BOOKS AND ARTS FEBRUARY 20, 2006
SIEGFRIED SASSOON: A LIFE
By Max Egremont
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 597 pp., $27)
WHAT, IF ANYTHING, do Americans know, or think they know, about Siegfried Sassoon? To judge by Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, not very much. There they will find four short and surprisingly limp passages from Sassoon’s war poetry, which give no idea of the hysterical loathing, fear, and compassion that generated them (the only one that might have done so is carefully removed from its context). Yet as the British critic John Press rightly emphasized in Poets of World War I, “It is by thirty or forty poems that delineate the agony of the fighting in the trenches that [Sassoon] holds an honoured place among English poets.” The numerical estimate is, I think, over-generous; but if Sassoon has any literary claim on posterity, this is it. At the same time, he always proclaimed that “my real biography is in my poetry”; and though this was a characteristically misleading assertion, it remains true—as Paul Moeyes found in Siegfried Sassoon: Scorched Glory, by far the best assessment of Sassoon’s work—that to understand the poems we need to know the man.
Since Sassoon spent a substantial part of his long life re-inventing the past in a series of memoirs, some of them lightly fictionalized and all of them obfuscatory, this is a difficult procedure, not least since those of his much franker diaries so far published (1915-1918, 1920-1925) were silently and skillfully eviscerated of their more embarrassing material before publication. The editor, Rupert Hart-Davis, a cricket-playing ex-Guards officer turned publisher and a close personal friend of Sassoon’s, also exercised considerable ingenuity in discouraging “unsuitable” biographers. Much unpublished material— the full diaries not only up to 1925, but for most of the rest of Sassoon’s life, together with notes for the memoirs, correspondence, and various unfinished manuscripts—is in the keeping of Sassoon’s son George, and previous investigators (including Jean Moorcroft Wilson, whose monumental two-volume study was completed in 2003) seem to have had extremely limited access to it.
Max Egremont, by his own account, is the first biographer to have enjoyed George Sassoon’s full cooperation and unrestricted use of the family archive. This alone would give his new book unusual value. But he has also drawn on several other hitherto untapped sources, in particular the private journals of Lady Ottoline Morrell, the famous society hostess, and of Stephen Tennant, who played an intimate and devastating role in Sassoon’s life. The result is not only the best-rounded and most plausible portrait yet of a sadly tormented character—if World War I was the making of Sassoon as a poet, it also well- nigh destroyed him as a human being—but a wonderfully perceptive survey of how what was touted as the war to end all wars (its apocalyptic and static mechanical savagery unimaginable to an Edwardian generation) relentlessly undermined the entire social structure of prewar England. Siegfried Sassoon’s life from 1916 onward was a protest, at first furious, then increasingly melancholy-nostalgic, at the destruction of a world in which he had had a happy and socially favored position.
TO DO PROPER JUSTICE BOTH to Sassoon’s courage and to his poetic achievement, it will help to begin with what he is, rightly, best known and remembered for: the active service on the western front that won him a decoration and gave rise to a group of violent, intense, occasionally bizarre poems, notable not only for their graphic portrayal of physical horrors but also for the aching compassion they reveal for the men under his command. It will also facilitate understanding if at this stage we retain the conventional view of Sassoon himself, as the typical upper-class English officer that he felt himself to be, and was taken for by others. It was no less a judge than T.E. Lawrence who remarked: “If I were trying to export the ideal Englishman to an international exhibition, I think I’d like to choose Siegfried Sassoon for chief exhibit.” And no wonder: before the war he had been a fox-hunting enthusiast, a cricketer, and a keen (and successful) steeplechaser and point-to-point rider. He had also dabbled in poetry, but that was then felt to be a legitimate amusement for a young man with a private income.
Sassoon joined up on August 4, 1914 as a trooper in the Sussex Yeomanry, feeling that he lacked the qualities of leadership essential for an officer. A few weeks of boredom and the hard work previously done for him by stable boys and servants—not to mention the shock of being thrown in on equal terms with Burke’s “rapacious and licentious soldiery”—saw him quickly pull strings (initial qualms about leadership presumably now overcome) to be accepted as a probationary officer with the Royal Welch Fusiliers. While training, he wrote a poem, “Absolution,” an idealistic riff on Rupert Brooke’s recent war sonnets, full of sentiments such as “War is our scourge; yet war has made us wise,/And, fighting for our freedom, we are free,” or “We are the happy legion, for we know/ Time’s but a golden wind that shakes the grass.” Years afterward he correctly observed: “People used to feel like this when they `joined up’ in 1914 and 1915.” The interesting thing is, why did they? And who, precisely, were “they”?
