INDEX of the Poems:
Daybreak In a Garden
Does it Matter?
Glory of Women
Jan. 22, 2004
Outside his time
Sassoon: The Journey from the Trenches
By Jean Moorcroft Wilson.
526 pp. £30
The writers who lived and worked at the time the foundations of literary modernism were being laid, but were themselves consciously anti-Modernist, form an unfairly neglected group.
They seem to our eyes figures of Edwardian fun - quaint, waistcoated, and of ambiguous sexuality. But there existed a great deal of talent among them. Ralph Hodgson, W. J. Turner, Robert Graves, and Wilfred Owen possessed an intellectual energy as great as that of T.S. Eliot or Yeats. Unfortunately, they gave themselves to an aesthetic ideal that was totally eclipsed by the rising sun of European modernism.
Siegfried Sassoon was one of the most fascinating of these figures. Like Owen, he was a poet who made his name writing a poetry whose unflinching engagement with war still has a visceral impact. Like Graves, he wrote a best-selling, and now forgotten, autobiography. And, like many of his contemporaries, he was a tormented but enthusiastic homosexual.
An associate of T.E. Lawrence, E.M. Forster, and Stephen Tennant (who served as the model for Brideshead Revisited's Sebastian Flyte), Sassoon was one of the foremost intellectual figures of the World War I years. The fact that he has more or less lapsed into obscurity is not hard to understand, given the transient nature of literary esteem, but is still unjust. Jean Moorcroft Wilson has tried to restore him a measure of the recognition once accorded him with her new biography, Siegfried Sassoon: Journey From the Trenches. Sadly, her success is questionable at best.
The book opens at the end of World War I, in 1918, with Sassoon in a hotel in Margate, England, "in the arms of a young soldier." The soldier becomes the subject for Sassoon's poem Lovers, and thus the two main themes of the book are announced - Sassoon's poetry and his tormented sexuality. Every chapter opens with a quote from one of Sassoon's works, and nearly every chapter describes an ephebic young man with whom Sassoon is fascinated, much to his own dismay. He calls this lust for young men "hanging on," presumably to youth, in a letter to one of his friends.
Even after his marriage in 1933 at the age of 47 to Hester Gatty (whose feminine charms were such that they overcame both E.M Forster and T.E. Lawrence's opposition to Sassoon's marriage), Sassoon showed a great ambivalence - he would often remain at his writing desk while banishing his wife to the bedroom of their country home. Although Sassoon was able to give up his old habits, it seems he was never able to embrace his new ones fully.
SASSOON HAD a similarly tortured relationship to his poetry. Although he was, according to one of his friends, one of the great letter-writers of his generation, he had great difficulty finding his voice. Between the emergence of poetic modernism; his own attraction to more traditional, declarative Georgian poetry; his natural indolence; and his dabblings in literary and political satire, he did not produce any new work of substance for nearly a decade after World War I.
Even when he hit his literary stride once more, it was not as a poet, but rather as an autobiographer, producing a series of autobiographical works, including Memoirs of a Fox Hunting Man and Sherston's Progress.
When he finally turned once again to poetry, the moral urgency that had made his war poetry so compelling had evaporated; with the turn to autobiography, he had become introspective, and even somewhat querulous, as even this extremely generous biographer admits, speaking of two later poems: "[they] stand out by their simplicity and directness from the disappointing work of Sassoon's final period."
Wilson's generosity is her greatest flaw. Sassoon's artistic life after World War I was a retreating and a turning inward, as his years as autobiographer attest to. This retreat took place in and around New York and London in the midst of one of the most vibrant flowerings of literary talent any century has ever seen. Sassoon could not, for whatever reason, take advantage of the vistas opened by modernism.
Reading this biography, one gets a strange sense that for Sassoon, the literary developments of the 20th century simply never happened - Eliot and Yeats are hardly mentioned; Hemingway does not make an appearance. This is not to say that the milieu Sassoon moved in was any less fascinating because of its rejection of modernism and its devotion to Georgian poetry. Wilson simply fails to provide the reader with any compelling reason to be interested in it. She takes as self-evident the fact that these men and women are interesting to the modern mind, and devotes almost no effort to making a case for them.
While Sassoon does not possess the stature of Eliot, his conflict with modernity does possess some interest to students of English letters. It is a shame that Wilson failed to allow it to emerge.
his writing life, Sassoon returned to WWI horrors
SIEGFRIED SASSOON: THE JOURNEY FROM THE TRENCHES: A BIOGRAPHY (1918-1967)
By Jean Moorcroft Wilson
Routledge, $45, 526 pages, illus.
REVIEWED BY MARTIN RUBIN
The subtitle of the second and final volume of this exhaustive biography of the World War I-era British poet, Siegfried Sassoon, tells it all: "The Journey from the Trenches." For as Jean Moorcroft Wilson, a lecturer in English at London University, observed at the conclusion of her earlier volume, "The Making of a War Poet":
"It might be argued that the War both made and unmade Sassoon. As a young man determined to be a poet but with no clear sense of direction, it had given him a subject as well as the experience and passion to turn that subject into memorable verse. And as a mature writer who seemed again to have lost a sense of direction, the War provided the way forward in his fictional and autobiographical prose trilogies.
"When that material was finally exhausted, however, so too was Sassoon's creative impulse until, with his turning to religion and eventual conversion to Roman Catholicism in the 1950s he found a new subject for his work.
"It was not only as a writer that Sassoon was changed by the War. As a person, too, he benefited from the experiences of 1914 to 1918, however unbearable. A charmingly self-absorbed and immature young man at the outbreak of War, he gradually learnt to think more of others . . ."
Thus we have 500 pages covering the nearly 50 years remaining to Sassoon of an almost posthumous life: an oxymoron in its literal sense, it is true, but metaphorically on the mark, in that the half century was, professionally at least, spent working and re-working the raw material of those dreadful four years 1914-1918.
