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 Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967)

Published onMar 07, 2024
 Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967)

 Siegfried Sassoon



Used by permission of the Poetry Foundation

Siegfried Sassoon is best remembered for his angry and compassionate poems about World War I, which brought him public and critical acclaim. Avoiding the sentimentality and jingoism of many war poets, Sassoon wrote of the horror and brutality of trench warfare and contemptuously satirized generals, politicians, and churchmen for their incompetence and blind support of the war. He was also well known as a novelist and political commentator. In 1957 he was awarded the Queen’s Medal for Poetry.

Born into a wealthy Jewish family, sometimes called the “Rothschilds of the East” because the family fortune was made in India, Sassoon lived the leisurely life of a cultivated country gentleman before the World War I, pursuing his two major interests, poetry and fox hunting. His early work, which was privately printed in several slim volumes between 1906 and 1916, is considered minor and imitative, heavily influenced by John Masefield (of whose work The Daffodil Murderer is a parody).

Following the outbreak of the World War I, Sassoon served with the Royal Welch Fusiliers, seeing action in France in late 1915. He received a Military Cross for bringing back a wounded soldier during heavy fire. After being wounded in action, Sassoon wrote an open letter of protest to the war department, refusing to fight any more. “I believe that this War is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it,” he wrote in the letter. At the urging of Bertrand Russell, the letter was read in the House of Commons. Sassoon expected to be court-martialed for his protest, but poet Robert Graves intervened on his behalf, arguing that Sassoon was suffering from shell-shock and needed medical treatment. In 1917, Sassoon was hospitalized.

Counter-Attack and Other Poems collects some of Sassoon’s best war poems, all of which are “harshly realistic laments or satires,” writes Margaret B. McDowell in the Dictionary of Literary Biography. The later collection The War Poems of Siegfried Sassoon included 64 poems of the war, most written while Sassoon was in hospital recovering from his injuries. Public reaction to Sassoon’s poetry was fierce. Some readers complained that the poet displayed little patriotism, while others found his shockingly realistic depiction of war to be too extreme. Even pacifist friends complained about the violence and graphic detail in his work. But the British public bought the books because, in his best poems, Sassoon captured the feeling of trench warfare and the weariness of British soldiers for a war that seemed never to end. “The dynamic quality of his war poems,” according to a critic for the Times Literary Supplement, “was due to the intensity of feeling which underlay their cynicism.” “In the history of British poetry,” McDowell wrote, “[Sassoon] will be remembered primarily for some one hundred poems … in which he protested the continuation of World War I.”

After the war, Sassoon became involved in Labour Party politics, lectured on pacifism, and continued to write. His most successful works of this period were his trilogy of autobiographical novels, The Memoirs of George Sherston. In these, he gave a thinly-fictionalized account, with little changed except names, of his wartime experiences, contrasting them with his nostalgic memories of country life before the war and recounting the growth of his pacifist feelings. Some have maintained that Sassoon’s best work is his prose, particularly the first two Sherston novels. Memoirs of a Fox Hunting Man was described by a critic for the Springfield Republican as “a novel of wholly fresh and delightful content,” and Robert Littrell of Bookman called it “a singular and a strangely beautiful book.”

That book’s sequel was also well received. The New Statesman critic called Memoirs of an Infantry Officer “a document of intense and sensitive humanity.” In a review for the Times Literary Supplement, after Sassoon’s death, one critic wrote: “His one real masterpiece, Memoirs of an Infantry Officer … is consistently fresh. His self scrutiny is candid, critical, and humourous. … If Sassoon had written as well as this consistently, he would have been a figure of real stature. As it is, English literature has one great work from him almost by accident.”

