Happy warrior, embittered pacifist - Siegfried Sassoon
From the outside, Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967) would seem to be the man who had everything: tall, handsome, rich, talented, well connected, educated at Marlborough and Cambridge - the world was his proverbial oyster. Appearances can be deceptive, however, and Sassoon's personality was untypically complex. Descended from a vastly wealthy family of Anglicised Sephardic Jews, Siegfried (the middle of three sons) was named after the Aryan hero of the Wagner opera, and in common with the genteelly wealthy, county class in which he moved, was always pointedly and unreflectingly antisemitic. Outwardly he shared their values: he was a sporty philistine who believed that moral verities and proper standards of behaviour resided in some bucolic fantasy of English country life. But Sassoon was not only half-Jewish, he was also a homosexual and physically frail as a youngster. He wrote poetry and he was idle (leaving Cambridge without a degree).
The great transforming, traumatising event of his life was the first world war. The poetry that Sassoon wrote before the war was stereotypically Georgian: larks singing in the hedgerows, a brisk 10-mile walk followed by a good pipe and a pint of cider at a thatched country pub, and so forth. The hell and slaughter of the Western Front presented a dramatic and terrifying alternative reality. Sassoon joined the Royal Welch Fusiliers as a commissioned officer and first saw action in 1916. Shortly thereafter he began to write and publish the first of his war poems. Sassoon was a brave man: he was awarded the Military Cross, fought at the battle of the Somme and was seriously wounded in 1917, but the emotional wear and tear of trench warfare took its toll intellectually and psychologically. Sassoon's poetry became more bleakly realistic and increasingly, stridently sardonic and satirical as he saw the futility of the conflict and the young men dying all around him.
Recovering from his wounds in 1917 he suffered what we would now recognise as a nervous breakdown, refusing to continue to fight in a war that he saw as "being deliberately prolonged". Through the timely intervention of his fellow officer and poet, Robert Graves, he was sent to a neurasthenic hospital, Craiglockhart, near Edinburgh, to be treated for his disorder rather than court martialled. There Sassoon met and inspired another patient and young officer-poet, Wilfred Owen (who thought Sassoon's verse made Shakespeare's look "vapid"). Sassoon seemed unaware of the full impact he made on Owen (also homosexual) commenting to a friend about Owen's unfortunate "grammar-school" accent, but there is no doubt that this fortuitous coming together of the two poets in August 1917 created something extraordinary and enduring in English verse. War poetry, as we understand it today, was born.
Owen's poetry is far more sophisticated and better written than Sassoon's, but there is something about the savage indignation and callous bitterness of Sassoon's verse that is more instantly memorable. Sassoon's war poems were the foundation upon which Owen could build. Unlikely laureate that he was, Sassoon is the only begetter of attitudes still commonly prevalent as we contemplate the waste and slaughter in the wars going on around the world. Philip Larkin once remarked that the convictions Owen and Sassoon expressed in their poetry came to permeate the entire national consciousness. In many ways they still do.
When the war ended, the inspirational spark seemed to die in Sassoon also. He continued to denigrate modernism and write "old-fashioned" Georgian poetry, but did produce a minor masterpiece in the volume of fictional autobiography he published in 1930, Memoirs of an Infantry Officer. He had a long relationship with the flamboyantly camp aesthete Stephen Tennant but, in 1933, almost as a repudiation of everything he was, he married Hester Gatty and, eventually, converted to Catholicism in 1957.