Siegfried Sassoon

Book Reviews

Over a period of time I will be adding contemporary reviews on this page of the various books that Siegfried Sassoon published. The reviews are taken from various literary magazines that reviewed new books, the title of each is acknowledged along with the date of the review. I believe that these reviews are important today as they show just how Sassoon’s books were received at the time they were written. It also gives people who are new to Sassoon a glimpse of what each book is about.

The Saturday Review of Literature, Vol. XIV, No. 24, 10th October, 1936 “Fox Hunting Officer”- Sherston’s Progress, By Siegfried Sassoon. New York: Doubleday Doran & Co. 1936. $2. Reviewed by A. W. Smith.

The Saturday Review 1936Mr. Sassoon wrote of a Fox Hunting Man and an Infantry Officer appealingly, objectively, and with sympathetic humor. From civilized maturity he wrote of a Sherston who once was and now is not. There was a promise that the young Sherston would grow up. But Sherston, it seems, never grew up. Mr. Sassoon still writes of him as one who was, but in a manner which makes it appear that he still is. The book begins where the “Infantry Officer” left off. The first third deals with Sherston, an inmate of a shell-shock hospital in Edinburgh (like all Mr. Sassoon’s fictitious names the disguise is easily penetrated). Sherston had made himself notorious with his statement - ultimatum - what you will, declaring that he would no longer take part in the war. He had thrown the ribbon of his Military Cross into the Mersey; he was refusing to accept his pay. At Slateford Hospital he played a lot of golf and spent a lot of time cleaning his clubs. At last he was able to compromise with conscience or to overcome his neurosis, whichever way one prefers to look at it. He demanded to be sent back to France.

The last half of the book has been taken without apparent alteration from a youthful and not very entertaining diary which covers war experiences in Palestine and France. At that time, when Barbusse was considered subversive and disloyal to the cause, it would have found an appreciative audience. It is very heartening and quite synthetic and might have formed the basis of his letters to his Aunt Evelyn, telling only as much as it was good for her to know.

A. W. Smith, an officer in the British Army during the war, is the author of “A Captain Departed.”

 

The Saturday Review of Literature, Vol. XIX, No. 12, 14th January, 1939 “The Young Sherston”- The Old Century and Seven More Years, By Siegfried Sassoon. New York: The Viking Press. 1939. $2.75. Reviewed by Richard A. Cord
The Saturday Review 1939Although Siegfried Sassoon’s “Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man,” “Memoirs of an Infantry Officer,” and “Sherston’s Progress” are thinly disguised as fiction, they constitute one of the fine autobiographies of our time. Dropping the annonymity of fiction, Sassoon in “The Old Century, and Seven More Years” tells the true story of his boyhood in Kent and of his years at preparatory schools in Cambridge. It should be said at once that “The Old Century” is a superb book, a poet’s book by one of the living masters of English prose. In an age of jitterbug writing Sassoon’s rich, lucid prose is the shadow of a great rock in a weary land. The fine promise of “Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man” (Sassoon’s first volume of prose) is richly fulfilled in “The Old Century.” Here one discovers the same quiet, unlabored beauty, the same crisp pictures of Kentish meadows and Weald; but the humor is richer and deeper, especially in the sketches of his amazing relatives and Kentish neighbors, and in the shrewd analysis of his own budding creative talent

As every reader of Sassoon knows, the poet came out of the four shattering years of the war with the Military Cross and a severe shell shock, and a conviction that “war is hell and those who institute it are criminals.” His sensitive, humane soul was so harrowed and outraged by the barbarism of war and its chaotic aftermath that the tranquil beauty of the healthy joys of his childhood are by contrast italicized in his memory. When writing “The Old Century,” Sassoon ran across a school picture taken in 1901.

‘Beside me are two nice German boys, first cousins, who afterwards fought one another in a war which neither of them wanted. My own face confronts me with an expression of amused simplicity, suggesting that I wasn’t bothered about anything that might be happening when I was fourteen years older than the photograph, taken one Sunday morning in a bright winter sunshine, to remind me long afterwards of those precariously remembered humanities which my soliloquies recreate.’

