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The Great War brought out the brilliance of Siegfried Sassoon's poetry

By Graham Christian

JUNE 21, 1999: 

SIEGFRIED SASSOON: THE MAKING OF A WAR POET: A BIOGRAPHY 1886-1918, by Jean Moorcroft Wilson. Routledge, 600 pages, $35.

Poets, it seems, should pray not for success, or for money, or even for the touch of genius, but instead for a kind of bearable misfortune. One has only to read Robert Herrick's lyrical complaints about his dull Devon village or Tennyson's heartbroken masterpiece of mourning, In Memoriam, to understand what can be made from catastrophe. Siegfried Sassoon, the semi-genteel (and semi-Gentile) cricketer and sportsman, all but lost his life in the mighty conflict that tore Europe to pieces near the beginning of this century. That experience made a poet out of a careless dabbler.

Sassoon's family history and early life sound like the stuff of sentimental, nostalgic novels. His father came from a proud dynasty of rich Persian Jews (their name meant "joy" -- an irony for the unhappy Siegfried) who all but disinherited him when he married into a family of stoutly Anglican dairy farmers. Siegfried (only in the relative innocence of 1886 could a half-Jewish child have been named for a figure from a Wagner opera) was the second of three sons, and proved sweetly mediocre at everything but cricket and riding, until the war. He was mediocre as a poet, too, but persistent: his self-published collections attracted no attention, and the noted critic Edmund Gosse was discreetly discouraging. Gosse, Jean Moorcroft Wilson tells us, wrote to Sassoon in response to one of these early volumes, "warning him of the danger of 'a mere misty or foggy allusiveness' and metrical and grammatical inaccuracies."

After the outbreak of the war, Sassoon's writings aspired to the patriotic suffering of Rupert Brooke and Charles Sorley, who died young and early enough that the conflict still seemed noble. By this time, he had realized that he was homosexual; Wilson is the first of Sassoon's biographers to be at liberty to quote from his ecstatic letters to pioneering gay activist Edward Carpenter. And he was certain that he would die in battle: his reckless bravery in the field earned him the nickname "Mad Jack." As, one by one, the men under his command died, followed by his cherished younger brother Hamo, Sassoon's verse acquired a furious, brilliant exactitude.

In June 1917, after the publication of The Old Huntsman, his first book of mature verse, Sassoon, on leave in London, wrote and publicized an open letter of protest against the war. His sudden pacifism, as rash as his raids had been, distressed his officer friends -- including a young Robert Graves. Rather than court-martial him, the army assigned him to "medical convalescence" at Craiglockhart War Hospital, and there he met Wilfred Owen. As yet undeveloped as a poet, Owen admired Sassoon to the point of worship. (In the decades to follow, however, his war poems would eclipse Sassoon's almost completely.)

Ashamed that he had somehow betrayed not his country but the men under his command, Sassoon eventually returned to the front, narrowly missing death from a wound to the head. The war ended while he was on medical leave for this last injury; when the bells pealed for peace, Sassoon was walking by the Thames, alone. He was a lionized poet, a hero to both soldiers and pacifists, a homosexual, and a virgin.

The first part of Wilson's fine biography ends here, and the moment marks the beginning of the end of Sassoon's importance: after the long horror show of his war experiences had been exhausted in another book of poems and a series of thinly veiled autobiographical novels, Sassoon began a strategic retreat into marriage, Roman Catholicism, and asthmatic religious verse.

For his generation, the poetry and career of Siegfried Sassoon were emblematic of the ways in which the secure truths of Western civilization were destroyed in the hopeless foxholes of the First World War. It is difficult to imagine the works of Virginia Woolf or Hemingway or Faulkner existing without him, but -- as an only half-willing harbinger of modernism -- he wasn't able to follow its true pioneers into that promised land.

Wilson, a scholar of the period and the author of studies of World War I poets Charles Sorley and Isaac Rosenberg, has executed a thorough, compassionate, and well-documented portrait of Sassoon's life. At times, however, the spyglass is held so close to her subject that the surrounding context is obscured -- one would have liked to know more, for example, about the firestorm that must have erupted after the publication of Sassoon's famous protest, or about the circle that surrounded Sassoon's early patron, the avant-garde Ottoline Morrell. Still, this book is a fascinating document: it is startling to see Wilfred Owen in obscurity, his groundbreaking poetry still unformed; startling, too, to see Robert Graves -- who was later to write not only I, Claudius but a book of poems titled Man Does, Woman Is -- at a stage in his life when he and Sassoon exchanged letters about their shared erotic interest in men.

Wilson's splendid book makes as powerful a case as can be made for Sassoon as paradigm: his disillusioned break with the past is characteristic of much of the great art of modern culture. The recent success of Pat Barker's novels about the Great War and Niall Ferguson's controversial revisionist history of the conflict suggest that we are still looking to this tragic battle in order to find the sources of our own discontent. In this search, Sassoon is an essential companion, and Wilson's treatment of his life is an essential guide.

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