Study Guide

Siegfried Sassoon

Siegfried Sassoon Essay - Sassoon, Siegfried (Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Sassoon, Siegfried (Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Introduction

Siegfried Sassoon 1886-1967

(Full name Siegfried Lorraine Sassoon) English poet, novelist, autobiographer, diarist, and critic.

The following entry presents an overview of Sassoon's career through 1994.

One of the most compelling soldier-poets of the First World War, Siegfried Sassoon is best known for his graphic, often shocking portrayal of trench warfare during World War I and the withering psychological distress it imposed upon its combatants. Along with poets Rupert Brooke, Robert Graves, and Wilfred Owen, who also documented their horrific wartime experiences, Sassoon drew attention to the agony and appalling human cost of the “Great War,” dismissing at once the popular image of the glorious warrior fighting for a noble cause. His bitterly realistic depictions of cynical soldiers railing against the war effort, particularly the ignorant citizenry, government, and religion that promoted it, contrasted sharply with contemporary literature characterizing battle as a chivalrous national duty.

Biographical Information

Born in Brenchley, a county of Kent, England, Sassoon was the second of three sons of Alfred Sassoon, the scion of wealthy Jewish merchants, and Theresa Thornycroft, a member of a prominent landowning family distinguished by its artistic talent. Her grandfather, parents and brother were noted sculptors, another brother a prestigious architect, and Theresa and her sisters were artists. Despite the Thornycrofts' prominence, Alfred Sassoon's mother disowned him for marrying a gentile and refused to have anything to do with his wife and children for the rest of her life. Educated at home as a boy, Sassoon studied at Marlborough College for three years and attended Clare College, Cambridge University, where he first privately published his own poetry. Disinterested in his studies, Sassoon left Cambridge after only two years, returning to his family home in Kent to lead a country gentleman's life of leisure. He continued to write and publish his own poetry, receiving encouragement from his mother's friend, editor Sir Edmund Gosse. Sassoon first gained a measure of literary recognition with the publication of The Daffodil Murderer (1913), a parody of John Masefield's narrative poem The Everlasting Mercy. Sassoon began to move in literary circles in London where he first met Rupert Brooke, a poet who influenced Sassoon's wartime work. Sassoon joined the army in 1914 and the next year was sent to the trenches as an infantry officer where he met Robert Graves, who became his friend and role model. In 1916 Sassoon was awarded the Military Cross for dragging a wounded man to safety under heavy fire and for single-handedly capturing a German trench during the Battle of the Somme. While convalescing in England after he was wounded in 1917, he encountered British pacifists Robert Ross, Lady Ottoline Morrell, and Bertrand Russell. These political connections combined with his war experience convinced Sassoon that the war was no longer justified and should end. He wrote a public letter of protest in which he refused to fight anymore and accused the British government of unnecessarily prolonging the war. The letter was read aloud in the House of Commons and widely distributed across Britain. Sassoon narrowly avoided court-marital through the intervention of Graves, who convinced military officials that Sassoon was suffering from shell-shock. He was conveyed to a military hospital in Craiglockhart, Scotland, where he received psychiatric treatment from Dr. William H. R. Rivers and wrote some of his most powerful war poems. However, overcome with guilt at leaving his comrades, Sassoon returned to the war in 1918 but was finally sent home later that year after receiving a serious head wound. After the war, Sassoon briefly worked as the literary editor of the leftist Daily Herald and campaigned for the Labour Party. The publication of Picture Show (1919) and The War Poems of Siegfried Sassoon (1919) brought him critical acclaim and additional public recognition. He was awarded the Hawthornden Prize and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man (1928). In 1933 Sassoon married Hester Gatty, with whom he shared a son, George, before separating permanently a decade later. Sassoon converted to Catholicism in 1957 and spent the last decade of his life concerned with religious and spiritual matters.

