Friday, April 16, 2010

Siegfried Sassoon and Thomas Hardy

Siegfried Sassoon first met Thomas Hardy in November of 1918, just a few days before the Armistice of November 11.  Sassoon travelled to Max Gate, Hardy's home in Dorchester.  A friendship developed, and they met often during the final 10 years of Hardy's life.  (Sassoon later introduced Edmund Blunden to Hardy -- but that is a story for another time.)

In Siegfried's Journey (1945), Sassoon writes of an evening spent by the fire with Hardy:

Here was the real Hardy, unmeasurable by intellectual standards, who will haunt the civilized consciousness of our race when the age he lived in has become as remote as the Roman occupation of Britain.  He was sitting with one arm round his old friend 'Wessex' -- that unruly and vociferous sheep-dog whom he has enshrined in a poem.  But when he gazed at 'Wessie' he ceased to be Merlin.  The face of the wizard became suffused with gentle compassion for all living creatures whom he longed to defend against the chanceful injustice and calamity of earthly existence.

It is interesting to see Sassoon revisit this same evening in a poem that appears in Common Chords (1950):

            At Max Gate

Old Mr Hardy, upright in his chair,
Courteous to visiting acquaintance chatted
With unaloof alertness while he patted
The sheep dog whose society he preferred.
He wore an air of never having heard
That there was much that needed putting right.
Hardy, the Wessex wizard, wasn't there.
Good care was taken to keep him out of sight.

Head propped on hand, he sat with me alone,
Silent, the log fire flickering on his face.
Here was the seer whose words the world had known.
Someone had taken Mr Hardy's place.

In Siegfried Sassoon: The Making of a War Poet, Jean Moorcroft Wilson tells this anecdote of Sassoon:  "[He] told his uncle Hamo, who knew Hardy personally, that after some gruelling experience in the trenches he would sit down calmly to read Hardy's Selected Poems, which he carried in his pocket."



alice c said...

I am enjoying reading your archive posts - so much to think about that I must only read a few a day.

This post immediately brings to mind Somerset Maugham's mischievous novel 'Cakes & Ale' which was considered a shockingly irreverent portrayal of Thomas Hardy in his later life incarnation as Grand Old Man of Letters.

Stephen Pentz said...

alice c: thank you for visiting again, and for your comment. I haven't read Cakes & Ale, but I was aware that it was based upon Hardy. Perhaps I've not got around to it out of loyalty to Hardy (or something like that)!

Thanks again.