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
The Heart's Journey 1927
To My Mother 1928
A Suppressed Poem 1929
In Sicily 1930
*On Chatterton: A Sonnet 1930
Poems [as Pinchbeck Lyre] 1931
To the Red Rose 1931
Prehistoric Burials 1932
The Road to Ruin 1933
Vigils 1934; enlarged edition, 1935
Rhymed Ruminations 1939; enlarged edition, 1940
Poems Newly Selected, 1916-1935 1940
Early Morning Long Ago 1941
Selected Poems 1943
Collected Poems 1947
Common Chords 1950
Emblems of Experience 1951
The Tasking 1954
Faith Unfaithful c. 1954
An Adjustment [as S. S.] 1955
Poems [selected by Dennis Silk] 1958
*Lenten Illuminations and Sight Sufficient 1959
The Path to Peace: Selected Poems 1960
Arbor Vitae and Unfoldment 1960
A Prayer at Pentecost 1960
Collected Poems, 1908-1956 1961
Something about Myself 1966
An Octave: 8 September 1966 1966
Selected Poems 1968
Siegfried Sassoon: A Poet's Pilgrimage 1973
Other Major Works
† Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man [published anonymously] (novel) 1928
† Memoirs of an Infantry Officer [published anonymously] (novel) 1930
†Sherston's Progress (novel) 1936
The Old Century and Seven More Years (autobiography) 1938
On Poetry: The Arthur Skemp Memorial Lecture (nonfiction) 1939
The Flower Show Match and Other Pieces (selected prose) 1941
The Weald of Youth (autobiography) 1942
Siegfried's Journey, 1916-1920 (autobiography) 1945
Meredith, A Biography (biography) 1948
Letters to a Critic (letters) 1976
Siegfried Sassoon Diaries, 1915-1918 [edited by Rupert Hart-Davis] (diaries) 1981
Siegfried Sassoon Diaries, 1920-1922 [edited by Hart-Davis] (diaries) 1983
*These collections were privately printed.
†These works were published as The Memoirs of George Sherston in 1937.
The New Republic (essay date 1918)
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...
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John Middleton Murry (essay date 1918)
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...
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John Drinkwater (essay date 1920)
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...
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Babette Deutsch (essay date 1929)
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...
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Winfield Townley Scott (essay date 1949)
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...
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The Times Literary Supplement (essay date 1957)
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...
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Joseph Cohen (essay date 1957)
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...
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C. E. Maguire (essay date 1959)
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...
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John H. Johnston (essay date 1964)
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.]
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Michael Thorpe (essay date 1966)
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...
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L. Hugh Moore, Jr. (essay date 1969)
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...
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Arthur E. Lane (essay date 1972)
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...
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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...
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