Major Works

Sassoon received the greatest attention for the shocking imagery, graphic language, and bitter satire that permeates his World War I poetry, the core of which is contained in The Old Huntsman and Other Poems (1917) and Counter-Attack and Other Poems (1918). Much of Sassoon's lyrical, pre-war verse features romantic themes, pastoral imagery, and pagan iconography, linking him with other Georgian poets of the early twentieth century. In “The Daffodil Murderer” and “The Old Huntsman,” for example, the poet assumes the personae of English rustics speaking in colloquial blank verse. Characterized as his “Happy Warrior” stage, some of these poems exalt the virtues of patriotism and romanticize the camaraderie of combat soldiers. “To My Brother,” written after his younger brother was killed in action, extols death in battle as a grand sacrifice. Likewise, “Absolution” and “The Redeemer,” also from this period, celebrate the passion and glory of war. However, the tone and outlook of Sassoon's poetry changed dramatically after he witnessed action in the trenches. As he became well acquainted with the bleak reality of combat, his writing became a vehicle of trenchant protest against the war and its horrors. He used his verse to condemn the hypocrisy of the citizenry on the home front who, oblivious to the real suffering of the soldiers, continued to celebrate the war. “Blighters” satirizes a rousing, pro-war revue he watched while on leave in England, “Glory of Women” angrily mocks the women at home who urged their men to fight, and “They” condemns the patriotic benediction of the Anglican church. These poems are short, satirical, and often sarcastic. In “Stand-To: Good Friday Morning,” an exhausted, disillusioned soldier sardonically prays for a wound to deliver him from the peril and squalor of battle. The gruesome imagery of carnage and filth in his poetry underscores the unromantic reality of life in the trenches. Vivid, morbid images such as “sucking mud” and “clotted heads” appear in poems like “Counter-Attack,” while “Repression of War Experience” illustrates how war taints the soldier's perception of everything associated with happiness and peace. Sassoon also employed slang, oaths, and colloquial expressions to talk about serious issues, devices unusual in poetry at that time.

He eventually turned to other subject matter in Satirical Poems (1926) and the lyric collection The Heart's Journey (1927), but his postwar poetry received little recognition. He returned to his wartime experiences in Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man, Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (1930) and Sherston's Progress (1936), a fictional trilogy that chronicles the story of Sassoon alter-ego George Sherston, a country gentleman of leisure whose world is changed by fighting in the war. Sassoon focuses on the contrast between the pastoral estate life of his hero and the psychic journey he takes to a new world created by the war. Sassoon rewrote his story again in memoir form, producing a second trilogy consisting of The Old Country and Seven More Years (1938), The Weald of Youth (1942), and Siegfried's Journey, 1916-1920 (1945). Sassoon continued to write poetry in the last decades of his life, focusing on religious and spiritual themes. “Alone” deals with duality of self, particularly the contrast between the social self and the isolated self. His religious poetry, from the earlier “A Last Judgement” and “Earth and Heaven” to later work such as “Lenten Illuminations,” features the imagery of angels and ponders creation and the after-life. Sassoon also published Meredith (1948), a literary biography of George Meredith.

Critical Reception

Sassoon's war poetry is generally regarded as the highlight of his career. His ability to capture in a few biting lines the nuances of emotion experienced by a whole generation of soldiers earned him admiration. Poems such as “Blighters” and “Counter-Attack” remain among his most famous. While some readers felt that his poetry was too ugly and graphic, and that its interest lay more in its ability to shock and discomfit the reader than in any real artistic merit, most critics regard his war poems as a powerful expression of the savagery and psychic costs of modern, mechanized combat. Though viewed as an antiwar poet, critics clarify that Sassoon's opposition to the First World War was not necessarily motivated by pacifism, but by his belief that the war was unduly protracted by those in power. Commentators frequently praise Sassoon's effective use of irony and potent distillation of fear and despair in his brief, incisive poems. However, his early Georgian verse and later attempts at longer, more sympathetic poems are often characterized as failures which caused him to overreach the bounds of his talents and become sentimental, particularly works that memorialize fallen comrades and family. Sassoon's autobiographical novels and memoirs are considered noteworthy for chronicling the pre-war estate life of the English upper class, a way of life which changed drastically during and after the war, and for the universality of the World War I experience which changed his generation. His later poetry never received the attention or praise accorded to that written during and about the war. For his contribution to the literature of the First World War, Sassoon is considered among the most influential wartime poets.

