Sassoon, Siegfried (Poetry Criticism)
Siegfried Sassoon 1886–1967
(Full name Siegfried Lorraine Sassoon; also wrote under the pseudonyms Saul Kain, Pinchbeck Lyre, and S. S.) English poet, novelist, autobiographer, and editor. See also Siegfried Sassoon Literary Criticism.
Sassoon was one of several English poets, including Robert Graves, Edmund Blunden, and Wilfred Owen, who gained recognition by writing about their experiences as soldiers in World War I, Using realistic detail and bitter satire, Sassoon's war poetry expresses the suffering of the battlefield and rails against the traditional, idealistic image of combat as a glorious and noble undertaking. Other poems by Sassoon consider subjects apart from warfare, frequently utilizing rural English settings as a means of contemplating man's spirituality and existence. It is his powerful reaction to the violence of the modern battlefield that distinguishes Sassoon as a poet, however, and his experiences in the First World War are also central to the well-received novels and autobiographies he later produced.
Sassoon was born to a wealthy family. His father was Jewish, with relations who were prominent in English society, politics, and business; his mother, a gentile, also hailed from an affluent background. Sassoon grew up on a country estate in Kent, enjoying fox hunting, cricket, and other pastimes of the well-to-do. He studied law and history at Marlborough College and Clare College, Cambridge, but never took a degree. While a student, he began to write poetry, and he published a number of private editions of his verse prior to the beginning of World War I. Sassoon enlisted in the British army in August 1914, three days before England declared war on the Central Powers. After training as an infantry officer, he arrived in France in November 1915 and took part in fighting on the Western Front.
Although his war poetry attacks the brutality and destruction of war, Sassoon earned a reputation as a courageous fighter. Nicknamed "Mad Jack" by his fellow soldiers, he was awarded the Military Cross for his battlefield exploits and was considered for another medal after he single-handedly captured a German trench position. He was wounded and disabled several times, and while recuperating in England, he came in contact with individuals who were active in the antiwar movement. In 1917 Sassoon publicly protested against the continuation of the conflict; he threw his Military Cross into a river and wrote a letter to his commanding officer that was, as he put it, a "wilful defiance of military authority." The letter was published in
newspapers and read in the British House of Commons, and for a time it seemed that Sassoon would be courtmartialed for his actions. Instead, a medical board concluded that Sassoon's protest was the result of shell shock—a finding that may have saved him from a prison term. Consequently, Sassoon was sent to the Craiglockhart Military Hospital in Scotland, where he met Wilfred Owen. Owen's work, like Sassoon's, would become synonymous with World War I, and Sassoon furthered the younger poet's exposure by editing a volume of his work after Owen was killed in the final week of the war. Once he was released from Craiglockhart, Sassoon saw two more tours of battlefield duty in 1918 before another bullet wound sent him back to England to recover.
Following the war, Sassoon continued to produce poetry, but he received significant attention for his prose. He produced a trilogy of novels featuring George Sherston, a character who, like Sassoon, comes from a wealthy background and serves as an infantry officer during the war. In addition, Sassoon wrote three autobiographical volumes that directly comment on his experiences. After marrying and fathering one son, Sassoon lived quietly on his Wiltshire country estate in the final decades of his life. He died there in 1967, at the age of eighty.
Sassoon's early poetry is considered part of the Georgian movement in English literature, a trend that emphasized Romantic elements over the rationality and realism that had marked the Victorian verse of the late 1800s. Like other Georgians, Sassoon celebrates the natural beauty of the English countryside in his early work, but these poems often suffer from archaic language and conventional subjects. His most accomplished piece from this period is "The Daffodil Murderer," a long, blank-verse monologue that parodies English poet John Masefield's The Everlasting Mercy.
Sassoon's collection The Old Huntsman and Other Poems was published in 1917, midway through World War I. The profound impact that the war had on Sassoon and many others of his generation is evident in the striking tonal contrasts among the poems in the volume. The title poem features a character's reflections on life in prewar England, and this pastoral mood is also present in a number of other pieces in the book. Some of the war poems in The Old Huntsman, including "The Kiss" and "Absolution," present the conventional, heroic view of battle, with Sassoon proclaiming the righteousness of England's cause and the character-building qualities of combat. Scholars believe these poems were written early in the war, and most are thought to have been composed before Sassoon saw any fighting. After experiencing the reality of the battlefield, his attitude abruptly changed. Thereafter, his poems feature the minute and often grotesque details of trench warfare and utilize colloquial language and a conversational tone. This newfound realism is often combined with biting satire; in "They," Sassoon lampoons a bishop who praises the glorious mission the soldiers undertake while ignoring the ugly wounds they suffer in the process. In a similar manner, "Stand-To: Good Friday Morning" presents a soldier who prays that he will be wounded so that he can escape the war.
