At last - a full-length biography of war poet Siegfried Sassoon. But a central core is missing, argues Sarah Matthews.
SIEGFRIED SASSOON. The Making of a War Poet. A Biography 1886-1918. By Jean Moorcroft Wilson. Duckworth. pound;25.
It is 80 years this autumn since the guns fell silent on the Western Front and the "war to end wars" sloughed off its skins and fell into two decades of uneasy sleep.
When it re-awakened as the Second World War, the urgencies and imperatives of engagement were different. They seemed unquestionable then and, as the realities of Nazism were unmasked, came to be seen as even more so. Yet it is the First World War that continues to hold a particular place in the British imagination, as Wilfred Owen's "hell where youth and laughter" were choked to death in mud, mustard gas and wilful maladministration.
The mythic status of the First World War is articulated and fostered through the poets who fought in it and wrote about it, and who have been accorded their own particular niche in English literary history as the war poets. Siegfried Sassoon is one of the foremost of these. This, staggeringly, is the first full-length biography of the man and the poet - or the first half of it.
Sassoon was brought up in an artistic family - his mother was a painter - and had long had a sense of wanting to be a poet, but, like many of those whom we know today as war poets, was yet to formulate a clear direction for his life when war broke out. He joined up straight away, delighted, as he said later, to be "freed from any sense of personal responsibility". For his Cambridge contemporary, Rupert Brooke, the war represented an opportunity to break away, "as swimmers into cleanness leapingGlad from a world grown old and cold and weary". Less grandiloquently, Sassoon, too, saw the war as an opportunity; he initially joined a cavalry regiment so that he could continue to ride his beloved Topper, and found his first few weeks in the army "a mounted infantry picnic in perfect weather". This attitude, "uncomplicated by intellectual scruples" in Sassoon's own words, altered only gradually. As the actuality of war, with its banalities and brutalities, was borne in upon him, it changed his life, thinking and art. It is with this process of change that Jean Moorcroft Wilson's first volume is predominantly concerned.
Like her other biographies of poets of the First World War, among them studies of Isaac Rosenberg and Charles Hamilton Sorley, this is a meticulous and scrupulously researched piece of work. Yet somehow the substance of Sassoon seems to slip through these pages, partly because he was such an intensely private man, and partly because the bulk of his life and concerns has yet to be narrated. (He lived on for almost 50 years after the war, dying in 1967.) Moorcroft Wilson presents Sassoon as a man constituted of dichotomies: a vigorous sportsman and a lyric poet, a member of the English landed gentry and the son of a Sephardic Jew, outgoing and impetuous, the "Mad Jack" of the trenches, but most at ease in the company of intellectual aesthetes such as Robbie Ross, friend and defender of Oscar Wilde.
At the centre of all these contradictory impulses was the fact that he was homosexual at a time when homosexuality was socially and legally proscribed. It took him many years to understand himself, longer still to express himself, and even longer to become reconciled to all that he was. As Moorcroft Wilson says in her closing paragraph, the war was only the "beginning" of what Sassoon himself dubbed "Siegfried's Journey".
It is this "beginning" which is the focus of the book. With care and courtesy, Moorcroft Wilson traces Sassoon's poetic development, as his emotion became increasingly engaged with the fate of his friends and of those in his care, and he found, in her words, "a real subject" for his verse. Fittingly, Sassoon's development as a war poet, or, more precisely, as an anti-war poet, is full of ironies, the greatest of which is that the poetry for which he is best remembered stands distinct and separate from the style in which he wrote earlier, and had little influence on the minor-key Romanticism to which he reverted later.
His early verse, quoted here in detail, tended towards a vapid lyricism, until what he saw and experienced during the war drove him to write in an entirely different style, that of a spare and abrasive anger. It was this anger that drove him to make his stand against the war, a stand quickly defused by the authorities' sidelining him into a psychiatric hospital.
In her introduction, Moorcroft Wilson presents Sassoon, in his fierce denunciation of the conduct of the war, as "an icon for our age". It would have been good to have had more of this argument in the body of the book, since it is this "iconic" status of the First World War poets in general and Sassoon in particular that draws generation after generation of English teachers to turn to him when teaching poetry. it is a status which requires exploration.
There are several questions which need teasing out. Ostensibly we read and teach the poetry of war to understand and emphasise its horrors, yet it is the drama of blood and destruction which appeals to many students in the classroom. Which message, horror or excitement, are we actually conveying?
A wider question, and perhaps an even more crucial one, is the complacency hidden in our reading of the war poets - an implication that now, of course, we all know what war is and, therefore, such experiences could not happen again. Yet wars and "low-intensity urban conflict" do continue, though comfortably over the horizon; perhaps it is not so much Sassoon's denunciation which we should learn from as the ease with which it was sidelined.
Or perhaps, again, it is indeed true, as Auden said, that "poetry makes nothing happen", but that, too, must have implications for the ways in which we organise our responses to these poets.
As it stands, for all its impressively thorough research, a central core is missing from this volume; as a biographer Moorcroft Wilson delicately denies herself any imaginative intrusion into Sassoon's great hinterland of private emotions, while as a literary critic she rests too easily on assumption of the value of his verse today, without fully demonstrating her views. That said, this is a very solid and substantial foundation for future exploration.