The Great War brought out the brilliance of Siegfried Sassoon's poetry
by Graham Christian
SIEGFRIED SASSOON: THE MAKING OF A WAR POET: A BIOGRAPHY
1886-1918, by Jean Moorcroft Wilson. Routledge, 600 pages, $35.
Poets, it seems, should pray not for success, or for money, or even for
the touch of genius, but instead for a kind of bearable misfortune. One has
only to read Robert Herrick's lyrical complaints about his dull Devon village
or Tennyson's heartbroken masterpiece of mourning, In Memoriam, to
understand what can be made from catastrophe. Siegfried Sassoon, the
semi-genteel (and semi-Gentile) cricketer and sportsman, all but lost his life
in the mighty conflict that tore Europe to pieces near the beginning of this
century. That experience made a poet out of a careless dabbler.
Sassoon's family history and early life sound like the stuff of sentimental,
nostalgic novels. His father came from a proud dynasty of rich Persian Jews
(their name meant "joy" -- an irony for the unhappy Siegfried) who all but
disinherited him when he married into a family of stoutly Anglican dairy
farmers. Siegfried (only in the relative innocence of 1886 could a half-Jewish
child have been named for a figure from a Wagner opera) was the second of three
sons, and proved sweetly mediocre at everything but cricket and riding, until
the war. He was mediocre as a poet, too, but persistent: his self-published
collections attracted no attention, and the noted critic Edmund Gosse was
discreetly discouraging. Gosse, Jean Moorcroft Wilson tells us, wrote to
Sassoon in response to one of these early volumes, "warning him of the danger
of `a mere misty or foggy allusiveness' and metrical and grammatical
After the outbreak of the war, Sassoon's writings aspired to the patriotic
suffering of Rupert Brooke and Charles Sorley, who died young and early enough
that the conflict still seemed noble. By this time, he had realized that he was
homosexual; Wilson is the first of Sassoon's biographers to be at liberty to
quote from his ecstatic letters to pioneering gay activist Edward Carpenter.
And he was certain that he would die in battle: his reckless bravery in the
field earned him the nickname "Mad Jack." As, one by one, the men under his
command died, followed by his cherished younger brother Hamo, Sassoon's verse
acquired a furious, brilliant exactitude.
In June 1917, after the publication of The Old Huntsman, his first book
of mature verse, Sassoon, on leave in London, wrote and publicized an open
letter of protest against the war. His sudden pacifism, as rash as his raids
had been, distressed his officer friends -- including a young Robert Graves.
Rather than court-martial him, the army assigned him to "medical convalescence"
at Craiglockhart War Hospital, and there he met Wilfred Owen. As yet
undeveloped as a poet, Owen admired Sassoon to the point of worship. (In the
decades to follow, however, his war poems would eclipse Sassoon's almost
Ashamed that he had somehow betrayed not his country but the men under his
command, Sassoon eventually returned to the front, narrowly missing death from
a wound to the head. The war ended while he was on medical leave for this last
injury; when the bells pealed for peace, Sassoon was walking by the Thames,
alone. He was a lionized poet, a hero to both soldiers and pacifists, a
homosexual, and a virgin.
The first part of Wilson's fine biography ends here, and the moment marks the
beginning of the end of Sassoon's importance: after the long horror show of his
war experiences had been exhausted in another book of poems and a series of
thinly veiled autobiographical novels, Sassoon began a strategic retreat into
marriage, Roman Catholicism, and asthmatic religious verse.
For his generation, the poetry and career of Siegfried Sassoon were emblematic
of the ways in which the secure truths of Western civilization were destroyed
in the hopeless foxholes of the First World War. It is difficult to imagine the
works of Virginia Woolf or Hemingway or Faulkner existing without him, but --
as an only half-willing harbinger of modernism -- he wasn't able to follow its
true pioneers into that promised land.
Wilson, a scholar of the period and the author of studies of World War I
poets Charles Sorley and Isaac Rosenberg, has executed a thorough,
compassionate, and well-documented portrait of Sassoon's life. At times,
however, the spyglass is held so close to her subject that the surrounding
context is obscured -- one would have liked to know more, for example, about
the firestorm that must have erupted after the publication of Sassoon's famous
protest, or about the circle that surrounded Sassoon's early patron, the
avant-garde Ottoline Morrell. Still, this book is a fascinating document: it is
startling to see Wilfred Owen in obscurity, his groundbreaking poetry still
unformed; startling, too, to see Robert Graves -- who was later to write not
only I, Claudius but a book of poems titled Man Does, Woman
Is -- at a stage in his life when he and Sassoon exchanged letters
about their shared erotic interest in men.
Wilson's splendid book makes as powerful a case as can be made for Sassoon as
paradigm: his disillusioned break with the past is characteristic of much of
the great art of modern culture. The recent success of Pat Barker's novels
about the Great War and Niall Ferguson's controversial revisionist history of
the conflict suggest that we are still looking to this tragic battle in order
to find the sources of our own discontent. In this search, Sassoon is an
essential companion, and Wilson's treatment of his life is an essential guide.
Graham Christian is a writer living in Somerville.