Sun, Jan 01, 2006 - Page 19 News List

A man who outlasted his own legacy

Siegfried Sassoon was a decorated war hero and a bestselling poet who led a long and somewhat tragic life


'Siegfried Sassoon' A Life
By Max Egremont
Illustrated 639 pages
Farrar, Straus and Giroux

In many quarters these days, Siegfried Sassoon is best known as one of the principals in Pat Barker's exceptional 1992 novel, Regeneration, about the real-life Sassoon's treatment for shell shock while at Craiglockhart -- or "Dottyville," as Sassoon called it -- a Scottish sanitarium where he had been sent in 1917 after denouncing British participation in World War I and refusing to return to the front.

Sassoon was remanded to Dottyville because it would have been too embarrassing to court-martial him: He was a decorated war hero and a best-selling poet, one of that talented generation of World War I writers who in spare, colloquial language evoked the horror and ultimate meaninglessness of war.

In the anthologies, Sassoon is usually bracketed with Rupert Brooke and Wilfred Owen.

He was more talented than Brooke, arguably less so than Owen, whose career he championed, but it's hard to say what would have become of the others. Brooke and Owen both died in the war, while Sassoon, though twice-wounded, went on to live a long and somewhat wistful life (born in 1886, he died in 1967) and outlasted his own legacy.

He was a minor poet, a writer of misty, Rossetti-like verse, who briefly flared into greatness and then reverted to being minor again, without ever quite understanding what had happened to him.

Siegfried Loraine Sassoon was a bundle of contradictions. He was Jewish, or his father was (he left the family when Sassoon was four) -- the descendant of an enormously wealthy Sephardic family.

His mother was a painter who came from ancient Cheshire stock, and Sassoon grew up on a country estate and in the Church of England, even acquiring that tinge of anti-Semitism customary among the British upper classes, before converting late in life to Roman Catholicism.

Sassoon was an aesthete and a bohemian who was nevertheless an enthusiastic guest at country-house weekends, and his favorite pastimes were cricket, golf and riding to hounds.

He was a rich man who lived in a great house, but called himself a socialist and gave away vast sums to his friends. And Sassoon was gay, closeted at first but then remarkably open for the time. Yet he eventually married and had a son, in whom he was greatly relieved to see evidence of sexual "normality."

Sassoon wrote six volumes of slightly fictionalized autobiography, of which the most famous was his bestselling Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man, and since his death there have been at least a half-dozen biographies, of which Max Egremont's is easily the most engaging.

The author is himself a vaguely Sassoonish character, a titled aristo who writes books to help pay for the upkeep of Petworth, his ancestral estate, and he is related to two of the players in the story: Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, an older poet who was one of Sassoon's mentors, and Stephen Tennant, who was the great love of Sassoon's life.

Max Egremont is a historian, not a literary scholar, and he is occasionally a little tone-deaf to the verse, which he mostly cites in snippets, as signposts to what was going on in the life.

He also takes Sassoon's side, more or less, in Sassoon's feud with the moderns and his refusal to learn anything from them -- in fact the signal mistake of his career. In that respect, Sassoon was a little like the American poet Edna St. Vincent Millay.

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