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Siegfried Sassoon

Siegfried Sassoon, 1916
Born 8 September 1886(1886-09-08)
Matfield, Kent, England
Died 1 September 1967 (aged 80)
Heytesbury, Wiltshire
Occupation Poet, Diarist, Memoirist
Nationality British
Period Early 20th century
Genres Poetry, Fiction, Biography
Notable work(s) The Complete Memoirs of George Sherston

Siegfried Loraine Sassoon, CBE, MC (8 September 1886 – 1 September 1967) was an English poet and author. He became known as a writer of satirical anti-war verse during World War I. He later won acclaim for his prose work, notably his three-volume fictionalised autobiography, collectively known as the "Sherston Trilogy".

Contents

Early life and education

Siegfried Sassoon was born at Weirleigh hospital (which still stands) in Matfield, Kent, to a Jewish father and an Anglo-Catholic mother. His father, Alfred Ezra Sassoon (1861-1895) (son of Sassoon David Sassoon), came from the wealthy Indian Baghdadi Jewish Sassoon merchant family but was disinherited for marrying outside the faith. His mother, Theresa, 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 ancestry in Sassoon'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.

He was the second of three sons, the others being Michael and Hamo (named after his uncle). When Sassoon was four years old, his parents split up. His father would visit the boys weekly at their family home, but Theresa would lock herself in the drawing room, still deeply upset by the situation.

In 1894 Alfred Sassoon died of tuberculosis, leaving Sassoon devastated.

Sassoon was educated at The New Beacon Preparatory School, Kent, Marlborough College in Wiltshire (at Cotton House, Marlborough College), and at Clare College, Cambridge, (of which he was made an honorary fellow in 1953) 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 The Everlasting Mercy by John Masefield, published in 1913 under the pseudonym of "Saul Kain". Robert Graves, in his autobiography, describes this as a "parody of Masefield which, midway through, had forgotten to be a parody and turned into rather good Masefield."

War service

Siegfried Sassoon (May 1915)
by George Charles Beresford

Motivated by patriotism, Sassoon joined the British Army just as the threat of World War I was realised and was in service with the Sussex Yeomanry on the day the United Kingdom declared war (4 August 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. At around this time his younger brother Hamo was killed in the Gallipoli Campaign[1] (Rupert Brooke, whom Siegfried had briefly met, died on the way there); Hamo's death hit Siegfried very hard. He was commissioned into 3rd Battalion (Special Reserve), Royal Welch Fusiliers as a second lieutenant on 29 May 1915,[2] and in November, he was sent to the 1st 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 exceptionally 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 near-suicidal exploits. On 27 July 1916 he was awarded the Military Cross; the citation read:

2nd Lt. Siegfried Lorraine [sic] Sassoon, 3rd (attd. 1st) Bn., R. W. Fus.

For conspicuous gallantry during a raid on the enemy's trenches. He remained for 1½ hours under rifle and bomb fire collecting and bringing in our wounded. Owing to his courage and determination all the killed and wounded were brought in.[3]

He was also (unsuccessfully) recommended for the Victoria Cross for the capture of the German trench.[4]

Despite his decoration and reputation, 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). He would spend years trying to overcome his grief.

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, often titled Finished with the War: A Soldier’s Declaration. Forwarded to the press and read out in Parliament by a sympathetic MP, the letter was seen by some as treasonous ("I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority") or at best condemnatory of the war government's motives ("I believe that the war upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation has now become a war of agression and conquest"). Rather than court-martial Sassoon, the Under-Secretary of State for War, Ian Macpherson decided that he was unfit for service and had him sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital near Edinburgh, where he was officially treated for neurasthenia ("shell shock").[4] Before declining to return to active service he had thrown the ribbon from his Military Cross into the river Mersey.

The novel Regeneration, by Pat Barker, is a fictionalised account of this period in Sassoon's life, and was made into a film starring James Wilby as Sassoon and Jonathan Pryce as W. H. R. Rivers, the psychiatrist responsible for Sassoon's treatment. 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, a fellow poet who would eventually 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 and is currently on display at London's Imperial War Museum. To all intents and purposes, Sassoon became to Owen "Keats and Christ and Elijah"; surviving documents demonstrate clearly 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, despite all this, was promoted to lieutenant, and having spent some time out of danger in Palestine, eventually returned to the Front and was almost immediately wounded again—by friendly fire, but this time in the head—and spent the remainder of the war in Britain. By this time he had been promoted acting captain. He relinquished his commission on health grounds on 12 March 1919, but was allowed to retain the rank of captain.[5] 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.

