Book review: Siegfried Sassoon, by Jean Moorcroft Wilson

Wilson Siegfried SassoonWilson, Jean Moorcroft. Siegfried Sassoon: Soldier, Poet, Lover, Friend. Overlook Duckworth. 2013. $40. 629p. HC. 978-1-4683-0852-5.

This true magnum opus is also a tour de force, covering in detail aspects of Sassoon’s complex life as soldier in World War I, life-long poet, difficult lover, and faithful friend to hundreds and filled with excerpts or full poems with comments about context and meaning by the author, who lectured in English Literature at the University of London. Famous as a war poet, Sassoon was an excellent soldier and officer, winning a medal for valor, but he came to hate the war when he experienced the ordeals of his men, who loved him dearly, and whom he loved back. He finally spoke forcefully against the war and all the profit making and maudlin patriotism at home.

His life as a lover was problematic. Although he had many affairs, mostly short and mostly with younger men, after the war, he never fully came to terms with his homosexuality, which was still illegal in England. Only one of his affairs was truly successful, but his lover finally married a woman. They remained fast friends for the rest of Sassoon’s life. The book does not discuss Sassoon’s sex life in detail, possibly because of no description in the sources, consistently mainly of his diaries and letters. It does cover the emotional impact of lovers who deserted or frustrated him. Sassoon’s marriage was a disaster, but it did result in a son whom Sassoon dearly loved. Sassoon’s friendships were largely rewarding, lasting for years and culminating only with death of his friend or Sassoon. His best friends shared his passions for poetry, literature, music and or cricket, horses and hunting.

Sassoon did not do well in school, lasting only one year at Cambridge. His poetry, except for his more famous war poetry, was based more on feelings, empathy, and love of nature. Although Sassoon’s literary style remained conservative, many of his poems were well received. An avid athlete, he reveled in cricket, horse-riding, and hunting with hounds. One of his most successful prose works was about his love of hunting.

Spiritual interests in his poetry remained outside any organized religious framework. Despite his father’s prosperous Jewish family, Sassoon was never drawn to Judaism. His mother came from a solidly upper-middle-class rural farming family, with many artistic and engineering interests. Sassoon did not turn to his mother’s Church of England faith but did join the Roman Catholic Church in his later years.

The lengthy index lacks cross references and entries for major themes in the poetry, e.g., the war and homosexuality. The book also includes photos on plates, end notes, and bibliography.

The biography’s text is of the highest quality, brisk and clear, without pomposity or ponderousness. It is a pleasure to read. Siegfriend Sassoon is well worth the time to savor and read slowly. Every library or scholar interested in poetry, English literature, World War I, or gay life in the first half of the 20th century will want to add a copy to their collections.

James Doig Anderson
Professor Emeritus of Library and Information Science, Rutgers University

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