Monday, September 1, 2014

WWI Poet, Siegfried Sassoon, RIP

Siegfried Sassoon, the great World War I poet and Catholic convert, died on September 1, 1967--he was born on September 8, 1886, so he almost made it to his 81st birthday. There is a new biography of the poet, heroic soldier, novelist, and pacifist, published by The Overlook Press:

Published to coincide with the centennial of the outbreak of the First World War, Siegfried Sassoon is the first complete biography of arguably the greatest English-language war poet. Hailed as “invaluable” by the Times and “thorough and perceptive” by the Observer, Siegfried Sassoon encompasses the poet’s complete life and works, from his patriotic youth that led him to the frontline, to the formation of his anti-war convictions, great literary friendships, and flamboyant love affairs. Written by biographer and scholar Jean Moorcroft Wilson, this single-volume opus also includes never-before-published poems that have only just come to light. With over a decade’s research, and unparalleled access to Sassoon’s private correspondence, Wilson presents the complete portrait, both elegant and heartfelt, of an extraordinary man, and an extraordinary poet.

“Soldiers are dreamers; when the guns begin they think of firelit homes, clean beds, and wives.” —Siegfried Sassoon

Jean Moorcroft Wilson lectures in English Literature at Birkbeck College, University of London. She is married to Virginia Woolfe's nephew, with whom she runs a publishing house. She is considered the foremost expert in Siegfried Sassoon.

He became a Catholic in 1957, and Joseph Pearce provides some background to his conversion:

The dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima inspired Sassoon to the same heights of horrified creativity as it had inspired Sitwell in the composition of her "three poems of the Atomic Age" . . .  Sassoon's "Litany of the Lost" employed resonant religious imagery as a counterpoint to the post-war pessimism and alienation engendered by the descent from world war to Cold War. As with the previous war, the world had emerged from the nightmare of conflict into the desert of despair, transforming "wasteland" to nuclear waste. 

The ending of the second of the century's global conflagrations marked the beginning of Sassoon's final approach to the Catholic faith. Influenced to a degree by Catholic friends such as Ronald Knox and Hilaire Belloc, but to a far greater degree by the experience of his own life, he was received into the Church in September 1957, shortly after his 71st birthday. After a lifetime of mystical searching he had finally found his way Home.

During his first Lent as a Catholic, Sassoon wrote "Lenten Illuminations," a candid account of his conversion which invites obvious comparisons with T.S. Eliot's "Ash Wednesday." The last decade of his life, like the last decades of the Rosary he came to love, was a quiet meditation on the glorious mysteries of faith. As ever, his meditations were expressed in memorable verse, particularly in the peaceful mysticism of "A Prayer at Pentecost," "Arbor Vitae," and "A Prayer in Old Age."

In 1960 Sassoon selected 30 of his poems for a volume entitled
The Path to Peace, which was essentially an autobiography in verse. From the earliest sonnets of his youth to the religious poetry of his last years, Sassoon's intensely personal and introspective verse offered a sublime reflection of a life's journey in pursuit of truth. These, and not his diaries, his letters, or his prose, are the precious jewels of enlightenment that point to the soul within the man.

UPDATE: I looked at this biography in our local B&N bookstore yesterday: the author notes that Sassoon's conversion made him very happy for the rest of his life. He encountered some of the usual misunderstanding and anti-Catholic response to his conversion, but also made some great new contacts, particularly at Stanbrook Abbey. Joining the Catholic Church transformed Sassoon's moral and spiritual life.

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