Sassoon the Man
In appearance he is tall, big-boned, loosely built. He is clean-shaven, pale or with a flush; has a heavy jaw, wide mouth with the upper lip slightly protruding and the curve of it very pronounced like that of a shrivelled leaf (as I have noticed is common in many poets). His nose is aquiline, the nostrils being wide and heavily arched. This characteristic and the fullness, depth and heat of his dark eyes give him the air of a sullen falcon. He speaks slowly, enunciating the words as if they pained him, in a voice that has something of the troubled thickness apparent in the voices of those who emerge from a deep grief. As he speaks, his large hands, roughened by trench toil and by riding, wander aimlessly until some emotion grips him when the knuckles harden and he clutches at his knees or at the edge of the table. And all the while he will be breathing hard like a man who has swum a distance. When he reads his poems he chants and one would think that he communed with himself save that, at the pauses, he shoots a powerful glance at the listener. Between the poems he is still but moves his lips. . . . He likes best to speak of hunting (he will shout of it!), of open air mornings when the gorse alone flames brighter than the sky, of country quiet, of his mother, of poetry—usually Shelley, Masefield and Thomas Hardy—and last and chiefly—but always with a rapid, tumbling enunciation and a much-irked desperate air filled with pain—of soldiers. For the incubus of war is on him so that his days are shot with anguish and his nights with horror.
He is twenty-eight years old; was educated at Marlborough and Christchurch, Oxford; was a master of fox-hounds and is a captain in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers. Thrice he has fought in France and once in Palestine. Behind his name are set the letters M.C. since he has won the Military Cross for an act of valour which went near to securing him a higher honour.
Sassoon the Poet
The poetry of Siegfried Sassoon divides itself into two rough classes—the idyllic and the satiric. War has defiled one to produce the other. At heart Siegfried Sassoon is an idealist.
- Before the war he had hardly published a line. He spent his summers in the company of books, at the piano, on expeditions, and in playing tennis. During winter he hunted. Hunting was a greater passion with him than poetry. Much of his poetry celebrated the loveliness of the field as seen by the huntsman in the early morning light. But few probably guessed that the youth known to excel in field sports excelled also in poetry. For, in its way, this early poetry does excel. It was characteristic of him that nearly every little book he then wrote was privately printed. Poetry was for him just something for private and particular enjoyment—like a ride alone before breakfast. Among these privately printed books are Twelve Sonnets (1911), Melodies, An Ode for Music, Hyacinth (all 1912). The names are significant. He was occupied with natural beauty and with music. In 1913 he publishes in a limited and obscure edition Apollo in Doelyrium, wherein it seems that he is beginning to find a certain want of body and basis in his poems made of beautiful words about beautiful objects. Later in the same year, with Masefield's Everlasting Mercy (1911), Widow in the Bye Sheet (1912) and Daffodil Fields (1913) before him, he starts to write a parody of these uncouth intrusions of the sorrows of obscure persons into his paradise but half way through the poem adopts the Masefield manner in earnest and finishes by unsuccessfully endeavouring to rival his master. In 1914 the War breaks out. Home on leave in 1915 he privately prints Discoveries, a little book which contains some of the loveliest of his 'paradise' poems. In 1916 the change has come. He can hardly believe it himself. 'Morning Glory' (privately printed) includes four war poems. He has not definitely turned to his later style but he hovers on the brink. The war is beginning to pain him. The poems 'To Victory' and 'The Dragon and the Undying' show him turning toward his paradise to see if its beauty can save him. . . . The year 1917 witnesses the publication of 'The Old Huntsman.' This book secured instantaneous success. Siegfried Sassoon, on its publication, became one of the leading young poets of England. The book begins with the long monologue of a retired huntsman, a piece of remarkable characterisation. It continues with all the best of the 'paradise' poems, including the loveliest in 'Discoveries' and 'Morning Glory.' There are also the 'bridge' poems between his old manner and his new such as the 'To Victory' mentioned above. But interspersed among the paradise poems are the first poems in his final war style. He tells the story of the change in a characteristic manner—Conscripts (page 51, 'The Old Huntsman'). For like nearly every one of the young English poets, he is to some extent a humourist. His humour is not, however, even through 'The Old Huntsman' all of such a wise and gentle tenor. He breaks out into lively bitterness in such poems as 'They,' 'The Tombstone Maker' and 'Blighters.'
"Fall in, that awkward squad, and strike no more
"Attractive attitudes! Dress by the right!
"The luminous rich colours that you wore
"Have changed to hueless khaki in the night.
