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SIEGFRIED SASSOON by Max Egremont

SIEGFRIED SASSOON

A Life

By Max Egremont

Pub Date: Dec. 5th, 2005
ISBN: 0-374-26375-2
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Lucid biography of the eminent English poet, forever on the outside and never quite at home in his own time.

Egremont (Balfour, not reviewed) agrees with Ronald Knox that Siegfried Sassoon was “predominantly ‘a First War man,’ ” profoundly shaped by his experiences in the trenches of France and Belgium. Sassoon was wounded in battle but did not die, unlike his friend Wilfred Owen, who came to be considered the great English poet of the Great War. Sassoon grumbled about this, ungallantly; annoyed that an American anthology of WWI verse had more of Owen’s poems than of his, Sassoon wrote to Edmund Blunden that “the canonisation of Wilfred is still in full swing.” Sassoon was used to feeling snubbed; he was Jewish and gay at a time when British society had little tolerance for such things. As a teenager, he “wanted to conform and from this came affection, sometimes love, for a type he was drawn to all his life: the man of character, not intellect.” So it was for most of his life, though in the late 1920s Sassoon was drawn into the preppy social circle surrounding the wealthy aesthete Stephen Tennant, the so-called Bright Young Thing who provided Evelyn Waugh with satirical ammunition for his early novels. Sassoon was deeply in love with Tennant, but the relationship was turbulent, and in 1933 he married a woman named Hester Gatty. The marriage was not successful, and Sassoon soon “began to loathe her often reasonable demands for love and closeness”; now even more conflicted, he grew withdrawn, conservative and even puritanical, a champion of good-old-days England, old-fashioned in his own time and ever less popular with contemporary readers. His death certificate referred to him as “poet and author retired,” while others remembered him as a “desperately conventional man” who could never be as free as he wished.

Thoughtful and well-paced—an illuminating study of the fine but now overlooked poet.