Many middle-aged and older people today look back on the twenty years preceding the World War as the most civilized era in man’s history. Science had already given us practically all the comforts we enjoy today, if not all our complex and complicating gadgets; moreover, there was a spiritual security which man may never again possess. Sassoon grew up during these placid years on a garden-like Kentish estate with two congenial brothers as playmates, a healthy love of the outdoors, and endless hours for cricket, fishing and riding. Naturally “The Old Century” is an idyll, although never sentimental. With rare imagination but with little talent for memorizing facts, he barely escaped an ignominious career in school. His final report from Marlborough School was indeed ominous; “Lacks power of concentration; shows no particular intelligence or aptitude for any branch of his work; seems unlikely to adopt any special career.” But he absorbed life as he lived it, imaginatively and joyously.

“The Old Century” has but one fault: it is too brief. The reader longs to learn more about Siegfried’s mysterious Jewish father, about Aunt Rachel and the astounding tribe of Thornycrofts. (The poet’s mother we already knew well as Aunt Evelyn and Richardson as Dixon in the earlier books.) But to complain of the brevity of a book is to pay it a tribute.

Richard A. Cordell of the department of English at Purdue University, is the author of a book on Maugham.

 

The Saturday Review of Literature, Vol. XXIV, No. 2, 3rd May, 1941. Rhymed Ruminations, By Siegfried Sassoon. New York: The Viking Press. 1941. 56 pp. $1.50. Reviewed by Louis Untermeyer.

The Saturday Review May 1941This is the kind of small collection which English poets used to have printed privately for circulation among their friends. Composed chiefly of “occasional pieces,” a few of the pages seem to call for a wider audience - and privacy is exchanged for a limited publicity. Small though the present volume may be, it gives the reader a fairly clear picture of what an anti-militarist war-poet has been doing in the last eight or nine years. He has, it is evident from the contents, retired to the countryside in the south of England, he has lived quietly ruminating on prehistoric burials and imminence of bombers at Stonehenge, he has married and has become the father of a son, he has seen England rearm for a bigger and bitterer war. Brief though the book is and confined to its locale, it ranges widely in tone and spirit. The first few poems have the accent of Thomas Hardy, whom Sassoon has always admired; the last few recall Rupert Brooke, Sassoon’s romantic opposite. It is strange to hear the once angry protester against all war declaring:

‘None are exempt from service in this hour;
And vanquished in ourselves we dare not be....
In every separate soul let courage shine_
A kneeling angel holding faith’s front-line.’
 
But these are strange and desperate times when the pacifist turns militant patriot and division spells death. Not even Sassoon’s most consistent admirers would insist that this volume increases his poetic stature. But it can be claimed that it rounds out the portrait of the man. The poems occasioned by the birth and growth of his son, especially “Meeting and Parting,” are not only tender but probing. The others are a little resigned, a little remote, but never without the poet’s fundamental consciousness. No better characterization could be offered than Sassoon’s own title.

 

The Saturday Review of Literature, Vol. XXV, No. 48, 28th November, 1942 “Two Siegfried Sassoons”- The Weald of Youth, By Siegfried Sassoon. New York: The Viking Press. 1942. 259pp. $2.75. Reviewed by R. Ellis Roberts

The Saturday Review 1942Not the least skillful and subtle thing in this new book of Mr. Sassoon’s subtle and humorous self-portraiture is the way in which he distinguishes the young Siegfried, moving towards poetry and war, from the Sherston of his early essays in a more arranged autobiography. It is amusing to see how well the Siegfried Sassoon of today can remember and understand the young Siegfried, top-hatted, tail-coated, spatted, of thirty years ago: he recalls gravely how, on reflection, he decided that, of living poets, “the only one of any distinction who wouldn’t have been totally out of his element at Tattersall’s” was Ralph Hodgson. It is odd he should forget Masefield, of whose “The Everlasting Mercy” the young Sassoon wrote a parody-pastiche, “The Daffodill Murderer,” by Saul Kane: his authorship is here for the first time, I think, publicly admitted. Much of “The Weald of Youth” is concerned with the making of a poet; Siegfried Sassoon was writing at the time when “Eddie” (Sir Edward) Marsh was shaking down poets from every apple-tree. There were rebel movements, even then: but the greatest attention was given to Georgian poetry rather than to Imagists or Vorticists or the last cry of the Symbolists. And behind the patient, friendly, indefatigable Eddie was the strange figure of Sir Edmund Gosse. Gosse stands alone as a patron and critic; very few people whom he helped are not grateful - practically none of his friends can make him other than an unattractive, snobbish, bitter-tongued gentleman.

