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The making of a poet

22 October 2005

12:00 AM

22 October 2005

12:00 AM

Siegfried Sassoon Max Egremont

Pan Macmillan, pp.597, 25

I once considered attempting a biography of Siegfried Sassoon. Having now read Max Egremont’s comprehensive and perceptive book, based partly on access to private papers unavailable to previous biographers, I’m relieved I didn’t. Egremont has produced a thorough, sympathetic, balanced, engrossing account.

There are two aspects to the 1886-1967 life of Captain Siegfried Sassoon, MC (he liked to use his rank and was proud of his medal) that make him a worthy biographical subject. The first is his literary achievement, essentially his war poems and his prose memoirs. Although he felt he was a poet from the age of five, was published before the first world war and continued producing well into old age, it was really the inspiration of war that lifted him — as it has many writers throughout history — beyond the merely personal and gave him a subject that extended and fulfilled his poetic gift. His later prose memoirs vividly conveyed not only war but the period itself.

The second reason for his biographical importance is his effect on the history of that war — to be more precise, on the way the war has come to be popularly perceived. In so far as it is taught in schools now, and in its continuing allure as a subject of fictional re-creation, it has become a vehicle for vicarious protest by those who didn’t suffer it on behalf of those who did. Egremont, biographer of Major General Spears, is clearly well informed on the war and avoids contributing to what he aptly calls ‘the myth of avoidable slaughter’. His subject, how- ever, is a very significant, even a major, part of that myth. The combination of Sassoon’s poems and his 1917 public protest — ‘I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of other soldiers. I believe that this war, upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation, has now become a war of aggression and conquest’ — helped shape the war’s historiography. Egremont sensitively delineates Sassoon’s ambivalent reactions to his own role, not only as the mythology developed but at the time of his involvement.

Sassoon descended on his father’s side from a distinguished and gifted Jewish family, though he was brought up a Christian (C of E) and named Siegfried because of his mother’s admiration for Wagner. His Kentish childhood was ‘almost aggressively English’, with hunting and cricket the main preoccupations. For Sassoon, though, his poetry set him apart from his siblings and peers. Although his third birthday present from his doting mother was Coleridge’s Lectures on Shakespeare, he showed no particular promise at school and later left Cambridge without taking his degree. He mixed more with huntsmen — who found him a ‘wild follower’ — than with poets, and was proud to do so. But his poetic core would not be ignored; no matter how consistently he sought to conform with the outer world, in his inner he constantly tried to make poetry of the non-poetic.

Another aspect that he felt set him apart was his homosexuality, increasing awareness of which made his poetry a solace for homosexual loneliness. Also, as with his hunting and his attitude to war, he was often ambivalent about his own sexual nature, able neither to deny it nor to give himself to it wholeheartedly and consistently. Egremont writes sensibly about this part of Sassoon’s life, particularly about his long-standing relationship with Stephen Tennant, whom Egremont knew and to whose journal he was given unprecedented access.

By 1914 Sassoon was a published poet, either unpaid or at his own expense, and in that year his latest privately printed selection earned him £5 (his costs were about £100). He had a 30-minute meeting with Rupert Brooke, who never asked him about his poetry, and enlisted in the ranks on the fateful 4 August 1914, aged 27, later taking a commission. His few poems written during that pre-action time were Brooke-like in their idealism — ‘fighting for our freedom, we are free’ — and had he died then, like Brooke, we should never have guessed at the powerful, vivid and bitter voice that excitement, fear, blood-lust and loss were to give him.

The story of Sassoon’s war is well known: his dashing trench exploits, usually solo or with small groups in no-man’s-land; his well-earned MC; the even braver (or rasher) exploit that should have earned him a DSO; his public protest which led him to the psychiatric hospital at Craiglockhart under the care of the remarkable Dr Rivers; his meeting there with Wilfrid Owen, which gave Owen the confidence to produce his own great work; and his return to the front line until another wound sent him back to Blighty for good. Often referred to as ‘Mad Jack’ for his exploits, he was never actually known as that in his regiment.

Egremont writes well about this familiar territory but with an eye for detail and emphasis often lacking in commentary on Sassoon. ‘I definitely want to kill someone at close quarters,’ confessed the author of such unforgettable satirical squibs as ‘The General’ and ‘Blighters’. His public protest, much influenced by Bertrand Russell’s anti-war movement, produced not the public martyrdom his backers sought but military tolerance and understanding. With characteristically unsparing candour, he later wrote, ‘I now wonder how much I was influenced by the fact that by protesting I was — as it seemed then — making it impossible for me to be sent to the front again.’ He also felt needlessly guilty that his famous acts of heroism were not the sustained, unglamorous sort of heroism displayed by his colleagues who remained in the trenches during his own lengthy absences. As Egremont points out, his actual experience of war comprised a series of bloody disappointments; he was never involved in successful operations which, even when equally bloody, did not feel as futile.

With peace came the rest of life, beginning with what Egremont calls ‘those post-war years of rush and occasional chaos’. Lifelong friendships were formed, particularly that with fellow-poet and soldier, Edmund Blunden, but Sassoon’s most intensely personal relationships, such as those with Gabriel Atkin and Tennant, lay ahead of him. As did his surprise marriage to Hester Gatty, when he was 47, and then the advent of their son, George. He decided to marry on the way to Mells, seat of the hospitable, learned and Catholic Asquiths. Significantly, it seemed to Sassoon that his affair with Hester was ‘like believing in God’.

His subsequent conversion to Catholicism was, in a sense, his last and greatest affair. He wanted something that would ‘put the fear of God into me’ and was overjoyed to find it. Mells played a significant part in the gestation of conversion. He was buried there in 1967.

Sassoon never lacked for money (he was always generous with it, particularly to Blunden) and never lacked for friends, but his life was a troubled quest for self-identity and for something beyond himself with which to identify. In age he found his war reputation something of an albatross and feared that his later poetry was dated and ignored. Also, other poets came into prominence — Owen and Rosenberg particularly — without the complicating baggage of peacetime survival. The truth is, that it was war that made Sassoon and it is for that that we read him, and about him. He was very much a first world war man.

Where he stands in relation to the other war poets, and what effect they all had on perceptions of that war, are perhaps questions outside the scope of this book. If not the greatest, he was probably the most influential and might still be the most quoted. This book should be read by anyone who wants to understand him.

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