Sassoon's fictional autobiography, "Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man," with its alter-ego, George Sherston, was not only a valuable therapeutic exercise for him, but also a conspicuous artistic (and commercial) success. The straight unvarnished nonfiction autobiography which he began shortly after concluding the fictional one may have been less rewarding financially, but it continued the vital process of remembering and rendering the seminal events of his life.
Clearly, in one sense Sassoon was writing not only to inform a new generation of what he and his had endured, but also for himself, plumbing the depths and fundaments of memory and flexing the muscles of prose writing. Of course, he continued to write poetry, could even proclaim that it was better than that of his younger self, but it would seem that his dominant energies were directed towards prose.
And certainly, insofar as he is included in the canon of English poetry (he is nowhere to be found in Harold Bloom's forthcoming anthology "The Best Poems of the English Language"), it is for his war poems, though even in this sphere he is less remembered than his deceased comrades Isaac Rosenberg, Edward Thomas, and Wilfred Owen (who are to be found chez Mr. Bloom).
The trouble with Sassoon as a poet is that, despite his technical accomplishments and undoubted sensitivity to the refinements of diction, he lacks that necessary spark of inspiration, with the result that even after reading the ample selections of his verse in this comprehensive biography, this lover of poetry comes away with little recollection of a line or even a fine phrase. And this, it must be said, is something of an indictment of Siegfried Sassoon's poetry.
If, in a very real sense, the poet transmogrified into a prose writer, so this new volume, rather than being like its predecessor a tale of promise fulfilled (albeit under horrific and unwished-for circumstances), becomes a rather depressing tale of a man looking for something — memoirs, novels, marriage, fatherhood, faith — that will allow him to find peace in his shattered world.
Having been the central man of English war poetry, a great influence on Owen and Robert Graves at the least and in general a facilitator and benefactor of the very poetry that would eventually eclipse his own, it is not surprising that Sassoon had aspirations to similar accomplishments in the postwar literary world.
But despite his close relationship to Thomas Hardy and good relations with such major figures of the time as John Galsworthy and H.G. Wells, he was too opposed to the increasingly dominant Modernist orthodoxy (he loathed and resented T.S. Eliot) to be successful in this regard.
Jean Wilson provides an interesting and nuanced portrait of the shoals and eddies of literary life between the wars, an example of her sure touch in illuminating not only her biographical subject and his particular milieu but also the wider world in which he existed.
With her familial and literary connections to Bloomsbury, this biographer is particularly suited to exploring the complicated nature of Sassoon's homosexuality and her treatment of this subject is not only detailed but also notably intelligent, subtle and sophisticated. She avoids the obvious traps (e.g. psychologizing and patronizing) and is as close to objective as you would want a biographer to be.
The network of Sassoon's connections is a veritable who's who of prominent British homosexuals of his time, including Robert Ross (of Oscar Wilde fame), Cecil Beaton, Beverly Nichols, Stephen Tennant, and T.E. Lawrence. His lovers also include many lesser-known people whom the author demonstrates were of supreme importance to him and his sexual evolution. And she can also surprise the reader: Who would have guessed that a significant lover of the partly Jewish Sassoon's would have been Prince Philip of Hesse, a great-grandson of Queen Victoria and future son-in-law of the King of Italy (who became a figure of some importance in Nazi Germany)?
So it comes as something of a surprise, as the biographer herself admits, when Sassoon marries and fathers a son. The story of his marriage is not a happy one and makes for rather distressing reading on account of his cruel and unfeeling treatment of the hapless Hester. He appears to have made their separation as painful for his wife as their marriage had been for him, a dubious accomplishment.
Certainly, Sassoon is at his most unattractive as a husband, although he does come off somewhat better as a father. Still, it is impressive that his son, George, cooperated with this biography and indeed made it possible by allowing the author to quote from Sassoon's works.
As a Catholic convert, Sassoon achieved some satisfaction and at least some measure of respite from the demons that had tormented him since World War I. In recounting this phase of his life, the author again demonstrates her bona fides, although one wonders if this aspect of the biography was as congenial to her as that concerned with less orthodox areas of Sassoon's wanderings.
And here, as in so many other phases of his life, she is adept at coming up with a trenchant quote from a well-chosen source, in this case Sassoon's fellow convert, the author and diarist James Lees-Milne, who was "irritated by his acceptance of, swallowing of, hook line and sinker the tenets of the Catholic church. When a man who has all his life been a free-thinker becomes in the eve of it a blind accepter of the Church's doctrine, I feel that this signifies weakness, a voluntary surrender of mind to spirit, no, to spiritualism, with a dash of hocus-pocus thrown in."
Siegfried Sassoon has been lucky in his biographer, for she has done both him and his work justice. Yet I wonder if even this fine pair of books will make many people rediscover this poet and his oeuvre. He will always be remembered for what he has told us about World War I, but others have done a better job of making us feel what it was like to endure what he did. In the end this may be key to why he is not as much to the fore as perhaps his talent and certainly his experience entitle him to be.
Martin Rubin is a writer in Pasadena, Calif.
LONDON REVIEW OF BOOKS
History of a
A military man who railed against the great war, a foxhunting champion who cherished wildlife, a socialist who was also a terrible snob - Siegfried Sassoon's attitude to most things was complex. Only to be expected of someone with his background, says Ferdinand Mount in our latest LRB essay
Tuesday August 5, 2003
Siegfried Sassoon: The Making of a War Poet 1886-1918 by Jean Moorcroft Wilson. Duckworth, 600 pp., £9.99, September 2002, 0 7156 2894 1
Siegfried Sassoon: The Journey from the Trenches 1918-67 by Jean Moorcroft Wilson. Duckworth, 526 pp., £30, April, 0 7156 2971 9
Sassoon: The Worlds of Philip and Sybil by Peter Stansky. Yale, 295 pp., £25, April, 0 300 09547 3
My father had no gun, or any land to shoot over. So when he decided that it was time for me, then aged 15 or 16, to learn how to shoot, he had to cadge.
