ISSUE 70
OCTOBER 1998
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Siegfried Sassoon - The Making of a War Poet

A Biography Volume I: 1886-1918 by Jean Moorcroft

Wilson Duckworth. 25.00

Reviewed by Linda Dangoor-Khalaschi

Eighty years have elapsed since the end of the First World War and thirty years since the death of Siegfried Sassoon, and yet, only now has a comprehensive biography been written about this most famous English War Poet. The author, Jean Moorcroft Wilson, attributes the reason for the delay to Sassoon's complicated background and to his secretive "double" personal life. A not altogether convincing argument because his extraordinary war career has been the stuff of plays and novels and also inspiring material for his own autobiographical boos and poems, the most famous being memoirs of a fox-hunting man.

So, the mystery remains unresolved. Perhaps one should look to Siegfried Sassoon himself for clues. In several of his autobiographical volumes written between 1928 and 1945, he never seemed to go beyond 1920, as if as a person he had ceased to exist after the war, limiting the rest of his life only to the "ploughing and re-ploughing" of his past. Not much is known of his life between 1920 and 1967 and this is the subject of volume 2 of his biography where the author tries to shed light on Sassoon's complicated post-war years.

And complicated and contradictory he certainly was. He was the quintessential Englishman who stemmed from an exotic Middle-Eastern background, he was the sporting squire and gentleman writer who became the courageous war hero decorated for his bravery, he was the Patriot and defender of the crown who denounced those who prolonged the war for their own glory, he was the homosexual who married and had a child, he was the Anglican/Jew who became a catholic.

Siegfried Sassoon's personality was double, perhaps because he came from two very different cultures which seemed to pull him in opposite directions throughout his life and perhaps also because he was the product of a broken home (his father left the family when Sassoon was 5 years of age). Seigfried's mother was Theresa Thornycroft of solid Yoeman stock. She came from a comfortably established family of farmers who had a deep love of the countryside around them and whose dedication to art spanned three generations.

His father, Alfred Sassoon, came from a wealthy Jewish Merchant family, often referred to as the Rothschilds of the East. Originally from Baghdad, the family moved to India and china and then to England. Their outlook, manners and dress were completely oriental until the arrival of Siegfried's grandfather Sassoon David Sassoon, in England in 1858, when a rapid acclimatisation to the Western way of life took place within only one generation.

The book recounts in detail his English Anglican upbringing, his schooldays, his short stay at Cambridge, his initial attempts at writing and his involvement in the war. A war which came at an opportune time for Sassoon because his life, of a gentleman writer and social butterfly, was going nowhere. The war gave this shy and sensitive, if somewhat melancholy man, a sense of purpose, and he put all his energies, both creative and physical, into it, proving to himself and to all that he was an extraordinarily courageous soldier. For his war efforts he was awarded the M.C.

His generosity was legendary. He liked to help many of his poet friends and gave presents befitting his oriental background. For Robert Graves' s 23rd birthday, Siegfried Sassoon sends him 23 guineas. A very elegant gesture. However, the note which accompanied the handsome sum made reference to the "Semitic sovereigns none of which I have the least right to call my own."

Not only was he becoming increasingly conscious of his Jewish blood, but having adopted his countrymen's prejudices and anti-Semitic attitudes, he became more and more uncomfortable and tormented, even apologetic, about his roots on his father's side, wanting to be more English than the English.

It is well-known that Edward VII became friends with some of the richer Sassoons as well as other wealthy Jewish families such as the Rothschilds and this helped a little to overcome the rife anti-Semitism of much English society of the time.

But, and I quote the author "Jewishness is deemed to pass through the female line" so, technically Siegfried Sassoon was not Jewish. But a Jew will always be regarded by others as a Jew even if he renounces his faith or is brought up as a Christian or any other faith. As long as one can trace a Jewish father, aunt, grandfather, great uncle etc., in his family tree, a Jew is a Jew is a Jew. And will always be regarded as such.

And this leads me to the heart of the matter. Apart from all else, this book is also about IDENTITY and belonging which Siegfried Sassoon sought throughout his life and never found that he fitted entirely in any one camp.

 


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