He was an old fiend of Sassoon’s family: and he helped him. It is plain that Siegfried Sassoon is still rather puzzled by his mentor’s character. The truth is Gosse did not back winners for the Parnassus stakes: he never backed anyone until it was clear that he was a winner.  His own judgment was willful and capricious, and far too governed by considerations that had nothing to do with art. At Gosse’s Mr. Sassoon met George Moore, and his record of that meeting is a bit of quiet, delicious humor.

This volume ends in August 1914, and the author bicycling furiously to Rye to enlist to fight for the Weald which “had been the world of my youngness, and while I gazed across it now I felt prepared to do what I could to defend it. And after all dying for one’s native land was supposed to be the most glorious thing one could possibly do!”

 

The Saturday Review of Literature, Vol. XXIX, No. 13, 30th March, 1946 “Mr. Sassoon’s Progress”- Siegfried’s Journey, By Siegfried Sassoon. New York: The Viking Press. 1946. 338pp. $3. Reviewed by Ben Ray Redman.

The Saturday Review 1946This is the third volume of an autobiography that began with “The Old Century” and continued with “The Weald of Youth,” an autobiography that has now made its leisurely way from the year 1886 down to the year 1920; that will, doubtless, if all goes according to plan, continue through several volumes more, until the gap between its author’s past and present is reduced to an approximate vanishing point. And the prospect is an agreeable one, for if Mr. Sassoon spends quite a bit of his time in writing of matters of no great importance, he seldom fails us in the manner of his writing. He has been accused so often of being charming that he must be heartily tired of the description, but charming he is. With few lapses, his prose is a model of engaging simplicity, and his easy, modest demeanor, as he writes on and on about himself, converts his readers into sympathetic friends. Ever so seldom, only, is there a faint hint that behind this modesty there is calculation. Mr. Sassoon’s accomplishment as an avowed autobiographer is the more remarkable in view of the fact that he used up so much of his material in telling the story of George Sherston, before setting himself his present task. Sherston is, of course, the hero of “Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man,” “Memoirs of an Infantry Officer,” and “Sherston’s Progress.” furthermore, he is, according to his creator, “A simplified version of my ‘outdoor self.’ He was denied the complex advantage of being a soldier-poet.”

As a result of Sherston’s being first upon the scene, the whole man who is Siegfried Sassoon finds himself frequently referring and deferring to the half-man in such passages as these: “My experiences during the next three weeks, which ended in my being sent to a shell-shock hospital, have already been related in ‘Memoirs of an Infantry Officer.’ I am thankful not to be obliged to drag my mind through the details again.” “That inveterate memoirizer George Sherston has already narrated a sequence of infantry experiences - from the end of 1917 - which were terminated, on July 13th, by a bullet wound in the head. His experiences were mine, so I am spared the effort of describing them.”

This method of procedure obviously leaves considerable gaps in the autobiography, which can be filled only by reference to the earlier “fiction.” For a full account of the author’s one-man revolt against what he considered a senseless prolongation of the First World War, you must turn to Sherston’s version; and you must go to the same source for the best of the author’s fox-hunting memories. Had Sherston never been thought of, the books now appearing would doubtless have been far richer in content than they are, but what a loss Sherston would have been! He may have been no soldier-poet, but his maker spent his finest prose on him: writing that is almost sure to exhibit timeless qualities when most of the same author’s once-famous war poetry has long since come to be seen as merely timely utterance.