We borrowed an old 12-bore from a local farmer, a rickety weapon the lock, stock and barrel of which were barely connected, and my father then asked his neighbour, Siegfried Sassoon, who lived in the next village, whether we could loose off a few cartridges in his woods. They had become friends through a shared interest in steeplechasing, cricket and poetry and also perhaps through a shared experience of war, though my father's had been briefer and much less horrific.
So with Siegfried's blessing for a couple of hours on a misty November afternoon we patrolled the undulating woods that he had planted up behind Heytesbury House when he bought it, flush for the first time after he got married, to the astonishment of his friends, in the mid-1930s - his own late 40s.
Not much wildlife about and we were thinking of heading home when a plump cock pheasant whirred across the ride looking for a spot to roost. I raised the gun, but while I was still fumbling with the safety catch an elderly figure leaped out with startling agility from a bend in the avenue.
He wore a battered felt hat and a bright scarlet scarf thrown round his neck and even at that distance you could see how handsome he still was. He moved towards us, stumbling into a run and waving his hand in agitation. "Please don't shoot, he's so beautiful," he cried, almost at the same moment as my father called back "Hullo Sig."
I had not yet read Memoirs of a Foxhunting Man or I might have been reminded of the narrator describing how as a boy on his second day out hunting he sees a fox run across his path; someone "holloa"s and before he can stop himself he exclaims: "Don't do that, they'll catch him." The narrator tells us later that before he went to France to fight he had "never shot at a bird or an animal in my life" - so his first targets were humans. Sassoon's attitude to blood sports, as to most other things, was not without its complexities.
All I felt at that moment was extreme annoyance at the in-and-out running of the adult world. If he was going to deny me the only decent shot of the day out of reverence for life, why on earth had he let us come at all? I could not be expected then to understand that it was Sassoon's besetting trait to repent of any gesture almost as soon as he had made it, to start wanting to extricate himself from any love affair or other allegiance the moment he had embarked on it. He lived in a haze of dissatisfaction, abnormally sensitive to outside influence but repelled as quickly and violently as he had been attracted.
He asked us to drop in for tea when we had finished, but to come in by the servants' entrance because he was alone in the house and there was no one to answer the front door (again a characteristic carry-on, suggesting both poverty and solitude but also an unshed grandeur - there appeared to be no question of him answering the door himself).
Somehow we ended up in what was clearly the drawing-room, which seemed empty until our eyes focused enough to see the celebrated gaunt hawk's profile outlined against the long window. Thus discovered - I saw from later encounters this was how he liked to be come upon - he pushed a plate of dry cucumber sandwiches at us and began to talk in a shy undertone.
At first I thought this awkwardness was because he was out of practice in company. His wife, Hester, had long since been turfed out and their only son, George, was away and for the moment estranged, too. But this was Sassoon's normal way of talking (his poetry readings at the height of his fame had often been more or less inaudible), and it was no obstacle to a formidable eloquence when he got going.
He talked in a way I had never come across before, without any reserve or hesitation, roaming across all sorts of subjects: verse techniques, the difficulty of finding servants, staying with Max Beerbohm, the Test series, his first meeting with Thomas Hardy, the shortcomings of his wife/son/daughter-in-law, his neglect by the critics - this last a recurring theme. "They don't understand what a talent I have for light verse."
He had no pudeur about expressing his resentments or his enthusiasms. To a casual teenaged visitor his self-centredness was somehow much more sympathetic than it sounds when recorded in cold print. But it was wearing to live with, not least for himself.
Why was Sassoon like this? In the public mind he remained not only one of the most celebrated poets of the great war but also an abiding emblem of courage and protest against the carnage. He remained a legend you were surprised to find still alive, a fact he was not slow to comment on with his habitual self-irony.
And though his later poetry had never been in fashion, the first two of his fictional autobiographies, Memoirs of a Foxhunting Man and Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, became instant minor classics. On rereading Foxhunting Man (1928), I found it a little too innocently nostalgic and sometimes cliched (it was his first prose book), but Infantry Officer (1930) reads as well as ever, crisp, caustic and lyrical.
Some of the set-pieces - his return a year later to the network of trenches where he had first seen such horror and which were now a harmless warren several miles behind the Allied lines, or his watching his company trudging back from the Somme an hour before daybreak - are unsurpassable.
In his Oxford Book of 20th-Century English Verse, Philip Larkin included seven of Sassoon's poems; only Yeats and Hardy had significantly more. True, Larkin's anthology was denounced by Donald Davie and others as a counterblast against modernism. But it can't be denied that Sassoon's war poems share with Kipling's the quality of being conspicuously memorable: the Oxford Dictionary of Modern Quotations includes a dozen of them, mostly in their entirety.
Interest in his life is sharpening. After John Stuart Roberts's compact and readable single volume of 1999, we now have Jean Moorcroft Wilson's double-header, with Max Egremont's somewhat shorter Life expected soon. Sassoon's story has also reached a wider audience through television re-creations and through Pat Barker's novel Regeneration. The image of the gallant officer who sickens of the slaughter and throws the purple ribbon of his Military Cross into the Mersey and who dares - in defiance of all the shibboleths of his class and regiment - to make a public protest against the war remains indelible.
Wilson is at home with all Sassoon's varied milieux: the Edwardian sporting scene, the Georgian poets, the trenches, the high bohemia of the 1930s, Wiltshire in his latter years. There is much about the succession of lovers or near-lovers - Gabriel Atkin, Ivor Novello, Noël Coward, Rex Whistler and above all the unbearable Stephen Tennant with his pearls and tantrums - but these tortuous episodes, in which Sassoon often gave as much hell as he got, are greatly revealing of his dissatisfaction as well as evocative of the period.
Wilson quotes freely from Sassoon's verse, the worst of it as well as the best. Because he was a fairly acute critic of his own poetry, his two Collected Poems (1947 and 1961) exclude most of his more awful pre- and post-great war poems, and you need Wilson's guiding hand to see that the conventional judgment is the correct one: that virtually all his good poems were written between 1914 and 1918 and a couple of years after.
