Turn of the Century Salon: March

Turn of the Century SalonThe Turn of the Century Salon, is a monthly literary event where you can share recent posts related to literature or authors from the 1880s-1930s. One of Katherine’s suggestions for this month’s post is to find a work of art or music within the same time-period that reflect the book and share it.

After reading Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man I decided to read more of his works, including his poetry and bought The War Poems of Siegfried SassonWorld War One British Poets: Brooke, Owen, Sassoon, Rosenberg and Others, edited by Candace Ward. I’ve also borrowed Sassoon’s Memoirs of an Infantry Officer and Siegfried Sassoon: a Biography by Max Egremont and am slowly reading through these.

I’m familiar with some of the World War One war poets, such as Rupert Brooke (The Soldier – ‘If I should die, think only this of me: That there’s some corner of a foreign field That is forever England), Wilfred Owen (Dulce et Decorum Est), and Thomas Hardy (Channel Firing) and so on, but I hadn’t read any of Sassoon’s poems.

They are satires condemning the war. Sassoon described his poems such as The One-Legged Man as “satirical drawings”, which he intended to “disturb complacency”. Here is his poem In the Pink

So Davies wrote: ‘ This leaves me in the pink. ‘
Then scrawled his name: ‘ Your loving sweetheart Willie ‘
With crosses for a hug. He’d had a drink
Of rum and tea; and, though the barn was chilly,
For once his blood ram warm; he had pay to spend,
Winter was passing; soon the year would mend.

He couldn’t sleep that night. Stiff in the dark
He groaned and thought of Sundays at the farm,
When he’d go out as cheerful as a lark
In his best suit to wander arm-in-arm
With brown-eyed Gwen, and whisper in her ear
The simple, silly things she liked to hear.

And then he thought: to-morrow night we trudge
Up to the trenches, and my boots are rotten.
Five miles of stodgy clay and freezing sludge,
And everything but wretchedness forgotten.
To-night he’s in the pink; but soon he’ll die.
And still the war goes on; he don’t know why.

Looking for more information about this poem I found this description in Siegfried Sassoon: a Study of the War Poetry by Patrick Campbell (page 94):

“The first of my ‘outspoken’ war poems.  I wrote it one cold morning at Morlancourt, sitting by the fire in the Quartermaster’s billet, while our Machine-Gun Officer shivered in his blankets on the floor.  He was suffering from alcoholic poisoning, and cold feet, and shortly afterwards departed for England, never to return.  Needless to say, the verses do not refer to him, but to some typical Welshman who probably got killed on the Somme in July, after months and months of a dog’s life and no leave.  The Westminster refused the poem, as they thought it might prejudice recruiting!!”

Reading Sassoon’s war poems brings home the horrors of war, the deaths, the devastating injuries and the appalling indifference of the war leaders and the lack of understanding of the people back home.

Similarly some works of art were considered controversial and not suitable for public viewing. Such a painting is Paths of Glory by Christopher Nevinson showing the corpses of two dead British soldiers lying face down in the mud among barbed wire behind the Western Front. Their helmets and rifles lie in the mud next to them.

Paths of Glory by Christopher Nevinson 1917 Oil on Canvas Collection: © Imperial War Museum

This painting is held in the Imperial War Museum website. Its description is:

“The title is a quote from ‘Elegy Written In A Country Church-Yard’ by Thomas Gray. ‘The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r, And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave, Awaits alike th’inevitable hour. The paths of glory lead but to the grave.‘ Whereas the poet reflects on bodies dead and buried in a church-yard, the so-called ‘Paths of Glory‘ have led these soldiers to death in a wasteland.

Paths of Glory‘ was famously censored by the official censor of paintings and drawings in France, Lieutenant – Colonel A N Lee. His concern presumably being the representation of the rotting and bloated British corpses at this stage in the war. The decision was confirmed three months before the opening of his exhibition at the Leicester Galleries in 1918 but Nevinson still included the painting with a brown paper strip across the canvas, blatantly inscribed with the word ‘censored’. As a result, Nevinson was reprimanded for exhibiting a censored image and for the unauthorised use of the word ‘censored’ in a public space. Predictably, the stunt created the publicity Nevinson desired. The painting was purchased by the Museum during the course of the exhibition.”

This was the ‘war to end war’! The pity is that it didn’t.

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