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Sassoon, Siegfried Lorainelocked

(1886–1967)

Siegfried Loraine Sassoon (1886–1967)

by Sir Cecil Beaton, 1920s

© Cecil Beaton Archive, Sotheby's; collection National Portrait Gallery, London

Sassoon, Siegfried Loraine (1886–1967), poet and writer, was born on 8 September 1886 at Weirleigh, Brenchley, near Paddock Wood in Kent, the second of the three sons of Alfred Ezra Sassoon (1861–1895), financier and sculptor, and his wife, Georgiana Theresa (1853–1947), daughter of Thomas Thornycroft and Mary Thornycroft, sculptors, and sister of Sir J. I. and Sir W. H. Thornycroft. He was educated at Marlborough College (1902–4) and Clare College, Cambridge (1905–6), of which he was later an honorary fellow. His father left home when Siegfried was seven and died soon after, so that the boys were entirely brought up by their mother and her talented family.

In his Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man Sassoon would depict himself as a lonely child, adding: 'as a consequence of my loneliness, I created in my childish day-dreams an ideal companion who became much more of a reality than such unfriendly boys as I encountered at Christmas parties'. His life can be seen as a quest for that ideal companion. Discovering at Cambridge that he was homosexual, he lived briefly with one such companion, David Thomas, whose death on the western front in March 1916 would prompt such poems as 'The Last Meeting' and 'A Letter Home'.

Sassoon left Cambridge without taking a degree and lived as a country gentleman, hunting, playing cricket, collecting books, and writing poems, of which he privately printed nine pamphlets between 1906 and 1912. These early verses, on the strength of which he was encouraged by Edmund Gosse, Edward Marsh, and Robert Ross, are graceful, often imitative, full of poetical intent, but without body. He was always 'waiting for the spark from heaven to fall', and when it fell it was shrapnel, for the First World War turned him from a versifier into a poet.

Sassoon enlisted as a trooper in the Sussex yeomanry, and in 1915 was commissioned in the Royal Welch Fusiliers and posted to France. He soon became well known for his bravery and was nicknamed Mad Jack. He was awarded the MC for bringing back a wounded lance-corporal under heavy fire, and later unsuccessfully recommended for the VC for capturing a German trench single-handedly.

Sassoon was wounded in April 1917 and while convalescing in England he felt impelled to write a violent attack on the conduct of the war ('I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority, because I believe that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it'). This he contrived to have read out in the House of Commons, but instead of the expected court martial, the under-secretary for war declared him to be suffering from shell-shock, and he was sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital, near Edinburgh. During his three months there he made two important friendships: with the young poet Wilfred Owen, whom he encouraged and helped, and with the psychologist and anthropologist W. H. R. Rivers, who became a loved and revered father figure to him. Eventually he decided to fight again and early in 1918 was posted to Palestine. In May he rejoined his old battalion in France, and in July was wounded again, this time in the head. So finished his military service.

Meanwhile in The Old Huntsman (1917) and Counter Attack (1918) Sassoon's savagely realistic and compassionate war poems had established his stature as a fully-fledged poet, and despite all his later prose and verse, and his growing aversion to the label, it was mainly as a war poet that he was regarded for the rest of his life.

In 1919 Sassoon was briefly involved in Labour politics and was the first literary editor of the reborn Daily Herald. This uncongenial task brought him into contact with the younger poet Edmund Blunden, who became a lifelong friend. In 1920 he read his poems on a lecture tour in the United States. Thereafter he lived in London, hunted for a few seasons in Gloucestershire, and brought out volumes of poetry—Selected Poems (1925), Satirical Poems (1926), and The Heart's Journey (1927)—which greatly increased his reputation and represent his full flowering as a poet.

All his life Sassoon kept copious diaries. Those for the years 1920–25 show him torn politically, the possessor of a private income with an uncomfortable socialist conscience; torn artistically, preferring eighteenth-century poetry to that of his modernist contemporaries, and longing—but unable—to write a Proustian masterpiece; and torn emotionally by a succession of disappointing homosexual relationships. The most enduring and important of these was with the artist Stephen Tennant (1906–1987).

In the late 1920s Sassoon turned to prose, drawing on his pre-war diaries and those for the first quarter of 1916 for his Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man. This was published in 1928, anonymously, though his name appeared in the second impression. This lightly fictionalized autobiography of his early years in Kent, in which he figures as the narrator George Sherston, was an immediate success, was awarded the Hawthornden and James Tait Black memorial prizes, and was quickly accepted as a classic of its kind—an elegy for a way of life which had gone for ever. He continued the story in Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (1930) and Sherston's Progress (1937).