Post-war

Green plaque on the site of Sassoon's former home in Tufton Street, Westminster, London

The war had brought Sassoon into contact with men from less advantaged backgrounds, 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. His artistic interests extended to music. While at Oxford he was introduced to the young William Walton, whose friend and patron he became. Walton later dedicated his Portsmouth Point overture to Sassoon in recognition of his financial assistance and moral support.

Sassoon later embarked on a lecture tour of the USA, as well as travelling in Europe and throughout Britain. He acquired a car, a gift from the publisher Frankie Schuster, and became renowned among his friends for his lack of driving skill, but this did not prevent him making full use of the mobility it gave him.

Meanwhile, he was beginning to practise his homosexuality more openly, embarking on an affair with artist Gabriel Atkin, to whom he had been introduced by mutual friends. During his US tour, he met a young actor who treated him callously. Nevertheless, he was adored by female audiences, including one at Vassar College.

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. While in America, he had experimented with a novel. 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. The book won the 1928 James Tait Black Award for fiction. Sassoon 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.

Siegfried Sassoon's gravestone in Mells churchyard

Sassoon, having matured greatly as a result of his military service, continued to seek emotional fulfillment, 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 an effete aristocrat, the Hon. Stephen Tennant.[6] Only the last of these made a permanent impression, though Shaw remained his close friend throughout his life. In December 1933, to many people's surprise, Sassoon married Hester Gatty, who was many years his junior; this led to the birth of a child, something which he had long craved. This child, their only child, George (1936-2006) became a noted scientist, linguist and author, and was adored by Siegfried, who wrote several poems addressed to him. However, the marriage broke down after World War II, Sassoon apparently unable to find a compromise between the solitude he enjoyed and the companionship he craved.

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. One of his closest friends was the young cricketer Dennis Silk. He formed a close friendship with Vivien Hancock, headmistress of Greenways School at Ashton Gifford, which his son George attended. The relationship provoked Hester to make some strong accusations against Vivien Hancock, who responded with the threat of legal action.[7] Sassoon was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire in the 1951 New Year Honours.[8] Towards the end of his life, he 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. During this time he also became interested in the supernatural, and joined the Ghost Club.

He died seven days before his 81st birthday of stomach cancer, and is buried at St Andrew's Church, Mells, Somerset, close to Ronald Knox, a Roman Catholic priest and writer whom he admired.

Legacy

On 11 November 1985, Sassoon was among sixteen Great War poets commemorated on a slate stone unveiled in Westminster Abbey's Poet's Corner[9]. The inscription on the stone was written by friend and fellow War poet Wilfred Owen. It reads: "My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity."[10]

Siegfried Sassoon's only child, George Sassoon, died of cancer in 2006. George had three children, two of whom were killed in a car crash in 1996.

In May 2007 the medal Sassoon threw into the sea turned up in an attic at the house in Mull where his son had lived. The medal has been bought by the Royal Welch Fusiliers for display at their museum in Caernarfon.[11]

In June 2009, the University of Cambridge announced plans to purchase a valuable archive of Sassoon's papers from his family. The intention is to add these to the university library's existing Sassoon collection.[12] On 4 November 2009 it was reported that this purchase would be supported by £550,000 from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, meaning that the University still needed to raise a further £110,000 on top of the monies already received in order to meet the full £1.25 million asking price.[13] The funds were successfully raised, and in December 2009 it was announced that the University had received the papers. Included in the collection are war diaries kept by Sassoon while he served on the Western Front and in Palestine, a draft of "A Soldier’s Declaration" (1917), notebooks from his schooldays, and post-war journals.[14] Other items in the collection include love letters to his wife Hester, and photographs and letters from other writers.[15] Sassoon was an undergraduate at the university, as well as being made an honorary fellow of Clare College, and the collection will be housed at the Cambridge University Library. As well as private individuals, funding came from the Monument Trust, the JP Getty Jr Trust, and Sir Siegmund Warburg's Voluntary Settlement.[16]

Several of Sassoon's poems have been set to music, some during his lifetime, notably by Cyril Rootham.

