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.