Here we come up against a whole congeries of related British phenomena: decades without involvement in a major war in Europe; imperial confidence and expansion, along with cultural and religious proselytization; and, a corollary of this, the “white man’s burden” of responsibility not only to the benighted native heathen, but also to the lower orders nearer home. A hierarchical class system, latterly under pressure from the industrial revolution, still dominated English society, and was especially prominent in the armed forces and the colonies. A classical education provided both romantic precedent (officers drafted to Gallipoli invoked Homer and Troy) and also certified tags for a code of conduct in which noble and sacrificial death figured prominently. Horace’s Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori (“Sweet and fitting it is to die for one’s country”) is central to this philosophy.
It also, as Egremont sees with uncommon clarity, became a prop and a moral justification for the retention of an upper-class ruling order: “Officers, according to the public-school ideal, should not only lead but show their soldiers how to die: a debt payable for inherited advantages, an absolution for privilege.” When Sassoon heard of his brother Hamo’s death in Gallipoli, his immediate reaction was: “Hamo went. I must follow him.” Fellow officers in France suspected him of trying to get himself killed. The code also explains why men like Sassoon and Edmund Blunden, who in peacetime had little connection with the working classes except to hire them at minimal wages as servants, show such admirable and genuine care for, and empathy with, the men serving under them in France. What the code could not cope with, and what produced the shattered and shattering poetry of Sassoon, Owen, Graves, and others, was the combination of static trench warfare and the new weaponry of a machine age.
The horrors brought by the latter had been clearly hinted at during the American Civil War, but few militarists in Britain paid that grim conflict sufficient attention. In the numerous minor campaigns fought in and around the outposts of empire, British officers could comfort themselves with the knowledge that (as Hilaire Belloc put it) “Whatever happens we have got/the Maxim Gun, and they have not.” Now both sides in a European conflict had arms a good deal more lethal, and with far greater capacity for rapid fire, than the Maxim, and were using them against old-style direct frontal assaults. By the end of 1915, when Sassoon arrived in France, the British had already suffered half a million casualties and the French two million. The life expectancy of a subaltern in the line was three weeks. No-man’s-land was dotted with decaying corpses. The air stank of putrefaction. Rain left the trenches deep in mud. Hungry rats were everywhere.
WHEN SASSOON SHOWED Robert Graves (younger, but already a veteran) some of his earlier poetry, as Graves recalled in Good-Bye to All That, “Siegfried had not yet been in the trenches. I told him, in my oldsoldier manner, that he would soon change his style.” He did, and to a degree that at first took Graves himself aback. He also got firsthand experience. After a spell as transport officer because of his skill with horses, on the eve of the Somme offensive he became involved in raids and wire-cutting expeditions (“rather like going out to weed a neglected garden after being warned that there might be a tiger among the gooseberry bushes,” he later wrote). A close friend of his became a casualty, and as a result (Graves again) “he went out on patrol looking for Germans to kill.” On one of these he brought back a badly wounded NCO while under heavy enemy fire, an act for which he was awarded the Military Cross.
Sassoon’s bravery tended to be impulsive. On one occasion, in defiance of orders, he went out and captured a German trench single-handed, but then had no idea what to do with it. On his return he received a blistering dressing-down from his commanding officer, but he was also recommended for a second decoration (denied because the attack in which he participated was a failure). His indifference to both danger and orders got him the nickname of “Mad Jack.” His front-line service in action was comparatively short: no more than a month in all, and repeatedly interrupted by home leaves for wounds and a variety of illnesses (trench fever, German measles, dysentery, anemia, patches on the lungs). But his record as a fighting man and an officer much loved by his men stands up to all scrutiny, and well validates the poems he wrote as a direct result of that experience. It is important to remember this, not only when examining his famous public protest against the war, but also because in several ways, overall, Sassoon emerges as a character not only pitiable but embarrassingly, and at times unattractively, self-obsessed.
