Born in 1886, the name of Siegfried Sassoon will always be associated with the First World War. As one of the most prominent “soldier-poets” and one of those commemorated in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey, he was also one of the first to protest against the course of the war. His sardonic, often savage poems, were among those that alerted those “at home” to the true nature of the soldiers’ experiences in the trenches.
What is less well known is that he became a Catholic towards the end of his life. And also, as a child and young man, he had strong connections with the Isle of Wight.
Siegfried Sassoon came from a banking family on his father’s side. But his mother was a Thornycroft, sister to John Thornycroft, the founder of what eventually became the ship-building firm Vosper Thorneycroft. John Thornycroft, Siegfried’s uncle, owned the house Steyne in Bembridge. It was still in the family’s hands within living memory I am told.
Siegfried visited his cousins on the island several times, as a child, and in a recent biography of Sassoon by Jean Moorcroft Wilson, is quoted as describing one of his holidays on the island with his cousins as “glorious”, being impressed by his “highly practical, confident, handsome cousins” in their “large and beautiful house”. Ah, island life……….
But that is not Sassoon’s only connection with the island. During the war, he revolted against the continuance of the slaughter he witnessed, and wrote a famous note of protest that was read out in Parliament. No-one could accuse him of having personal motives for this, as he had already been awarded the Militrary Cross for bravery, and his nickname among the soldiers was “Mad Jack” for his compete disregard of personal safety.
His friends, though, thought his protest would serve little good, and would only cause him personal trouble, and the poet and author Robert Graves, convalescing himself from being wounded at the front, pulled strings to get Sassoon sent, not to a court-martial or worse for his protest, but to Craiglockhart Hospital in Edinburgh that specialised in shell-shock. There Sassoon met and encouraged Wilfred Owen, who by common consent is accounted the most profound and moving of the soldier poets, and many of whose poems are featured in Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem. The second island connection comes from the fact that Robert Graves was at the time convalescing in Osborne House, which was a convalescent home for officers, and continued to be that right up to recent times. Graves’ “Goodbye to All That”, his memoir of the war published in the 1920s. has a fascinating and quite complimentary account of Quarr Abbey and the monks there during this period.
Sassoon himself survived the war, and later came to describe himself as a “religious poet”. Some of the titles of his war-time poems – “The Redeemer” “Golgotha” “Christ & The Soldier”show his interest in religion was there from the start, though he was extremely critical of the unthinking support the church gave the war, and of the gap between religious pieties and ideas of “sacrifice”, and the appalling sufferings he witnessed. But in 1957 he became a Catholic. He had hoped that the writer Fr. Ronald Knox, whom he admired, would instruct him in the faith, but Knox was too ill to do so. The priest Sebastian Moore was chosen to instruct him instead, and Sassoon was admitted to the faith at Downside Abbey, close to his home. A very good friend of Dame Felicitas Corrigan, a noted writer herself and Benedictine nun at Stanbrook Abbey. She wrote his spiritual biography “A Poet’s Pilgrimage” about his journey to the catholic faith, and much of Sassoon’s later poetry is on religious and indeed devotional themes, with titles like “Lenten Illuminations” “The Humbled Heart” “A Prayer at Pentecost”.
There is no doubt it does not have the fierce impact of his war poems, but has been, I think, unjustly neglected. The quality of his religious poetry is very variable, but he could still write most movingly and tellingly, and this poem below is a good example of his later poetry that can stand any comparison with his earlier, and better-known, poems:
“When I’m alone” – the words tripped off his tongue
As though to be alone were nothing strange.
“When I was young,” he said; “when I was young….”
I thought of age, and loneliness and change.
I thought how strange we grow when we’re alone,
And how unlike the selves that meet, and talk,
And blow the candles out, and say goodnight.
Alone……..The word is life endured and known.
It is the stillness where our spirits walk
And all but inmost faith is overthrown.
Siegfried Sassoon died one week before his 81st birthday, of stomach cancer, and is buried at St Andrew’s Church, Mells, Somerset, close to Fr. Ronald Knox.