Poetry

  • The Daffodil Murderer (John Richmond: 1913)
  • The Old Huntsman (Heinemann: 1917)
  • Glory of Women (written: 1917)
  • The General (Denmark Hill Hospital, April 1917)
  • Does it Matter? (written: 1917)
  • Counter-Attack (Heinemann: 1918)
  • Dreamers (written 1918)
  • Suicide in the Trenches (Heinemann: 1918)
  • The Hero [Henry Holt, 1918]
  • Picture-Show (Heinemann: 1919)
  • War Poems (Heinemann: 1919)
  • Aftermath (Heinemann: 1920)
  • 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 (Downside Abbey: 1959)
  • 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)

Prose

Footnotes

  1. ^ "Casualty details—Sassoon, Hamo". Commonwealth War Graves Commission. http://www.cwgc.org/search/casualty_details.aspx?casualty=681993. Retrieved 9 July 2009. 
  2. ^ London Gazette: no. 29175, p. 5115, 28 May 1915. Retrieved on 8 July 2009.
  3. ^ London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 29684, p. 7441, 25 July 1916. Retrieved on 8 July 2009.
  4. ^ a b Hart-Davis, Rupert (2004; online edition, May 2009). "Sassoon, Siegfried Loraine (1886–1967)". in revised (subscription required). Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/35953. http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/35953. Retrieved 9 July 2009. 
  5. ^ London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 31221, p. 3269, 7 March 1919. Retrieved on 9 July 2009.
  6. ^ Gianoulis, Tina (2005), "Sassoon, Siegfried", glbtq.com, http://www.glbtq.com/literature/sassoon_s.html, retrieved 2007-08-29 .
  7. ^ "Siegfried Sassoon: The Journey from the Trenches" J M Wilson
  8. ^ London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 39104, pp. 10–12, 29 December 1950. Retrieved on 9 July 2009.
  9. ^ http://net.lib.byu.edu/english/wwi/poets/poets.html
  10. ^ http://net.lib.byu.edu/english/wwi/poets/Preface.html
  11. ^ "War poet's medal turns up in attic". The Guardian. 2007. http://www.guardian.co.uk/military/story/0,,2076260,00.html. Retrieved 2007-05-10. 
  12. ^ University of Cambridge news
  13. ^ Brown, Mark (4 November 2009). "Siegfried Sassoon archive likely to stay in UK after £550,000 award•Siegfried Sassoon papers attracted interest from US•Cambridge library still short of asking price". The Guardian. http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2009/nov/04/siegfried-sassoon-archive-award-cambridge. Retrieved 4 November 2009. 
  14. ^ Collett-White, Mike (17 December 2009). "Cambridge acquires anti-war poet Sassoon's papers". Reuters. http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSTRE5BH00F20091218?type=artsNews. Retrieved 31 December 2009. 
  15. ^ "Great War poet Siegfried Sassoon's papers saved for the nation". Daily Mail. 18 December 2009. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1236758/Great-War-poet-Siegfried-Sassoons-papers-saved-nation.html#ixzz0bHcOooGW. Retrieved 31 December 2009. 
  16. ^ "War poet Siegfried Sassoon's papers arrive in Cambridge". BBC News. 17 December 2009. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/cambridgeshire/8418787.stm. Retrieved 31 December 2009. 

References

  • Felicitas Corrigan Siegfried Sassoon: Poet's Pilgrimage (1973) ISBN 0-575-01721-X (A collection of Sassoon's diary-entries and correspondence marking his gradual spiritual development towards Roman Catholicism.)
  • Jean Moorcroft Wilson Siegfried Sassoon: The Making of a War Poet (1998) ISBN 0-7156-2822-4
  • Jean Moorcroft Wilson Siegfried Sassoon: The Journey from the Trenches (2003) ISBN 0-7156-2971-9
  • John Stuart Roberts Siegfried Sassoon (1999) ISBN 1-86066-151-3
  • Max Egremont Siegfried Sassoon (2005) ISBN 0-330-37526-1
  • Siegfried's Journal: the journal of the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship [1]

External links

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Quotes

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

Soldiers are citizens of death's grey land,
Drawing no dividend from time's to-morrows.
In the great hour of destiny they stand,
Each with his feuds, and jealousies, and sorrows.

Siegfried Sassoon (September 8, 1886September 1, 1967) was a British poet and writer, most famous for the poems he wrote as a soldier in World War I.

Contents

Sourced

Let no one ever, from henceforth say one word in any way countenancing war.
I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops, and I can no longer be a party to prolong these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust.
I believe that I may help to destroy the callous complacency with which the majority of those at home regard the contrivance of agonies which they do not share, and which they have not sufficient imagination to realize.
  • Let no one ever, from henceforth say one word in any way countenancing war. It is dangerous even to speak of how here and there the individual may gain some hardship of soul by it. For war is hell, and those who institute it are criminals. Were there even anything to say for it, it should not be said; for its spiritual disasters far outweigh any of its advantages.
    • As quoted by Robert Nichols in his introduction to The Counter-Attack and Other Poems (1918)

A Soldier's Declaration (July 1917)

  • I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority, because I believe that the War is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it.
    I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers.
    I believe that this War, on which I entered as a war of defence and liberation, has now become a war of aggression and conquest.
  • I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops, and I can no longer be a party to prolong these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust.
    I am not protesting against the conduct of the war, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed.
    On behalf of those who are suffering now I make this protest against the deception which is being practised on them; also I believe that I may help to destroy the callous complacency with which the majority of those at home regard the contrivance of agonies which they do not share, and which they have not sufficient imagination to realize.