MOST OF THE WAR POEMS were edited, again by Rupert Hart-Davis, in 1983, and by printing them in chronological order he revealed the development of Sassoon’s creative reactions to the deadly killing ground that trench warfare had become. The language—plain and vivid and shorn of metaphor when describing front-line conditions, romanticized in Edwardian style when the poet slips into reflection or apostrophe—is disciplined into tight rhymed stanzas of varying length or, less often, blank verse. The religious element is surprisingly strong. A soldier hauling planks is a kind of Jack Christ (as Dylan Thomas later put it); Christ is the Prince of Wounds. Sassoon’s attitude here is highly ambivalent: while several times yearning for divine intervention to stop the horror, he nevertheless makes it clear that on the western front Christ has failed. The soldier who interrogates Him (and has the better of the exchange) asks: “But be you for both sides? I’m paid to kill/and if I shoot a man his mother grieves./Does that come into what your teaching tells?”
It is sometimes suggested that Sassoon’s wartime religious sense was only offended by the jingoistic pieties of English Anglicanism, as in “Vicarious Christ,” or “They,” when the Bishop’s platitudes about the Antichrist and the just cause evoke a savage response listing the blind, the mutilated, the syphilitic—“And the Bishop said: ‘The ways of God are strange!’” But in his diary Sassoon noted (after a comment that “the soldier is no longer a noble figure; he is merely a writhing insect among this ghastly folly of destruction”) that “God is a buffoon, who skulks somewhere at Base with tipsy priests to serve him,” thus neatly, if blasphemously, merging the Deity with those red-tabbed, elderly, incompetent generals who were soon to become the main targets of his attack. Curiously, this line of satire, the savage description of trench warfare, and even the introduction into poetry of the word “syphilitic” caused far greater shock among his readers than the questioning of religion and religious patriotism.
I have recently re-read all of Sassoon’s war poems, and the ones that really stick in my mind are the short, violent, satirical squibs (reminiscent of Hilaire Belloc, Harry Graham, and the Punch epigrammatists) that tend to be anthologized. The extended descriptions of trench warfare are certainly vivid: “The place was rotten with dead; green clumsy legs/high-booted, sprawled and groveled along the saps/and trunks, face downward, in the sucking mud,/wallowed like trodden sand-bags loosely filled....” Yet as critics as diverse as H.G. Wells, Edmund Gosse, and John Middleton Murry have all pointed out, a great deal of this, like much else in Sassoon’s poetic corpus, could have been equally well written as prose (and later was, in Memoirs of an Infantry Officer). But the epigrams, poignant or satirical, and lobbed at the reader like well-aimed hand grenades, are another matter. Cowards, hypocrites, scarlet majors, the dying and delirious, mindlessly patriotic homebodies, a desperate suicide, the awful erotic ambiguity of killing by bayonet—they are all seared unforgettably into our minds.
One example, “The General,” perhaps the most famous, and typical both for its light, conversational tone and the kicker last line, must suffice to catch Sassoon’s basic method:
the General said
When we met him last week on
our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are
most of ’em dead,
And we’re cursing his staff for
“He’s a cheery old card,”
grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.
But he did for them both by his
plan of attack.
At the time some argued—and not solely as disgruntled anti-Augustan Romanticists—that this was versification rather than poetry. There is in fact, as we shall see, a good deal of rather tired 1890s aestheticism about Sassoon’s poetics in general, but little that pulls a reader up short. For me, the chief exception in the 1914-1918 collection is the chilling first stanza of “I Stood With the Dead”:
I stood with the Dead,
so forsaken and still:
When dawn was grey I stood
with the Dead.
And my slow heart said,
“You must kill, you must kill:
Soldier, soldier, morning is red.”
This, ironically enough, was taken by some senior officers as proof that Sassoon was still suffering from shell shock.