The only partial exception may be the religious verse he wrote in the last few years of his life, after converting to Roman Catholicism. Unfortunately, he was by then well into his 70s and too old to enjoy a second blooming such as that of his friend and hero Hardy. But there were in those last verses signs of a renewed crispness both in thought and prosody.
"Always keep your eye on the object when you write," his uncle the sculptor Hamo Thornycroft advised him. Sassoon himself wrote to Edward Carpenter (one of his many gurus on a variety of subjects, in this case how to live a free life as a homosexual): "I'm one of those people who can only learn things by coming into the closest possible contact with them."
He was well aware that he lacked intellectual power and was inclined to wander off in a moony reverie, with fatal effects on the verse that poured out as a result. It is too easy to blame the faded sentimentality of his worst stuff on the Georgians, to whom he attached himself through the early influence of Eddie Marsh and Edmund Gosse (correspondingly they did not much care for the raw tone of his war poetry). But it was Sassoon's own inclination to look back to lost worlds and the happy days of his youth that kept him so stubbornly hostile to TS Eliot and to Modernism in general.
Yet in reality his youth was by no means untroubled. The Sassoons were descended from the great Jewish merchants of Baghdad. Siegfried's great-great-grandfather Sasson Ben Saleh was the last Prince of the Captivity at the Caliph's court, and before moving to England the family had been the leading merchants in Bombay, where their great charitable monuments still stand.
But Siegfried's father, Alfred, had been disowned by his mother when he insisted on marrying a gentile, Theresa Thornycroft, herself a sculptor and member of a robust clan of sculptors and engineers (her father Thomas founded the firm which eventually became Vosper Thornycroft, virtually the last surviving British shipbuilders).
Old Mrs Sassoon rushed straight to the synagogue to curse any children that might be born of this unholy union. She even declared her son officially dead, saying the funeral prayers for him and sitting the official period of mourning. These tactics proved quite effective. Alfred, an idler interested mostly in cricket and the violin, soon wearied of his devout and down-to-earth wife and drifted off to a studio in Pembroke Gardens with a shadowy mistress, before succumbing to galloping consumption in Eastbourne at the age of 34, leaving Theresa with three sons to bring up.
The middle one, Siegfried, was to remain abnormally dependent on her for the rest of her long life. For his own first 40 years he had no permanent home other than Weirleigh, a hideous high-gabled house on the Kentish Weald. Until the war came - and he was already 28 - he had no occupation to speak of.
After dropping out of Cambridge, he led a life of more strenuous sloth than his father, foxhunting in the winter, playing cricket through the summer, and concentrating on golf in the spring and autumn, lodging mostly with hearty friends who, in his own view, satisfied the sturdy Thornycroft half of his nature while his sensitive "oriental" half was nourished by the poet's life that his mother had mapped out for him.
Wilson underplays Sassoon's sporting skills. He won several steeplechases. He was a high-class club all-rounder at cricket. At golf, Wilson describes him as a "reasonably good player", but his handicap of six makes him superior to other obsessive literary golfers such as PG Wodehouse and Ian Fleming, and only a little inferior to Malcolm Lowry and Patrick Hamilton, who were golfers as well as drinkers of championship class.
This devotion to sport went with a declared aversion to women and, at this stage, to sex in any form. He told Carpenter in 1911 that he was "still unspotted", and so he seems to have remained until after the war, when he began to make up for lost time. Yet he always had a certain naivety about this side of life as about others and continued to regard his sexuality as something of a burden - "trouble down there", as he would say.
Certainly, the enthusiasm with which he joined up in 1914 was largely indistinguishable from Rupert Brooke's "swimmers into cleanness leaping", and just as naive. In Absolution he wrote:
War is our
scourge; yet war has made us wise,
And fighting for our freedom, we are free...
We are the happy legion, for we know
Time's but a golden wind that shakes the grass.
Because of a riding accident and a change of regiment it was some time before he saw action and he maintained his happy warrior outlook for at least 18 months. He was in the army from the day war broke out to the day it ended but, Wilson points out, he spent in total barely a month in the front line - though he saw some of the fiercest fighting and probably deserved a bar to his MC.
War seemed to sharpen his reflexes. He developed an adoration for his men and admired their cheerful stoicism as much as their shining faces and white bodies - although, as Wilson reminds us, he was never to take a working-class lover. His powers of observation seemed to sharpen, too. Some of the descriptions in his war diaries are among the best things he ever wrote:
As I sit in the sun in a nook among the sandbags and chalky debris, with shells flying overhead in the blue air, a lark sings high up, and a little weasel comes and runs past me within a foot of my outstretched foot, looking at me with tiny bright eyes. Bullets sing and whistle and hum; so do bits of shell; rifles crack; some small guns and trench-mortars pop and thud; big shells burst with a massive explosion, and the voluminous echoes roll along the valleys, to fade nobly and without haste or consternation.
This passage, like many in his diaries, is reproduced with little alteration in the fictional memoirs. Several such passages - turned into verse with minimal changes - also find their way into some of his most memorable war poems, such as Died of Wounds. In the same way, the daily experience of stumbling along trenches and treading on corpses - and the deaths of his younger brother Hamo at Gallipoli and his beloved "poor Tommy", his fellow Welch Fusilier David Thomas - nourished his Homeric rage, which, in a uniquely Sassoonian way, led him to take the whole burden of war on himself as a kind of cosmic personal insult:
I want to smash someone's skull; I want to have a scrap and get out of the war for a bit or for ever. Sitting in a trench waiting for a rifle grenade isn't fighting: war is clambering out of the top trench at 3 o'clock in the morning with a lot of rum-drugged soldiers who don't know where they are going - half of them to be blasted with machine-guns at point-blank range - trying to get over the wire which our artillery have failed to destroy. I can't get my own back for Hamo and Tommy that way. While I am really angry with the enemy, as I am lately, I must work it off, as these things don't last long with me as a rule. If I get shot it will be rotten for some people at home, but I am bound to get it in the neck sometime, so why not make a creditable show, and let people see that poets can fight as well as anybody else? And death is the best adventure of all.
