Thursday, May 8, 2014

Grandeur of Ghosts - Siegfried Sassoon

When I have heard small talk about great men
I climb to bed; light my two candles; then
Consider what was said; and put aside
What Such-a-one remarked and Someone-else replied.

They have spoken lightly of my deathless friends,
(Lamps for my gloom, hands guiding where I stumble,)
Quoting, for shallow conversational ends,
What Shelley shrilled, what Blake once wildly muttered ....

How can they use such names and be not humble?
I have sat silent; angry at what they uttered.
The dead bequeathed them life; the dead have said
What these can only memorize and mumble.

Sassoon broods in anger in this poem about the gossip treatment he hears his literary idols receiving on a regular basis.  He cannot comprehend how some people can be so callous and disrespectful when speaking of "great men."  To Sassoon, a poet, these men, Blake, Shelley, have "bequeathed life" to future generations with their words.

To Sassoon, these poets are his rock.  They are "lamps for my gloom, hands guiding where I stumble."  His spiritual artistic guides, he is furious to see them reduced to gossip topics, being quoted "for shallow conversational ends."  Sassoon actually places himself alongside them in decrying the small-minded men who can "only memorize and mumble."  Sassoon himself is writing poetry rather than quoting it, following in the footsteps of his idols, rather than speaking lightly of their reputations.  Is this arrogant?  I'd say no, considering the great lengths Sassoon goes to in establishing literary giants as life-giving poetic figures.  While he considers himself above the gossips of the worlds, he feels that he can only draw on the greats for support, rather than fully being one himself.

It is an understandable impulse, Sassoon's anger at hearing his idols sullied by gossip about what they may have said outside of their work, but I think it's important to embrace all aspects of the artist, to acknowledge the wholeness of their being.  For example, I greatly admire James Joyce.  Apart from writing Ulysses, he also wrote shockingly filthy letters to his wife, but unless someone uses those to try to discredit his massive artistic achievement, I do not get offended.  I think I would feel the same as Sassoon if someone tried to discredit Wagner's music because of his abhorrent views on Judaism, or someone derided Percy Grainger's music because of his bedroom habits.  We all hate when small-minded people disparage our idols for the wrong reasons.

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