Principal Works

The Daffodil Murderer [as Saul Kain] (poetry) 1913

Morning-Glory (poetry) 1916

The Redeemer (poetry) 1916

To Any Dead Officer (poetry) 1917

The Old Huntsman and Other Poems (poetry) 1917

Counter-Attack and Other Poems (poetry) 1918

Picture Show [enlarged and reprinted as Picture-Show, 1920] (poetry) 1919

The War Poems of Siegfried Sassoon (poetry) 1919

Satirical Poems (poetry) 1926

The Heart's Journey (poetry) 1927

Memoirs...

(The entire section is 139 words.)

Criticism

Edmund Gosse (review date October 1917)

SOURCE: “Some Soldier Poets,” in Edinburgh Review, Vol. 226, No. 4, October, 1917, pp. 296-316.

[In the following excerpt, Gosse discusses Sassoon's place among the British war poets and offers tempered review of The Old Huntsman and Other Poems.]

The two years which preceded the outbreak of the war were marked in this country by a revival of public interest in the art of poetry. To this movement coherence was given and organisation introduced by Mr. Edward Marsh's now-famous volume entitled Georgian Poetry. The effect of this collection—for it is hardly correct to call it an anthology—of the best poems written by the youngest poets since 1911 was...

(The entire section is 3367 words.)

Irwin Edman (review date 24 March 1946)

SOURCE: “Mr. Sassoon Continues His Autobiography,” in New York Times Book Review, March 24, 1946, p. 4.

[In the following review, Edman offers favorable review of Siegfried's Journey.]

The quality of Siegfried Sassoon's prose writing has by this time become an established and unique mode in contemporary English letters. Where else is the note of reminiscence, half-lyric and half-humorous realism, so delicately sounded? Who else evokes with such combined detachment and nostalgia the atmosphere of a vanished quarter-of-a-century ago, or the ardors and endurances of a poetic and (to use Mr. Sassoon's own phrase about his own early manhood) chuckle-headed youth?...

(The entire section is 1087 words.)

Rolfe Humphries (review date 20 April 1946)

SOURCE: “The Happy Warrior,” in Nation, April 20, 1946, pp. 478-9.

[In the following review, Humphries offers positive assessment of Siegfried's Journey, which he describes as the work of a “dilettante.”]

How pleasant, one is tempted to reflect on reading these memoirs, how pleasant to be born in the leisure class, with a sense of aristocratic tradition, including the medieval, in the blood and bone; to be a welcome guest, for as long as one liked, at great houses with names and ivy and lawns with ilex trees; to have friends, male, like Robbie Ross, who would sympathetically draw out of you every impulse you had toward creativeness; or friends, female,...

(The entire section is 591 words.)

Michael Thorpe (essay date 1966)

SOURCE: “Effective Protest,” in Siegfried Sassoon: A Critical Study, pp. 15-38. London: Oxford University Press, 1966.

[In the following essay, Thorpe examines Sassoon's bitter anti-war sentiment, conflicted feelings of betrayal, inglorious depiction of combat experience, and use of brutal satire in his war poetry.]

As if the soldier died without a wound;
As if the fibres of this godlike frame
Were gored without a pang; as if the wretch,
Who fell in battle, doing bloody deeds,
Passed off to Heaven, translated and not killed;

(Coleridge, ‘Fears in Solitude’ (1.117–121)

… this sudden, stern ecstatic sense of...

(The entire section is 8118 words.)

Avrom Fleishman (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: “The Memoirs of George Sherston: Sassoon's Perpetual Pilgrimage,” in Figures of Autobiography: The Language of Self-Writing in Victorian and Modern England, University of California Press, 1983, pp. 337-53.

[In the following essay, Fleishman examines the recurring motifs of spiritual journey and transformation in Sassoon's autobiographic writings.]

“I told him that I was a Pilgrim going to the Celestial City.” When the reader of the Complete Memoirs reaches the epigraph to the final volume, Sherston's Progress, the impression is confirmed that he has been accompanying a spiritual wayfarer. All his long, meditative life, Siegfried...

(The entire section is 4941 words.)