This was how the legend of "mad Jack" was born. He claimed that he thoroughly enjoyed crawling into no-man's-land, bombing Germans out of their trenches and craters and lugging home injured comrades. And it was that rage, too, that gave the biting edge to his best war poems, an edge which has not gone blunt in poems such as Blighters, The One-Legged Man, Base Details and The General. This summer, I found it greatly moving to hear him reading in that unobtrusive voice Died of Wounds, on a recording retrieved from the British Library archive:
The ward grew
dark; but he was still complaining
And calling out for 'Dickie'. 'Curse the wood!
It's time to go, O Christ, and what's the good?
We'll never take it, and it's always raining.'
His protest against the war was egged on by the new pacifist friends he had made on his excursions to Garsington - notably Bertrand Russell and the Morrells, not to mention Robbie Ross, as loyal and wise a friend to Sassoon as he had been to Oscar Wilde. But he made it in his own way, and when he had made it, he characteristically refused to pursue it in the way they wanted, by doing "something else outrageous", to use Lady Ottoline's phrase.
On the contrary, with apparent meekness he agreed to be classified as unfit and sent to Craiglockhart hospital, where he had his famous meetings with Owen and with the man who was to be his new guru, the psychiatrist WHR Rivers. Wilson describes Rivers as having persuaded Sassoon to return to the fighting. I wonder how much persuading he needed. When he was sent to Egypt, where there was much less chance of being killed, he badgered Marsh and others to get him sent back to France. Back in the front line, he resumed his nightly forays with the same heedless ferocity, until he was finally sent home with a head wound in July 1918.
What remains so impressive is not simply his courage but his determination to play things his own way. In war this may be glorious; in peace it was to be a more ambiguous quality. After the Armistice he became for a time an enthusiastic socialist. His most famous poem, Everyone Sang, which he claimed had just floated into his head as though from nowhere, was not just about the end of the war but about the social revolution he believed to be at hand in 1919, which as Wilson points out might have made the poem rather less popular if it had been generally known. He worked for George Lansbury's Daily Herald and went to speak at Blackburn on behalf of Philip Snowden.
These political enthusiasms soon began to fade, and by the time he had inherited money - when his Aunt Rachel eventually died of the syphilis her husband had passed on to her - and had married Hester Gatty, who herself had a considerable private income, he embarked on the purchase of Heytesbury House with its 17 bedrooms, for which he found he needed no fewer than 17 servants.
He treated Hester in much the same manner as he had treated his string of male lovers, beginning to complain of their shortcomings almost before he had finished hymning the raptures of true love which he claimed to be experiencing for the first time. He abruptly dismissed her from the house when her demands for attention began to impinge on him, although he never lost touch with her, or bothered to divorce her. He had his ups and downs, too, with his son George, whose wife, he complained, was too humbly born (the snobbish streak was always near the surface), later saying that on the contrary he was not worthy of her. At the same time, he remained as generous as he always had been, handing out large sums at unpredictable moments (for example, to his old wartime friend Robert Graves, but only after they had ceased to be real friends).
Sassoon was a great self-fashioner. He was also intensely self-aware, open-hearted (though capable of mean-spiritedness), restless, prickly, brave, idealistic, never content, eternally tussling with what he himself liked to identify as his contradictions, born of his double nature. (To the end of his life he liked to be known in the village as Captain Sassoon.)
Some of these qualities he came to attribute to the Jewish half of his ancestry. Yet for the most part this was something he seemed only intermittently aware of, talking in an offhand way of his "oriental" side. Many people, including my father, who thought they knew him (or indeed other Sassoons) tolerably well continued to believe that they were Parsees and would occasionally refer to their supposed belief in reincarnation or their habit of roasting their widows. Sassoon seems to have been negligent about correcting this error. The same was less true of his cousin Philip Sassoon, although he, too, was ambivalent about his (full) Jewishness.
It may seem odd that the two second cousins never really got to know one another. Philip was only two years younger than Siegfried. They were both essentially homosexual, they shared a passionate interest in the arts (except in literature, where Philip was something of a middlebrow, having a weakness for the company of popular female novelists), and they had many friends in common: the Sitwells, Lord Berners, Rex Whistler, TE Lawrence. Yet they didn't meet until they were approaching their 40s, and no friendship came of it. Partly this was because they were both conscious of Alfred's excommunication from the family, which had relegated Siegfried to the ranks of the (relatively) "poor Sassoons" until his Aunt Rachel's death. Partly it was because of politics.
From the age of 24 until his death aged 51 in 1939, Philip was Conservative MP for Hythe, a seat he inherited from his father along with his baronetcy and a huge fortune. From 1915 until 1919 he was private secretary in France to the commander-in-chief, Sir Douglas Haig, and thus belonged with Siegfried's "scarlet majors at the base" (the scarlet referring to the red tabs of the general staff as much as to the colour of their faces), though he was anything but "fierce and bald and short of breath", being slender, elegant and exaggeratedly polite.
Other members of the Georgian establishment might acclaim Siegfried as the voice of his generation - as early as 1918, the Asquiths had him to lunch, despite his recent protest against the war; Winston Churchill went around reciting his war poems and even tried to reconvert him to militarism - but Philip, intensely hospitable though he was, made no overtures and went on pretending that their kinship was rather distant.
The one time they met properly, at dinner with Osbert Sitwell, Philip told Sitwell how bad The Old Huntsman was, while Siegfried told him how jealous Philip was of his literary fame. During the general strike, Siegfried enjoyed contemplating the possibility that the strikers might burn down Philip's enormous house in Park Lane, although typically he turned against the idea when it occurred to him that they might then go on to incinerate his beloved Reform Club.
Peter Stansky has written a double biography of Philip and his sister Sybil, who married the Marquess of Cholmondeley and brought her own great art collection to fill a few of the gaps at his house at Houghton left by the sale of Sir Robert Walpole's collection to Catherine the Great. It is a beguiling book, superbly illustrated but handicapped by a shortage of first-rate sources. Philip was a prolific letter-writer, but he wrote, often in his official capacities, to amuse, flatter and appease, not to reveal much about himself. As a Tory MP, he remained utterly discreet about his personal attachments. Stansky can tell us little more than that he became very fond of the young airmen who piloted him as Under-Secretary for Air and once bought the boots of a particular favourite who had been killed in a flying accident.
