Siegfried Sassoon: A Poet's Pilgrimage
by Joseph Pearce
Siegfried Sassoon is arguably
the greatest of the War Poets. Arguably, but not indisputably.
Many critics, begging to differ with such a judgment, would argue
that his friend, Wilfred Owen, was more gifted and could boast
a superior achievement in verse. Yet, if they are right, Sassoon
becomes, if not the greatest, then certainly the most important
of the War Poets. Sassoon was Owen's mentor, without whom Owen
would probably have never written the acerbically assonant verse
for which both men are celebrated.
Owen was killed in action on
the Western front in 1918, one of the final victims of the dying
embers of World War I. As such, he remains cocooned in the incorruptible
image of eternal youth. A slaughtered lamb, butchered before
his gifts could develop. Sassoon, on the other hand, lived to
a ripe old age, growing ever closer to Christ and His Church.
His life, and the poetry that was its expression, would be one
long and contemplative search for truth, a poet's pilgrimage.
Sassoon enjoyed, or rather
endured, a controversially meteoric and mixed military career,
his war service making him both famous and infamous, hero and
villain. In June 1916 he was very much the hero, being awarded
the military cross for gallantry in battle after he had brought
in under heavy fire a wounded lance corporal who was lying close
to the German lines. This and other acts of bravery earned him
the nickname of "Mad Jack." Robert Graves, a fellow
officer in the Royal Welch Fusiliers who would himself become
a poet and novelist of some distinction, remembered Sassoon calmly
reading a newspaper shortly before going "over the top"
during the crucial attack at Fricourt. In 1917, after capturing
some German trenches in the Hindenburg Line single-handed, he
remained in the enemy position reading a volume of poems, seemingly
oblivious of the danger. This particular act of cavalier gallantry
earned him a recommendation for the Victoria cross, the highest
honor attainable in the British army.
Having been wounded in the
fighting on the Hindenburg Line, Sassoon was sent home. Then
he began to reflect upon the human butchery he had witnessed,
endured, and inflicted. From these moments of reflection the
hero hatched the villain. The perfect soldier became the pacifist
rebel. "Siegfried's unconquerable idealism changed direction
with his environment," wrote Robert Graves. "He varied
between happy warrior and bitter pacifist."
His "soldier's declaration"
in July 1917, addressed ostensibly to his commanding officer
but published or quoted in several newspapers, gained him notoriety.
It was made "as an act of willful defiance of military authority"
and attacked those in power who were willfully prolonging "the
sufferings of the troops . . . for ends which I believe to be
evil and unjust."
Sassoon's contempt for his
commanding officers, expressed prosaically in his declaration,
would be exemplified poetically in verses such as "Base
Details" and "The General," whereas his anger
at the jingoism of politicians and the press would be captured
bitterly in "Fight to a Finish." His plaintive reaction
against the "callous complaisance" of "those at
home" was immortalized with gruesome realism in "Glory
In a further gesture of defiance,
Sassoon threw his military cross into the River Mersey, and his
notoriety reached new heights when his declaration was read aloud
in the House of Commons. Many expected that these open acts of
rebellion would lead to Sassoon's court-martial. But, in true
Orwellian fashion, he was declared mentally overwrought and not
responsible for his actions. He was sent to Craiglockhart military
hospital in Edinburgh to be treated for psychological shell shock.
Here he met and befriended Wilfred Owen.
In the midst of Sassoon's lurid
descriptions of the "base details" of war was an intrepid
introspection which saw Golgotha amidst the hell. Religious imagery,
albeit sometimes overlaid with the irony of anger, is discernible
in much of his war poetry and detectable in the very titles of
many of them. "Absolution," "Golgotha," "The
Redeemer," and "Stand-to: Good Friday Morning"
all testify to a soul haunted by Christ. The embryonic spirit
of Christ was most apparent in "Reconciliation," a
poem written in November 1918, the month the war finally ended.
In eight intensively potent lines, Sassoon asks his compatriots,
even as they mourn their own dead, to remember the German soldiers
who were killed.
