All His Writing Life, Sassoon Returned to WWI Horrors

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), December 28, 2003 | Go to article overview

All His Writing Life, Sassoon Returned to WWI Horrors


Byline: Martin Rubin, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

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. …

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