As a politician, Sassoon was conscientious in the extreme but not much of a speaker. His fluting, foreign-sounding cadences did not go down well. He entertained PM after PM at his two country palaces, Trent Park in Hertfordshire and Port Lympne in Kent (recently famous again as the site of the perilous zoo run by the late John Aspinall, the grand croupier). But promotion never came. His natural melancholy deepened, relieved only by the affection and charm of his sister Sybil, who was more fulfilled in bringing up a family and restoring Houghton to its former splendour. Stansky does his best to convince us of Philip's political importance but succeeds only in persuading us of his good-heartedness and generosity.
Where Philip does remain memorable is as a figure in the history of taste. Port Lympne, in its dramatic setting overlooking the Channel, can be seen as a landmark in the evolution of the postmodern. Philip originally commissioned Sir Herbert Baker to build an H-shaped house in the Dutch Colonial style. Soon, Elizabethan balustrades were added, later its most memorable feature, a grand triumphal Trojan staircase of Mussolini or Cecil B De Mille proportions, from the top of which you could see France on a clear day. Inside, there was a Moorish courtyard, marble everywhere and extravagant murals by José María Sert, "the Tiepolo of the Ritz".
Philip was fully aware of the high camp nature of the whole enterprise and said of one particularly ghastly bathroom panelled in brown and black zigzags of marble, "It takes you by the throat and shakes you." He delighted in monstrous armies of blue delphiniums, and sickening swirls of herbaceous borders. He was delighted, too, when he heard a guide telling a party of visitors, "It's all in the old-world style but every bit of it sham."
Into this architectural and horticultural farrago he enticed an endless procession of celebrities: Charlie Chaplin, Louis Mountbatten, the boxer Georges Carpentier, Wallis Simpson, Haig, Lytton Strachey, Churchill, Neville Chamberlain, Noël Coward, TE Lawrence, who signed the visitors' book "338171 A/C Shaw" (though it was not at Port Lympne but in a letter that Coward asked him: "May I call you 338?"). The glimmerings of modern celebrity culture were first seen at Port Lympne. Almost everyone who met Philip Sassoon here or elsewhere described him as strange, unknowable and, ah, oriental - except for Virginia Woolf, who characteristically called him "an underbred Whitechapel Jew". To bring out the anti-semitism of the English haute bourgeoisie, all you needed to do was ask them for the weekend.
In his opening chapters I began to think that Peter Stansky was making too much of his subject's awkward position as an outsider in British life. He had, after all, swanned through Eton and Christ Church and into the House of Commons by way of the general staff. By the end I thought that Stansky was right and that there was something very isolated about the slender figure standing at the top of those enormous steps looking out to France. Perhaps he should have got to know his cousin better.
· Ferdinand Mount's most recent novel is Fairness, published in 2001. He is a columnist for the Sunday Times and a former editor of the TLS.
Jean Moorcroft Wilson recently discovered a previously unpublished poem by Siegfried Sassoon. Its gung-ho account of heroism challenges our perceptions of the pacifist stance of the war poets
Saturday November 13, 2004
While Armistice day crowds celebrated Britain's final victory over Germany in November 1918, Siegfried Sassoon brooded alone in the Oxfordshire countryside. One of the fiercest critics of the conduct of the first world war, though one of its bravest soldiers, he was sickened by what he regarded as "a loathsome ending to the loathsome tragedy of the last four years". Haunted by the grievous price paid in the trenches, that "hell where youth and laughter go", it seemed to him that victory was indistinguishable from defeat, an attitude that one irate military historian dismissed recently as "muddled thinking". Sassoon's reaction was by no means unique, however, and almost a century later the soldier-poets who were critical of that war have become for many people more convincing than the official historians.
But have writers, particularly poets, distorted the truth about the first world war? This question was put to me in a radio debate that centred on the claim that the war was completely "necessary" and one full of "substantial" victories, but that these remarkable achievements had been obscured in the public consciousness by the notion of the unrelieved horror, disillusionment and futility promoted by war-literature writers.
The programme marked the anniversary of the outbreak of war in August 1914, but with the approach of another Armistice day and in the shadow of Britain's continuing engagement in Iraq, the question seems, if anything, even more pertinent. For it is based on the assumption that the "truth" about war is limited to its military outcomes. It also relies heavily on stereotypes of the first world war poets.
In fact, as the most cursory reading of these poets shows, it is impossible to make such generalisations. This was brought home to me forcefully not long ago by the discovery of an unpublished war poem by Sassoon. Buried among a mass of his papers in a Texas university, it contradicts assumptions often made about his "anti-war" stance:
are going from
our wonted places
To be task-ridden by one shattering Aim,
And terror hides in all our laughing faces
That had no will to die, no thirst for fame,
Hear our last word. In Hell we seek for Heaven;
The agony of wounds shall make us clean;
And the failures of our sloth shall be forgiven
When Silence holds the songs that might have been,
And what we served remains, superb, unshaken,
England, our June of blossom that shines above
Disastrous War; for whom we have forsaken
Ways that were rich and gleeful and filled with love.
Thus are we heroes; since we might not choose
To live where Honour gave us life to lose.
It is hard to believe this is the same Sassoon who wrote the deeply ironic lines "Does it matter? - losing your legs? ... / For people will always be kind", the poet whose original ending to his blistering satire on "The General" read "But he murdered them both by his plan of attack". His unpublished poem is a significant work because it demonstrates not only the dangers of generalisation but also how timing played a crucial role in writers' attitudes towards the war. It is quite clear from both its style and content that Sassoon's poem, for example, was written before he witnessed the reality of trench-life for himself at the end of 1915, while he was still able to believe that "the agony of wounds" would "make us clean". The similarity of phrasing to another of his rare gung-ho poems, "Absolution", suggests that its composition can be narrowed down to a period between April and September 1915.
