Sep 082015
 

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Today is the birthday (1886) of Siegfried Loraine Sassoon, CBE, MC one of the leading poets of the First World War. His poetry both described the horrors of the trenches, and satirized the patriotic pretensions of those who, in Sassoon’s view, were responsible for a jingoism-fuelled war. Sassoon became a focal point for dissent within the armed forces when he made a lone protest against the continuation of the war in his “Soldier’s Declaration” of 1917, culminating in his admission to a military psychiatric hospital. This resulted in his forming a friendship with Wilfred Owen, who was greatly influenced by him. (see http://www.bookofdaystales.com/wilfred-owen/ )

Sassoon was born and grew up in the neo-gothic mansion named “Weirleigh” in Matfield, Kent, to a Jewish father and an Anglo-Catholic mother. His father, Alfred Ezra Sassoon (1861–1895), son of Sassoon David Sassoon, was a member of the wealthy Baghdadi Jewish Sassoon merchant family. For marrying outside the faith, Alfred was disinherited. Siegfried’s mother, Theresa, belonged to the Thornycroft family, sculptors responsible for many of the best-known statues in London—her brother was Sir Hamo Thornycroft. There was no German ancestry in Siegfried’s family; his mother named him Siegfried because of her love of Wagner’s operas. His middle name, Loraine, was the surname of a clergyman with whom she was friendly.

Sassoon was educated at the New Beacon School, Sevenoaks, Kent; at Marlborough College, Marlborough, Wiltshire (where he was a member of Cotton House), and at Clare College, Cambridge, where from 1905 to 1907 he read history. He went down from Cambridge without a degree and spent the next few years hunting, playing cricket and writing verse some of which he published privately. Since his father had been disinherited from the Sassoon fortune for marrying a Gentile, Sassoon had only a small private fortune that allowed him to live modestly without having to earn a living (however, he would later be left a generous legacy by an aunt, Rachel Beer, allowing him to buy the great estate of Heytesbury House in Wiltshire. His first published success, The Daffodil Murderer (1913), was a parody of John Masefield’s The Everlasting Mercy. Robert Graves, in Good-Bye to All That describes it as a “parody of Masefield which, midway through, had forgotten to be a parody and turned into rather good Masefield.”

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Motivated by patriotism, Sassoon joined the British Army just as the threat of a new European war was recognized, and was in service with the Sussex Yeomanry on 4 August 1914, the day the United Kingdom declared war on Germany. He broke his arm badly in a riding accident and was put out of action before even leaving England, spending the spring of 1915 convalescing. He was commissioned into the 3rd Battalion (Special Reserve), Royal Welch Fusiliers, as a second lieutenant on 29 May 1915. On 1 November his younger brother Hamo was killed in the Gallipoli Campaign, and in the same month Sassoon was sent to the 1st Battalion in France. There he met Robert Graves, and they became close friends. United by their poetic vocation, they often read and discussed each other’s work. Though this did not have much perceptible influence on Graves’s poetry, his views on what may be called ‘gritty realism’ profoundly affected Sassoon’s concept of what constituted poetry. He soon became horrified by the realities of war, and the tone of his writing changed completely. Where his early poems exhibit a Romantic, dilettantish sweetness, his war poetry moves to an increasingly discordant tone, intended to convey the ugly truths of the trenches to an audience hitherto lulled by patriotic propaganda. Details such as rotting corpses, mangled limbs, filth, cowardice and suicide are all trademarks of his work at this time, and this philosophy of ‘no truth unfitting’ had a significant effect on the movement towards Modernist poetry.

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Sassoon’s periods of duty on the Western Front were marked by exceptionally brave actions, including the single-handed capture of a German trench in the Hindenburg Line. Armed with grenades, he scattered sixty German soldiers. He went over with bombs in daylight, under covering fire from a couple of rifles, and scared away the occupants. A pointless feat, since instead of signaling for reinforcements, he sat down in the German trench and began reading a book of poems which he had brought with him.

Sassoon’s bravery was inspiring to the extent that soldiers of his company said that they felt confident only when they were accompanied by him. He often went out on night-raids and bombing patrols and demonstrated ruthless efficiency as a company commander. Deepening depression at the horror and misery the soldiers were forced to endure produced in Sassoon a paradoxically manic courage, and he was nicknamed “Mad Jack” by his men for his near-suicidal exploits. On 27 July 1916 he was awarded the Military Cross; the citation read:

2nd Lt. Siegfried Lorraine [sic] Sassoon, 3rd (attd. 1st) Bn., R. W. Fus.