Sassoon’s critical biography of Victorian novelist and poet George Meredith found a similarly positive reception. In this volume, he recounted numerous anecdotes about Meredith, portraying him vividly as a person as well as an author: “The reader lays the book down with the feeling that a great author has become one of his close neighbors,” wrote G.F. Whicher in the New York Herald Tribune Weekly Book Review. The critical portions of the book were also praised, though some found the writing careless. But the New Yorker critic noted Sassoon’s “fresh and lively literary criticism,” and the reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement declared that “Mr. Sassoon gives us a poet’s estimate, considered with intensity of insight, skilfully shaped as biography, and written with certainty of style.”

In 1957 Sassoon became a convert to Catholicism, though for some time before his conversion, his spiritual concerns had been the predominant subject of his writing. These later religious poems are usually considered markedly inferior to those written between 1917 and 1920. Yet Sequences (published shortly before his conversion) has been praised by some critics. Derek Stanford, in Books and Bookmen, claimed that “the poems in Sequences constitute some of the most impressive religious poetry of this century.”

Speaking of Sassoon’s war poetry in a 1981 issue of the Spectator, P.J. Kavanagh claimed that “today they ring as true as they ever did; it is difficult to see how they could be better.” Looking back over Sassoon’s long literary career, Peter Levi wrote in Poetry Review: “One can experience in his poetry the slow, restless ripening of a very great talent; its magnitude has not yet been recognised. … He is one of the few poets of his generation we are really unable to do without.”

Sassoon died in 1967 from stomach cancer. His papers are held at University of Cambridge. 

“Everyone Sang”

Everyone suddenly burst out singing;

And I was filled with such delight

As prisoned birds must find in freedom,

Winging wildly across the white

Orchards and dark-green fields; on - on - and out of sight.

Everyone's voice was suddenly lifted;

And beauty came like the setting sun:

My heart was shaken with tears; and horror

Drifted away ... O, but Everyone

Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.

“Glory of Women”

You love us when we're heroes, home on leave,

Or wounded in a mentionable place.

You worship decorations; you believe

That chivalry redeems the war's disgrace.

You make us shells. You listen with delight,

By tales of dirt and danger fondly thrilled.

You crown our distant ardours while we fight,

And mourn our laurelled memories when we're killed.

You can't believe that British troops “retire”

When hell's last horror breaks them, and they run,

Trampling the terrible corpses—blind with blood.

    O German mother dreaming by the fire,

    While you are knitting socks to send your son

    His face is trodden deeper in the mud.

“The Rear-Guard”

(Hindenburg Line, April 1917)

Groping along the tunnel, step by step,

He winked his prying torch with patching glare

From side to side, and sniffed the unwholesome air.

Tins, boxes, bottles, shapes and too vague to know; 

A mirror smashed, the mattress from a bed;

And he, exploring fifty feet below

The rosy gloom of battle overhead.

Tripping, he grabbed the wall; saw someone lie

Humped at his feet, half-hidden by a rug.

And stooped to give the sleeper’s arm a tug.

“I’m looking for headquarters.” No reply.

“God blast your neck!” (For days he’d had no sleep.)

“Get up and guide me through this stinking place.”

Savage, he kicked a soft, unanswering heap,

And flashed his beam across the livid face

Terribly glaring up, whose eyes yet wore

Agony dying hard of ten days before;

And fists of fingers clutched a blackening wound.

Alone he staggered on until he found

Dawn's ghost that filtered down a shafted stair

To the dazed, muttering creatures underground

Who hear the boom of shells in muffled sound.

At last, with sweat and horror in his hair,

He climbed through darkness to the twilight air,

Unloading hell behind him step by step.


The Bishop tells us: 'When the boys come back
'They will not be the same; for they'll have fought
'In a just cause: they lead the last attack
'On Anti-Christ; their comrades' blood has bought
'New right to breed an honourable race,
'They have challenged Death and dared him face to face.'

'We're none of us the same!' the boys reply.
'For George lost both his legs; and Bill's stone blind;
'Poor Jim's shot through the lungs and like to die;
'And Bert's gone syphilitic: you'll not find
'A chap who's served that hasn't found some change.
' And the Bishop said: 'The ways of God are strange!'







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