviction had shaken the doctor in return.
He informed the staff that his nerves were sustaining further damage from a chatty roommate whom he thought he might strangle. Put in a twitch or two for effect, hardly acting. They assigned him a battered upper room that hadn’t seen paint since Victoria was a girl, with scrapes in the plaster. Likely locked their straightjacket cases up here to butt the walls. Cramped as a pantry but never mind, bed, chair, table, window, and blessedly private…
A modest tap at the door. Young Wilfrid Owen wavered there, extending a trembling hand.
“Lt. Sassoon, would you be so kind as to inscribe four copies of your new book? And be doubly kind ... do me the great honor, actually, to read one or two of my own efforts?”
Sassoon gave the visitor a sidelong glance. Little—and white as his sheets of poems. The boy stuttered, too—who didn’t, in this institution?—but he possessed a velvety voice. Trembling hand received poems from trembling hand.
Sassoon pulled himself together. “The lamp, would you mind?”
Owen lurched to oblige, almost knocking it over. Sassoon was flattered and, with the green-shaded glow driving out the dusk, signed four books. He felt a bit braced, after all. Imagine being someone’s hero. Funny. He bowed his head and lost himself in little Owen’s verse.
Still not looking at Owen directly, Sassoon indicated he should pull over the chair from the window, that is, if he had time?
“Loads. I’m pledged to lecture the gardening crowd on soils, root absorption, that sort of thing, but not until after dinner.”
Sassoon tilted one sheet toward the lamp. With a snort, he tossed the green shade off, all the while talking.
Owen interjected softly, “That’s quite precisely what I’d meant to say. Awfully pleased you’ve made it out the same.”
Sassoon gave his visitor a slower glance. Hair parted dead center like a parson’s. Doeish about the eyes. Blast, the given name was Owen, wasn’t it? Couldn’t very well ask, now they’d been talking so long.
What was wrong with him tonight? Of course it was signed in large script at the poem’s end, Wilfrid Owen, along with the date. The stuff laced with amateurisms, yet ... absolute surges of power. Here—Sassoon tapped the sheet with its inky cancellations—he’d done it, recovered the rowdy dead. Their real meeting not the awkward production at his door but in the charged and private grounds of this poem. Each a bit richer for the joining: magnified, verified, made more alive. The poem had done that. This young man had done that. Sassoon touched a hand to his temple. Unnerving how people could fall into one’s room, fire the tired brain, storm one’s heart. Then toddle off to lecture on root absorption.
Owen fetched the green shade to calm the lamplight, and they discussed a point of imagery. He questioned an adjective; Sassoon, already nodding, offered a substitution. Out the narrow window, a marching column of poplars dimmed and blackened. Without a pause for the pealing of the evensong bells, they discussed Dedication to Poetry.
Painful for Sassoon, writing his own book during the succeeding great war, to have to reread Owen’s letters, be startled again by how closely Owen had studied him on first meeting. Painful to resurrect Wilfrid Owen again: the shyness, the narrow shoulders eager in the lamplight, the determination to hold to the side of the living so as to write poems, poems, poems. Those poems skewed always by the irony, the sense of waste. Impossible to follow the chain of association one did: November 11, Armistice, where one was when the word came down—without bumping into that pitiful image of Owen’s mother, flinging open the door to understand the wild bells, only to be met by the bicycle messenger. Fury of bells and voices, orange telegram in her hand. Learning, on the last day of the war, that her son was dead.
The last day. Robert had thrown himself on green Welsh ground, grieving for the dead; or so he’d written. Sassoon, recuperating from another wound, had traveled up to London, found his cab trapped by bodies—bodies waving flags, bodies embracing, bodies whistling, jigging. He’d stared dry and heartsick into the riotous night, hating it all. The end, for him, had not arrived for two more years.
1920. Weary, still running on war-time without knowing it, he was eight months into his American reading tour, hiding from the New York hostesses in Mr. Pierpont Morgan’s private library. The millionaire himself had invited him to use it; Sassoon rather famous then as the angry Soldier Poet Against War, and that day chewing himself up from the inside over the righteousness of his motives. The assistant librarian brought him a cup of tea.
Miss Springs. He would have remembered her even if she had not bidden him to. An enormous red bloom, slightly raised, consumed half her face. Her eyes, blue, the one lapped by the seared red so very blue. He’d glimpsed her one night, he thought, in the back of a hall, light for an instant splashing that cheek.
“Are you tired from your readings, Mr. Sassoon?” she’d asked. Yes, he was, he told her and worried. He, who’d been obliged to take elocution lessons in order to render himself audible, had become far too easy behind the podium. The War Poet persona he’d developed had grown bizarrely out of hand. Soon he’d be rehearsing each pause, waving his hands about as though for the cinema.
Talking to Miss Springs, he found, was like thinking aloud; her personality did not intrude. There she stood next to an armchair, white profile presented, silver tray at her side.