It is with the “soldier-poet” that this third autobiographical installment is largely concerned. We watch his war-disillusionment seeking and instinctively shaping a fit instrument of expression: the “harsh, premptory, and colloquial stanzas with a knock-out blow in the last line.” we follow him to hospital in Scotland, where another young poet shyly submits verses for his criticism - verses signed with the then unknown name of Wilfred Owen - and we see born a friendship of tragic brevity. We look on as he emerges into public view under the imprint of Heinemann and the expert guidance of Robert Ross, determined to shock a civilian public into an awareness of what war is really like, turning his fire upon the professional patriots, the Glorious Sacrifice singers, and the I-wish-I-were-young-enough-to-go boys. His Military Cross and his wound stripes gave him the right to speak, and he spoke truthfully, bitterly, sardonically, even savagely; but who will say today that he or anyone else spoke effectively? We see him eagerly widening a circle of friends and acquaintances, many of them famous, and retaining impressions that give body to some of the most interesting passages of “Siegfried’s Journey.” Let us, parenthetically, call a partial roll, with a brief quotation attached to each well-known name:

Hardy: “Frail and rather wizard-like in the candleshine and dim room, with his large round head, immense brow, and beaky nose, he was not unlike the ‘Max’ caricature, but rather more bird-like.” Noel Coward: “But the youthful stranger rattled brightly on, making smart remarks, which I considered cheap.” Lawrence of Arabia: “When arriving at the Savoy I expected to find a conventional military character with whom I should have little in common, so the small, fair-haired, youthful-looking person to whom I was presented came as a surprise.” Masefield: “His courteous and deliberative  replies must have been an amusing contrast to my impetuous utterances which in those days had a habit of falling over one another almost before I had decided what I intended to say!” Robert Bridges: “After an awkward pause he told us to sit down. Then, having inquired of Masefield whether there was any credibility in the report that the German Emperor had abdicated, he glowered in my direction and gruffly made one of the most surprising remarks I have experienced. ‘What did you say his name was - Siegfried Digweed?’ “ James Barrie: “He was taciturn and I was struck by the impression of melancholy which haunted his queer facial shabbiness.”

Returning to the young poet (he was not so very young, but the adjective seemed to stick), we watch his career broaden to embrace the enjoyment of diverse hospitality as proffered by Lady Randolph Churchill, Cambridge dons, the Sitwells, and Frankie Schuster, while simultaneously and somewhat incongruously that same career comprehends a flirtation with the Labour Party and the literary editorship of the Daily Herald.

And finally, at least for this volume, we see “England’s Young Soldier-Poet” sailing to lecture in the United Sates, viewing that country with considerable bewilderment if not with alarm, and then sailing home again, having possessed himself of a new and dear friend in the person of S. N. Behrman to say nothing of a new American straw hat. It all reads so pleasantly (and for a certain generation, so nostalgically) that one hesitates to carp. But it seems to me - indeed, I am quite sure - that the quality of “Siegfried’s Journey” is not quite up to that of “The Old Century” and “The Weald of Youth.” Is it perhaps, that at this stage of his story, the author has relied too much upon the stimulation of diary jottings, and the attractive power of famous names, instead of bringing his material to full literary life by a sustained effort of brooding memory? Whatever the answer, and whatever the exact qualitative position of this latest volume in the Sassoon corpus, there is no doubt that “Siegfried’s Journey” is a most enjoyable book.

 

The Saturday Review of Literature, Vol. XXXII, No. 5, 29th January, 1949. “Great and Civilised” - Collected Poems, By Siegfried Sassoon. New York: The Viking Press. 1949. 260 pp. $3.50. Reviewed by Robert Hillyer.
The Saturday Review 1949Siegfried Sassoon’s collected poems come as a revelation even to one who has followed his work, both prose and verse, through the past thirty years. His position (shared, perhaps, by his friend Wilfred Owen) as the foremost poet of world War I, left the reader with established notions that single volumes could not quite dispel. Now, with the whole range of his poetry before us in one volume, we see every part of his performance in relation to the whole. He stands forth as a major poet. the collection truly represents an autobiography. The personality is well-nigh complete and deeply impressive; not a great poet only, but a civilized man. Humor, kindness, taste and righteous anger  are here, each in its just place and nowhere in recent literature more eloquent. Yet, though the book is personal, it is not romantically self-centered. Louis Untermeyer has remarked on Sassoon’s “mystic identification with all things,” and the phrase indicates the presence of that secret communication between the author and each reader, the person who is also Everyman.
The mood of Browningesque monologue in “The Old Huntsman” quickly gives way to the stung indignation of the poems written during the first war. Considering these, we are struck with the number of good pieces such as “When I’m Among a Blaze of Lights” and “The General,” which have remained obscure amid the selections so often repeated in the anthologies. Neither their irony nor that of the more familiar protests has rusted with time because all Sassoon’s poems are populated: the swirl of people and actions embodies anger beyond the one situation that roused it. furthermore, the untiring, quick-eyed observation of others precludes self-pity. The contrast here to the poets of World War II is lamentable.
 
