Siegfried Sassoon

The English poet Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967) wrote a group of dramatic, intense lyrics in reaction to the horrors of World War I. His six volumes of partly fictionalized memoirs are a detailed record of the sensibilities of his age.

Siegfried Sasson was born in Brenchley, Kent, on Sept. 8, 1886, and spent his childhood at the family home in Weirleigh, in the protected and somewhat rarefied atmosphere of a family near the center of the late Victorian and Edwardian literary and artistic world. He was formally educated at Marlborough School and at Clare College, Cambridge, and began publishing poems privately in 1906. However, Sassoon's distinctive voice was not heard until the publication of his war poems—in The Old Huntsman (1917) and Counter-attack (1918). He was the first of the younger Georgian poets to react violently against sentimentally patriotic notions of the glories of war; these poems have an extraordinary vigor—a stridency of tone, in fact— expressing with unconcealed irony and in colloquial terms a passionate hatred of the horrors of war. Some of Sassoon's contemporaries produced poems that addressed more seriously the confusion of values that World War I revealed; but none responded with such passion or with such hatred of the ignorance and folly that permitted such pain.

Sassoon's poems of the 1920s—represented in Satirical Poems (1926 and 1933) and in The Road to Ruin (1933— although they set out to satirize the corruptions and the pretensions of a disintegrating and confused materialistic society, were more controlled, artificial, less intense—and vastly less effective than the war poems.

Perhaps Sassoon's reputation will ultimately rest on his prose works. The Memoirs of George Sherston (1937), his three-volume fictional autobiography, describes, on one level at least, the way of life and the decline in influence of the educated, cultivated, English country gentry during the first quarter of the 20th century. More significantly, it delineates the decay of a culture and the character of an age. It is composed of Memoirs of a Foxhunting Man (1928), Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (1930), and Sherston's Progress (1936).

Sassoon later wrote three volumes of direct autobiography to complement his Sherston trilogy. They are brilliant evocations of characters and patterns of life in one period, but they remain fundamentally the explorations of a man whose own experience, whose own alienation, is by no means representative. These volumes are The Old Century and Seven More Years (1938), The Weald of Youth (1942), and Siegfried's Journey (1945).

The latter half of Sassoon's life was lived in semiretirement from the world of pressing public issues and changing literary values. His critical biography of George Meredith, published in 1948, valued Meredith largely for his "freedom of spirit" and for his unimpaired, instinctive love of nature. Sassoon died in Warminster, Wiltshire, on Sept. 1, 1967.

Further Reading on Siegfried Sassoon

The absence of any full-scale biography of Sassoon is offset, to a degree, by his memoirs. Much incidental criticism of his work is available in periodicals, and his war poetry is evaluated in the many studies of Georgian and war poetry. Early evaluations are in Frank Swinnerton, The Georgian Literary Scene (1934; rev. ed. 1951), and Edmund Blunden, The Mind's Eye: Essays (1934), reprinted in Edmund Blunden: A Selection of His Poetry and Prose, edited by Kenneth Hopkins (1950). Joseph Cohen, in a sound and comprehensive critical essay, The Three Roles of Siegfried Sassoon (1957), distinguished three phases of Sassoon's poetry, but the only book-length study is Michael Thorpe, Siegfried Sasson: A Critical Study (1966). Geoffrey Keynes prepared A Bibliography of Siegfried Sassoon (1962).