Siegfried Sassoon part 2

A Poet's Pilgrimage

Presented by Dame Felicitas Corrigan
Compiled by Shaun MacLoughlin
with Hugh Burden as Siegfried Sassoon
and Hugh Dickson as the Reader

SASSOON: Then came those three years of what now seems to have been dark night..

DAME FELICITAS: The independent, questioning self he had set such store by all his life had to acknowledge its nothingness before God. It had to go further still and meet God’s demands and conditions. At seventy years of age the proud spirit of Siegfried Sassoon was being invited to bow in obedience to an outward and inflexible authority.


DAME FELICITAS: On the natural plain the instrument of this vital change was a nun, Mother Margaret Mary, Superior of the Convent of the Assumption, Kensington Square, London. After the publication of Sequences at the end of 1956, she wrote to the author and began a correspondence, which lit a candle in his inner darkness.


Siegfried Sassoon 1886-1967 A
Siegfried Sassoon: "I look rather awaitful of whatever may be coming to me"
Dame Felicitas
No comfort came until I looked for light
Beyond the darkened thickets of my brain.
With nothingness I strove. And inward sight
No omen but oblivion could obtain.

He spoke. He held my spirit in His hand.
Through prayer my password from the gloom was given.
This Eastertide, absolved in strength I stand.
Feet firm upon the ground. My heart in heaven.
DAME FELICITAS: On the 14th August 1957 at Downside Abbey, he was received into the Catholic Church.


SASSOON: To FC 21st January 1960. The sound of psalmody at Downside is echoing on in my head, as there was a wireless talk The day of a novice just now, which ended with a minute of recorded chanting – very consoling to the hibernating exile – it bore me back to those many Vespers I had heard on summer days with the evening sun coming in at St. Lawrence’s Chapel. Nowhere I have I known more happy peace than in that glorious church. It seems extraordinary now, the sense of rejuvenation I experienced so intensely thar summer. I had been telling myself that I had ceased to be capable of strong emotional aliveness and supposed that that was why my poetry had dried up. And then, for most of that year, in love with the supernatural, so to speak – a kind of spiritual childhood and adolescence – and have been slowly growing up ever since. I like to think that such a transformation, at nearly 71, is evidence of the agelessness of the human spirit.

SASSOON: I wrote Lenten Illuminations in three days, quite easily and unexpectedly, after having written only two short pieces in the previous four years – and have been wondering ever since how I did it. It epitomizes the seven months of ‘all things made new’ before I was received.

Not properly Catholic, some might say, to like it best
When no one’s in the cool white church that few frequent
These sober-skied vocational afternoons in Lent.
There’s sanctity in stillness, let it be confessed,
For one addicted much to meditationment –

This afternoon it seemed unconvert self came in,
Puzzled to perceive one at the altar rails, unminding;
Could this be he – hereafter offered him to win,
And faith revealed wheretoward he pilgrim’d without finding?

How came it (ask your Angel – ask that vigilant voice)
That you this comfort found – that thus it grew to be –
This close, child-minded calm? … Look those five candles lit
For five who have prayed your peace. (Candles were ever your choice
To tranquilize the mind, since boyhood.) They are what they are.
Two pennies for each. But Candlemas tells purity.
And we are told their innocent radiance will remit
Our errors. Although the lights of everlastingness, as someone said,
Can seem, for us poor souls, to dream so faint and far,
When at our broken orisons we kneel, unblessed, unbenifited.

While you were in your purgatorial time, you used to say
That though Creation’s God remained so lost, such aeons away,
Somehow He would reveal Himself to you – some day!
For Him, the Living God, your soul and flesh could only cry aloud.
In watches of the night, when world event with devildom went dark,
You implored illumination. But never being bowed
Obedient – never conceived an aureoled instance, an assuring spark.

