Reform Club, Pall Mall, S.W.1., London: None, circa 1921. This truly singular item is an unpublished autograph poem by eminent First World War poet Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967). The poem was drafted early in his literary career, circa 1921, presuming the reference to Caruso to be contemporary (Enrico Caruso, a widely acclaimed operatic tenor, died 2 August 1921). The poem, titled “Out of Date”, reads, “A noon edition said | Lord Out of Date is Dead | Caruso’s grave condition | announced a noon edition. | a football five-oclock | annulled the ghastly shock; | Lord Out of Date denied | that he had really died. | So poor Lord Out of Date | Has still some years to want | Before he quits the scene | Of what he might have been.” Sassoon initialed the bottom right corner. The poem is written on Reform Club Pall Mall postcard stock measuring 5.5 x 3.5 inches (14 x 9 cm). Condition is near fine, the paper clean and bright, Sassoon’s writing distinct and clearly legible. The poem is housed in a red buckram clamshell case. Within the case, the poem is protected within a removable mylar sleeve that resides in an orange cloth-framed inset from which it is released via a ribbon pull.
This unpublished poem from an iconic First World War poet, already compelling, is still more noteworthy for the Reform Club postcard stock on which it is written. The Reform Club derives its name from the Great Reform Bill of 1832. The club was intended as a counter establishment to the Tory’s Carlton Club, beside which it is located. The Reform Club opened its doors on 24 May 1836 and “acted as the nerve centre and headquarters of the fledgling Liberal Party. General election campaigns were planned there, party meetings held, news exchanged, plots hatched. From the start, the Club was, like the Party, an uneasy coalition of disparate politics.” Sassoon was a member of the Reform Club, and presumably wrote this poem while lounging there, listening to some “noon edition”.
Siegfried Sassoon established his literary reputation during the First World War, becoming one the war’s most regarded poets. Sassoon was formatively encouraged by Edward Marsh, Winston Churchill’s longtime assistant and friend, who included Sassoon in a number of anthologies of Georgian poets. Most Georgian poetry would now be pejoratively characterized as sentimental, romantic, innocent to the point of naiveté, and often imitative – all of which Sassoon’s early verse certainly was. But “[Sassoon] 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). His work retained elements of older, conventional style—hard rhyme, for example, but no longer did it affect the common character of Georgian poetry, but instead a dark irony, as bleak and stark as bare trees in No Man’s Land.
Sassoon’s volta in poetic sensibility mirrored his attitude toward the war effort. On 30 July 1917, Sassoon’s declaration against the First World War was read in the House of Commons. It began, I am making this statement as an act of willful defiance of military authority, because I believe that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it. I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of other soldiers. I believe that this War, upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation, has now become a war of aggression and conquest. Sassoon was not there to read it himself. He was being hospitalized for shell-shock in lieu of court-marshal. Pacifism was a punishable offense, and objection to the war effort regarded as cowardice. But cowardice was inapplicable in the case of Sassoon, known to many on the battle field as ‘Mad-Jack’. He was awarded the Military Cross for conspicuous bravery, and considered for the Victoria Cross. He tore the MC off his jacket while on leave and threw it into the River Mersey.
References: Max Egremont; ODNB; www.reformclub.com. Item #006478