For conspicuous gallantry during a raid on the enemy’s trenches. He remained for 1½ hours under rifle and bomb fire collecting and bringing in our wounded. Owing to his courage and determination all the killed and wounded were brought in.

Sassoon was also later (unsuccessfully) recommended for the Victoria Cross.

Despite his decorations and reputation, in 1917 Sassoon decided to make a stand against the conduct of the war. One of the reasons for his violent anti-war feeling was the death of his friend David Cuthbert Thomas, who appears as “Dick Tiltwood” in the Sherston trilogy. Sassoon would spend years trying to overcome his grief.

At the end of a spell of convalescent leave, Sassoon declined to return to duty; instead, encouraged by pacifist friends such as Bertrand Russell and Lady Ottoline Morrell, he sent a letter to his commanding officer entitled “Finished with the War: A Soldier’s Declaration.” Forwarded to the press and read out in the House of Commons by a sympathetic member of parliament, the letter was seen by some as treasonous (“I am making this statement as an act of willful defiance of military authority”) or at best as condemning the war government’s motives (“I believe that the war upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation has now become a war of aggression and conquest”). Rather than court-martial Sassoon, the Under-Secretary of State for War, Ian Macpherson, decided that he was unfit for service and had him sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital near Edinburgh, where he was officially treated for neurasthenia or “shell shock” (now usually referred to as post traumatic stress disorder).

Before declining to return to active service Sassoon had thrown the ribbon of his Military Cross into the river Mersey. According to his description of this incident in Memoirs of an Infantry Officer he did not, as one would infer from the context of his action, do this as a symbolic rejection of militaristic values, but simply out of the need to perform some destructive act in catharsis of the black mood which was afflicting him; one of his pre-war sporting trophies, had he had one to hand, would have served his purpose equally well.

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At Craiglockhart, Sassoon met Wilfred Owen, a fellow poet who would eventually exceed him in fame. It was thanks to Sassoon that Owen persevered in his ambition to write better poetry. A manuscript copy of Owen’s “Anthem for Doomed Youth” containing Sassoon’s handwritten amendments survives as testimony to the extent of his influence and is currently on display at London’s Imperial War Museum. Sassoon became to Owen “Keats and Christ and Elijah”; surviving documents demonstrate clearly the depth of Owen’s love and admiration for him.

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Both men returned to active service in France, but Owen was killed in 1918. Sassoon, despite all this, was promoted to lieutenant, and having spent some time out of danger in Palestine, eventually returned to the Front. On 13 July 1918, Sassoon was almost immediately wounded again—by friendly fire when he was shot in the head by a fellow British soldier who had mistaken him for a German near Arras, France. As a result, he spent the remainder of the war in Britain. By this time he had been promoted acting captain. He relinquished his commission on health grounds on 12 March 1919, but was allowed to retain the rank of captain. After the war, Sassoon was instrumental in bringing Owen’s work to the attention of a wider audience. Their friendship is the subject of Stephen MacDonald’s play, Not About Heroes.

Having lived for a period at Oxford, where he spent more time visiting literary friends than studying, he dabbled briefly in the politics of the Labour movement, and in 1919 took up a post as literary editor of the socialist Daily Herald. During his period at the Herald, Sassoon was responsible for employing several eminent names as reviewers, including E. M. Forster and Charlotte Mew, and commissioned original material from “names” like Arnold Bennett and Osbert Sitwell. His artistic interests extended to music. While at Oxford he was introduced to the young William Walton, to whom he became a friend and patron. Walton later dedicated his Portsmouth Point overture to Sassoon in recognition of his financial assistance and moral support. Sassoon later embarked on a lecture tour of the USA, as well as travelling in Europe and throughout Britain. He acquired a car, a gift from the publisher Frankie Schuster, and became renowned among his friends for his lack of driving skill, but this did not prevent him making full use of the mobility it gave him.

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Sassoon was a great admirer of the Welsh poet Henry Vaughan. On a visit to Wales in 1923, he paid a pilgrimage to Vaughan’s grave at Llansantffraed, Powys, and there wrote one of his best-known peacetime poems, “At the Grave of Henry Vaughan”. The deaths of three of his closest friends – Edmund Gosse, Thomas Hardy, and Frankie Schuster (the publisher) – within a short space of time, came as another serious setback to his personal happiness.

At the same time, Sassoon was preparing to take a new direction. While in America, he had experimented with a novel. In 1928, he branched out into prose, with Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man, the anonymously-published first volume of a fictionalised autobiography, which was almost immediately accepted as a classic, bringing its author new fame as a humorous writer. The book won the 1928 James Tait Black Award for fiction. Sassoon followed it with Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (1930) and Sherston’s Progress (1936). In later years, he revisited his youth and early manhood with three volumes of genuine autobiography, which were also widely acclaimed. These were The Old Century, The Weald of Youth and Siegfried’s Journey.

