SIEGFRIED SASSOON DIARIES: 1915-1918 by Siegfried Sassoon


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A poet in the trenches: all the elements of Sassoon's (1886-1967) complex, fragmented sensibility come out in these finely written journals. The early entries are full of lush, moody scene painting, often strangely detached, as Sassoon the fox-hunting squire and nature lover admires the landscapes of northern France. When he talks about the war, his voice takes on dark, fatalistic tones: ""I must pay my debt. Hamo went: [S.S.'s younger brother, killed in the Gallipoli campaign] I must follow him. I will."" Sent back to England with trench fever in 1916, Sassoon was still capable of conventionally patriotic effusions: ""And the soul of the officer glows with fiery passion as he thinks, 'All this I've been fighting for; and now I'm safe home again I begin to think it was worth while.'"" But as time went on he grew disillusioned with the slaughter, and the poems interspersed in his diaries (especially the ones later published in Counter-Attack) went from neat rhetorical-sentimental exercises to angry, brutally realistic visions. By the summer of 1917, Sassoon had had enough. He refused to return to the front and issued a strong public statement against the war. This might have led to all sorts of trouble, but his friend Robert Graves persuaded him to back down. Sassoon was shipped out to Egypt and Palestine, and saw more action in France, until he was accidentally shot in the head by one of his own men and put on indefinite sick-leave. He tells this story forcefully, though he hardly looks into himself. (He mentions his homoerotic and anti-Semitic feelings--he was half Jewish--but goes nowhere with them.) His descriptions of friends and fellow officers can sound curiously distant. As if sensing this, he exhorts himself, ""Must concentrate on the tragic, emotional, human episodes in the drama."" And he almost never laughs at or deflates himself. These are limitations--but the blend of careful observation and sometimes quite powerful poetry makes the diaries a memorable picture of the era, regardless.

Pub Date: April 1st, 1983
Publisher: Faber & Faber/dist. by Harper & Row