Seemingly in a hurry, September tipped into October with rushing winds here in Edinburgh. It tore at tree branches, breaking off the weaker limbs: mother-nature’s secateurs. It was the same in most parts, I believe. Two nights ago, it rattled me awake and I listened as the gusts dismantled what little greenery was clinging on. ‘That’s autumn, I suppose’, I muttered in my half-sleep, curling in deeper, blessing those at sea. I stuck a mental post-it note to my dusty cerebral filing cabinet – a reminder to write about it, sometime.
I write what I want to. Choose my own subject matter. I’m the boss of these words. Except, that is, when unplanned words find me, interrupting what I think I have to say, derailing shadow plans. It happened in Leith, yesterday, when I flicked through a collection of Siegfried Sassoon’s war poems in a thrift shop. I stopped at one called ‘Autumn’.
‘October’s bellowing anger breaks and cleaves
The bronzed battalions of the stricken wood
In whose lament I hear a voice that grieves
For battle’s fruitless harvest, and the feud
Of outraged men. Their lives are like the leaves
Scattered in flocks of ruin, tossed and blown
Along the westering furnace flaring red.
O martyred youth and manhood overthrown,
The burden of your wrongs is on my head.’
(Siegfried Sassoon, Craiglockhart, 1917)
Special words had found me. I felt like I had won £20 on a scratch card. No, it felt much better than that! I re-read the poem. He was describing the very October day I had woken up to: a bellowing angry wind breaking and cleaving the trees in Montgomery Park. A day when, all at once, the leaves of the city were taken down, blown into tidy heaps in street corners. Sassoon’s leaves were lives though, scattered and lost, as easily as the wind denuding an Ash tree. Still happening now. I was so touched by it. I guiltily wondered if many apples had come down in my dad’s back garden when I read the words about ‘battle’s fruitless harvest’. Footnoted at the end of the poem, two more facts found me. Firstly, that Sassoon wrote it precisely100 years ago, and, secondly, that he was living in Craiglockhart, in the suburbs of Edinburgh, at the time.
I buy the book, blow home, and thumb through the introduction as I walk. I learn that Craiglockhart was a Victorian Hydropathic, (a convalescence hospital centred around water treatments) and that between 1916 and 1919 the Hydro was re-commissioned and used as a military psychiatric hospital to treat shell-shocked officers from the war.
I go to the library and find a biography on Sassoon. He’s reputed to have nicknamed Craiglockhart Hospital ‘Dottyville’, determined not to let himself go dotty whilst there. What a lovely old-fashioned and gently inappropriate word – I think to myself. ‘Craiglockhart was bustling and cheerful by day as patients played golf, tennis, croquet, billiards, cricket, and badminton. At night, however, the barriers against hysteria crumbled.’ (Max Egremont, Siegfried Sassoon, A Biography.) I understand how one might use poetry as a defence against crumbling – if only it were that simple and effective. Both Sassoon and Wilfred Owen convalesced in the Edinburgh suburb at the same time, and encouraged each other’s writing. Sassoon made it out of Craiglockhart, he went back to the front, survived it (unlike Owen), and lived until old age. I am so glad to have found him back in Edinburgh.
The wind continues to blow, the leaves fall, and wars still rage, fruitless harvests dominate the news, and words still make us sad, and words still make us glad. For, as M. reminded me, when I called her to tell her of my find, Sassoon also wrote some of the most joyful lines of poetry. So let me leave you with M’s favourite:
“Everyone suddenly burst out singing;
And I was filled with such delight”
(from ‘Everyone Sang’, Siegfried Sassoon)