The Chaucerian warmth and playfulness of an early poem, “David Cleek,” begin to come out again from behind the clouds as the war recedes in memory and the earth takes something of its familiar, English shape once more. We reenter a world of gardens, music, exhibits, and the flick of light-hearted satire. Nor is friendship forgotten: here are the memorial lines to Robert Ross. The past is here, as when, in “The Goldsmith,” the flower girl passes along the sunny streets of Knossos. And here is an acknowledgment of kinship with the mystical Silurian, Henry Vaughan.
 
Because of Sassoon’s dramatic presentation of his material he calls Hardy to mind. I find him a better poet than Hardy, broader in sympathy, less contrived, happier in conclusion, and in technique incomparably more polished. Sassoon is, with all else, an interesting poet. He summons our attention and holds it by the variety of his episodes and responses.
 
We are fortunate to have this perspective of all Sassoon’s poetical work in a single volume. No modern collection could be more valuable.

 

Everyman, Vol. 4, No. 86, 18th September 1939.

Everyman 1930It is probable that in years to come one of the outstanding personalities of the war whose name will be known when those of Army Commanders are forgotten, will be the poet Siegfried Sassoon. He was a subaltern in the Army, who after going through the battles of the Somme and of Arras, and being awarded the Military Cross, became a pacifist, refused to do military duty, and was only made to return when threatened with confinement in a lunatic asylum.

In his book, The Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man, he gave a picture of pre-war England and the opening years of the war. He now continues the story in The Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (Faber and Faber, 7s. 6d.), which is published today and relates to events from the spring of 1916 to the summer of 1917. During that period he was in the trenches with the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, got ill and was sent to hospital in England, went back in time for the spring offensive of 1917, was wounded and returned to England again.

While convalescent for the second time, his feeling about the war, its awful waste and the callousness of those who controlled affairs at home, preyed upon his mind, and he made his protest against its continuation. He protested on behalf of all soldiers, “against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed.” He was treated with great consideration and was fortunate to have friends who understood him. The account of this incident given in the book should be read in conjunction with what Robert Graves says in Goodbye to all That. The two versions supplement each other.

Mr. Sassoon refers to himself as George Sherston, and gives few real names. Robert Graves is called David Cromlech. But the book is autobiographical and is to be read as such and not as fiction. It is written with a quiet intensity that makes it tremendously impressive. The writing is even, balanced and economical. It is not, of course, his pacifist outburst that will cause his name to endure, but because in his two books, as well as his verse, he expresses what the war meant to many hundreds of thousands of young men. He gives an interpretation of the spirit of the war as the soldier understood it. Because he does not write in his own person he is able to present himself objectively, which adds not merely to the effectiveness of the book but establishes its truth.

As a study of the mind of the young man in modern warfare The Memoirs of an Infantry Officer has a significance of its own. What the author says will have to be taken account of by political leaders as well as by future historians. Its influence is likely to increase with time.

 

The Adelphi Vol. 1, No. 1, October 1930. “The Pity of War” - Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, by Siegfried Sassoon (Faber) 7s. 6d. Reviewed by Herbert Read.

The Adelphi 1930Mr. Sassoon’s new book continues The Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man, and in tone and temper in no way differs from that delightful book. The tone is that of a personal confession, to which it is extremely difficult to take up a critical attitude because the confession is not a literary form, and any judgments the critic can make inevitably become personal. But let us begin by asking: what is it that impels a man like Mr. Sassoon to make his confession to the world at large? Generally in such cases the motive is conceit of some kind - the desire to impose on the world a particular image or ideal of oneself which may be anything but the truth. That is not Mr. Sassoon’s motive; we are conscious rather of an excessive shyness, a diffidence which we feel at times is leading to understatement, and a naivety which is quite incompatible with vanity. Mr. Sassoon’s motive is probably in a broad sense political, or at any rate, didactic. He is a sensitive member of a generation destroyed by the greatest catastrophe in modern history; and because it was so destroyed, this generation cannot ever justify itself. A realist might object to this manner of speaking as fanciful; he would point out that although ten million men were killed, a fair number survived, and that surely some of them had a very jolly time. But in affairs of the spirit we do not count heads, and it was the spirit or vital faith of a generation that perished, not its bare existence. Or perhaps it was only the optimism of a generation that disappeared; for the spirit itself can smoulder on in bitterness and despair. Let us call it merely a spiritual crisis, and no one will deny its existence. For even the war dog claims that his soul emerged purified from the storm of steel.

