London: William Heinemann, 1919. First edition. Full leather. This strikingly handsome first edition, first printing features a fine interwar binding by the renowned “Riviere & Son” bindery.
The exceptional full brown morocco goatskin binding features raised bands and boards embellished with double gilt-ruled edges. The contents feature stunning marbled endpapers framed by exquisitely elaborate dentelle turn-ins, gilt top edge, and silk head and foot bands.
Condition is very good plus. The square, tight, and clean binding shows only mild spine toning, a superficial scratch to the upper rear cover, and a small bump to the bottom edge of the rear cover. The contents are crisp, clean, and bright with no spotting and no previous ownership marks. The gilt top edge is bright. The deckled fore and bottom edges look immaculate. “BOUND BY RIVIERE & SON” is gilt-stamped within the dentelle of the lower front pastedown, dating the binding to the 1919-1939 interwar period. Robert Riviere founded his bindery in Bath in 1829. It was later recast as “Riviere & Son”, remaining thus until acquired by the Bayntun Bindery in 1939, becoming thereafter “Bayntun-Riviere”.
Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967) established his literary reputation during the First World War, becoming one of its most regarded poets. Sassoon was formatively encouraged by Edward Marsh, Winston Churchill’s longtime assistant and friend who became Rupert Brooke’s literary executor. Sassoon’s early verse was competent but nonetheless imitative and romantic; “He was always 'waiting for the spark from heaven to fall', and when it fell it was shrapnel, for the First World War turned him from a versifier into a poet.” (ODNB).
During the war, Sassoon became known as “Mad Jack” for his bravery. Romantic sensibilities were supplanted by war experience. His poetry became characterized by dark wit and irony, as in “The Dreamers”, where he writes: “I see them in foul dug-outs, gnawed by rats, / And in the ruined trenches, lashed with rain, / Dreaming of things they did with balls and bats, / And mocked by hopeless longing to regain / Bank-holidays, and picture shows, and spats, / And going to the office in the train.” The double meaning of “dugouts”, the unadorned, gruesome clarity of soldiers “gnawed by rats”, the ironic title, and the strict rhyme scheme that transposes a nightmarish children’s song quality onto the soldiers – all counter-point the myopic patriotism common to English poet contemporaries.
“The Dreamers” and another poem from this collection, “Wirers”, were completed while Sassoon was a patient at Craiglockhart War Hospital, near Edinburgh. Sassoon was wounded in battle in April 1917, leading him to renege his initial support for the war effort. This was no casual reconsideration; Sassoon wrote a scalding criticism, declaring that he “believe[s] the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it”, and that the “defense and liberation” terms of the war had turned into “aggression and conquest”. He intended to read his declaration of “willful defiance” to the House of Commons, which would have resulted in a court-martial. Sassoon’s friend and fellow poet Robert Graves intervened without Sassoon’s consent, suggesting that he be sent to a sanitarium instead of being arrested. Sympathetic officers obliged Graves’s request.
Craiglockhart War Hospital pioneered experimental shell-shock treatments, employing hydro bath therapy and Sigmund Freud’s “talk therapy”. There Sassoon met another patient, the young poet and soldier Wilfred Owen, who was working as the editor of The Hydra, the hospital magazine. Sassoon’s influence on Owen’s work was profound, but brief: Sassoon became burdened by the notion that he had abandoned his men, and returned to the front, but was again injured by a gunshot wound to the head in 1918, finishing his military service; Owen was even less fortunate; he also returned to war, dying in France one week before the armistice was signed. Item #006240