“It’s that, here I am, the Renegade Pacifist scorching civilians from his platform while already I’ve begun dreaming of a solitary room, much like this one.” That was what he was feeling. Sassoon leapt to his feet, paced the Turkish runner before the desk. The war stood unchanged, irrevocable. The loved, still killed. The rage should never be done. Yet here he was, craving a room like this one and some books of his own.
Had he convinced one American to hate war? Made them understand the evil of trenches, Lewis guns, shell fragments that sliced the life from a soldier, poison gas that blinded or flamethrowers that maimed fair faces—
Miss Springs still here? She was, and he’d been rambling aloud. Said that thing about maimed faces. He sat and rattled the china cup.
Lashes cast a crescent shadow on her cheek. “To most of us Americans, Mr. Sassoon, machine guns and mustard gas and trenches are only words you’ve written on paper.”
“So I might as well have gone about selling tooth powder.”
“Oh, no.” The red chrysanthemum came into view. “You’re forgetting that what matters is not what you feel now but what you felt when you wrote your poems. There are some who feel just as you did then, only they don’t realize until they hear. You must have noticed the ex-soldiers. The ones who sit listening with tears in their eyes.”
“That’s just it. My performances betray them.”
The heavy door was soundless as she went out. Sassoon regretted burdening Miss Springs as though she had no troubles of her own. But hello, here she was again, carrying a flat velvet box like a jewel case.
“We haven’t allowed this out lately. Mr. Morgan is in the habit of giving away single hairs to whomever he likes.” She trusted the case into his hands. At the door, she asked gravely, “Will you remember what Miss Springs from America gave you?”
She had given him not peace but respite. Armistice, Miss Springs from America.
Sassoon steadied himself enough to read the engraved label: Lock of John Keats’ hair. Last note from Keats to his sweetheart Fanny Brawne. Cynically he wondered how many of these genuine relics had been pedaled about. But as he opened the case and touched the brittle curl, he was undone.
The poet’s art came to him then as an act of love, of faith kept only with truth, which lives again when another brings to it the same need. That other now was Sassoon. Here in New York on the last day of his war, Miss Springs had relieved him of the actor’s part. He had only to feel. He was the invisible audience, his own emotion restoring again the poet’s. The invisible communicant, made new by the taste of old words.
He read the hasty, faded script: The passport came today—I shall not be ill long—Farewell. Keats on his last day in England, muffling his inflamed throat against the November chill. Dipping his pen to discover a raw shoot of hope in the beaten field. This was not the Olympian poet but the unlined face seen a hundred times, flickering with false hope even as the light slid from it. A countryman. A young man dying unfinished. Sassoon laid his head in his hands. England was with him and all hopes broken—what vastness was here to balance such a scale’s other tray? Only the pulse of creating, the same as believing or loving.
It is nothing Sassoon can help. After forty years, still he accounts this first: Owen absent from the doorway while the bells ring out.
He knows too and must set himself to believe without prejudice that Owen will always loiter outside Sassoon’s asylum door, shy heart hammering, books of poems warmed and damp from the heat of his arm. As—but for the barricades of their books, their quarrels, their antithetical lives—he could choose to believe that a young Robert Graves still brews their future on a hill in France, even as the world explodes around them.
There at Cambridge, the graying man who was Robert just beyond him on the path, Sassoon was strangely conscious of his collar. A bit breezy, stood a finger wide. At least he was fairly straight still, not doddering, thank God.
The don banished, Robert thrust round his shoulders. Heavier, jowled, the hair grizzled, the nose still crooked, the scar quite hidden by the jut of an aggressive eyebrow. It was comical to see how the cramp of annoyance spoiling his face dissolved. He shouted, “Siegfried!” Broke into an enormous smile, bounded forward.
Sassoon simply shattered with gladness. Astonishing—musty grievances were not just set aside in the pleasure of seeing his old friend; the sight of Robert’s face deeply and retroactively erased them. Sassoon didn’t forgive in that moment; with a shock he realized that the process had long been accomplished and only waiting for him to know.
They wrung each other’s hands. Strolled down to the banks of the Cam, discussing Robert’s lectures; inquiring about old acquaintances and former wives; telling of children, Graves’ eight, sadly minus one, a son called David, lost in the last war, Sassoon’s precious George.
His appointment! Recalling it, Sassoon drew up with a start. Then brushed it aside; excuses could be found, apologies made. He settled in again, leaning toward Robert. Aware of the green Cam sliding by, the involuntary smile lighting his own face. Really, he owed the daffodils a debt of gratitude. If not for their blazing display, he’d have missed this late grace. For it was grace, wasn’t it, to be cleansed of all but joy?
The wartime friendship of Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves ended finally in the early ‘30s. In 1954, they met at Cambridge, where healing words were exchanged. That chance meeting was their last.
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