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You are in: South Yorkshire > History > Local History > Sassoon's letters to Edward Carpenter

Sassoon's letters to Edward Carpenter

WW1 poet Siegfried Sassoon wrote to the early socialist gay rights activist Edward Carpenter. Many of the letters are held at Sheffield Archives, and one thanks him for helping Sassoon realise his own homosexuality. We take a look at the letters.

Siegfried Sassoon's signature

Sassoon's signature

Edward Carpenter lived from 1844 to 1929 and from his late twenties spent most of his life on the rural outskirts of Sheffield.

He was involved with the Sheffield Socialists and ran a communal market garden in Millthorpe near Dronfield with his homosexual partner George Merrill.

Carpenter was a prolific campaigner and letter writer, and Sheffield Archives holds a large collection of his letters from all sorts of people, including the WW1 poet Siegfried Sassoon.

Learn more about the life and philosophy of Edward Carpenter by clicking on the link below.

Siegfried Sassoon and Edward Carpenter

Siegfried Sassoon and Edward Carpenter

Sassoon's letters to Carpenter

In his first letter to Carpenter dated 27th July 1911, Sassoon writes how his mind has been opened since reading Carpenter's works and it has helped him realise his own homosexuality.

Later in the collection are letters from Sassoon to Carpenter dated just before and during WW1.

There is a copy of The Soldier's Declaration, an open letter from Sassoon which denounced the war and led him to being committed to hospital for 'shell shock.'

Siegfried Sassoon letter to Edward Carpenter about homosexuality

Siegfried Sassoon letter about homosexuality

Sassoon had sent Carpenter some of his sonnets as "thankyous" for helping him realise his homosexuality.

He had read Carpenter's 1908 book The Intermediate Sex aged 24, a year previously, and says that he writes to the 67-year-old Carpenter as "the leader and the prophet"...

"What ideas I had about homosexuality were absolutely prejudicial and I was in such a groove that I couldn't allow myself to be what I wished to be... the intense attraction I felt for my own sex was almost a subconscious thing and my antipathies for women a mystery to me...

"I cannot say what it [The Intermediate Sex] has done for me. I am a different being and have a definite aim in life and something to lean on."

Sassoon's life in Kent

Sassoon also describes his wealthy family life in Kent, and how Carpenter has opened his eyes not only to his sexuality but also to socialism, which he hadn't studied sufficiently before reading Carpenter's works. He acknowledges his privileged background:

"I'm afraid my life is occupied a good deal with things you may not approve... cricket in summer, and riding and hunting in winter... My other life is taken up with poetry and an intense passion for music (though I am not a brilliant player)."

He goes on to tell Carpenter that he doesn't mix "with smartness and luxurious social doings, as my name might lead you to think."

He is clearly full of admiration for the Sheffield socialist and signs off his first letter to Carpenter with a motto: "Strength to perform and pride to suffer without sign."

A Soldier's Declaration - 1917

Motivated by patriotism, Sassoon joined the war effort at the start of WW1.

Lancashire Fusiliers in a trench, 1917 (c) Imperial War Museum North

Trench warfare, 1917 (c) IWMN

He soon became horrified by the realities of the war though, and wrote poems about the rotting corpses and casualties of war.

Second Lieutenant Siegfried Lorraine Sassoon MC of 3rd Batallion Royal Welch Fusilliers was considered a brave soldier but he returned home from war in April 1917, and a few months later (June 1917) he wrote the famous Soldier's Declaration.

A Soldier's Declaration by Siegfried Sassoon, 1917

A Soldier's Declaration by Siegfried Sassoon, 1917

Sassoon sent a copy of this to Carpenter, who was a pacifist and corresponded with many soldiers and others involved in the war. This too is held in Sheffield Archives.

In the anti-war statement which was published in The Times, Sassoon speaks of his "wilful defiance of military authority" and his opinion that "the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it."

He writes that WW1 had been about defiance and liberation but that now it had become "a war of aggression and conquest."

His letter kicked up a storm and was hushed up by the authorities. In fact Sassoon would have been court-martialed for his "wilful defiance" if his friend and fellow poet Robert Graves had not stepped in and convinced the authorities that Sassoon was suffering from shell shock.

'An Officer's Letter' newspaper article

Newspaper article about Siegfried Sassoon

Sassoon was sent to hospital in Scotland to convalesce, with the suggestion that if he didn't quieten down he would end up in the lunatic asylum.

Sassoon wrote to Carpenter several times during his recuperation. In one letter he includes a newspaper cutting about the case, referring to Lees-Smith, a man who spoke out for Sassoon in the House of Commons and argued that there was "nothing wrong with his nerves" - he's just a person of unusual mental power and determination of character. This is also kept in Sheffield Archives. 

The authorities dismissed Sassoon's protest as a mental breakdown but Carpenter clearly offered his support because while convalescing in hospital in Scotland, Sassoon wrote:

"I am glad you think [my statement] has done a little good... It is difficult to keep going when all our friends are getting killed or having a rotten time of it."

He tells Carpenter that an "influential person" offered him a job in town in munitions, which he says is "unthinkable."

What Sassoon really wants, he tells Carpenter, is to "go as an ordinary worker in some big works in a large town (I have Sheffield in my mind's eye)..."

Sassoon letter from Craiglockhart War Hospital

Sassoon letter from Craiglockhart War Hospital

Another postcard from Craiglockhart War Hospital in Slateford, Scotland (where Sassoon met fellow war poet Wilfred Owen) tells Carpenter: "I'm quite determined not to be bluffed into an armchair job" and then in October 1918, "all sorts of obstacles have been put in the way of my Sheffield scheme," mainly because the authorities wouldn't discharge him from the Army.

In the last of Sassoon's letters in the Carpenter collection, dated 8th October 1918, he has been given a job in the Ministry of Information. "I hope and pray that this slaughter of youth will be ended soon."

Sassoon went on to fight in Palestine and France until he was wounded. He returned to England where he spent the remainder of the war.

In later years Siegfried Sassoon developed the Socialist sympathies which he had initially written to Carpenter about. He also began to practise his homosexuality more openly, although he married and had a son. He died in 1967.

Millthorpe became a meeting place for socialists and free thinkers, intellectuals, writers and humanitarians. One of Sassoon's pre-war letters held in Sheffield Archives discusses a possible visit to Millthorpe and Sassoon writes this jokey postscript:

"Neill Forbes [a mutual friend] tells me you wouldn't let him help wash up the dishes. I do hope you won't think me as genteel as that."

Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967)

Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967)

Alongside this letter is a cutting of one of Sassoon's printed poems, 'At Daybreak': "I listen for him through the rain... I know that he will come again."

Sassoon refers to other poems and sonnets he sent to Carpenter, although the actual poems are not in this part of the collection.

What else is in the collection?

The collection at Sheffield Archives also holds letters from The Women's Suffrage League thanking Carpenter for his sympathy and financial support.

There's another one from 10 Downing Street acknowledging Carpenter's letter to the Prime Minister about the case of Roger Casement, an Irish poet and revolutionary who was executed for treason in 1916 after trying to secure German aid for Irish independence.

Carpenter remained a political activist until the end of his life, campaigning for Votes for Women, animal rights, sexual freedom and politics. He objected to capitalism and was a pacifist.

Find out more about Carpenter via the link below.

last updated: 17/11/2008 at 11:03
created: 10/11/2008

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