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Siegfried Sassoon

1886–1967

Siegfried Sassoon was born on September 8, 1886, in Kent, England. He attended Kent's New Beacon School and Marlborough College before attending Clare College, Cambridge, in 1905. While there, he privately published his first volume of poetry in 1906. He left Cambridge before receiving a degree and spent several years privately publishing his verse, including a parody of John Masefield called The Daffodil Murderer (John Richmond, 1913).

Sassoon is primarily known for his his poems inspired by his experiences in World War I, which were originally published in three volumes: Picture-Show (Heinemann, 1919), Counter-Attack and Other Poems (Heinemann, 1918), and The Old Huntsman (Heinemann, 1917).

Sassoon enlisted at the beginning of the war, in 1914, but a riding accident delayed his commission. In April 1915 his brother was killed at Gallipoli, and in May 1915 Sassoon was commisioned to the Royal Welch Fusiliers and soon left to fight in France. He returned to England in 1916, to recover from an illness, and in 1917, to recover from a gunshot wound. During these periods he developed ties to several pacifists, including Bertrand Russell. In June 1917 he wrote a statement protesting the war that was read aloud in the House of Commons. The poet Robert Graves helped him avoid a court martial through a diagnosis of neurasthenia, and as a result, he was hospitalized at the Craiglockhart War Hospital. While there, he became friends with the poet Wilfred Owen. He returned to France in 1918, where he was wounded by friendly fire.

After World War I, Sassoon published a series of fictionalized autobiographies known collectively as The Memoirs of George Sherston, and he also served as the literary editor of the Daily Herald for several years. Sassoon was gay, and after the war he had a series of relationships with other men before marrying Hester Gatty in 1933. Together they had a son, George Sassoon, before separating in 1945. In 1951 he was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire. He died on September 1, 1967. On November 11, 1985, his name was added to a memorial in Westminter Abbey's Poet's Corner.


Selected Bibliography

Poetry
Sequences (Faber and Faber, 1956)
The War Poems of Siegfried Sassoon (Heinemann, 1919)
Picture-Show (Heinemann, 1919)
Counter-Attack and Other Poems (Heinemann, 1918)
The Old Huntsman (Heinemann, 1917)

Prose
Siegfried's Journey (Faber and Faber, 1945)
The Weald of Youth (Faber and Faber, 1942)
Sherston's Progress (Faber and Faber, 1936)
Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (Faber and Faber, 1930)
Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man (Faber and Gwyer, 1928)

Siegfried Sassoon

By This Poet

15

Idyll

In the grey summer garden I shall find you   
With day-break and the morning hills behind you.   
There will be rain-wet roses; stir of wings;   
And down the wood a thrush that wakes and sings.   
Not from the past you'll come, but from that deep
Where beauty murmurs to the soul asleep:   
And I shall know the sense of life re-born   
From dreams into the mystery of morn   
Where gloom and brightness meet. And standing there   
Till that calm song is done, at last we'll share
The league-spread, quiring symphonies that are   
Joy in the world, and peace, and dawn’s one star.

Autumn

October's bellowing anger breaks and cleaves
The bronzed battalions of the stricken wood
In whose lament I hear a voice that grieves
For battle's fruitless harvest, and the feud
Of outraged men. Their lives are like the leaves
Scattered in flocks of ruin, tossed and blown
Along the westering furnace flaring red.
O martyred youth and manhood overthrown,
The burden of your wrongs is on my head.

Repression of War Experience

Now light the candles; one; two; there's a moth;
What silly beggars they are to blunder in
And scorch their wings with glory, liquid flame—
No, no, not that,—it's bad to think of war,
When thoughts you've gagged all day come back to scare you;
And it's been proved that soldiers don't go mad
Unless they lose control of ugly thoughts
That drive them out to jabber among the trees.

Now light your pipe; look, what a steady hand.
Draw a deep breath; stop thinking; count fifteen,
And you're as right as rain….
                                     Why won't it rain?…
I wish there'd be a thunder-storm to-night,
With bucketsful of water to sluice the dark,
And make the roses hang their dripping heads.

Books; what a jolly company they are,
Standing so quiet and patient on their shelves,
Dressed in dim brown, and black, and white, and green
And every kind of colour. Which will you read?
Come on; O do read something; they're so wise.
I tell you all the wisdom of the world
Is waiting for you on those shelves; and yet
You sit and gnaw your nails, and let your pipe out,
And listen to the silence: on the ceiling
There's one big, dizzy moth that bumps and flutters;
And in the breathless air outside the house
The garden waits for something that delays.
There must be crowds of ghosts among the trees,—
Not people killed in battle,—they're in France,—
But horrible shapes in shrouds—old men who died
Slow, natural deaths,—old men with ugly souls,
Who wore their bodies out with nasty sins.

* * *

You're quiet and peaceful, summering safe at home;
You'd never think there was a bloody war on!…
O yes, you would … why, you can hear the guns.
Hark! Thud, thud, thud,—quite soft … they never cease—
Those whispering guns—O Christ, I want to go out
And screech at them to stop—I'm going crazy;
I'm going stark, staring mad because of the guns.

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