SEVERAL CRUCIAL FACTS EMERGE from a comparison of the war poems with his other work (both before and after the 1914-1918 conflict), and with the views he expressed, above all in his notorious and highly confused public declaration in the summer of 1917. This “Soldier’s Declaration” was heavily influenced by the pacifist propaganda instilled into Sassoon, for political purposes, by Bertrand Russell while the young officer was convalescing from a war wound at Garsington, Philip and Ottoline Morrell’s manor. Besides forming the setting for Ottoline’s salon for writers and artists, Garsington was also a refuge for conscientious objectors, who did farm work there as “alternative service.” Russell noted Sassoon’s agony on behalf of his men, his fury at the complacency and the jingoism of the older generation at home, and sold him the idea that the war was being “deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it.” Without the pressure put on him by Russell and others, it is highly unlikely that Sassoon would ever have made his protest.
As Russell saw clearly, Sassoon was not a natural pacifist, much less a political radical, and by persuading him that he was both (a view Sassoon naively clung to for too long), the philosopher did untold damage to him in the years after the war. What really drove Sassoon’s despair and rage (again, it seems clear that Russell knew and exploited this) was the conviction, expressed in a letter to Samuel Butler’s old friend Henry Festing Jones in May 1917, that “we are losing and that all this loss of life is sheer waste.” As Egremont shrewdly points out, all Sassoon’s military experiences in France were associated with Allied defeats: the Somme offensive, the battle of Arras, the German drive to the Marne in early 1918. What Sassoon really believed in was not peace but victory. No accident that he retained the title of “Captain” all his life. His reaction to the physical horrors of this particular war was absolutely genuine; the way it was destroying not only the flower of youth, but the whole upper-class English way of life that he cherished, he managed to blame on the elderly incompetents who, he believed, could have avoided it, or at least could have fought it differently, more effectively, and more cleanly.
Far from being any kind of radical, Siegfried Sassoon was that highly characteristic and by no means uncommon late- or post-Victorian figure (think William Morris, or Robert Blatchford in Merrie England, or Kenneth Grahame and The Wind in the Willows): the conservative ruralist in arms against the disruptive social effects of the industrial revolution, and in love with a peaceful village world where everyone from squire to stable hand knew his proper place in life. There was always a basic unreality about this attitude, since those who held it did not, for the most part, depend on farming for their living, and thus were not bothered by the long and crippling British agricultural depression that began about 1870. But as an urban myth for the well-born and well-heeled, it had immense staying power. Even the Great War, despite undermining all the social conventions on which it rested, could not eradicate it altogether, and Sassoon was to spend a good proportion of his long life wistfully, and profitably, evoking that lost world: Memoirs of a Fox- Hunting Man, predictably, became a best-seller.
We are often told that Sassoon’s war poems were unique, a never-to- berepeated response to direct and unimaginably violent impressions that alone escaped the censoring filter of his gentlemanly upbringing. There is a good deal of truth in this. But they also formed part of a lifelong nostalgia for the temps perdu, ever more golden in retrospect, of pre-1914 rural Kent. And in this respect Sassoon was merely part of a widespread social trend.
THE MORE ONE INVESTIGATES the details of Sassoon’s life and background, the more tongue-in-cheek Lawrence’s assessment of him as the ideal export Englishman begins to look. To start with his name: the Sassoons, far from originating in the shires, were a close-knit Sephardic Jewish clan whose very considerable fortunes had been made in Baghdad and Bombay by trading in textiles. Photographs show them as bearded patriarchs in flowing robes and turbans. Siegfried’s grandfather, Sassoon David, known as “S.D.,” was the first of the clan to wear western dress, and does not look comfortable in it. In 1858—the year after the Indian Mutiny—S.D. moved to England and opened up highly successful business activities there. His brother Albert, formerly Abdullah, knighted by Queen Victoria for public service in India, also moved to England.
The Sassoons, like the Rothschilds, developed a pattern of entertaining royalty, politicos, and celebrities in lavish style. Several of them became intimates of the future Edward VII, furnishing their princely guest with Bradenham hams and other forbidden delicacies while themselves observing the strict code of Orthodox Judaism. The English ruling classes trusted them, accepted their bounteous hospitality, and mocked them—sometimes viciously but for the most part in tones of amused condescension—behind their backs. The Spy cartoons of various Sassoon notables in Vanity Fair silently reflect this attitude.