Outcast and unprotected contours of the soul,
Why in those hallowed minsters could they find no home,
When nothing appeared more unpredictable than this – your whole
Influence, relief, resultancy received from Rome?
Look. Robed in white and blue, earth’s best loved Lady stands;
Mother Immaculate; name that shines to intercede.
Born on her birthday feast, until last year your hands
Kindled no candle, paid her heavenliness no heed.
Is it not well, that now you call yourself her child –
You and this rosary, at which – twelve months ago, you
might have shrugged and smiled?

This day twelve months ago – it was Ash Wednesday – one
Mid-day between us two toward urgent hope fulfilled
Strove with submission. Arduous – forbidding – then to meet
Inflexible Authority. While the work was willed,
The riven response from others to the task undone
Daunted a mind confused with ferment, incomplete:
There seemed so much renunciant consequence involved,
When independent questioning self should yield, indubitant and absolved.

This, then, brought our new making. Much emotional stress –
Call it conversion: but the word can’t cover such good.
It was like being in love with ambient blessedness –
In love with life transformed – life breathed afresh, though yet half understood.
There had been many byways for the frustrate brain,
All leading to illusions lost and shrines forsaken . ..
One road before us now – one guidance for our gain –
One morning light – whatever the world’s weather – wherein wide-eyed to waken.

This is the time of year, when even for the old,
Youngness comes knocking on the heart with undefined
Aches and announcements – blurred felicities foretold,
And (obvious utterance) wearying winter left behind.

I never felt it more than now, when out beyond these safening walls
Sculptured with Stations of the Cross, spring-confident, unburdened, bold,
The first March blackbird overheard to forward vision flutes and calls.

You could have said this simple thing, old self, in any previous year.
But not to that one ritual flame – to that all-answering Heart abidant here.
SASSOON: To FC 29th March 1960. ‘Outcast and unprotected contours of the soul’ is not me, but beloved Belloc. It must have been almost three years ago, when I was in the vortex of struggling towards submission, that I came across the following passage:

BELLOC: The Faith, the Catholic Church, is discovered, is recognized, triumphantly enters reality like a landfall at sea which first was thought a cloud. The metaphor is not that men fall in love with it: the metaphor is that they discover home. It is the very mould of the mind, the matrix to which corresponds in every outline the outcast and unprotected contours of the soul.

SASSOON: All that afternoon my mind had been pervaded by a sort of ghostly climatic disturbance – cloud conflictings and murmurous intimations of spiritual debate (if you know what I mean – I do). Belloc’s magnificent words settled it once and for all. ‘That’s done it,’ I said. My whole being was liberated.
Downside Abbey
Downside Abbey Chapel
Downside Abbey Chapel
The Virgin Mary by El Greco
Hilaire Belloc

DAME FELICTAS: His last poems leave no doubt that they were, as he said, his ‘living heart.’ No superficial reading or consideration can plumb their depth. They are the words of a sage, the expression of truths, that form the rock foundation of human life lived in its wholeness, which is all that holiness means.

Wisdom, remote from reason, mysteried Word
Shrined for reverberant precincts of the soul,
Above blind-led belief be held and heard,
Need of the nescient, radiate and enrol.

Indwelt redemption, doubted and denied,
Concord no sanctity could comprehend,
Mercy immeasurable and multiplied,
World watcher, armed and influent to befriend.
Hope of humility, resistless Rood,
Beyond our bodements bring beatitude.
SASSOON: The wonder is that one dares to say anything, contemplating that infinite silence and stillnes from one’s human, near nothing. ‘Be still and know that I am God,’ are my most often repeated words from Scripture.
Sight Sufficient

God, on the gloom divine wheretoward I pray,
You send no sign, no doubt-redeeming ray;
No manifest, for this unwisdom’d one,
The faith that blest his pilgrim path begun.

O purpose of my prayer, breath of my being,
Your inward light I share through sightless seeing:
Your love can but be told beyond blind thought
That knows your peace enfold believement brought.
Sassoon: "resting in Mother Church, as it were"
Francis Thompson
Saint Ignatius Loyola
Tim Uren as Macbeth

SASSOON: To FC 18th February 1960. Last night, when beginning prayer at 1 a.m., I had a sense of being watched. There seemed to be presences around me. Fanciful of course; but I’ve never had it before in my three years of devotions. I have taught myself to be very much on guard against prayerful nonsense. But such things always impress me by being quite unexpected and unsought.