Siegfried Sassoon died one week before his 81st birthday, of stomach cancer, and is buried at St Andrew’s Church, Mells, Somerset.

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Sassoon was born in Kent which at one time was known as the Garden Of England. It lost that title to South Yorkshire after its orchards and farmlands became overgrown with suburban houses. For centuries it was legendary for cherry and apple orchards, hops, and the nut, related to hazelnuts (filberts), the cobnut. Cobnuts can sometimes be found raw, that is, not dried or roasted, and are delicious in salads. They are also dried like hazelnuts with a similar flavor. I feel some inventiveness coming on, so I am going to speculate on a recipe which I will experiment with when I get hold of a food processor (and counter space for it): cherries with nut crumble. My basic idea is to make a crumble topping, but to replace some of the rolled oats with coarsely ground hazelnuts or cobnuts. So . . .

© Cherry Nut Crumble

First make your cherry filling. Remove the stalks and pit about 20 ounces of sour cherries. Place in a non-reactive pan, cover with a 50-50 mix of sugar and water, bring to a boil, and simmer until the cherries are soft, but not mushy. You can use a 21 ounce can of cherry pie filling if you are lazy. With a slotted spoon transfer the cooked cherries to a deep ovenproof dish.

In a food processor combine 1 cup of all purpose flour, 1 cup of granulated sugar, ½ cup of unsalted butter that has been chilled and diced, ½ cup rolled oats, and ½ cup hazelnuts or cobnuts coarsely chopped. Pulse the mix 8 to 10 times until all the ingredients are chopped and well mixed. Pour the crumble mix over the cherries and pat it down firmly. Dot the top with butter and bake at 350°F for 35 to 40 minutes, or until the top is golden and the cherry filling is bubbling.

Serve with egg custard, vanilla ice cream, or whipped cream.

Crumbles are also delicious served chilled the next day with whipped cream.

Aug 032015
 

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Today is the birthday (1887) of Rupert Chawner Brooke, an English poet known for his idealistic war sonnets written during the First World War, especially “The Soldier”. He was also known for his boyish good looks, which were said to have prompted the Irish poet W. B. Yeats to describe him as “the handsomest young man in England.”

Brooke was born in Rugby, Warwickshire, the second of the three sons of William Parker Brooke, a Rugby schoolmaster, and Ruth Mary Brooke, née Cotterill. He was educated at two independent schools in Rugby: Hillbrow School and Rugby School. In 1905, he became friends with the poet St. John Lucas, who thereafter became something of a mentor to him.

While travelling in Europe he prepared a thesis, entitled “John Webster and the Elizabethan Drama”, which won him a scholarship to King’s College, Cambridge, where he became a member of the Cambridge Apostles, a well known, but secret, intellectual gathering, was elected as President of the Cambridge University Fabian Society, helped found the Marlowe Society drama club and acted in plays including the Cambridge Greek Play.

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Brooke made friends among the Bloomsbury Group, some of whom admired his talent while others were more impressed by his good looks. Virginia Woolf boasted to Vita Sackville-West of once going skinny-dipping with Brooke in a moonlit pool when they were at Cambridge together. Brooke belonged to another literary group known as the Georgian Poets and was one of the most important of the Dymock poets, associated with the Gloucestershire village of Dymock where he spent some time before the war. He also lived in the Old Vicarage, Grantchester.

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Brooke suffered a severe emotional crisis in 1912, caused by the breakdown of his long relationship with Ka Cox (Katherine Laird Cox). Brooke’s paranoia that Lytton Strachey had schemed to destroy his relationship with Cox by encouraging her to see Henry Lamb precipitated his break with his Bloomsbury Group friends and played a part in his general collapse. I doubt that this paranoia was legitimate, but who knows? One can imagine no end of scenarios. My personal suspicion is that the man beneath the handsome, well educated, sensitive-poet veil, was not easy to get along with romantically.

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As part of his recuperation, Brooke toured the United States and Canada to write travel reports for the Westminster Gazette. He took the long way home, sailing across the Pacific and staying some months in the South Seas. Much later it was revealed that he may have fathered a daughter with a Tahitian woman named Taatamata (pictured) with whom he seems to have had a revitalizing emotional relationship.

