Siegfried Loraine Sassoon (September 8, 1886 - September 1, 1967) was an English poet and author. He became known as a writer of satirical anti-war verse during World War I, but later won acclaim for his prose work.
Sassoon was born in Matfield, Kent, to a Jewish father and English mother. His father, Alfred, one of the wealthy Sassoon merchant family, was disinherited for marrying outside the faith. His mother, Teresa, belonged to the Thornycroft family, sculptors responsible for many of the best-known statues in London -- her brother was Sir Hamo Thornycroft. There was no German blood in Siegfried's family; he owed his unusual first name to his mother's predilection for the operas of Wagner. His middle name was taken from the surname of a clergyman with whom she was friendly.
Sassoon was educated at Marlborough College in Wiltshire, and at Clare College, Cambridge, where he studied both law and history from 1905 to 1907. However, he dropped out of university without a degree, and spent the next few years hunting, playing cricket, and privately publishing a few volumes of not very highly acclaimed poetry. His income was just enough to prevent his having to seek work, but not enough to live extravagantly. His first real success was The Daffodil Murderer, a parody of a work by John Masefield.
Sassoon patriotically joined the military just as the threat of World War I was realised, and was in service with the Sussex Yeomanry on the day Britain declared war (August 4, 1914). He broke his arm badly in a riding accident and was put out of action before even leaving England; spending the spring of 1915 convalescing. In May of that year, he joined the Royal Welch Fusiliers as a commissioned officer, and in November, he was sent to First Battalion in France. He was thus brought into contact with Robert Graves, and they became close friends. United by their poetic vocation, they often read and discussed one another's work. Though this did not have much perceptible influence on Graves's poetry, his views on what may be called 'gritty realism' profoundly affected Sassoon's concept of what constituted poetry. He soon became horrified by the realities of war, and the tone of his writing changed completely: where his early poems exhibit a Romantic dilettantish sweetness, his war poetry moves to an increasingly discordant music, intended to convey the ugly truths of the trenches to an audience hitherto lulled by patriotic propaganda. Details such as rotting corpses, mangled limbs, filth, cowardice and suicide are all trademarks of his work at this time, and this philosophy of 'no truth unfitting' had a significant effect on the movement towards Modernist poetry.
Sassoon's periods of duty on the Western Front were marked by recklessly brave actions, including the single-handed capture of a German trench in the Hindenburg Line. He often went out on night-raids and bombing patrols, and demonstrated ruthless efficiency as a company commander. Deepening depression at the horror and misery the soldiers were forced to endure produced in Sassoon a paradoxically manic courage, and he was nicknamed "Mad Jack" by his men for his suicidal exploits. Despite having been decorated for bravery, he decided, in 1917, to make a stand against the conduct of the war. One of the reasons for his violent anti-war feeling was the death of his friend, David Cuthbert Thomas (called "Dick Tiltwood" in the Sherston trilogy). Sassoon's close relationship with Thomas was a tacit admission of his own homosexuality, which he would spend several years attempting to overcome.
Having thrown his Military Cross into the river Mersey at the end of a spell of convalescent leave, Sassoon declined to return to duty. Instead, encouraged by pacifist friends such as Bertrand Russell and Lady Ottoline Morrell, he sent a letter to his commanding officer, which was forwarded to the press and read out in Parliament by a sympathetic MP. Rather than court-martial Sassoon, the military authorities decided that he was unfit for service, and sent him to Craiglockhart War Hospital near Edinburgh, where he was officially treated for neurasthenia ('shell shock').
The novel, Regeneration, by Pat Barker, is a fictionalised account of this period in Sassoon's life, and was made into a film starring Jonathan Pryce as W. H. R. Rivers, the psychiatrist responsible for Sassoon's recovery. Rivers became a kind of surrogate father to the troubled young man, and his sudden death in 1922 was a major blow to Sassoon.
At Craiglockhart, Sassoon met Wilfred Owen, another poet who was eventually to exceed him in fame. It was thanks to Sassoon that Owen persevered in his ambition to write better poetry. A manuscript copy of Owen's Anthem for Doomed Youth, containing Sassoon's handwritten amendments, survives as testimony to the extent of his influence. To all intents and purposes, Sassoon became to Owen 'Keats and Christ and Elijah'; surviving documents demonstrate the depth of Owen's love and admiration for him. Both men returned to active service in France, but Owen was killed in 1918. Sassoon, having spent some time out of danger in Palestine, eventually returned to the Front, was almost immediately wounded again - by friendly fire, this time in the head - and spent the remainder of the war in Britain. After the war, Sassoon was instrumental in bringing Owen's work to the attention of a wider audience. Their friendship is the subject of Stephen MacDonald's play, Not About Heroes.