A note Sassoon added to what he later called his "too nobly worded" "Absolution" states that "People used to feel like this when they 'joined up' in 1914 and 1915". And for the majority of war-poets, even those now labelled "anti-war", this holds true. The unmistakeable echoes of Rupert Brooke in these early war poems of Sassoon are no coincidence, for it is Brooke who epitomises the initial patriotic fervour, notably in his opening lines to "The Soldier":
If I should
die, think only this of me:
That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England ...
Brooke died before the full cost of the war had been realised and there is little doubt that, had he lived to witness its later stages, his poetry would have changed. A poet capable of writing (in "The Dead") "These hearts were woven of human joys and cares, / Washed marvellously with sorrow", would surely have written as compassionately as Wilfred Owen, Sassoon and others of the toll war exacted in the trenches.
Many critics have located a distinct change in attitude after the battle of the Somme in July 1916, when 60,000 British soldiers died on the first day alone. A careful reading of the poetry itself, however, indicates that a shift in consciousness started even earlier and was more continuous. Sassoon, for instance, wrote his first description of the suffering and dangers of trench-life in "The Redeemer" in December 1915.
The verse which now seems most convincing from the period following Brooke's death in mid-1915, and increasingly in 1916 and 1917, is more critical, often angrier in tone. And it is not just represented by Sassoon, but by equally well-known poets such as Owen and Robert Graves. Nevertheless, when examples are needed, they are usually taken from Sassoon, whose bitter little satires attacking the indifference or unawareness of civilians ("Blighters"), hypocrisy of churchmen and journalists ("They", "Fight to a Finish") and cynicism of profiteers and politicians ("The Tombstone Maker", "Arms and the Man") are hard to refute.
A further shift in consciousness has been identified towards the end of the war, that of compassion or pity. Though this can be detected in the work of all the greatest war poets, it is epitomised by Owen. He himself coined the phrase "the pity of war" in "Strange Meeting", which describes an encounter after death between an English soldier and the enemy he has killed. It is the German who sums up the tragic waste of life and potential on both sides:
For by my glee might many men have laughed,
And of my weeping something had been left,
Which must die now. I mean the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled.
Finally, it is possible to isolate a body of post-Armistice war poetry in which, according to Jon Silkin, "the anger and compassion are merged, with extreme intelligence, into an active desire for change". (Since many of the war poets had died by November 1918 this is, not surprisingly, a much smaller group.) Edmund Blunden, for example, after detailing the devastations of war in "Report on Experience" and arguing that God has witnessed it all, concludes with muted optimism:
disillusions are His curious proving
That He loves humanity and will go on loving;
Over there are faith, life, virtue in the sun.
Sassoon, less ambiguously, begs his reader in "Aftermath" (written March 1919) to "swear by the green of the spring that you'll never forget". Few are as sanguine as the future headmaster of Rugby, PHB Lyons, who resolves to "build a city of peace on the wastes of war".
What emerges from this attempt to characterise the different phases of war poetry, however, is that some of the best, certainly some of the most interesting, poets defy even the broadest and most tentative of schemes. Isaac Rosenberg, for example, began by believing, like Brooke, that war was a potentially cleansing force: "O! ancient crimson curse! / Corrode, consume. / Give back this universe / Its pristine bloom", he wrote in August 1914. But the work he produced between joining the army in late 1915 and his death on April Fool's Day 1918 lacks any suggestion of patriotism: "I never joined the army for patriotic reasons", he wrote to Brooke's close friend, Edward Marsh, from his training depot, freely admitting that money as well as a resigned sense of duty had entered into his decision. And his poetry conveys the horror of the trenches more powerfully than any other verse of the period. "Dead Man's Dump", for instance, while displaying great compassion, is unflinchingly realistic and certainly no distortion of the truth:
brains splattered on
A stretcher-bearer's face;
His shook shoulders slipped their load,
But when they bent to look again
The drowning soul was sunk too deep
For human tenderness.
Charles Hamilton Sorley, a clear-sighted young Scot, also enlisted from a sense of duty rather than patriotism and was critical of the war from the start. His last and finest poem, found in his kit-bag after his death in October 1915, is a conscious rebuttal of Brooke's attitude, which he dismissed as "sentimental":
see millions of the mouthless dead
Across your dreams in pale battalions go,
Say not soft things as other men have said,
That you'll remember. For you need not so.
Give them not praise. For, deaf, how should they know
It is not curses heaped on each gashed head?
Nor tears. Their blind eyes see not your tears flow.
Nor honour. It is easy to be dead ...
Richard Aldington is another such exception. Sharing Sorley's intellectual detachment, and also his sense of duty, he was referring as early as March 2 1915 to "this filthy and disastrous war" as a "sordid commercial squabble" and by May 1915 his poetry reveals him "tormented, / Obsessed, ... /With a vision of ruins, / Of walls crumbling into clay".
Yet in spite of their differing developments, the war-poets as a body offer us insights about the first world war absent from most history books. Shelley's "unacknowledged legislators" of man-kind, they point to truths beyond the facts of military victories or defeats. "Was it nearer the soul of war to adjust armies in coloured inks on vast maps at Montreuil or Whitehall", Blunden asked, "than to rub knees with some poor jaw-dropped resting sentry, under the dripping rubber sheet, balanced on the greasy firestep ...?"
Matej Bor, the Yugoslav poet, playwright and novelist, goes further, arguing that "the writer is the conscience of the world" and has a duty to tell the truth as he or she sees it. For several first world war poets this means denying the party line and resisting the desire to offer easy comfort. Osbert Sitwell, for instance, confronts the dilemma in "Rhapsode" in September 1917. While appreciating the public's hope of hearing that their loved ones "found happiness in fighting", or that they "died with a song on their lips", he is nevertheless determined to avoid the "old familiar phrases" served up to them by a compliant press, concluding:
But we are
And shall tell the truth.