Counter Attack and Other Poems, Sassoon's second extensive collection of verse, continues in the same vein; the title poem offers one of Sassoon's most graphic accounts of the war's carnage, while poems like "Does It Matter?" satirically downplay the physical damage inflicted on soldiers. As Bernard Bergonzi states in Heroes' Twilight, Sassoon presents these glimpses of the war and its consequences "as a means of forcibly impressing on the civilian world some notion of the realities of front-line life." Sassoon stated in similar terms that his war poems were "deliberately written to disturb complacency."
He used the same ethic in postwar volumes such as Satirical Poems and The Road to Ruin, although his targets here include politicians and the news media in addition to the continued militarism of European nations in the 1920s and 1930s. A quieter, philosophical tone is also evident in Sassoon's poetry beginning in the 1920s, with collections such as The Heart's Journey voicing the poet's questions about the meaning of life and the passage of time. These metaphysical musings are often combined with Sassoon's observations of nature and speak of his bond with the rural English landscape. In Sequences, a 1956 compilation, Sassoon's ruminations give way to religious conviction and mirror the spiritual conversion that the poet underwent in the 1950s.
Sassoon's controversial war poetry has received mixed reactions. Many critics, including some of Sassoon's friends and fellow poets, have disapproved of Sassoon's treatment of combat, claiming that his verse deals only with war's immediate and startling aspects. They have maintained that his anger invalidates his work aesthetically because his descriptions appeal to the senses rather than the imagination. Wilfred Owen concluded that Sassoon's poems do not expand and intensify the horror of war into a greater human context, but rather enjoin the reader to react to the moment. According to John Middleton Murry, there is "a lack of finished artistry" about Sassoon's work, a negativity that terrifies and then numbs so that the reader cannot absorb the full aesthetic experience. Virginia Woolf stated that Sassoon "deserted art in a compulsion to express the intolerable." Others have found more value in Sassoon's work, noting that his war poems emphasize common speech, human interaction, and concrete details—traits that indicate a clear break from the abstraction and idealization of much Georgian verse. Sassoon's work has also been appreciated as a chronicle of his times, a depiction of a generation's transformation from the pastoral simplicities of the past to the violent uncertainties of the modern age. In documenting this era, Sassoon's satiric mockery of warfare has proved an influential model for other artists in the twentieth century.
*Poems [published anonymously] 1906
*Orpheus in Diloeryium [published anonymously] 1908
*Sonnets [published anonymously] 1909
*Sonnets and Verses [published anonymously] 1909
*Twelve Sonnets 1911
*Melodies [published anonymously] 1912
*Hyacinth: An Idyll 1912
*An Ode for Music 1912
*The Daffodil Murderer [as Saul Kain] 1913
*Morning-Glory [published anonymously] 1916
The Redeemer 1916
To Any Dead Officer 1917
The Old Huntsman and Other Poems 1917
Counter-Attack and Other Poems 1918
Four Poems 1918
Picture Show 1919; also published as Picture-Show [enlarged edition], 1920
The War Poems of Siegfried Sassoon 1919
*Lingual Exercises for Advanced Vocabularies 1925
Selected Poems 1925
Satirical Poems 1926; enlarged edition, 1933
Siegfried Sassoon 1926...
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SOURCE: "Absolution," in The New Republic, Vol. XIV, No. 180, April 13, 1918, pp. 330-31.
[In the following review of The Old Huntsman and Other Poems, the critic asserts that Sassoon's war poems are his "true utterance" and that they are superior to the verse in the volume that concerns prewar England.]
When John Masefield returned here some months ago he brought praise of Mr. Sassoon's war-poetry. It was a surprise to him that this poetry, published in London in May, 1917, and dedicated to Thomas Hardy, should not yet have reached Americans. Here is the book now, issued in the handsome war-forgetful style conferred on it by Mr. Heinemann; and only a year late.
It is not all war-poetry. Half of the volume contains verse that Mr. Sassoon must have written in the England that is gone. This part of the volume might by itself have made some reputation if there had never been a long war, and if it had been published with peace-time additions—but it is a thin companion to the verse that its author has added in France. Its anaemia is no evidence that its author is thinblooded, it is merely a proof that poetry had largely become a function of book-fed human beings in the traditional sphere where Mr. Sassoon resided before the war. It is distinguished verse, some of it quite charming and all of it beyond sentimentality, but it is definitely moon-luminous and pale. "The Old Huntsman" is...