The first stage was to become unaware of oneself as a figure in the act of prayer. At first I was always conscious of my attitudinizing, a sort of Sir Galahad, emotionally enjoyable. Then my only awareness of my body is bronchial breathing and skin ticklings. I am blessedly free from mental distractions.

Simplicity and directness count for most, don’t they? The sheer act of faith and self-surrender. Sight Sufficient expressed that turning point, when I realized a visualizations of angels and Our Lady were just childish encouragements. They were persistent in 1957, but gradually stopped and have ceased altogether in the past eighteen months. The night before I began Lenten Illuminations, I saw an almost life-sized, short-haired seraph with arms out-stretched, quite clear and lovelier than anything I could have pictured. What is your attitude to such experiences? ‘nice little treats,’ I suppose, ‘too physical to be graces.’ I hadn’t smelt a pipe, since I sat beside my brother Harry at home, the night before I entered Stanbrook.

DAME FELICITAS: What is my attitude? If it isn’t perilous to tease you, can you recall how Francis Thompson lumps together saint, poet and murderer.

He shows that before their sudden burst of achievement, they suffer birth pangs, which leave their bodies devitalized and spent. It is precisely then when nerves are worn thin, and sensitivity at its highest, when the experience – well what shall i call them? – supernatural visions or hallucinations?

So Ignatius Loyola steps out victorious from the cave of Manresa and promptly sees a green serpent, coiled round a wayside cross. Francis Thompson himself emerges from a period of darkness into light, strolls down the garden and meets a minute, white stolled child, cupped in an arum lily. Macbeth in his castle court clutches wildly at an air-drawn dagger.

And you, in your solitude at Heytesbury, incubate a poem, in which you are to ask your angel, ask that vigilant voice. And hey presto the seraph stands before you and illuminates your midnight prayer. Well what about it? Being a nun and therefore a rationalist and sceptic, I want to know what you mean by a life-sized seraph with arms. Aren’t you simply adopting the iconography of Christian Art? Can a mighty spirit be so circumscribed? Has an angel got arms? Mind you, I don’t for a moment doubt the existence of serpents or angels or daggers, but had we better compromise by accepting Belloc’s couplet:
O let us never, never doubt
What nobody is sure about.
SASSOON: To FC Trinity Sunday. Last night I sat up in bed for three hours, feeling compelled to write a poem; but until the third hour quite unable to know what to say. What I muddled out then in eight lines, came through quite clear in six this morning, and appears to be fairly all right, theologically anyhow; and is recognisably my voice. ‘Resolvèd requiem’ might be queried, but it is a reference to Saint Augustine’s ‘until we rest in Him.’
A Prayer at Pentecost 1960

Master Musician, Life, I have overheard you,
Labouring in litanies of heart to word you.
Be noteless now. Our duologue is done.

Spirit, who speak’st by silences, remake me;
To light of unresistant faith, awake me,
That with resolvèd requiem I be one.
SASSOON: To Dame Felicitas Corrigan, 5th July 1960. If life were a Master Musician only! More and more I am afflicted by the noisiness of life; and wonder how most people endure and apparently enjoy it; and how few of them are aware at all of the supernatural silences which surround their being.
DAME FELICITAS: When The Path to Peace was published in November 1960, Sassoon wrote to the printer, Dame Hildelith Cumming:
SASSOON: The sun is pouring in at my tall windows and ‘the book’ is standing upright against your framed Magnificat.
SASSOON: Its arrival concluding three weeks of solitude, when no visitor came to my ‘angel greeted door Or threshold of wing-winnowed threshing floor’ (as D. G. Rosetti remarked). You must surely know what this book means to me, and what a solace and delight to my uneventful existence. May it give you, who so beautifully made it, as much happiness as it brings to me.
DAME FELICITAS: When Dame Bernadette Plater, a nun of Stanbrook Abbey, died in November 1960, he sent me his poem Awaitment
Sir Galahad armed by an Angel by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Eternal, to this momentary thing –
This mind – Thy sanctuary of stillness bring.
Within that unredeemed aliveness, live:
And through Thy sorrowless sacrament forgive.
Let me be lost; and lose myself in Thee.
Let me be found; and find my soul set free.