The Sassoons’ tribal closeness, reinforced by a powerful and restrictive faith, served them well in such a world. Breaking from it was unthinkable. Thus when S.D.’s favorite son, the violinplaying dilettante Alfred Ezra, married a gentile, Theresa Thorneycroft, his widowed mother Farha (anglicized as Flora) called down a curse on the union and all children born of it. She could not touch his basic inheritance, but she could and did effectively sever him from what might be termed all other tribal benefits. This was the family into which, in 1886, Siegfried was born, the second of three sons. His mother, arguably the strongest influence in his entire life, came from farming stock, but had trained as an artist under Ford Madox Brown: both her parents and her brother Hamo were successful sculptors and painters, executing numerous commissions for the royal family. The Thorneycrofts managed to combine strong Christian principles with Pre-Raphaelite aesthetics. Sassoon much preferred this side of his family— feeling, in Egremont’s words, “that he had inherited their respect for hard work, craftsmanship, dislike of flamboyance and sense that the ideal life was one lived simply in the landscape of rural England.”
When Alfred Ezra married, in 1884, he left his religion behind. Whether he wanted to or not, this was almost certainly a condition that Theresa laid down for accepting him. The boys knew nothing of their Jewish heritage and were brought up in the Church of England by their High Anglican mother, even manifesting, as adults, the kind of mild knee-jerk anti-Semitism that was characteristic of their age and class. Siegfried got a good deal more from Theresa (who named him thus because she adored Wagner) than her reddish hair and large ears. The relationship intensified when, after no more than half a dozen years of marriage, Alfred Ezra abandoned his family, ostensibly in pursuit of an American lady novelist. When that affair fizzled, he showed no signs of returning except to visit his sons, so his prime motive may well have been to get away from Theresa’s dominant and over-principled personality after the first fine rapture had dissipated. At all events, from the age of four Siegfried had no father in residence, and throughout his life was clearly, among other things, searching for a substitute. That he wound up as a Catholic convert is, if not predictable, at least no cause for surprise.
THERESA, AS SIEGFRIED LATER put it, “maintained that as we were all of us delicate it would be a mistake for our brains to be overtaxed with conventional education.” This was a transparent excuse for putting her own idiosyncratic stamp on her children at an impressionable age: her present to Siegfried on his third (!) birthday was a copy of Coleridge’s Lectures on Shakespeare. Since he was by far the most delicate of the three brothers, he stayed at home longer, taught by a succession of vague tutors and governesses. When he finally was sent to boarding school he lost literally 50 percent of his time through real or imagined illnesses, for which Theresa insisted on keeping him at home. Though he showed a certain aptitude for cricket and was a fair amateur pianist, his final report summed him up thus: “lacks power of concentration; shows no particular intelligence or aptitude for any branch of his work; seems unlikely to adopt any special career.”
As the schoolmaster who penned that report well knew, he did not need to. Here we come up against one of the most crucial facts shaping Sassoon’s curious career. Though cut off from the immense wealth available to other members of the Sassoon clan, he was always financially independent: the need for a job never dictated any of his decisions. As the narrator of Edmund Wilson’s “The Princess with the Golden Hair” remarks, there may be “nothing more demoralizing than a small but adequate income.” Thus Sassoon was peculiarly vulnerable to his mother’s determination that his destiny was to be a great poet, and one, moreover, in the PreRaphaelite tradition of the 1890s that had formed her, freely admitting in later life that his overriding desire was always to be what she wanted. He never challenged either her prediction or the oddly limiting form it took. That he could nevertheless appreciate Debussy, Stravinsky, even Schonberg, is no anomaly: Theresa wasn’t interested in music.
The trouble was, his sketchy education (in two years at Cambridge he did little but play golf and buy first editions) left him a virtual autodidact, incapable of serious sustained thought. Voracious reading never filled this gap, and he remained acutely conscious of his intellectual deficiencies all his life. (As did others. “More brain, O God, more brain!” was Virginia Woolf’s wish for him.) At the same time he used Theresa’s Pre-Raphaelitism, and in particular Pater’s notion of poetry aspiring to the condition of music, to justify a poetic creed dependent on inspirational afflatus alone, its ideal a kind of warm and non-confrontational rural simplicity. The result, in his pre-1914 poetry above all, is a sententious and derivative pastoralism, full of peeping dryads and thumping platitudes. As Sanford Sternlicht tartly remarks, “he did not know the meaning of the word cliche, but he knew how to write one.” Indeed, what his early work reminds me of most is that famous Punch cartoon of the period in which a young aesthete replies, crushingly, to an inquiry as to the subject of his writing: “But my dear Auntie, one doesn’t write about anything, one just writes.”
