Siegfried Sassoon's "astonishingly revealing" Dream Voices at Cambridge University Library

By Ben Miller | 02 August 2010
A photo of a sketch book

Sketch with an oast house, by Siegfried Sassoon, aged 10, from a notebook of juvenilia (1897). Image courtesy the Trustees of GT Sassoon Deceased

Exhibition: Dream Voices: Siegfried Sassoon, Memory and War, Cambridge University Library, Cambridge, until December 23 2010

The literary career of Siegfried Sassoon, perhaps the most famous poet of the First World War, was perennially shaped by the violence he witnessed.

Having already suffered the death of his younger brother in the Gallipoli campaign in 1915, Sassoon endured the full force of a brutal Western Front campaign, becoming known as Mad Jack by his comrades for a string of suicidally reckless bombing raids and trench attacks during his service.

A photo of a drawing of a man kneeling

Decoration in a volume of notes and drafts relating to The Old Century (1936). Image courtesy the Trustees of GT Sassoon Deceased

Many of his letters and poems were written from his bed at Craiglockhart War Hospital in Scotland, and others give moving accounts of friends he watched being buried on the battlefields.

He remains a complex figure to define, although it transpired that the War Office thought he was a lunatic in papers released by the Public Record Office in 1998.

Their opinion was probably coloured by his 1917 statement lambasting the ongoing war and declining to serve (his Commanding Officer replied to summon him back), which was read out in the House of Commons and is one of the star pieces of this incendiary, all-pervading collection bought from his estate for £1.25 million by the library.

A photo of a drawing of an illustration of a statue of a man on a horse

Sassoon's sketch of the memorial to be erected to him on Market Hill, Cambridge (July 1916). Image courtesy the Trustees of GT Sassoon Deceased

Accounts of the first day on the Somme, the moment he was shot by a sniper, his early sporting exploits in fox-hunting, steeple-chasing and cricket and his meetings with important fellow wartime poets including Rupert Brooke and Wilfred Owen, who he met at Craiglockhart, contribute to an unprecedented insight into his story.

"Sassoon was a dedicated diarist and kept a great deal of his correspondence," says curator John Wells.

"When he came to write about his life he could draw on a collection of first-hand sources. This exhibition explores the ways in which documented, remembered, and imagined elements are interwoven in Sassoon's writings."

A photo of a written statement on a brown notebook

Sassoon's copy of his statement against the continuance of the War (June 1917). Image courtesy the Trustees of GT Sassoon Deceased

Many of them were found in the pockets of his uniforms or tucked inside handwritten diaries, accompanied in this display by first and limited editions of his major works.

Proofs unveiled suggest that punctuation wasn't Sassoon's strong point, but childhood notebooks and a sketch design for a memorial statue in Cambridge, envisaged by Sassoon as he anticipated his own fatality on the Somme, show his flair for illustration.

His drawings are described as encompassing "copious illustration, however incongruous", and his biographer, Max Egremont, has called his diaries "astonishingly frank and revealing" and "one of the most extensive self-portraits of any 20th century writer."

Admission free. Visit the exhibition blog for more on Dream voices.

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