SASSOON: Father Hubert, to whom I sent an Awaitment, writes:

DOM HUBERT VAN ZELLER: I’ve read your lovely verse, over and over again. It proposes the whole problem; and that’s why I like the title. We cannot bring about anything of ourselves. It has to be what God does, and it’s so hellish, when He doesn’t and when one has to wait.
SASSOON: Encouragement Premier con vintage Chateau bottled. I love that strange man.
DOM HUBERT: To FC 12th March 1972. When he started coming regularly to Downside on Tuesday afternoons to bat in the nets, he invariably looked in on me. Having puffed and blown on the cricket field, he puffed and blew sitting crosslegged on the floor with his thermos flask and paper bag of cake and biscuit crumbs, while I worked and listened.
SASSOON: Why do you sculptor chaps wear knitted skullcaps, when you work? Hm?
Drawing by Dom Hubert Van Zeller
DOM HUBERT: To keep the stonedust out of our hair.
SASSOON: I’d have thought in your case it wasn’t necessary. Forgive me, forgive me. However well one knows a chap it is always poor taste to be personal. What I have never understood about twentieth century sculpture is why the figures always look so stiff.
DOM HUBERT: More stiff than Egyptian or Romanesque?
SASSOON: Well they at least had their limbs in the right places and didn’t look as if they had cramp. Greek and Roman sculpture, and neo-classical at its best, didn’t make arms and legs stick out at odd angles. (PUFFS AT HIS PIPE) But of course I don’t understand these things.
DOM HUBERT: Perhaps that’s partly today, because we want to escape from the obvious. Originality has become an obsession. And partly – but this is where I tend to lecture or become technical …
SASSOON: Do go on. I’m listening – for once.

DOM HUBERT: And partly on account of the modern respect for the material. In woodcarving we let ourselves be guided by the grain and the knots; in stone by variations of hardness; in alabaster by variations of colour. The material dictates.

SASSOON: I should have thought that it ought to be the other way about and that the human being should be master of what he’s handling. I know that in writing poetry I always have the last word. But then I know nothing about sculpture.
DOM HUBERT: His shy, jerky, diffident manner, characteristic expressions, movements as well as words and facial contortions, suggested to me in equal parts a longing to get away and a longing to stop on and talk. After a bit of course the nervousness dropped away and the essential serenity was given a chance.
Siegrfried driving Dom Hubert in his Austin 7
DAME FELICITAS: To a friend July 1961. SS can look ridiculously young for 75. His eyes are so innocent and luminous and he laughs so delightfully; but he can do anything with that face of his. He wanted to describe the mean, shrewd face of a certain young woman, eyes set close together, prim little mouth lined before it is twenty. He did it by doing it and was quite unrecognisable in the process. But there is a striking sensitivity and delicacy about all his views of life and people, which make one say with conviction, ‘Yes, I like him thoroughly, even though he is an oddity like most poets.’
SASSOON: Honoured Madam, as Grandmama Thorneycroft’s children used to begin their letters to her, or should I say, dearest Fizzy and quickly prostrate myself to Lady Abbess, before continuing to sing and prance. I intended to begin a letter to you last night, but sat ruminating on my rewards, Julia cantering happily around after getting back from school.
DAME FELICITAS: Julia was his housekeeper’s little daughter at Heytesbury. He had given her a pony, called Flicker.
SASSOON: She came in yesterday, while I was having dinner, carrying her prep book. “What are you learning?’ I asked. ‘Rithmatic,” adding, ‘I’m learning the catechism too.’ ‘Oh’, said I, ‘ So you’re learning your pussyism are you?’ And a flower opened in my heart.
A flower has opened in my heart.
What flower is this?
What flower of Spring?
What simple, secret thing?

