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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 of Women."

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 in 1945.

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 the man.

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.

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