Theresa’s ideals had their built-in contradictions (she thought Swinburne the greatest living poet because of his word music, but she discouraged Siegfried from reading him because of his immorality), and these contradictions were inherited by her son. To counter the image of delicate—and perhaps less than wholly masculine—aestheticism, Sassoon plunged into the world of hunting, steeplechasing, and point-to-point races. Horses, and the fox-hunting equestrian’s world of physical challenge and achievement, became a genuine passion with him. But there was an additional motive at work here. In 1895, Oscar Wilde had been tried and imprisoned; and one fact that Sassoon had faced very early about himself was his homosexuality. He sometimes claimed (as did other members of the Sassoon clan) to be a Parsee rather than a Jew, but about his sexual orientation, though he was necessarily circumspect, he had no doubts. Puritanism held him back from physical consummation till after the war (he was never entirely comfortable with what he called the “gross elements”), but his erotic drive, as he himself admitted, was intense. So to his other personal problems in youth must be added a powerful infusion of frustration and guilt.
THIS WAS THE MAN—old-fashioned aesthete, equally old-fashioned sporting gentleman, politically naive, egotistical, his future already committed to the past—who, after a brief and unsuccessful stint in literary London from 1913, with nothing substantial to say and no acceptable way of saying it, joined the army and found, at last, both a theme and a true voice on the western front. But, as should now be all too clear, the war poems, from his point of view, simply added to his troubles. Sassoon was no radical and no real pacifist. The murderous horrors of the trenches simply shocked him into protest: what lay beyond the cry of outraged common humanity was nostalgia for a vanishing past. The realism forced on him ran flat counter to the patriotic myth propagated not only by the old men, but also by his idealized mother. His attacks on God and the Anglican clergy could not but hurt Theresa deeply. By the end of the war there were whole areas of life that it was impossible for mother and son to discuss.
In later years Sassoon distanced himself from his war poems, preferring the idyllic and carefully sanitized semifiction provided by works such as Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man. Perverse and wrongheaded to many critics, who have seen, rightly, that the war poems are Sassoon’s chief claim to fame, this decision is, in context, both logical and understandable.
The claim is often made that, however much he may have deplored the results, in the poems he wrote about the bogged-down and mishandled conflict in Flanders, Sassoon shifted modernism fundamentally into a new track. This is only partially true. As far as literary form goes, the poems remained resolutely conservative. What he actually did was to break a number of social taboos as to what could decently be expressed in public, on which score literary innovation was no more in question than in that other social milestone (and, obscenity apart, equally old-fashioned work) Lady Chatterley’s Lover. And with the return of peace, as quite a few people saw at the time, Sassoon lost both his adventitious subject and the need for gritty realism in the expression of what he wrote. Apart from a year or two immediately after the Armistice of 1918, when he tried—uncomfortably, and very much against the grain—to set himself up as a left-wing radical, he simply reverted, ever more obstinately as time went on, to the role that Theresa had laid out for him: that of the Great Poet in a style of inspirational and timeless simplicity.
Now, contrary to general opinion, this ideal was not quite as crazy as has too often been claimed. Sassoon looked for models to poets such as Hardy or the early Metaphysicals—Vaughan, Traherne, Crashaw. His stress on disciplined conventional form found support in poets from Auden through the post1945 Movement group to Larkin. The real trouble was that, except for his one brief wartime flare-up, Sassoon was an earnest, unimaginative, platitudinous versifier, cranking out cliches about the countryside and self-absorbed reflections on his own life, the kind of thing that Stella Gibbons pilloried in Cold Comfort Farm as Asterisked Great Thoughts. The critic Bernard Bergonzi summed it up, unkindly but accurately: “The bulk of his later poetry, sententious or laxly pastoral, is carefully written and overpoweringly dull.” To be a Great Poet you need the ability to write great poems, something Theresa had left out of her calculations.