This crisis, in those who experienced it, remains to be accounted for and assessed, and the motive behind all war-books that rise above the chess-board level leads to such a reckoning. We are at a disadvantage in the present case in that Mr. Sassoon’s confessions are not complete. This volume ends with an account of his revolt against the whole bloody business, the extraordinarily brave but futile gesture which Mr. Sassoon made in the summer of 1917. I say “futile” in no unsympathetic sense; the gesture expressed the aspirations of thousands of men in the line. But it was futile because it was based on a misconception of the nature of war. It carried a fox-hunting mentality into this quite different dimension of being, and imagined that even in war you could call off the hounds if you did not want the fox to be mauled. But instead of hounds you had a herd of swine into which an evil spirit had been cast, and whose headlong mad impulsion could only be stopped by self-inflicted wounds. Once raging in the dark instincts of mankind, the fever had to work itself out. Now that we are sadder, we must endeavour to be wiser. We must ask ourselves whether all that foulness need ever have been let loose in our blood; we must describe, as accurately as possible, the horror of that madness; and we must, if we are to preserve any faith in life, perfect our prophylactics.

There is a certain kind of war-book that does none of these things. It merely tries to maintain its private world in the midst of the chaos. If the author is a gentleman, he is anxious to show that in spite of all he remained a gentleman. If the author is a poet, he is anxious to show that in spite of all he remained a poet. And so with the snob, the brass-hat, the philosopher, the man who is interested in place-names, in butterflies, or back-chat. And there is the embusque, the man in a soft job or no job at all, who wants to prove that the war never happened. My only criticism of Mr. Sassoon’s book is a refinement on this distinction. He would like us to believe that he remained a fox-hunting man all the time, and actually writes his book in a tone which implies that he did. But we know from his war poems, and it is evident between the lines of this book, that he actually lost every illusion, came to the cold level where there is nothing but heart-wrenching and despair, and saw no hope.

I could illustrate this criticism by detailed citation from the text, but it will be evident to anyone who reads the book. I find a delicacy where there should be no delicacy, a tenderness where tenderness is cruel, and generally a failure to support, in the detailed description of fighting, that condemnation of war which was the motive of the author’s deliberate action in 1917, and is just as surely the motive of his activities now. To me, as one who had the same kind of experiences, and a sensibility not too dissimilar to exclude the compassion, the sense of reality that rises from the page is acute, but only because I can pierce the pearly veil of literary style to the actuality beneath.

On pages 220-222 there is a description of a fatigue party which is one of the most vivid passages in the book, and one that does not shirk certain horrors. But...there is a but. It is not the literary skill I object to; obviously, once your aim is clear, the more skill you can bring to bear on its expression the better. What I feel rather is that the aim is nothing but literary; it is art for art’s sake, and the horrors and the human misery are there so as to make what Mr. Sassoon calls “an impressive picture of ‘Despair’.” These Memoirs will endure as the authentic record of a sensitive and indeed noble character; they are a record, too, of the finer feelings of Englishmen in the war, revealing, as no other book has done, the quiet strength of our better moods. But...it is not the war. Could Mr. Sassoon honestly inscribe his book with these words of his friend Wilfred Owen?

Above all, this book is not concerned with poetry.
The subject of it is War, and the pity of war.
The poetry is in the pity.
 
It is no answer to say that in spite of this declaration Wilfred Owen wrote some of the greatest poetry of our time. When he says that “the poetry is in the pity” he means that the theme of it transcends all categories of expression. “All the poet can do to-day,” he further explained, “is to warn. That is why the true poet must be truthful.”

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