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Siegfried Sassoon: the making of a war poet

by Jean Moorcroft Wilson

Duckworth, pounds 25

Of all the war poets, Siegfried Sassoon seems best to embody that process of disillusionment whereby the ideals of patriotism, chivalry and sportsmanship were tested in modern battle and found wanting. His prewar life was the leisured one of an English country gentleman whose devotion to the cricket pitch and the hunting field was complemented by an interest in art, music and literature. He was, of course, a rather more complicated person than George Sherston, the alter ego who narrates his lightly fictionalised trilogy of war "memoirs". He wrote poetry, which he later described accurately as "melodious ramblings, published at a loss", and was trying to come to terms with the fact that he was homosexual.

The First World War changed all that, as it changed so much. What happened to Sassoon after the Armistice is beyond the scope of Jean Moorcroft Wilson's great slab of a book, which is to be followed by a second volume dealing with his life after 1918. If biographies are to give the reader a proper sense of the shape and pattern of a person's life, it is clearly unhelpful to have the story served up in two parts. This is particularly true of Sassoon, much of whose postwar life was spent revisiting and reassessing the years covered in Moorcroft Wilson's first volume. The problem is compounded by the fact that one finishes this book both surfeited and wanting more.

The author has undertaken a great deal of admirable and painstaking research, the results of which are crammed on every closely-printed page. "I may have erred on the side of inclusion rather than exclusion," she admits, "but this is because often details can help build a clearer overall picture." There is nothing wrong with the theory, but in practice the picture often loses rather than gains focus. She is right to trace the exotic oriental ancestry of this most English-seeming writer, and map out the childhood he found so important, but did she really need to devote so much space to his juvenilia? She acknowledges that very little of this poetry is of much interest or merit but nevertheless insists upon quoting it and examining it at length, where a few well-chosen examples would have sufficed. This problem persists into the war years where poems both good and bad are subjected to the sort of analysis one might welcome in the classroom, but not in a biography, where it simply holds up an already sluggish narrative.

While details accumulate unnecessarily in some parts of the book, elsewhere there are serious lacunae. Moorcroft Wilson mentions that Sassoon made the "chance discovery" that his brother Hamo was also homosexual, but says nothing of the circumstances or of the consequences, beyond the vague assertion that "Siegfried found comfort in his younger brother's calm acceptance of something which had caused him, in his own words, 'great perplexity and unhappiness'". This surely deserves more attention than, say, an inventory of Sassoon's cricketing library.

Similarly, although she provides information about, and the real names for, many of the soldiers with whom Sassoon served, she tells us nothing about Lance-Corporal Gibson, a significant figure of whom Sassoon was to write in 1921, after attending a concert: "Gibson is a ghost, but he is more real to-night than the pianist who played Scriabin with such delicate adroitness[...]Part of me died with all the Gibsons I used to know." Describing Sassoon's famous single-handed assault on an enemy trench, she states that he might have been motivated partly by "the death of one of his favourites, Lance-Corporal Gibson, in particular, as he suggests in Infantry Officer". She confusingly neglects to mention that Gibson appears in that book as "Kendle", and muddles things further with a later footnote to a poem which states that "'Gibson' was Sassoon's pseudonym for Pte [sic] Kendal [sic]" - without telling us who this mysterious person might be. Furthermore, while rightly noting that the autobiographical novels should be treated with caution, she fails to observe that Gibson was in fact killed some ten days after Sassoon's raid.

Despite such lapses, Moorcroft Wilson has undoubtedly added to our factual knowledge of Sassoon - but facts do not necessarily tell us what we need to know. The man himself seems to have given her the slip.

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