It is the peace that shines apart;
The peace of daybreak skies
That bring clear song
And wild, swift wing.

Heart’s miracle of inward light,
What powers unknown
Your seed have sown
And your perfection freed?

O flower within me,
Wondrous white,
I know you only as my need
And my unsealed sight.

SASSOON: There is one unanswered question – how much – if any – of human memory survives? Why should one want to remember the details, even of happiness on earth? They are akin to dreams, anyhow. I suppose the best thing to do is to say, ‘I trust you, God, and I leave it all to you’. That’s what I do; and meanwhile faith and works is all that matters. Thus spake Zarathustra – I beg pardon – Captain S. L. Sassoon, C.B.E, M.C., who knows about as much of Eternity as a water wagtail.

Water Wagtail
Because I have believed, I bid my mind be still.
Therein is now conceived Thy hid yet sovereign Will.
because I set all thought aside in seeking Thee,
Thy proven purpose wrought abideth blest in me.
Because I can no more exist but in Thy being,
Blindly these eyes adore; sightless are taught new seeing.
SASSOON: I’m a bit weary of my old body; and I do hunger for the final revelation, the summing up of what I’ve accomplished by that very mixed bag, my life. All I know is that my pilgrimage is ended as a man before a crucifix, finding sanctuary; and asking to be ridded of his bibliography personality.
Bring no expectance of a heaven unearned
No hunger for beatitude to be
Until the lesson of my life is learned
through what Thou didst for me.

Bring no assurance of redeemed rest
No intimation of awarded grace
Only contrition, cleavingly confessed
To Thy forgiving face.

I ask one world of everlasting loss
In all I am, that other world to win.
My nothingness must kneel below Thy Cross.
There let new life begin.
DAME FELICITAS: From his tall-windowed, Wiltshire room in the year 1967, on the first day of his favourite month, September, the poet went to stand with those white presences delivered through death. At eight o’clock on that evening of golden sunshine with its hint of frost, as the cricketer put away his bat and the huntsman shook out his mulberry coat, Captain Siegfried Loraine Sassoon, C.B.E., M.C., alias George Sherston, quietly fell asleep.
SASSOON: I nearly always saw myself engaged in doing something for the first time. All this, I suspect, has been little more than the operation known as the pilgrimage from the cradle to the grave. I am one of those persons, who begin life by exclaiming they’ve never seen anything like it before, and die in the hope that they may say the same of heaven.

As regards being dead however one of my main consolations has always been that I have the strongest intention of being an extremely active ghost. Let nobody make any mistake about that. It has been a long journey and my last words shall be these, that it is only from the inmost silences of the heart that we know the world for what it is and ourselves for what the world has made us.
Falling Asleep 1919

VOICES moving about in the quiet house:
Thud of feet and a muffled shutting of doors:
Everyone yawning. Only the clocks are alert.

Out in the night there’s autumn-smelling gloom
Crowded with whispering trees; across the park
A hollow cry of hounds like lonely bells:
And I know that the clouds are moving across the moon;
The low, red, rising moon. Now herons call
And wrangle by their pool; and hooting owls
Sail from the wood above pale stooks of oats.

Waiting for sleep, I drift from thoughts like these;
And where to-day was dream-like, build my dreams.
Music … there was a bright white room below,
And someone singing a song about a soldier,
One hour, two hours ago: and soon the song
Will be ‘last night’: but now the beauty swings
Across my brain, ghost of remembered chords
Which still can make such radiance in my dream
That I can watch the marching of my soldiers,
And count their faces; faces; sunlit faces.

Falling asleep … the herons, and the hounds….
September in the darkness; and the world
I’ve known; all fading past me into peace.