Siegfried Sassoon is best known for his First World War poems, full of pain, anger and despair at the absurdities and miseries of war. But outside his wartime experiences he lived the life of a minor aristocrat, hunting, shooting and fishing, living a life of privilege. Here he writes a poem which depicts his jaundiced view of this world, as he describes some of the people he mixes with at sporting events. A precursor of Monty Python’s upper-class twits, perhaps…
I watched old squatting Chimpanzee: he traced
His painful patterns in the dirt: I saw
Red-haired Ourang-utang, whimsical-faced,
Chewing a sportsman’s meditative straw:
I’d met them years ago, and half-forgotten
They’d come to grief (but how, I’d never heard,
Poor beggars!); still, it seemed so rude and rotten
To stand and gape at them with never a word.
I ventured ‘Ages since we met,’ and tried
My candid smile of friendship; no success.
One scratched his hairy thigh, while t’other sighed
And glanced away. I saw they liked me less
Than when, on Epsom Downs, in cloudless weather,
We backed The Tetrarch and got drunk together.
The two acquaintances that the poet meets are characterized as a chimpanzee and an orang-outang. These days we might consider that this is denigrating to those primates. The scene takes place on Epsom Downs, the racecourse where the Derby is run every year (in the town where I was born). Despite his disdain for the acquaintances, the solidarity of class and the occasion win the day and the poet joins his friends in betting on a horse and then getting drunk with them (and possibly going on to nab a policeman’s helmet, like one of PG Wodehouse’s characters.)
The Poetry Dude