Owen, writing from first-hand experience of both the trenches and shell-shock in "Mental Cases", conveys a reality beyond the dry statistics: far from distorting the truth about the first world war, such a "sensuous re-enactment" (Silkin's phrase) is essential to a full understanding of its implications:
- These are
men whose minds the Dead have ravished.
Memory fingers in their hair of murders,
Multitudinous murders they once witnessed.
Wading sloughs of flesh these helpless wander,
Treading blood from lungs that had loved laughter.
Always they must see these things and hear them,
Batter of guns and shatter of flying muscles,
Carnage incomparable, and human squander
Rucked too thick for these men's extrication.
Through metaphors of rape, murder, entrapment and waste (among others) and a highly controlled rhetoric, Owen vividly recreates one horrific effect of the war. It was a truth rarely, if ever, reported in the heavily censored press of the time and seldom included with such force in the history books that followed. In other equally powerful poems Owen resorts to myth, in an attempt to convey the cosmic significance of what he is witnessing, like many of his fellow poets. Rosenberg, emulating one of his earliest and greatest models, Blake, begins to shape his own mythology, as does David Jones.
The war poets' direct appeal to the emotions and imagination has left them open to the charge of being "limitingly subjective". Indeed one of the greatest poets of the age, Yeats, argued that "passive suffering is not a theme for poetry" and, when asked for a contribution in 1915, replied "I think it better that in times like these / A poet's mouth be silent". Later on he would famously refuse to include Owen's verse in his edition of the Oxford Book of Modern Verse (1936), dismissing it as "all blood and dirt and sucked sugar-stick".
It is only when the war-poet is able to give his work a universal significance, as Ian Parsons has argued, to relate it to "the eternal verities, not merely to the here and now of existence", that these charges can be met. Poetry has, after all, dealt from time immemorial with the themes that dominate war poetry - death, faith, suffering, love, loyalty, futility, even, at times, happiness. Owen's hypnotic ending to "Insensibility", for instance, goes beyond individual concerns to something much larger when he writes of:
and whatever moans in man
Before the last sea and the hapless stars;
Whatever mourns when many leave these shores;
The eternal reciprocity of tears.
It is this ability to universalise that distinguishes the best poetry from the mediocre or banal. It also helps to explain why some poets who were immensely popular at the time have now been forgotten. There are many of them, for poetry was in greater demand between 1914 and 1918 than at almost any period before or since, certainly than during any other war. Not only did newspapers and periodicals regularly feature it, but the sales of individual poets rocketed. Brooke's 1914 and Other Poems ran through 25 impressions between May 1915 and October 1918. Though undoubtedly helped by his blond good looks, his early death and Winston Churchill's public eulogy, he was by no means the only poet to achieve such popularity. John Oxenham's intensely jingoistic All's Well! (1915), for instance, sold more than 175,000 copies and his "Hymn for the Men at the Front" seven million during the war itself.
Poetry was also being more widely written, especially among soldiers. As Blunden observed from his own experience at the front, Britain was "not after all a nation of shopkeepers but of poets". The results may vary but the impulse to write it down is the same. Ivor Gurney, a musician who served as a private in the Gloucester Regiment, looking back on the war from the mental hospital in which he spent the last 15 years of his life, wrote in "War Books":
What did they expect of our toil and extreme
Hunger - the perfect drawing of a heart's dream?
Did they look for a book of wrought art's perfection?
Out of the heart's sickness the spirit wrote ...
It is partly because war poetry was often written under extreme circumstances and frequently lacked the tranquillity of "wrought art's perfection" that it has come to be regarded as a more convincing representation than most historical accounts. When Rosenberg writes, from his personal experience of driving carts loaded with barbed wire up to the line, that "the wheels lurched over sprawled dead", his verse carries an authenticity lacking in, say Tennyson's "Charge of the Light Brigade", composed in the comfort of his study. First world war poetry, if not written on the battlefield itself, was generally committed to paper shortly afterwards. And for the first time in history, war was being fought not by professional soldiers only but by a large body of volunteers and conscripts, some of whom were already poets.
The most powerful weapon these writers have at their command is poetry's ability to distil experience; it captures the essence of war as nothing else can. Sorley's "pale battalions", Sassoon's "unreturning army that was youth", Rosenberg's "half-used life" or Owen's question from "Futility", "Was it for this the clay grew tall?" convey a truth about the war in unforgettable words. So that after all the military histories, newspaper articles and grand memorials have been forgotten, the poets' lines come back to haunt us.
Siegfried Sassoon: the making of a War Poet and Siegfried Sassoon: the Journey from the Trenches by Jean Moorcroft Wilson are published by Gerald Duckworth at £10.99 each.
On the new biography, by Max Egremont, check here
MEDITAÇÃO DO SOLDADO CONVALESCENTE
Quando durmo, sonhando,
agasalhado e em paz,
"Quando é que irás unir-te
a eles novamente?
Tradução de ABGAR RENAULT
I found him in the guard-room at the Base.
Lo trovai nel corpo di guardia alla Base.
[Da Counter-Attack and Other Poems, 1918, traduzione italiana di F. Zuliani]
Does it matter?—losing your
Does it matter ?—losing your
Do they matter?—those dreams
from the pit?...
Have you forgotten yet?...
You love us when we're
heroes, home on leave,
heard the farm cocks crowing, loud, and faint, and thin,
Soldiers are citizens of
death's gray land,
At dawn the ridge emerges massed and dun
In the wild purple of the glow'ring sun,
Smouldering through spouts of drifting smoke that shroud
The menacing scarred slope; and, one by one,
Tanks creep and topple forward to the wire.
The barrage roars and lifts. Then, clumsily bowed
With bombs and guns and shovels and battle-gear,
Men jostle and climb to, meet the bristling fire.
Lines of grey, muttering faces, masked with fear,
They leave their trenches, going over the top,
While time ticks blank and busy on their wrists,
And hope, with furtive eyes and grappling fists,
Flounders in mud. O Jesus, make it stop!
“Collected Poems (1918)