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I’m given to wonder if part of the issue was that it was uncomplicated with Taatamata. England was not especially healthy for him. Apart from Cox, Brooke had been romantically involved with the actress Cathleen Nesbitt and was once engaged to Noël Olivier (pictured along with Virginia Woolf), whom he met when she was aged 15 and he 20, and with whom he corresponded up until his death.

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Might have been a happy match judging from their letters. Dunno. You can be deeply in love with a person, yet an actual relationship sometimes complicates things, as previous posts (and personal experience) attest.

As a war poet Brooke came to public attention in 1915 when The Times Literary Supplement quoted two of his five sonnets (“IV: The Dead” and “V: The Soldier”) in full on 11 March and his sonnet “V: The Soldier” was read from the pulpit of St Paul’s Cathedral on Easter Sunday (4 April). Brooke’s most famous collection of poetry, containing all five sonnets, 1914 & Other Poems, was first published in May 1915 and, in testament to his popularity, ran to 11 further impressions that year and by June 1918 had reached its 24th impression; a process undoubtedly fueled by posthumous interest.

He is quite unlike the other well-known Great War poets such as Wilfred Owen (http://www.bookofdaystales.com/wilfred-owen/ ) and Siegfried Sassoon in that he is more sentimental about death than they were. Here’s “The Soldier”:

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

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Brooke was commissioned into the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve as a temporary Sub-Lieutenant shortly after his 27th birthday and took part in the Royal Naval Division’s Antwerp expedition in October 1914. He sailed with the British Mediterranean Expeditionary Force on 28 February 1915 but developed sepsis from an infected mosquito bite. He died at 4:46 pm on 23 April 1915 in a French hospital ship moored in a bay off the Greek island of Skyros in the Aegean Sea on his way to the landing at Gallipoli. As the expeditionary force had orders to depart immediately, he was buried at 11 pm in an olive grove on Skyros. The site was chosen by his close friend, William Denis Browne, who wrote of Brooke’s death:

…I sat with Rupert. At 4 o’clock he became weaker, and at 4.46 he died, with the sun shining all round his cabin, and the cool sea-breeze blowing through the door and the shaded windows. No one could have wished for a quieter or a calmer end than in that lovely bay, shielded by the mountains and fragrant with sage and thyme.

Browne, had been at King’s with Brooke, and died at Gallipoli just a few weeks after Brooke. Browne describes Brooke’s grave in Skyros,

. . .one of the loveliest places on this earth, with grey-green olives round him, one weeping above his head: the ground covered with flowering sage, bluish grey & smelling more delicious than any other flower I know”.

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His grave remains there today. On 11 November 1985, Brooke was among 16 First World War poets commemorated on a slate monument unveiled in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey. The inscription on the stone was written by Wilfred Owen. It reads: “My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity.”

Why in heaven’s name we still go to war is utterly beyond me. What will it take to stop it?

I come by today’s recipe via a circuitous route. I wanted something that reflected his days at Rugby School and so re-read the chapter in Tom Brown’s School Days concerning Tom’s first coach ride to Rugby. Mid-journey the coach stops at a coaching inn where Tom breakfasts on kidneys and pigeon pie. Kidneys you can handle by yourself. Here’s Isabella Beeton’s pigeon pie (minus her endless discussion of various breeds of pigeon). You should be able to find squab in a good supermarket. I used to be able to get them frozen in Rockland Co, NY. Why it is important to use THREE feet as a decoration escapes me (although I realize that, on the whole, an odd number of items on a plate is always more pleasing than an even number).

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PIGEON PIE (Epsom Grand-Stand Recipe).

975. INGREDIENTS.—1-1/2 lb. of rump-steak, 2 or 3 pigeons, 3 slices of ham, pepper and salt to taste, 2 oz. of butter, 4 eggs, puff crust.

 Mode.—Cut the steak into pieces about 3 inches square, and with it line the bottom of a pie-dish, seasoning it well with pepper and salt. Clean the pigeons, rub them with pepper and salt inside and out, and put into the body of each rather more than 1/2 oz. of butter; lay them on the steak, and a piece of ham on each pigeon. Add the yolks of 4 eggs, and half fill the dish with stock; place a border of puff paste round the edge of the dish, put on the cover, and ornament it in any way that may be preferred. Clean three of the feet, and place them in a hole made in the crust at the top: this shows what kind of pie it is. Glaze the crust,—that is to say, brush it over with the yolk of an egg,—and bake it in a well-heated oven for about 1-1/4 hour. When liked, a seasoning of pounded mace may be added.

 Time.—1-1/4 hour, or rather less. Average cost, 5s. 3d.

 Sufficient for 5 or 6 persons. Seasonable at any time.