MR SIEGFRIED SASSOON: Poet, fox-hunter, soldier and pacifist
Published in The Times on September 4, 1967.
Mr. Siegfried Sassoon, C. B. E., M.C., died on Friday at his home, Heytesbury House, Wiltshire. He was 80.
English letters has lost by his death one of its most dedicated sons; he became known to the public in 1916, as one of the soldier poets who stirred the emotions and consciences of his countrymen, and his reputation grew after the war with quicker prose and poetry. His best known work -- The Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man -- will assuredly always rank as a classic; it is more than a biography; it is an elegy. Sassoon, except in his war poems and a few others, wrote reflectively; he was never tied to contemporary fashion and all his work bears his own special and personal stamp.
His style might mislead people to think that he was an amateur; but this was far from the truth; in spite of the apparent ease with which he wrote some of his work, this was the art that conceals art. Though traditional and unadventurous in form and in subject, his work will always appeal to those who see the value of enriching life by a sensitive and humorous contemplation of it.
Sassoon was born on September 8, 1886. Much of his life and especially the early part of it has been described by himself, but he spoke in his books (as in his conversation) less of his father's than of his mother's family.
Sassoon's paternal background was complex; his father, Alfred, was a nephew of Reuben Sassoon (perhaps the Prince of Wales's closest friend), and son of Sassoon David Sassoon, who had moved to England in 1858. Alfred died in 1895 and his son Siegfried (then aged nine) had not seen very much of 'Pappy', as he had lived apart from his wife since his son was five.
Sassoon's mother, Theresa Thornycroft, came from the family of distinguished Victorian sculptors and was herself an able amateur artist. Of her two brothers Hamo was also a sculptor and John was the eminent marine engineer. It was she who first encouraged her son's literary talent (at the age of 11 he had presented her with a volume of poems) and when he was about 24 introduced him to Edmund Gosse, one of her old friends. In 1913 Gosse introduced Sassoon to Edward Marsh and this proved a turning point in his career.
Until this time his talent had revealed itself sluggishly. He went to Marlborough College where, according to his own account, he did not show promise of doing anything out of the ordinary, '. . . seems unlikely to adopt any special career', was his final report. He started to read Law at Clare College, Cambridge (later to make him an honorary fellow), with a view to being called to the Bar, but changed to History. He competed for the Chancellor's Medal with a poem on Edward I but was not successful, and after this he went down without taking a degree. With a small private income he lived as a country gentleman; while he hunted and played cricket, he was also writing (as well as book collecting) and between 1906 and 1912 he published nine small volumes of poems -- some in private editions. All the time he 'muddled along, making corrections' (to his poems). 'I had no one to whom I could show any poems in MS. and (my own publications) were a sort of private hobby', he wrote in 1932. At the age of 27 he was asking himself 'was it really worth while to put one's poetic ambitions before everything else ?'
After the appearance of "The Daffodil Murderer", 1913 (which had begun as a parody of Masefield but had ended as a serious poem), 'Eddie' Marsh gave him the encouragement he needed; Marsh not only advised him on his poetry but introduced him to a wider circle of literary friends (including Rupert Brooke).
But war interrupted his adopted career as a poet. He joined The Royal Welch Fusiliers and was posted to France. There his name became a byword for bravery, and he was nicknamed 'Mad Jack' -- Robert Graves, a brother officer, has written of how he calmly read 'The London Mail' before the crucial attack at Fricourt. In the spring of 1916 he won the Military Cross for bringing in under heavy fire a wounded lance-corporal who was lying close to the German lines. A year later, after capturing single-handed some German trenches in the Hindenburg Line, he remained in the enemy position reading a volume of poems oblivious of the danger, and as a result was recommended for the Victoria Cross; but as the campaign eventually ended in a reverse, he only received a bar to his Military Cross.
Sassoon had himself been wounded during the fighting in the Hindenburg Line and after he had been invalided home he had an opportunity to reflect upon the human butchery that was taking place; he resolved to protest and the outcome was A Soldier's Declaration (July, 1917), attacking the 'political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed . . . also I believe that I may help to destroy the callous complacency with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share, and which they have not sufficient imagination to realise.' He expected a court martial but did not get one. His M.C. ribbon he threw in the river Mersey.