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SOURCE: "Mr. Sassoon's War Verses," in his The Evolution of an Intellectual, R. Cobden-Sanderson, 1920, pp. 75-84.
[Murry was a renowned English literary critic whose books include The Problem of Style (1922) and Keats and Shakespeare (1925). In the the following analysis, originally written in July, 1918, Murry asserts that Sassoon's work in Counter-Attack and Other Poems is "not poetry. " He faults the war verse in the volume because it fails to provide a contrast to the chaotic atmosphere of battle and because it has a distinctly prose-like quality.]
It is the fact, not the poetry, of Mr. Sassoon that is important. When a man is in torment and cries aloud, his cry is incoherent. It has neither weight nor meaning of its own. It is inhuman, and its very inhumanity strikes to the nerve of our hearts. We long to silence the cry, whether by succour and sympathy, or by hiding ourselves from it. That it should somehow stop or be stopped, and by ceasing trouble our hearts no more, is our chief desire; for it is ugly and painful, and it rasps at the cords of nature.
Mr. Sassoon's verses [in Counter-Attack and Other Poems]—they are not poetry—are such a cry. They touch not our imagination, but our sense. Reading them, we feel, not as we do with true art, which is the evidence of a man's triumph over his experience, that something has after all been saved from...
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SOURCE: "Two 'New Poets' and Their War Poems as Mr. Drinkwater Sees Them," in The New York Times Book Review, May 9, 1920, pp. 235, 246.
[In the excerpt below, Drinkwater reviews Picture Show and questions whether war poetry can be judged by those who have not shared in the poet's wartime experiences. He also argues that Sassoon's strong emotions sometimes weaken the quality of his work, but the critic finds that the volume's best poems are "the creation of a loving and aristocratic art."]
There is an element, and, on the face of it, a very important one, in Mr. Sassoon's poetry, to which critical approach is of extreme difficulty. Rightly understood, it is the expressive part of poetry rather than the thing expressed that stimulates our mind, quickening our own perceptive faculty. Blake's sublime naturalism, Marvell's lucid intellectual passion, the romance of Morris, Crabbe's austerity—the mood of one stands with another in value to us by reason of its mastery in expression—that is, if we care for poetry and life more than we do for points of view. But this acceptance by the alert reader of the poet's experience for its own sake presupposes that such experience is in character not outside normal imaginative range, that the emotion of which the poet tells us and the circumstance in which he clothes it, although we may have no direct personal knowledge of them, are at least potentially within...
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SOURCE: "A Solemn Music," in New York Herald Tribune Books, March 24, 1929, p. 7.
[Deutsch was an American author and educator whose poetry collections include Banners (1919) and The Collected Poems of Babette Deutsch (1969). In this review of The Heart's Journey, she criticizes several aspects of Sassoon's poetry, yet praises the visions of evil and peace that he attempts to communicate.]
One remembers Siegfried Sassoon as the author of some of the bitterest and most moving lyrics that sprang out of the horrors of the last great war. In the years that have elapsed since then his mood seems to have changed from utter despair to a kind of illumined reconciliation. He has won, however hardly, to that peace which has its roots in the spiritual life, and the poems in this slight new volume of his are at once a testimony to that peace and signal of how difficult it is of attainment. It is clear that there are moments—seasons perhaps—even now, when the soul, escaping from the spell laid upon it, turns an ear to the fiendish cacophonies of the past, and only by the most strenuous exercise of the will can it be quieted and caught and led softly back. And, indeed, it is of the conflict between the security in which the spirit is at home and the forces inviting it to self-destruction that the poet makes his finest songs. Consider, for example, the following lyric:
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SOURCE: "'Youth That Dying—'," in Poetry, Vol. LXXIV, No. 1, April, 1949, pp. 41-3.
[Scott was an American poet, editor, and educator noted for his biographical and story poems. In the following review of Sasson's Collected Poems, Scott finds the volume to be emblematic of the English generation that came of age in the first half of the twentieth century.]
The fortunate juxtaposition of era and literary genius is a theory which most of us assume to be true. There seems to be some evidence for it; the height of Greek civilization, the Elizabethan era in England are among the familiar examples. It is perhaps less frequently noted, though the instances must be plentiful, in its minor but no less obvious emanations. Siegfried Sassoon's poems of the first World War are such an instance. He is a particularly perfect example of the Georgian poet upon whose bucolic lyrics crashed a terrible war and who out of that war made more genuine poetry than he was ever able to make before or since.
