This is the first half of the first major biography of Siegfried Sassoon. Jean Moorcroft Wilson has sifted "a mass of unpublished material", together with Sassoon's pre-1914 work, much of which is hard to come by. She provides new information regarding Sassoon's family background, childhood and early development as a poet.
Wilson thanks staff at the Public Record Office while referring dismissively to the PRO's press release about Sassoon's WC 339 file. She does not, however, seem to have used any of the PRO material relating to the anti-war movement in general, or to Sassoon's anti-war protest. Sassoon was not the only recalcitrant frontline officer whom the war office attempted to silence by sending to a psychiatric hospital.
Moorcroft Wilson's insight into human character and her skills as a literary critic are on a level with her archival research. "A vital factor in his protest was his temperament"; "the success of Sassoon's satire usually depends on his ability to avoid generalisations."
Perhaps the chief weakness of this book is the author's decision to break off in 1918. Unlike Isaac Rosenberg and Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon was not killed in 1918. Three or four of his wartime poems are classics of satirical verse, that will probably be read, re-read and relished so long as wars disturb human peace. But they are not poetry in the sense that Wilfred Owen's maturer work was poetry.
Sassoon's poetic sensibility found its true expression in the two books he wrote during the 1920s, Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man and Memoirs of an Infantry Officer . An account of Sassoon's war experiences that refers to these two works merely as source documents is bound to overlook much of what made those war experiences part of our literary heritage.
A. D. Harvey is the author of Collision of Empires: Britain in Three World Wars 1793-1945 (1992) and A Muse of Fire: Literature, Art and War (1998).
Siegfired Sassoon: The Making of a War Poet: A Biography (1886-1918)
Author - Jean Moorcroft Wilson
ISBN - 0 7156 2822 4
Publisher - Duckworth
Price - £25.00
Pages - 600