Like most of the great poets who have graced our civilization, Siegfried Sassoon is not as well known today as he ought to be. He does, however, have a place of honour on the wall of our living room in which his framed sketch forms the centerpiece of a literary triptych, sandwiched snugly between framed sketches of Hilaire Belloc and G. K. Chesterton. He has long been a favourite of mine, not only for the acerbic gravitas of the war poetry for which he is best known but also for the poetry and prose that he wrote after the war.
Since it is likely that many readers will be unfamiliar with this great and greatly neglected poet, it would be good to begin to restore his reputation by making him more widely known and appreciated.
Born in Kent, in south east England, in 1886, Sassoon’s experience of the trenches of world war one embittered him. Although he fought with great courage, being awarded the Military Cross for gallantry in battle, he was angered by the conduct of the war and the wholesale slaughter that it unleashed. In a barrage of bitter invective, expressed in satirical verse which became very popular as the initial enthusiasm for the war began to wane, he vented his spleen against the politicians, journalists and senior military officers, whom he believed responsible for enflaming and prolonging the carnage. Typical of this astringent verse is “Suicide in the Trenches”:
I knew a simple soldier boy
Who grinned at life in empty joy,
Slept soundly through the lonesome dark,
And whistled early with the lark.
In winter trenches, cowed and glum,
With crumps and lice and lack of rum,
He put a bullet through his brain.
No one spoke of him again.
You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you’ll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.
After the war, Sassoon’s reputation as a writer of first-rate prose, as well as poetry, was sealed with the publication of the three volume semi-fictitious autobiography, The Complete Memoirs of George Sherston (1937). In 1945, at the end of the second of the world wars which the century of “progress” had wrought, Sassoon’s skepticism towards modernity and its vacuous promises, was expressed with razor-sharp eloquence in “Litany of the Lost”:
In breaking of belief in human good;
In slavedom of mankind to the machine;
In havoc of hideous tyranny withstood,
And terror of atomic doom foreseen;
Deliver us from ourselves.
Chained to the wheel of progress uncontrolled;
World masterers with a foolish frightened face;
Loud speakers, leaderless and sceptic-souled;
Aeroplane angels, crashed from glory and grace;
Deliver us from ourselves.
In blood and bone contentiousness of nations,
And commerce’s competitive re-start,
Armed with our marvellous monkey innovations,
And unregenerate still in head and heart;
Deliver us from ourselves.
As the world stumbled from world war to cold war, Sassoon befriended Father Ronald Knox whose God and the Atom had expressed the same post-traumatic stress in the wake of the dropping of the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki as had Sassoon’s “Litany of the Lost.” Knox died in August 1957 and, a month later, Sassoon was received into the Catholic Church, a few weeks after his seventy-first birthday and a full forty years after Knox’s own conversion.
Following his conversion, Sassoon, the war poet, became a poet of peace, a fact expressed in the title of the first volume of poetry he published as a Catholic. The Path to Peace, published in 1960, was essentially an autobiography in verse, ranging from the earliest sonnets of his youth to the religious poetry of his last years. Of the latter, his long meditative poem, “Lenten Illuminations,” written during his first Lent as a Catholic, is surely one of the finest Christian poems of the twentieth century, inviting comparisons with T. S. Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday,” which had also been written shortly after the poet’s conversion. It is a monologue which the poet addresses to the ghost of his pre-convert self, musing on their life and how it had led him to his knees in a church:
While you were in your purgatorial time, you used to say
That though Creation’s God remained so lost, such aeons
Somehow He would reveal Himself to you—some day!
For Him, the Living God, your soul and flesh could only cry
In watches of the night, when world event with devildom
You implored illumination. But never being bowed
Obedient—never conceived an aureoled instance, an assuring
Apart from the brilliance of the poetry in its own right, shining forth as a visible witness to the good, the true and the beautiful, there is also a more prosaic and practical relevance to Sassoon’s life and work. Having lived through two fratricidal world wars, fighting courageously in the first, and having become utterly disillusioned with the lifeless coldness of modern secular “progress,” with which the world with devildom had gone dark, he had finally found the peace beyond all understanding which, as Eliot had discovered, was the only authentic escape from the wasteland of worldliness.
There is no better way to end a discussion of the greatness of Siegfried Sassoon, and to summarize the wisdom that he had gained after a life of suffering, than in his own words as poured forth in praise in “A Prayer in Old Age”:
Bring no expectance of heaven unearned No hunger for beatitude to be Until the lesson of my life is learned Through what Thou didst for me.
Bring no assurance of redeemed rest
No intimation of awarded grace
Only contrition, cleavingly confessed
To Thy forgiving face.
I ask one world of everlasting loss
In all I am, that other world to win.
My nothingness must kneel below Thy Cross.
There let new life begin.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.