George Charles Beresford: Siegfried Sassoon (1915)
A visitor to the house once asked me why there was so much war poetry in the bookcases in the living room: more specifically, why there were so many books by Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon and Edward Thomas, and nothing by Wilfred Owen, who is generally regarded as the pick of the bunch? I had to admit she had me there. Why wasn't there any Wilfred Owen? I've since repaired that omission, but it's interesting to me (at least) that it occurred in the first place.
I wouldn't say that I was exceptionally keen on war poetry. Certainly I've read all the usual suspects, and have a number of books on the subject, but it's not really one of my absolute areas of fanatical interest. I do love Edward Thomas, though (as my previous post on the subject should testify). And my fascination with the strange reaches of Robert Graves's imagination remains unabated. Why so much by Siegfried Sassoon, though?
Lady Ottoline Morrell: Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves (1920)
Just about everything to do with the First World War is - quite naturally - very much in the news at present. I've supplied my own tentative bibliography of the subject here. I find some of Sassoon's war poetry as powerful as any ever written: "Base Details," for instance - but also 'Everyone Sang', which is just one of those perfect poems which come out of nowhere sometimes. Not out of nowhere, really, when one comes to think about it: out of four years of suffering and pain and loss of innocence and meaningless machine-age slaughter.
I'm not sure that he's really received his due as an autobiographer, though. Everyone knows Memoirs of an Infantry Office (1930), and most people are aware that it's part of a trilogy, The Complete Memoirs of George Sherston (his imaginary alterego). But how many readers go on to his second, more directly autobiographical trilogy, The Old Century (1938), The Weald of Youth (1942) and Siegfried’s Journey, 1916-1920 (1945)? And yet it's every bit as charmingly and precisely written, and perhaps even more evocative of the vanished world before the bombardment (in Osbert Sitwell's phrase).
Siegfried Sassoon: War Poems (1983)
Six prose memoirs is quite a substantial legacy. And when you add in the posthumous publications: Rupert Hart-Davis's beautifully crafted collections of War Poems (1983), together with three volumes of diaries (1981-85), not to mention Paul Fussell's elegant illustrated edition of the Sherston Memoirs, Sassoon's Long Journey (1983), he begins to look even more substantial.
Paul Fussell, ed.: Sassoon's Long Journey (1983)
Like Graves, he did have the advantage of having survived: not through any want of trying to get killed on the part of either of them, mind you. For all the editing and re-editing, Wilfred Owen's legacy remains fragmentary and thwarted because there is (comparatively) so little of the harsh, late war poetry we all admire, and so much of the flowery, fulsome pre-war poet. The fact that almost all Owen's surviving letters are addressed to his mother doesn't help, either - and nor does the fact that most of the biographical information we have about him comes through the filter of his rather jealous brother, Harold (himself a most accomplished memoirist).
Wilfred Owen: Poems (1920)
But what is it, finally, that explains my rather compulsive collecting of Sassoon's books? They are very beautifully produced and designed, of course: fine Faber layouts on pre-Second-World-War paper, for the most part. To some extent it's because of the sidelights it throws on Graves, who remains my main man in the field, I must confess (despite the comparative weakness of his own war poetry: his heart was never really in it like Sassoon and Owen).
Robert Graves: War Poems (2016)
I suppose, to some extent, it's because his work shows just how much can be accomplished with limited talents if you similarly limit your objectives. Graves was a far more unruly genius than Sassoon, but did he ever write anything as moving and perfect as the Sherston memoirs? I suspect not. Owen proved himself a far more gifted poet in the few months of mature work he was able to complete, but it was Sassoon who liberated him from his Georgian shackles, encouraged his work, and put up with his adolescent hero worship.
What's more, if you actually sit down and read a collection such as Counter-Attack (1918) from cover to cover, I think you might find it hard to sustain your belief in that label of "minor poet" which now hangs around him. It's a pretty powerful book, with poem after poem on its pages destined for immortality. How many other poets of any era can say the same?
Glyn Warren Philpot: Siegfried Sassoon (1917)
Siegfried Sassoon: Memoirs (1928-45)
Siegfried Loraine Sassoon
- Sassoon, Siegfried. Collected Poems. London: Faber, 1947.
- Sassoon, Siegfried. Collected Poems 1908-1956. 1961. London: Faber, 1984.
- Sassoon, Siegfried. The War Poems. Ed. Rupert Hart-Davis. London: Faber, 1983.
- Sassoon, Siegfried. Memoirs of a Fox-hunting Man. 1928. The Faber Library, 1. London: Faber, 1932.
- Sassoon, Siegfried. Memoirs of an Infantry Officer. 1930. The Faber Library, 2. London: Faber, 1932.
- Sassoon, Siegfried. Sherston’s Progress. 1936. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1948.
- Sassoon, Siegfried. The Complete Memoirs of George Sherston: Memoirs of a Fox-hunting Man / Memoirs of an Infantry Officer / Sherston’s Progress. 1928, 1930, 1936, 1937. London: Faber, 1945.
- Fussell, Paul, ed. Sassoon's Long Journey: An Illustrated Selection from Siegfried Sassoon's The Complete Memoirs of George Sherston. 1928, 1930, 1936, 1937. A Giniger Book Published in association with Faber & Faber. London: Faber / New York: K. S. Giniger Co. Inc., 1983.
- Sassoon, Siegfried. The Old Century, and Seven More Years. London: Faber, 1938.
- Sassoon, Siegfried. The Weald of Youth. London: Faber, 1942.
- Sassoon, Siegfried. Siegfried’s Journey, 1916-1920. London: Faber, 1945.
- Sassoon, Siegfried. Meredith. 1948. A Grey Arrow. London: Arrow Books Ltd., 1959.
- Sassoon, Siegfried. Diaries 1915-1918. Ed. Rupert Hart-Davis. London: Book Club Associates, 1983.
- Sassoon, Siegfried. Diaries 1920-1922. Ed. Rupert Hart-Davis. London: Faber, 1981.
- Sassoon, Siegfried. Diaries 1923-1925. Ed. Rupert Hart-Davis. London: Faber, 1985.
- Sassoon, Siegfried. Letters to Max Beerbohm: with a few answers. Ed. Rupert Hart-Davis. London: Faber, 1986.
- Wilson, Jean Moorcroft. Siegfried Sassoon: The Making of a War Poet. A Biography 1886-1918. 1998. New York: Routledge, 1999.
- Wilson, Jean Moorcroft. Siegfried Sassoon: The Journey from the Trenches. A Biography 1918-1967. London: Gerald Duckworth and Co. Ltd., 2003.
Siegfried Sassoon: Diaries (1981-85)