Instead, Sassoon surrounded himself with congenial minor poets such as Blunden or de la Mare, who shared his nostalgic ruralist vision and could be relied on to praise his work; and inveighed against Eliot (whom he referred to as “Towering Tom”) and the Modernists generally; and buried himself deeper and deeper in the past; and went to his grave convinced that he, not Eliot, should have been awarded the Order of Merit. With Eliot, Sassoon never seems to have got beyond The Waste Land; there is no evidence of his having read Four Quartets, though much of the religious thinking there, especially in “East Coker,” runs along strikingly similar lines (minus the self-preoccupation and the platitudes) to his own.
By the time of World War II, Sassoon was attacked by Herbert Read, with justice, for writing “exactly like the people he satirized in the First World War.” His response was to threaten legal action. In fact, his entire life from 1920 until his death more than forty years later, though fascinating both anecdotally and for the sometimes grisly light it sheds on English social history (Sassoon knew just about everyone worth knowing), has very little to do with literature.
IT WAS ALSO A CURIOUS MIXTURE OF of tragedy and farce. Just as Sassoon’s misguided public stance against the war in 1917 ended not (as he had hoped) with a court-martial and martyrdom, but with a spell in the shell-shock hospital Craiglockhart (which he irritably nicknamed “Dottyville”), so his adherence in the 1930s to the Peace Pledge Union was nullified by the truth about the Nazis, and left him, as he himself admitted, “reduced to an impotent absurdity“ by World War II, in which he played no part, regarding such mundane activities as the Home Guard or fire-watching as beneath him. His discovery and promotion of Wilfred Owen was soured by the critics’ justified determination that Owen was a better poet than he was. His efforts to identify with the industrial working classes foundered on a stunning ignorance of social history, and a crash course at Oxford designed to remedy this deficiency proved beyond his mental resources after a couple of weeks. His cherished mishmash of word music and inspirationism undid him in more ways than one.
At the same time it is important to bear in mind that large numbers of conservative sympathizers, and not only those in high places, took him very seriously indeed as a writer. It was precisely his retreat into the pre-industrial past, his mannered simplicity, his platitudinous self-preoccupation, which (though anathema to the intelligentsia) so well mirrored their own concerns, and thus turned his six autobiographical volumes into best-sellers. His charming style, his resolute meliorism, his careful excision of anything remotely unpleasant or (for good reasons) to do with sex: these all improved his popularity. His bienpensant readers were blissfully unaware that while composing his memoirs he was engaged in an agonizing and obsessional relationship with a willowy, petulant, beautiful young sprig of the jeunesse doree named Stephen Tennant, whose hypochondria and narcissism were matched only by his talent for fancy dress, elaborate makeup, and screaming rows. Had they known, their reaction might well have been that of the woman who, obviously struck by Tennant’s ultra-camp manner, shouted at them from her car window: “You two revolting bits of filth!”
THIS WAS BY NO MEANS Sassoon’s first affair, though for him sex began late, in 1920, when he was already over thirty. Unlike the Homintern of the next generation, he found no attraction in proletarian lovers (he was snobbishly sensitive to lower-class accents, Owen’s included). Beginning with an alcoholic artist and ex-officer named Gabriel Atkin (afterward taken over in turn by J.M. Keynes and the novelist Mary Butts), he moved on to, among others, Prince Philipp of Hesse (a subsequent confidant of the Nazis and the duke of Windsor), an American actor named Glenn Hunter, Ivor Novello, and the theatrical director Glen Byam Shaw, the only one of his lovers with whom he developed a lasting non-sexual friendship. Otherwise in these relationships he emerges as a would-be savior and actual control freak, using his money to maintain a dominant position. When the object of his affections had more money than he did (as was the case with Novello and Tennant), trouble ensued. The slow breakup with Tennant—about which Egremont has unearthed more evidence than some may wish to face, including Sassoon’s unavailing attempts to enable young Narcissus to ejaculate—makes for painful, if at times farcical, reading.
