The Untitled Poem
This week a poem by Siegfried Sassoon to his younger lover came to light, discovered by an academic while looking through the personal papers of Glen Byam Shaw. It was published for the first time by The Observer (whence I pinched this title). Shaw was an actor at the time (1925) and Sassoon, at 39, was doubting his creative voice and uncertain about his direction after the Great War. The poem is so beautiful, tender and necessarily oblique about the gender of its subject. It reminded me powerfully how far we’ve come in acceptance and equality since 1967 (albeit there’s more to be done).
Though you have left me, I’m not yet alone:
For what you were befriends the firelit room;
And what you said remains & is my own
To make a living gladness of my gloom
The firelight leaps and shows your empty chair
And all our harmonies of speech are stilled:
But you are with me in the voiceless air
My hands are empty, but my heart is filled.
But the real hook of the poem, for me, is it’s similarity to a letter written by our own William Kirkpatrick to his friend Sir John Kennaway, in the early 19th century. Kirkpatrick was the first owner of Southernhay House, from 1805-1812. He lived an extraordinary life by any standards and tiny reminders of it are all around the hotel. From the elephants strutting across the East India Company’s bills of lading in the private dining room, the original map of Nepal as mapped by Kirkpatrick on a diplomatic mission, references to his nemesis Tipu Sultan to a portrait of William himself: his personality fills the place. We’ve even transcribed the letter on the window behind our bar, beside Tipu Sultan’s famous aphorism: “I’d rather live a day as a tiger than a lifetime as a sheep”. I’m not one for guessing what William and John’s relationship was and that wouldn’t be relevant anyway. The sweet sentiment is what counts and the fact that, like Sassoon, William was moved by the friendship to write some lines which can still make your hairs stand up on the back of your neck today – and well into the future.
“You had not been gone last night two minutes when I wished to see you again. I thought I had a hundred things to tell you which had not occurred to me while you were with me. To say the truth you left me half happy: for though our mutual and renewed assurances of friendship were productive of the greatest pleasure I even felt – yet it was damp’d considerably by your hasty departure. Ah, my dear friend…..”