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.
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.
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.
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.