Auctions | November 8, 2013

Only Handwritten Copy of Siegfried Sassoon Anti-War Poem at Bonhams

The only known handwritten copy of Joy Bells, one of Siegfried Sassoon’s most sardonic anti-war poems, is to be sold at Bonhams sale of Books, Maps, Manuscripts and Historical Photographs in London on 12 November.  It is estimated at £1,500-2,000.

The twelve line poem is dated 23 November 1917, three days before Sassoon was discharged from Craiglockhart Hospital outside Edinburgh where he had been sent after his famous protest, Finished with the War: a Soldier’s Declaration, had been read out in the House of Commons.  Partly through the intervention of fellow poet Robert Graves, Sassoon was not court-martialled but declared unfit for service instead and packed off to Craiglockhart, a hospital specialising in the treatment of shell shock.  Since Sassoon was not actually unwell he spent most of his time playing golf and reading.  More constructively, he struck up a close friendship with Wilfred Owen, who really was recovering from shell shock, and also started work on the poems, including Joy Bells, which were to make up one of his best known collections, Counter Attack, which was published the following year.

Joy Bells, which sarcastically attacks the hierarchy of the Church of England for its support for the war, is drafted on the writing paper of Lady Margaret Sackville who lived in nearby Easter Doddington.  Lady Margaret, who was second cousin to the novelist Vita Sackville-West, was a prominent member of the anti-war Union of Democratic Control. A significant poet in her own right, she was a friend to both Owen and Sassoon.  The draft is close to being a fair copy differing only slightly from the final printed version.

Head of Bonhams Book department in the UK, Matthew Haley said, “Much of Sassoon’s best known work savages the establishment’s support for war in the name of patriotism and in Joy Bells he singles out the Church of England and the attitude that ‘if our Lord returned He’d fight for us.’”

Sassoon sent a copy of Counter Attack to Wilfred Owen who had returned to serve in the trenches.  Owen was to die on 4 November 1918 and in one of his final letters wrote to Sassoon on 19th October, “'my nerves are in perfect order. It is a strange truth: that your Counter-Attack frightened me much more than the real one: though the boy by my side, shot through the head, lay on top of me, soaking my shoulder, for half an hour.'”