On 18 December 1933 Sassoon married Hester (1906–1973), daughter of Sir Stephen Herbert Gatty, and they settled at Heytesbury House, near Warminster in Wiltshire, where Sassoon spent the rest of his life. Their son was born in 1936, and, although the marriage ended in 1944 in sadness and separation, at Heytesbury, Sassoon continued to find the beauty and the solitude that his writing needed, and he became steadily less inclined to leave home for any reason.

Once established there Sassoon began to write his factual autobiography, beginning with The Old Century and Seven More Years (1938), his favourite among his books, dedicated to his loved and admired friend Max Beerbohm, and continuing with The Weald of Youth (1942) and Siegfried's Journey (1945), which carried his story up to 1920. In 1948 he published a critical biography of George Meredith, and all the time he was writing poetry, published in private or public editions, which culminated in the Collected Poems of 1947 (enlarged edn, 1961).

In 1957 Sassoon's quest for an ideal companion ended with his 'unconditional surrender' to God. He was received into the Roman Catholic church, and the comfort and joy with which his religion filled his last years was celebrated in a spiritual anthology of his poetry, The Path to Peace (1960), printed and published by his dear friends the nuns of Stanbrook Abbey. If those devotional poems lack the vitality and power of his war poems, it may be because he was, by nature, a poet of polarity and protest rather than of union and acceptance.

Sassoon was strikingly distinguished in appearance, his large bold features expressing the courage and sensitivity of his nature, and he retained his slimness and agility into old age, playing cricket well into his seventies. A dedicated artist, he hated publicity but craved the right sort of recognition. He was appointed CBE in 1951, and was pleased by the award of the queen's medal for poetry in 1957 and by his honorary degree of DLitt at Oxford in 1965, but he pretended that such honours were merely a nuisance. A natural recluse, he yet much enjoyed the company of chosen friends, many of them greatly his juniors, and was a witty and lively talker. He loved books, pictures, and music, and was a brilliant letter writer. Sassoon died at his Heytesbury home on 1 September 1967, and was buried in Mells churchyard, Somerset, near his friend Monsignor Ronald Knox.

Sources

  • Siegfried Sassoon diaries [1915–25], ed. R. Hart-Davis, 3 vols. (1983–5)
  • [S. Sassoon], Memoirs of a fox-hunting man (1928)
  • personal knowledge (2004)
  • private information (2004)
  • b. cert.
  • m. cert.
  • d. cert.

Archives

  • BL, letters and poetical MSS, Add. MSS 62941–62942
  • BL, papers, Add. MSS 75285–75294
  • Col. U., Rare Book and Manuscript Library, corresp., literary MSS, and papers
  • CUL, corresp.
  • CUL, letters and poetical MSS
  • IWM, corresp.
  • NAM, notebooks and papers
  • Rutgers University, New Jersey, corresp., poems, and papers
  • BL, corresp. with Sir Sydney Cockerell, Add. MS 52752
  • BL, letters to Sir William Thornycroft, Add. MS 56099
  • Bodl. Oxf., letters to Robert Nichols with drafts and poems
  • Bodl. Oxf., letters to E. J. Thompson
  • Col. U., Rare Book and Manuscript Library, corresp. with Wilfred Owen and family
  • CUL, corresp. with Edward Dent and MS poems
  • CUL, corresp., incl. with Faber & Faber
  • CUL, letters to Haro Hodson
  • CUL, letters to Geoffrey Keynes
  • King's Cam., letters to E. M. Forster
  • Ransom HRC, letters to Edmund Blunden
  • Sheff. Arch., letters to Edward Carpenter
  • Southern Illinois University Library, Carbondale, letters to Robert Graves
  • U. Leeds, Brotherton L., letters to Edmund Gosse
  • U. Leeds, Brotherton L., letters to Philip Gosse
  • V&A NAL, letters mainly to Dame Hildelith Cumming

Likenesses

  • M. Beerbohm, caricature, drawing, 1913, Yale U.
  • G. Philpot, oils, 1917, FM Cam.
  • C. Beaton, vintage bromide print, 1920–29, NPG [see illus.]
  • H. Coster, photographs, 1929, NPG
  • W. Stoneman, photographs, 1929–31, NPG
  • M. Beerbohm, cartoon, 1931, The Spectator offices, London

Wealth at Death

£97,128: probate, 17 Jan 1968, CGPLA Eng. & Wales