The Counter-Attack and Other Poems (1918)

Poems from Counter-Attack and Other Poems at Wikisource
You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you'll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.
Who will remember, passing through this Gate,
The unheroic Dead who fed the guns?
Well might the Dead who struggled in the slime
Rise and deride this sepulchre of crime.
  • Mute in the clamour of shells he watched them burst
    Spouting dark earth and wire with gusts from hell,
    While posturing giants dissolved in drifts of smoke.

    He crouched and flinched, dizzy with galloping fear,
    Sick for escape,— loathing the strangled horror
    And butchered, frantic gestures of the dead.
  • Lost in a blurred confusion of yells and groans...
    Down, and down, and down, he sank and drowned,
    Bleeding to death. The counter-attack had failed.
    • "Counter-Attack"
  • Soldiers are citizens of death's grey land,
    Drawing no dividend from time's to-morrows.

    In the great hour of destiny they stand,
    Each with his feuds, and jealousies, and sorrows.
  • Soldiers are dreamers; when the guns begin
    They think of firelit homes, clean beds, and wives.
  • "Dreamers"
  • If I were fierce, and bald, and short of breath,
    I'd live with scarlet Majors at the Base,
    And speed glum heroes up the line of death.
  • I'd say — "I used to know his father well;
    Yes, we've lost heavily in this last scrap."
    And when the war is done and youth stone dead
    I'd toddle safely home and die — in bed.
    • "Base Details"
  • You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
    Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
    Sneak home and pray you'll never know
    The hell where youth and laughter go.
  • October's bellowing anger breakes and cleaves
    The bronzed battalions of the stricken wood

    In whose lament I hear a voice that grieves
    For battle's fruitless harvest, and the feud
    Of outrage men. Their lives are like the leaves
    Scattered in flocks of ruin, tossed and blown
    Along the westering furnace flaring red.
    O martyred youth and manhood overthrown,
    The burden of your wrongs is on my head.

Collected Poems (1949)

From the perpetual silence where the grace
Of human sainthood burns
Hastes he once more to harmonise and heal?
I know not. Only I feel
His influence undiminished
And his life’s work, in me and many, unfinished.
Still he comes uncalled to be my guide
In devastated regions
When the brain has lost its bearings in the dark
And broken in it’s body’s pride
In the long campaign to which it had sworn allegiance.
  • Who will remember, passing through this Gate,
    The unheroic Dead who fed the guns?

    Who shall absolve the foulness of their fate, —
    Those doomed, conscripted, unvictorious ones?
    Crudely renewed, the Salient holds its own.
    Paid are its dim defenders by this pomp;
    Paid, with a pile of peace-complacent stone,
    The armies who endured that sullen swamp.
  • Here was the world's worst wound. And here with pride
    'Their name liveth for evermore' the Gateway claims.
    Was ever an immolation so belied
    As these intolerably nameless names?
    Well might the Dead who struggled in the slime
    Rise and deride this sepulchre of crime.
    • "On Passing the New Menin Gate" (1927-1928)

Revisitation

This poem is about W. H. R. Rivers.
  • What voice revisits me this night? What face
    To my heart’s room returns?
    From the perpetual silence where the grace
    Of human sainthood burns
    Hastes he once more to harmonise and heal?
    I know not. Only I feel
    His influence undiminished
    And his life’s work, in me and many, unfinished.
  • O fathering friend and scientist of good,
    Who in solitude, one bygone summer’s day,
    And in the throes of bodily anguish, passed away
    From dream and conflict and research-lit lands
    Of ethnological learning, — even as you stood
    Selfless and ardent, resolute and gay,
    So in this hour, in strange survival stands
    Your ghost, whom I am powerless to repay.
  • Deep in my morning time he made his mark
    And still he comes uncalled to be my guide
    In devastated regions
    When the brain has lost its bearings in the dark
    And broken in it’s body’s pride
    In the long campaign to which it had sworn allegiance.
    • Lines from a draft version of "Revisitation" omitted from final version.

External links

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