"Magic? What's magic got to do with you?
"There's no such thing! Blood's red and skies are blue."
They gasped and sweated, marching up and down.
I drilled them till they cursed my raucous shout.
Love chucked his lute away and dropped his crown.
Rhyme got sore heels and wanted to fall out.
"Left, right! Press on your butts!" They looked at me
Reproachful; how I longed to set them free!
I gave them lectures on Defence, Attack;
They fidgeted and shuffled, yawned and sighed.
And boggled at my questions. Joy was slack.
And Wisdom gnawed his fingers, gloomy-eyed.
Young Fancy—how I loved him all the while—
Stared at his note-book with a rueful smile.
Their training done, I shipped them all to France.
Where most of those I'd loved too well got killed.
Rapture and pale Enchantment and Romance,
And many a sickly, slender lord who'd filled
My soul long since with lutanies of sin,
Went home, because they couldn't stand the din.
But the kind, common ones that I despised,
(Hardly a man of them I'd count as friend),
What stubborn-hearted virtues they disguised!
They stood and played the hero to the end,
Won gold and silver medals bright with bars.
And marched resplendent home with crowns and stars.
This book (in consequence almost wholly of these bitter poems) enjoyed a remarkable success with the soldiers fighting in France. One met it everywhere. "Hello, you know Siegfried Sassoon then, do you? Well, tell him from me that the more he lays it on thick to those who don't realize the war the better. That's the stuff we want. We're fed up with the old men's death-or-glory stunt." In 1918 appeared 'Countermans' Attack': here there is hardly a trace of the 'paradise' feeling. You can't even think of paradise when you're in hell. For Sassoon was now well along the way of thorns. How many lives had he not seen spilled apparently to no purpose? Did not the fact of war arch him in like a dirty blood-red sky? He breaks out, almost like a mad man, into imprecations, into vehement tirades, into sarcasms, ironies, the hellish laughters that arise from a heart that is not broken once for all but that is newly broken every day while the Monster that devours the lives of the young continues its ravages. Take, for instance, the magnificent 'To Any Dead Officer', written just before America entered the war. Many reading this poem would think Great Britain was going to cease fighting. But nothing of the sort. One must always remember that bitter as these imprecations are against those who mismanaged certain episodes in the war, the ultimate foe is not they but the German Junkers who planned this war for forty years, who have given the lovely earth over to hideous defilement and the youths of all nations to carnage. . . .
Sometimes in this book Sassoon fails to express himself properly. This fact is, I think, a tribute to his sincerity. For his earlier work very clearly displays his technical proficiency. But here what can he do? Indignation chokes and strangles him. He claws often enough at unsatisfactory words, dislocates his sentences, tumbles out his images as if he would pulp the makers of war beneath them. Very rarely does he attain to the poignant simplicity of 'The Hawthorn Tree' or the detached irony of 'Does it Matter?'
Can he then see nothing else in war? I remember him once turning to me and saying suddenly apropos of certain exalté poems in my 'Ardours and Endurances': 'Yes, I see all that and I agree with you, Robert. War has made me. I think I am a man now as well as a poet. You have said the things well enough. Now let us nevermore say another word of whatever little may be good in war for the individual who has a heart to be steeled.'
I remember I nodded, for further acquaintance with war inclines me to his opinion.
'Let no one ever,' he continued, 'from henceforth say a word in any way countenancing war. It is dangerous even to speak of how here and there the individual may gain some hardship of soul by it. For war is hell and those who institute it are criminals. Were there anything to say for it, it should not be said for its spiritual disasters far outweigh any of its advantages.'
For myself this is the truth. War doesn't ennoble: it degrades. The words of Barbusse placed at the beginning of this book should be engraved over the doors of every war office of every State in the world.
While war is a possibility man is little better than a savage and civilisation the mere moments of rest between a succession of nightmares. It is to help to end this horror that Siegfried Sassoon and the many others who feel like him have continued to fight as after the publication of this book he fought in Palestine and in France.
You civilized persons who read this book not only as a poet but as a soldier I beg of you not to turn from it. Read it again and again till its words become part of your consciousness. It was written by a man for mankind's sake, that might once more become 'that which is humane' not an empty phrase, that the words of Blake might blossom to a new meaning—
Thou art a man, God is no more,
Thine own humanity learn to adore.
- His father was a well-to-do country gentleman of Anglo-Jewish stock, his mother an English woman, a Miss Thornycroft, sister of the sculptor of that name.
- I had this from his own mouth.
- 'The Old Huntsman.' Dutton & Co., 1918