SIEGFRIED SASSOON by Jean Moorcroft Wilson


The Making of a War Poet, A Biography 1886-1918
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The first volume of the first full biography of the preeminent Great War poet, sympathetic and thoroughly researched. Wilson (Virginia Woolf, Life, and London, 1988, etc.) delivers an exhaustively factual tome to offset Pat Barker’s fictional account of Sassoon in her Regeneration trilogy. In the years before the war, which he spent riding to hounds in Kent and writing dilettantish verse in London, Sassoon proves to have been as conventionally Edwardian as he could be, at least with his Sephardic Jewish-Tory family (“Cheshire Cheese farmer and Oriental aristocrats,” in his words) and his pre-Raphaelite ideas of poetry. Among fellow war poets, such as his friends Robert Graves and Wilfred Owen, Sassoon was unique in enlisting immediately and remaining in uniform until the Armistice. Although his near-suicidal bravery won him the Military Cross and the nickname “Mad Jack,” his realistic, corrosively ironic poetry shattered ideals of wartime heroism. Despite his protests in poetry, only in June of 1917 did he actually defy military authority. If Sassoon compromised his stand by returning to service after being treated for shell-shock, Wilson carefully balances her account of his conflicted loyalty to his fellow soldiers (and his deeper problems with his homosexuality) and his idealistic war protest. Her detailed chronicle includes not only vivid excerpts from both diaries and poetry—including some rare and unpublished verse—but also thorough, if slightly over-zealous literary criticsim. While another full-length biography of Sassoon has already been published in England since Wilson’s, and Sassoon’s estate has authorized yet another, this first installment of hers combines diligent literary spadework with a compassionate view of Sassoon’s contradictions as he fought a war on inward and outward fronts. Wilson’s biography makes a determined bid at being not only Sassoon’s first, but also, in its detail, his definitive one. (53 b&w photos, not seen)

Pub Date: March 30th, 1999
ISBN: 0-415-92325-5
Page count: 608pp
Publisher: Routledge
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1st, 1999


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