This is not news, of course. But the truth and proof of it are assembled with special force in Sassoon's Collected Poems. Indeed he himself puts the case clearly enough—if romantically—in the line of a poem dated 1916: "youth, that dying, touched my lips to song." And in this book of his whole poetic work (Sassoon is now about 62) one can see, as it were swiftly, the graph of his...
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SOURCE: "Mr. Sassoon in Contemplative Mood," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 2862, January 4, 1957, p. 11.
[In the review below, the critic comments on the religious content of Sequences, noting that the poems portray Sassoon as "a recluse seeking … some spiritual light."]
Among the most beautiful things in Mr. Sassoon's Collected Poems of 1947, the sonnet "At the Grave of Henry Vaughan" will come to mind as Sequences is read, not merely because Vaughan is again honoured by name in this new book, but as some affinity of temperament again appears to exist between our living poet and the old one. The impression given by Mr. Sassoon's pages is of a recluse seeking (as did the Silurist) some spiritual light, often under the stars, and of a solitary wayfarer pausing beneath a tree, noting the butterfly and the primrose, riding along the farthest farm-track. "Alone with life," he contemplates and reconsiders the mind and soul, and derives from all he has seen in our world some prospects of the eternal. Occasionally it might be pardonable to mistake a passage from Mr. Sassoon, if it were quoted without ascription, for one from Vaughan:
I think: If through some chink in me could shine
But once—O but one ray
From that all-hallowing and eternal day,
Asking no more of Heaven I would go hence.
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SOURCE: "The Three Roles of Siegfried Sassoon," in TSE: Tulane Studies in English, Vol. VII, 1957, pp. 169-85.
[Here, Cohen outlines the three roles that he believes Sassoon has assumed in regard to his poetry, those of "country gentleman," "angry prophet," and "self-effacing hermit. "]
In his conclusion to the Cambridge University Clark Lectures, Robert Graves, while naming the modern writers he considered to be in the "small, clear stream of living" poetry, said he found it "remarkable that the extraordinary five years of Siegfried Sassoon's poetic efflorescence (1917-21) should be utterly forgotten now." At a time when Graves' own autobiography of his wartime experiences, Goodbye To All That, has been reissued, along with Edmund Blunden's Undertones of War and Wilfred Owen's Poems, it is indeed remarkable that Sassoon's poetic achievement during the Great War is now forgotten, and even more remarkable that Sassoon, who has published his poems in every decade of this century, is largely unknown by the present generation and ignored by its critics. Like a decommissioned man-of-war, he rests quietly at anchor in poetry's mothball fleet.
I believe that Sassoon's poetic decommissioning is largely self-determined; that it has resulted from an amalgamation about 1940 of two roles he had played fully to that time, those of angry prophet and country gentleman, into a...
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SOURCE: "Harmony Unheard: The Poetry of Siegfried Sassoon," in Renascence, Vol. XI, No. 3, Spring, 1959, pp. 115-24.
[In the following essay, Maguire provides an overview of Sassoon's poetry, discussing major themes such as his musings on life and death, the absurdity of war, and the passage of time.]
John Middleton Murry, writing in 1918 with the stern authority only the very young critic can achieve, decided that Siegfried Sassoon's Counter Attack, then enjoying best seller status, was "not poetry." Art, said Murry, is the evidence of man's triumph over his experience. It reminds us that something has, after all, been saved from disaster. Sassoon's verse gave the opposite impression: that everything is irremediably and intolerably wrong. Not only was the language overwrought, dense and turgid, but the verse failed to express the relation of war's horror to "the harmony and calm of the soul which it shatters." "Discord in harmony has within it an infinity of disaster." This verse had not. Sassoon simply presented the data of desolation, which the reader had to relate to some serenity before art could be achieved. What was missing Murry thought obvious: it was a philosophical background which might have allowed Sassoon to grapple with his experience and comprehend it. This background would give some "intellectual remoteness' to the verse, and save it from presenting mere brute fact.
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SOURCE: "Realism and Satire: Siegfried Sassoon," in English Poetry of the First World War, Princeton University Press, 1964, pp. 71-112.
[In the following essay, Johnston analyzes the war poetry in The Old Huntsman and Counter-Attack. He argues that brief satirical verse of this kind renders the experience of battle "too directly and too grossly" and lacks the fuller perspective that other poets later brought to the war.]
The thirty-nine war poems of...
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SOURCE: "Achievement," in Siegfried Sassoon: A Critical Study, Universitaire pers Leiden, 1966, pp. 253-59.
