June 25, 2009 / 5:02 PM / 10 years ago

Cambridge eyes anti-war poet Sassoon's archives

LONDON (Reuters) - Cambridge University launched a campaign on Thursday to buy an important collection of personal papers belonging to Siegfried Sassoon, the British anti-war poet noted for his bravery in battle.

The archive of manuscripts includes a draft copy of the 1917 “A Soldier’s Declaration,” in which Sassoon argued that World War One was being “deliberately prolonged” by those in power.

The declaration, which he sent to his commanding officer, was read out in parliament and caused a storm of controversy.

Sassoon was subsequently taken to Craiglockhart hospital in Scotland where he was treated for shell-shock and met fellow war poet Wilfred Owen, who was killed in action just before the conflict ended.

Sassoon was credited with helping to change people’s perception of the Great War, doing away with patriotic propaganda and conveying the horror and agony of life and death in the trenches for thousands of young men.

His realist verse also made him a pioneer of modernist poetry.

Max Egremont, Sassoon’s official biographer who is leading the campaign to purchase the archives, has said that the poet’s war journals and autobiographical writings convey:

“... a vision so haunting that 20th century British warfare still seems to be defined by futile offensives, exhausted men impaled upon wire or trapped in mud before an immovable enemy a mere few yards away.”

Sotheby’s, which is handling the private sale of the archives, called them “unquestionably the most valuable collection of Sassoon’s papers ever to be offered for sale.”

Cambridge has valued the archive, comprising seven boxes of material, at 1.25 million pounds ($2.0 million).

It includes Sassoon’s journals, pocket notebooks compiled on the Western Front, poetry books, photographs and love letters to his wife Hester.

“These journals make up one of the most important literary and documentary records of trench warfare in existence,” Sotheby’s said.

The papers also include 34 volumes of journals dated 1920-1959, many unpublished, documenting Sassoon’s post-war life including his affair with aristocrat Stephen Tennant.

Cambridge University already holds several sets of letters and manuscripts by Sassoon, and if successful in acquiring the archive, says it would own the “most significant collection of Sassoon manuscripts anywhere in the world.

Reporting by Mike Collett-White; Editing by Steve Addison

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