- The Washington Times - Friday, December 26, 2003

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.


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