[In the following excerpt, Thorpe assesses Sassoon's accomplishments, commenting on the poet's role as an innovative writer of protest verse, his similarity to a number of past writers, and the religious content of his later works.]
There is no universally accepted sliding-scale of values by which a writer's achievement may be measured. According to one viewpoint, a writer's stature is virtually determined by the extent to which he endeavours to grapple with and reconstruct the disordered world, material and intellectual, of the particular fragment of time in which he happens to have been born; according to another, it may be important that he has refused to touch the broken images of the present, but has instead explored the ramifications of the microcosmic self; yet a third—most exacting—viewpoint will demand that the search for "selfhood's essence" be seen to have taken place under the pressure of the time and that this agonising union result in an ordering of reality (as it may seem) that will be important to others.
Sassoon's writing has, at different times, responded to the first two demands, but never to the high intensity of the third. This failure to achieve what to many seems the ideal synthesis is inherent in the very success of his war poetry: a local, qualified...
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SOURCE: "Siegfried Sassoon and Georgian Realism," in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 14, No. 4, January, 1969, pp. 199-209.
[Moore is an American critic and educator. Here, he counters the common critical opinion that Sassoon's war poetry was radically different from the verse he produced before seeing battle action. Moore contends that Sassoon's early work contains the realistic characteristics pioneered by several Georgian poets and that these prewar poems are directly related to his later accomplishments.]
The judgment that Siegfried Sassoon's pre-war poetry is pale, conventional, cloyingly romantic, and weakly derivative—in short, that it epitomizes what is today slightingly called "Georgian" verse—has become a critical commonplace. A corollary to this view assumes that the powerful war poetry of The Old Huntsman (1917) and Counter-Attack (1918) sprang full blown from his head, a result of the trauma of trench warfare. Robert Graves appears to be the first to have foisted this view upon us in his desire to praise the more exciting war verse. He claims in Goodbye to All That that Sassoon before the war had published only a few "pastoral pieces of eighteen-ninetyish flavour, and a satire on Masefield which, half-way through, had forgotten to be a satire and turned into rather good Masefield." As Graves saw it, Edward Marsh, the publisher of Georgian Poetry, and Edmund...
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SOURCE: "Coming of Age in the Trenches: Siegfried Sassoon," in his An Adequate Response: The War Poetry of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, Wayne State University Press, 1972, pp. 86-120.
[Lane is an American poet and professor of English literature. In the following analysis, he upholds the validity of much of Sassoon's war poetry, citing the poet's "deceptively simple immediacy" and his direct, nonmetaphoric use of imagery.]
[Sassoon's] prewar poetry, like the war poetry he wrote before his experience in the trenches, gives no indication of the corrosive vitality which was to characterize his poetry of the years 1916 to 1918—a vitality as much of the man as of the poet, and which occasioned a remarkable letter from a younger poet whom Sassoon met in Craiglockhart War Hospital in 1917:
Know that since mid-September, when you still regarded me as a tiresome little knocker on your door, I held you as Keats + Christ + Elijah + my Colonel + my father-confessor + Amenophis IV in profile. What's that mathematically? … If you consider what the above names have severally done for me, you will know what you are doing. And you have fixed my Life—however short. You did not light me: I was always a mad comet; but you have fixed me. I spun round you a satellite for a month, but I shall swing out soon, a dark star in the orbit where you will blaze [quoted by Robert...
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Keynes, Sir Geoffrey. A Bibliography of Siegfried Sassoon. London: Hart-Davis, 1962, 199 p.
Bergonzi, Bernard. "Poets III: Sassoon." In his Heroes' Twilight, pp. 92-108. London: Constable, 1965.
Analyzes Sassoon's depiction of the war, declaring that he was "a poet of narrow but direct effects."
Blunden, Edmund. "Siegfried Sassoon's Poetry." In his Edmund Blunden: A Selection of his Poetry and Prose made by Kenneth Hopkins, pp. 310-24. London: Hart-Davis, 1950.
Positive assessment of Sassoon's work that praises him as "a poet of considerable productiveness" whose work is "as readable as it is copious."
Chase, Lewis. Review of Counter-Attack. The New Republic XVII, No. 216 (December 21, 1918): 227-28.
Comments on the bitterness expressed in Sassoon's collection but also notes a trace of idealism in the poet's "appreciation of beauty."
Fairchild, Hoxie Neale. 'Toward Hysteria." In Religious Trends in English Poetry, Volume V: Gods of A Changing Poetry, pp. 578-627. New York: Columbia University Press, 1962.
Considers Sassoon's war verse as an expression of psychological...
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