There is little that could be called farcical about Sassoon’s late marriage, in 1933, to Hester Gatty, the daughter of a wealthy colonial judge with large estates (including William Beckford’s Fonthill), except perhaps the idea that it was a remotely feasible proposition in the first place. It certainly brought out the worst in Sassoon: his not-so-latent anti-feminism, his humorless and truly monumental self-absorption, his urge to dominate and control. He married Hester on the rebound from Stephen: friends cattily noted a striking physical resemblance between new wife and old lover. Siegfried, always jealous of his cousin Philip’s great country houses (the fact that Philip had also been Haig’s military secretary during the war had not exactly helped the relationship), now, with Hester’s money on top of his own, bought Heytesbury House, on the edge of Salisbury Plain. This vast, ugly, gray stone Georgian mansion, set in ninety acres of parkland, gave Siegfried the isolated rural kingdom he had always wanted, the perfect setting for his own growing solipsism. He was to live there, more and more cut off, as time went on, from the outside world, for the rest of his life (he died in 1967).
“O Hester,” Siegfried noted in his diary, “you must redeem my life for me.” Perhaps with this end in view, he took his bride on a honeymoon trip throughout Europe that exactly duplicated an earlier love trip with Stephen, even down to the same hotels. The puritan in him sought an escape from homosexuality; the country squire longed for children. W. Somerset Maugham, when similarly seeking social respectability and a family, saw his sexual nature as split 80 to 20 percent between straight and gay: unfortunately, as he later admitted, he got it the wrong way around. Sassoon, too, was carried through the early successful years of his marriage by initial passion and the need for an heir. In 1936, when Hester, after at least one miscarriage, gave him the son he wanted, their relationship at once began to unravel. Siegfried’s obsession with the child was all-embracing and, worse, exclusive: he at once saw young George as “my self reborn,” an extension or replication of the ego that he nursed and fictionalized through volume after volume of autobiographical reminiscence.
IT IS A SAD STORY, AND MAX EGREMONT tells it more perceptively than earlier biographers have done. Hester was, it is clear, deeply in love with Siegfried, even after their separation. Worse, he had aroused and encouraged a strong sexual urge in her, only then to retreat into irritated isolation, working at his books into the small hours and complaining that the sole cure for Hester’s troubles seemed to be endless copulation. In the last resort he was only truly happy with his wife when she was waiting on him hand and foot, which he regarded as a woman’s proper lot in life, and agreeing with all his eccentric opinions. Hester, who had a mind of her own, saw no reason not to express it. Shouting matches and tearful hysterics occurred with increasing frequency. He drank whiskey. She chain-smoked. George, not surprisingly, became a somewhat troubled adolescent.
As Siegfried’s sexual drive diminished (though never to a point where he did not relish the company of personable young men such as Dennis Silk or the cartoonist Haro Hodson), his self-absorption shifted from the erotic to the religious. His autodidactic mind nagged away in poems at the idea of a spiritual quest. These poems caught the attention of a Catholic nun: they corresponded, and the road to conversion was rapid. Sassoon’s Catholicism was absolutely sincere, and brought him peace in his final years. It also, of course, gave him the chance to pursue his own development yet again, this time in spiritual terms, with an adoring audience that made no emotional demands on him. Like Evelyn Waugh after him, he relished the glamour of aristocratic recusancy, the magic of a great Catholic country house such as Mells, home of Katharine Asquith. Perhaps most important, confession and absolution at long last freed him from residual guilt over his homosexual past.
Had it not been for the accident of Sassoon’s baptism by fire in the trenches, and the way this encounter tore him free, if only for a short while, from the restraining shibboleths of his class and his era, the odds are that his—or his alter ego George Sherston’s—journey would long ago have been forgotten. But the poems obstinately survived, and a new generation has shown an increasingly absorbed and creative interest in the literature and the social breakup with which World War I has come to be identified. For good or ill, Siegfried Sassoon, all unwittingly and to his later great embarrassment, became a key figure in the radical metamorphosis through war of British art, culture, and class-consciousness. All he wanted was the past, and yet in mourning its loss as a poet he shared in its destruction. The price of creative achievement can sometimes be almost too costly to bear.
Peter Green is an emeritus professor of classics and ancient history, and an occasional novelist, biographer, and poet. This article appeared in the February 20, 2006 issue of the magazine.