Sassoon, Siegfried. War and Other Poems.

Siegfried Sassoon


by William J. Bean
last updated January 7, 2001

Go on to the Poetry of War.

This site is most unusual. It combines the best of humankind with the worst. It reproduces here some of the most elegant and blunt poetry with some of the most brilliant visual artistry of the time. Unfortunately the art and poetry describe one of the worst things humans can do to one another. The legalized murder called war. Here then is one poet's view of this odd human pass-time.

Siegfried Sassoon was born in Weirleigh, Kent, England on September 8, 1886 into a leisurely society of country living. His father, a Sephardic Jew, and mother, a Catholic, separated when he was five years old. When his father died of Tuberculosis a few short months after the separation¹, his mother was forced to raise Siegfried on her own.

²Siegfried was educated at Marlborough Grammar School and later attended Clare College at Cambridge. His main interests were hunting and poetry. He was an undergraduate at Clare from 1905 to 1907 and was later made an Honorary Fellow in 1953. Five years after leaving Clare College he wrote a parody to the poem "The Everlasting Mercy" by John Masefield. Mr. Masefield was so impressed by the work that he hailed Sassoon as "one of England's most brilliant rising stars...". Sassoon's parody titled "The Daffodil Murderer" was written in December of 1912.

Sassoon enlisted in the military at the age of 28 just before the draft and was eventually assigned to the Royal Welch Fusiliers. There he met and befriended the writer Robert Graves.

The war was hard on Siegfried and his family. Early in the war Sassoon's brother Hamo was mortally wounded at Gallipoli. Hamo was later buried at sea. Siegfried took vengence for his brother's death by involving himself in brave, sometimes suicidal deeds against the Germans. A short leave from the front helped to calm him and later as the war dragged on, he experienced a sense of total disgust with the conflict. This distain would work its way into his poetry. During a spell of convalescence in which he was treated for shell shock at Craiglockhart Hospital in Edinburgh, Scotland he met and befriended the poet, Wilfred Owen who was being treated for the same ailment. He also met, befriended, and had a profound effect on the opinions of his doctor W.H.R. Rivers regarding war.

Since Wilfred Owen had not yet become a published author when he was killed in action his poetry was unknown to the public. Sadly Owen was killed one week prior to armastice.

After the war Siegfried insisted on working as editor and publisher of Owen's works. Within that same year Sassoon discovered that he was too intimately involved with both Wilfred Owen and The Great War to maintain the objectivity required to serve as both editor and publisher.

Another year passed before Sassoon found an editor for Owen's poetry and "Anthem for Doomed Youth" was published shortly after.

Sassoon's early war poetry gives the reader a sense of war as a noble enterprise; his later war poetry attacks the entire nature of war and those who profit by it. After the war he also published a series of fictional autobiographies in which he recounts his life before (Memoirs of a Fox Hunting Man), during (Memoirs of an Infantry Officer), and after (Sherston's Progress) the Great War. Some years after the war he wrote autobiographical prose and poetry which did not relate to the war.

³Of his war poetry, "The Old Huntsman" appeared in early 1918 singing the nobility of war; "Counter-Attack" appeared in late 1918 revealing the shocking brutality and pointlessness of war.

In December of 1933 Siegfried married Hester Gatty after a short engagement. Their only child, George, was born in 1936. Sometime after the end of the second world war Siegfried and Hester divorced.

For a literary biography, please visit the Bartleby Library version at Bartleby Library of Columbia University, New York. This biography is more concerned with Siegfried's literary works.

For a more complete biography, please visit Michele Fry's Biography of Siegfried L. Sassoon. Michele's Biography is both humane and compassionate while retaining a high level of accuracy.

The Poetry of War as a noble enterprise.

Page Notes
¹ It is unlikely that Siegfried's father left due to any family discord. In the early 1900s little was known about tuberculosis other than the fact that it is an infectious disease and deadly. Chances are that Siegfried's father left to protect the family from his illness.

² Both images of Siegfried have been modified from the standard black and white to give them a Sepia hue.

³ Both books of poetry were likely written or, at the least, edited at Craiglockhart Hospital during Siegfried's recovery.

This first page is the only one that contains photographs. All other images shown are water colors or oils created by soldier/artists or war correspondents covering the conflict. I have tried to match each painting or drawing with the poem just below it in order to enhance the effect of both.

This site has been selected and included in the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) Education Guide.  Please take a tour of that site.