His was the pacifism of courage not of cowardice; in reply to a question in the House of Commons the Secretary of State for War put it down to shell shock and Sassoon was sent to hospital. He decided that he would be more effective if he returned to the front and after a brief spell in Palestine he rejoined his former battalion in France, where he was again wounded.
Sassoon had by this time established his reputation as a poet. He had been publishing poems about the war in the 'Cambridge Magazine' and other periodicals since 1916: in May, 1917, these were collected in The Old Huntsman, and a second collection followed -- Counter-Attack -- 13 months later. Fifty-two of the poems from these two volumes that specifically dealt with the war were republished in 1919 as War Poems. These poems showed how his anger at the war and his lack of faith in its purpose had grown over the years and that A Soldier's Declaration had been a natural culmination, not a sudden impulse. They also revealed a new depth in his poetry. The poems that leave one most disgusted with the horrors of the war such as 'They', 'The Hero', 'Base Details' and 'The Glory of Women' have a bitter satirical intensity, and the depth of tragic feeling in them was not surpassed by any of the other war poets.
In 1928 the Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man appeared. At first it came out anonymously but it was in fact based upon Sassoon's early life lovingly recalled -- a way of life that the war had shattered not only for him but for everybody. Hunting and cricket, of course, continued after 1919 but Sassoon reminded us that the remote rural life of England before 1914 had disappeared: this sense of something lost -- not actually stated, but implied -- adds edge to what would otherwise be only a charming pastoral life.
It had a well-deserved success and Sassoon followed it with other prose works that are either directly autobiographical or (like their precursor) near autobiographical -- and that take his career up to 1920. The Old Century (1938), The Weald of Youth (1942), Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (1930), Sherston's Progress (1936), and Siegfried's Journey (1945) -- there are wonderfully evocative passages in all of these, in particular some of the character sketches of his friends and contemporaries; but the Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man (for which he had been awarded the Hawthorden Prize in 1929) will remain his most notable.
Sassoon was writing poetry throughout his life -- periodically every few years a volume would appear either in a public or a private edition -- but his style altered after the 1914-18 War. At times he still displayed a satirical edge; for instance he attacked society in Satirical Poems (1926) and he attacked war in The Road to Ruin (1933). But these poems lack the passion of his earlier ones. His angry War Poems had been the first to make him famous and he never quite achieved their pungency again, for his poetry is at its best when he described an actual experience.
The dichotomy in his character as a young man -- the poet who had been fond of sport and horseflesh -- continued as he grew older in a slightly altered form. While he needed to participate in life to write about it, by nature he only wished to witness or reflect upon it; he himself would refer to this as his Enoch Arden complex. The approaching War of 1939 and also the unsympathetic attitude of the new generation of writers had made Sassoon more of a recluse than before, and at times (as in 'The Tasking', 1954) he revealed a melancholy and a desire for spiritual assurance.
He joined the Roman Catholic Church in 1957 (the same year as he was awarded the Queen's Medal for Poetry). The Path to Peace (1960) was published in a finely printed and limited edition; some of these poems were written after his conversion and they demonstrate how complete and successful it had been. All his life he had been deeply spiritual: and when he discovered a means of expressing a faith, fortunately for him it did not drive him from the world but brought him into it. More than ever was he happy to see -- indeed he had always been at his best with -- one or two chosen friends.
His looks were striking and throughout his life he had seemed younger than his years when he became animated over some poem or reminiscence; even in his old age his lean body and bright eyes would seem like those of a youth. The remarkable physique that he had possessed as a young man also remained with him, and in his seventies his movements were as swift as those of a man half his age. His interest in cricket never flagged and not many years before his death he had been able to keep up a week's annual cricket with The Ravens.
His conversation had a pleasing liveliness especially when he was recalling the past, and he would usually match his animation with fidgety, nervous movements of his arms and legs. His wit is obvious in his books and he spoke as he wrote, using puns and sporting metaphors, of a kind more likely to be heard in a pub over a pint than from a poet.