Sassoon, Siegfried Loraine, 1886-1967 (poet and author)
- Existence: 1886 - 1967
Poet and writer Siegfried Loraine Sassoon was born on 8 September 1886 at Weirleigh, near Matfield in Kent. His mother, Georgiana Theresa Thornycroft, was from a prominent family of sculptors and artists, while his father, Alfred Ezra Sassoon, came from a wealthy Jewish merchant family. His father left home when he was seven and died soon after, so Siegfried and his brothers, Michael and Hamo, were raised solely by their mother.
Educated at Marlborough College (1902-4), Sassoon read law at Clare College, Cambridge (1905-6) but left before taking a degree, choosing instead to live the life of a country gentleman, fox-hunting, cricketing, playing golf, and reading and writing poetry. His early poems were printed privately and distributed chiefly among family and friends.
It was the onset of the Great War that propelled Sassoon from a life of relative idleness and luxury into his role as soldier-poet and vitriolic critic of the War. In 1914, Sassoon enlisted as a trooper in the Sussex Yeomanry. The following year, he was commissioned in the Royal Welch Fusiliers and sent to France, where his bravery earned him the nickname 'Mad Jack'. In June 1916 he was awarded the Military Cross for gallantry in action. In April 1917, however, he was wounded in the shoulder, and while recuperating in England wrote his 'Soldier's Declaration', a statement in protest against the continuation of the War, calling for a negotiated peace. Sensitive to the needless suffering of his men, affected by the deaths of close friend, David Thomas, and of his younger brother Hamo (killed at Gallipoli in November 1915), and enraged with a sense that the conflict was being needlessly prolonged by those who had the power to end it, Sassoon had become increasingly disillusioned with the politics of the War. His protest statement was read out in the House of Commons and printed in 'The Times' in July 1917. Sassoon expected a court-martial; instead, due partly to the intervention of his friend Robert Graves, he was declared to be suffering from 'shellshock' and sent to Craiglockhart Military Hospital in Edinburgh. There he met the poet Wilfred Owen and became his friend and mentor. He also formed a friendship with psychologist and anthropologist William H. R. Rivers, who eventually helped persuade Sassoon to return to the front. In February 1918 he was posted to Palestine, but was sent back to France in May where he received a head wound which ended his direct involvement in the War.
During his time at the front, Sassoon wrote many of the war poems which were to establish his reputation as a poet. Caustic, bitter, moving and compassionate, his poems reflected the savage reality of war. These were published in a series of volumes entitled 'The Old Huntsman and Other Poems' (1917), 'Counter-Attack and Other Poems' (1918), 'Picture Show' (1919), and 'War Poems' (1919).
Throughout his life Sassoon continued to write and publish poetry. He also kept copious diaries, many of which later formed the basis of his prose work: the Sherston novels, a thinly veiled autobiographical trilogy based around the fictitious character George Sherston, beginning with 'Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man' (1928), and a second trilogy of true autobiography, beginning with 'The Old Century and Seven More Years' (1938). In 1948 he also published 'Meredith', his biography of the novelist and poet George Meredith. He remains best known, however, as a war poet.
Sassoon married Hester Gatty in 1933 and purchased Heytesbury House in Wiltshire. His marriage followed a series of homosexual relationships, most notably with artist Gabriel Atkin and socialite Stephen Tennant. His only son George was born in 1936, and his marriage dissolved a few years later. In 1957 Sassoon converted to Catholicism. He died in 1967 at the age of eighty.
In his lifetime Sassoon was honoured with a number of awards. In 1928 he received the Hawthornden Prize and the James Tait Black Prize for his book 'Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man'. In 1951 he was appointed CBE, while in 1957 he was awarded the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry. He received honorary degrees from the Universities of Liverpool (1931) and Oxford (1965), and was made an honorary fellow of Clare College, Cambridge in 1953. He is among sixteen Great War Poets commemorated in Poet's Corner of Westminster Abbey.
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- Subject: Prose X