The war had brought Sassoon into contact with men of a lower social class, and he had developed Socialist sympathies. Having lived for a period at Oxford, where he spent more time visiting literary friends than studying, he dabbled briefly in the politics of the Labour movement, and in 1919 took up a post as literary editor of the socialist Daily Herald. During his period at the Herald, Sassoon was responsible for employing several eminent names as reviewers, including E M Forster and Charlotte Mew, and commissioned original material from "names" like Arnold Bennett and Osbert Sitwell. He later embarked on a lecture tour of the USA, as well as travelling in Europe and throughout Britain.
Sassoon was a great admirer of the Welsh poet, Henry Vaughan. On a visit to Wales in 1923, he paid a pilgrimage to Vaughan's grave at Llansanffraid, Powys, and there wrote one of his best-known peacetime poems, At the Grave of Henry Vaughan. The deaths of three of his closest friends, Edmund Gosse, Thomas Hardy and Frankie Schuster (the publisher), within a short space of time, came as another serious setback to his personal happiness.
At the same time, Sassoon was preparing to take a new direction. In 1928, he branched out into prose, with Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man, the anonymously-published first volume of a fictionalised autobiography, which was almost immediately accepted as a classic, bringing its author new fame as a humorous writer. He followed it with Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (1930) and Sherston's Progress (1936). In later years, he revisited his youth and early manhood with three volumes of genuine autobiography, which were also widely acclaimed. These were The Old Century, The Weald of Youth and Siegfried's Journey.
Sassoon, having matured greatly as a result of his military service, continued to seek emotional fulfilment, which he at first attempted to find in a succession of love affairs with men, including the actor Ivor Novello; Novello's former lover, the actor Glen Byam Shaw; German aristocrat Prince Philipp of Hesse; the writer Beverley Nichols; and the effete aristocrat the Hon. Stephen Tennant. Unfortunately, Sassoon was wont to become disenchanted with his lovers once the first flush of romance had faded. In 1933, to many people's surprise, he married Hester Gatty, who was many years his junior; this action eventually brought him the status of parent which he had long craved. Their only child, George, was born in 1936. However, the marriage broke down after World War II. Separated from his wife in 1945, Sassoon lived in seclusion at Heytesbury in Wiltshire, although he maintained contact with a circle which included E. M. Forster and J. R. Ackerley. Towards the end of his long life, he was converted to Roman Catholicism, and was admitted to the faith at Downside Abbey, close to his home. He also paid regular visits to the nuns at Stanbrook Abbey, and the abbey press printed commemorative editions of some of his poems. He is buried at Mells in Somerset, close to Ronald Knox, whom he admired.
The Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship was founded in 2001, and its web site contains further information about Sassoon.
Jean Moorcroft Wilson - Siegfried Sassoon: The Making of a War Poet
Jean Moorcroft Wilson - Siegfried Sassoon: The Journey from the Trenches (2003)
John Stuart Roberts - Siegfried Sassoon
Felicitas Corrigan - Poet's Pilgrimage (A collection of Sassoon's diary-entries and correspondence marking his gradual spiritual development towards Roman Catholicism.)
The Daffodil Murderer (John Richmond: 1913)
The Old Huntsman (Heinemann: 1917)
Counter-Attack (Heinemann: 1918)
Picture-Show (Heinemann: 1919)
War Poems (Heinemann: 1919)
Recreations (privately printed: 1923)
Lingual Exercises for Advanced Vocabularians (privately printed: 1925)
Selected Poems (Heinemann: 1925)
Satirical Poems (Heinemann: 1926)
The Heart's Journey (Heinemann: 1928)
Poems by Pinchbeck Lyre (Duckworth: 1931)
The Road to Ruin (Faber and Faber: 1933)
Vigils (Heinemann: 1935)
Rhymed Ruminations (Faber and Faber: 1940)
Poems Newly Selected (Faber and Faber: 1940)
Collected Poems (Faber and Faber: 1947)
Common Chords (privately printed: 1950/1951)
Emblems of Experience (privately printed: 1951)
The Tasking (privately printed: 1954)
Sequences (Faber and Faber: 1956)
Lenten Illuminations (privately printed: 1958)
The Path to Peace (Stanbrook Abbey Press: 1960)
Collected Poems 1908-1956 (Faber and Faber: 1961)
The War Poems ed. Rupert Hart-Davis (Faber and Faber: 1983)
Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man (Faber & Gwyer: 1928)
Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (Faber and Faber: 1930)
Sherston's Progress (Faber and Faber: 1936)
Complete Memoirs of George Sherston (Faber and Faber: 1937)
The Old Century (Faber and Faber: 1938)
On Poetry (University of Bristol Press: 1939)
The Weald of Youth (Faber and Faber: 1942)
Siegfried's Journey (Faber and Faber: 1945)
Meredith (Constable: 1948)