With the war ended, Sassoon,
like many of his contemporaries, found himself lost in and alienated
by the nihilistic no-man's land, or Eliotic "Wasteland,"
of post-war England. Apart from the solace sought in the writing
of his own verse, he gained consolation in the poetry of others.
He defended the provocative modernity of Edith Sitwell, writing
an article defending her work in the Daily Herald under
the combative title "Too Fantastic for Fat-Heads."
He also found solace in music, defending the provocative modernity
of Stravinsky in one of his finest poems, "Concert-Interpretation,"
in which the Russian composer's controversial "Le Sacre
du Printemps" with its "polyphony through dissonance"
is compared, with ambient ambivalence, to a "serpent-conscious
Eden, crude but pleasant." A different spirit pervades "Sheldonian
Soliloquy," possibly Sassoon's best-known post-war poem,
in which his feelings of elation during a recital of Bach's B
minor Mass are expressed with delightful and cathartic whimsy.
Written in 1922, there is in
"Sheldonian Soliloquy," as in many of Sassoon's war
poems, a tantalizing glimpse of an embryonic Christianity which
would have a further 35-year gestation period. In the interim,
Sassoon became as respected for his prose as for his poetry.
His semi-fictitious autobiography, The Complete Memoirs of
George Sherston, published in 1937, was begun with Memoirs
of a Fox-Hunting Man in 1928, continued with Memoirs
of an Infantry Officer in 1930, and concluded with Sherston's
Progress in 1936. Truly autobiographical works followed.
The Old Century was published in 1938, The Weald
of Youth in 1942, and Siegfried's Journey 1916-20
Neither the "Journey"
of Siegfried nor the "Progress" of Sherston ended in
1945, the year in which the last of his autobiographical works
of prose was published. On the contrary, the ending of World
War II marked a new beginning for the poet. Despite the success
of the prose volumes, the most profound autobiography of the
poet was to be found in his poems. Arranged chronologically,
they offer an impressionistic picture of a heart's journey toward
God and its progress through the trials and tribulations of life.
The dropping of the atomic
bomb on Hiroshima inspired Sassoon to the same heights of horrified
creativity as it had inspired Sitwell in the composition of her
"three poems of the Atomic Age" discussed in last month's
issue of Lay Witness. Sassoon's "Litany of the
Lost" employed resonant religious imagery as a counterpoint
to the post-war pessimism and alienation engendered by the descent
from world war to Cold War. As with the previous war, the world
had emerged from the nightmare of conflict into the desert of
despair, transforming "wasteland" to nuclear waste.
The ending of the second of
the century's global conflagrations marked the beginning of Sassoon's
final approach to the Catholic faith. Influenced to a degree
by Catholic friends such as Ronald Knox and Hilaire Belloc, but
to a far greater degree by the experience of his own life, he
was received into the Church in September 1957, shortly after
his 71st birthday. After a lifetime of mystical searching he
had finally found his way Home.
During his first Lent as a
Catholic, Sassoon wrote "Lenten Illuminations," a candid
account of his conversion which invites obvious comparisons with
T.S. Eliot's "Ash Wednesday." The last decade of his
life, like the last decades of the Rosary he came to love, was
a quiet meditation on the glorious mysteries of faith. As ever,
his meditations were expressed in memorable verse, particularly
in the peaceful mysticism of "A Prayer at Pentecost,"
"Arbor Vitae," and "A Prayer in Old Age."
In 1960 Sassoon selected 30
of his poems for a volume entitled The Path to Peace,
which was essentially an autobiography in verse. From the earliest
sonnets of his youth to the religious poetry of his last years,
Sassoon's intensely personal and introspective verse offered
a sublime reflection of a life's journey in pursuit of truth.
These, and not his diaries, his letters, or his prose, are the
precious jewels of enlightenment that point to the soul within
This article is reprinted with permission from Lay
Witness magazine. Lay
Witness is a publication of Catholic United for the Faith,
Inc., an international lay apostolate founded in 1968 to support,
defend, and advance the efforts of the teaching Church.