John Hildebidle (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: “Neither Worthy Nor Capable: The War Memoirs of Graves, Blunden, and Sassoon,” in Modernism Reconsidered, edited by Robert Kiely, Harvard University Press, 1983, pp. 101- 21.

[In the following excerpt, Hildebidle discusses the lasting trauma and guilt experienced by World War I veterans. According to Hildebidle, Sassoon's memoirs, as well as those by Robert Graves and Edmund Blunden, reflect his effort to come to terms with the horrors of war and his own survival.]

Those of the modernist generations who experienced at first hand the apocalypse of the Western Front faced unusual difficulty in achieving that “impersonality” variously prescribed by Eliot...

(The entire section is 4270 words.)

Thomas Mallon (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: “The Great War and Sassoon's Memory,” in Modernism Reconsidered, edited by Robert Kiely, Harvard University Press, 1983, pp. 81-99.

[In the following essay, Mallon provides an overview of Sassoon's literary career and examines the lasting impact of his war experiences on his writing.]

The stage nerves Siegfried Sassoon may have experienced before addressing the Poetry Club at the Harvard Union in the spring of 1920 were mitigated by the formidable assurances of Miss Amy Lowell, who had recently written to tell him that he “was the one man whom the Harvard undergraduates wanted to hear.” Such assurances were more necessary than might be supposed; Sassoon...

(The entire section is 6775 words.)

Elaine Showalter (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: “Rivers and Sassoon: The Inscription of Male Gender Anxieties,” in Behind the Lines: Gender and the Two World Wars, edited by Margaret Randolph Higonnet, Jane Jenson, Sonya Michel, and Margaret Collins Weitz, Yale University Press, 1987, pp. 61-9.

[In the following essay, Showalter examines the psychological effect of shell shock on male sexual identity and Sassoon's hospitalization under the care of psychiatrist William H. R. Rivers.]

On July 23, 1917, 2d Lt. Siegfried Sassoon arrived at Craiglockhart War Hospital near Edinburgh to be treated for war neurosis by Royal Army Military Corps psychiatrist Capt. William H. R. Rivers. Their three-month-long...

(The entire section is 3331 words.)

Fred D. Crawford (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: “Satire and Protest,” in British Poets of the Great War, Susquehanna University Press, 1988, pp. 119-38.

[In the following excerpt, Crawford discusses Sassoon's outspoken antiwar sentiment, realistic evocation of combat conditions, and targets of satire and condemnation in his war poetry.]

Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967) was the first soldier poet to achieve public notoriety as an opponent not only of the war, but also of those whose complicity allowed it to continue. His satiric targets included virtually everyone except fighting soldiers of both sides—civilians content to accept the casualties of the war as inevitable, staff officers whose...

(The entire section is 5152 words.)

Sanford Sternlicht (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: “‘Golgotha’: World War I Poems,” in Siegfried Sassoon, Twayne, 1993, pp. 30-61.

[In the following excerpt, Sternlicht examines the dominant themes, subjects, and style of Sassoon's verse in Counter-Attack, which Sternlicht identifies as Sassoon's “most memorable and powerful collection of poetry.”]

From a literary critic's viewpoint, one of the outstanding aspects of World War I is the amount of excellent poetry it inspired. What is perhaps the greatest body of war poetry ever written was produced by British poets from 1914 to 1918. Indeed those few bloody years spawned two “generations” of war poets: the first caught up in the awful and...

(The entire section is 5133 words.)

Christopher Lane (essay date Summer 1994)

SOURCE: “In Defense of the Realm: Sassoon's Memoirs,” in Raritan, Vol. XIV, No. 1, Summer, 1994, pp. 89-108.

[In the following essay, Lane interprets Sassoon's autobiographic writings as an embodiment of his conflicted self-identity and masculinity as a dutiful English soldier, antiwar dissenter, and repressed homosexual.]

The war is outside of life, and I'm in the war.

—Siegfried Sassoon

There is a way of referring to the generation of First World War poets that is still popular in Britain today. According to this myth, a group of men set out to chronicle the nation's experience of combat...

(The entire section is 6870 words.)