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Lost Siegfried Sassoon love poem discovered by Warwick PhD student

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A PhD student has found a previously unpublished poem by Siegfried Sassoon during his research on director Glen Byam Shaw, to whom the short love poem was dedicated.

The poem was published for the first time earlier this week in the Observer after its discovery by Julian Richards, 26, a PhD student at Warwick University.

In an interview with the Guardian, Richards said of the “incredibly exciting” find that he was sifting through letters in his research on the director when the poem, part of a letter from 24th October 1925, “fell into [his] lap”. He said, “I wasn’t looking at Sassoon. I was looking at Shaw.”

Richards’ research on Glen Byam Shaw has also taken him to the Collections at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-upon-Avon to look at his directorial notes, whilst this discovery took place at the Cambridge University Library.

Image credit: Simon Harriyot via Flickr

When speaking with the Guardian, leading Sassoon expert Jean Moorcroft Wilson (author of the commended biography Siegfried Sassoon: Soldier, Poet, Lover, Friend) confirmed that this poem is extraordinary on two accounts: that it is indeed unseen by the public eye, and that he wrote it at an uncertain time in his poetic career. She said, “I haven’t seen it before. What is important is that it’s written at a time when Sassoon believed that poetry had forsaken him. He finds it very difficult to write poetry in the 1920s. He’s been so successful as a war poet that he doesn’t really quite know where his poetry lies. He’s sort of grasping for a subject.”

Siegfried Sassoon, winner of the Military Cross (an honour he later renounced) for his service and bravery during the First World War, was a renowned poet and novelist, best known for his distinctly anti-war poetry which described the brutality of war, such as “the Old Huntsman” (1917) and “Counter-Attack” (1918). In the minds of many he is thought of in the same vein as war-poet Wilfred Owen, a fellow pacifist whose works were influenced by Sassoon himself.

The subject of the previously unseen love poem, Glen Byam Shaw, was an actor and director, known for being a legendary director of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre (home of the RSC) in Stratford-upon-Avon from 1952-1959, and working with such icons as Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier. 

Speaking to the Guardian of the poem’s addressee and content, Richards said that “Sassoon writes in the letter of Shaw spending the evening before with him, before saying that he wrote a few lines, which he himself doesn’t seem to think of highly, for Shaw.”

Corroborating this identification of the poem’s subject, Moorcroft Wilson said in her interview with the Guardian that she was in “no doubt that it’s about Glen Byam Shaw”, and that to people who knew them the recipient of the poem would have been obvious. She said of the romance, “The two men had been introduced a year earlier, but this was the first time they got together alone. This is written after the first really intimate evening together. Was this when they first made love?”  

This poem is not only a significant literary find, but is also a poignant reminder of how difficult life was for Sassoon and Shaw as homosexual lovers during a period that would not have accepted such a relationship, making it fitting for it to be found during this year’s Pride month. Writing openly about such a romance was equally as forbidden, made obvious by the fact that Shaw’s identity is unknowable when reading it without any context. Moorcroft Wilson noted that his love poetry tended to be non-specific in this way, Sassoon even addressing his poetry to women to disguise the real male addressee, such as in “the Imperfect Lover”, which was in fact inspired by former lover Gabriel Atkin.

Sassoon and Shaw’s relationship ended on good-natured terms, them both going on to find wives, although Sassoon’s marriage later broke down. They remained friends, Richards commenting on their heart-warming relationship that continued over the years in his Guardian interview. He referred to one of Shaw’s letters, written to Sassoon whilst waiting to be called up to fight in 1939, commenting on the affection and respect for one another that is notable in their correspondence: “Shaw is very much saying I’m terrified, I only hope I will be brave like you were. Then later, one of the letters says, the brigadier of my regiment remembers you and speaks incredibly highly of you.”

So, perhaps a lesson we as students could take from this is to actually make use of the archives at our disposal, that maybe we could find something as singular as this love poem. Professor Carol Rutter (Richards’ PhD supervisor) encouraged such usage herself in her words to the Guardian: “More students need to go into archives and find out what they contain. What’s really exciting as a supervisor is to have a student who will follow their nose and then have that tremendously exciting moment when something falls in their lap. It is an instant communication with the past. But it’s also the beginning of the next question that you want to ask.”

Below is the newly discovered poem itself, which illustrates the longing, but rather content heart of the author when thinking of his lover.

The untitled poem

Though you have left me, I’m not yet alone:

For what you were befriends the firelit room;

And what you said remains & is my own

To make a living gladness of my gloom

The firelight leaps & shows your empty chair

And all our harmonies of speech are stilled:

But you are with me in the voiceless air

My hands are empty, but my heart is filled.

 

(Copyright Siegfried Sassoon by kind permission of the Estate of George Sassoon)




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