An Officer and Temporary Rebel



The story of the soldier-poet Sassoon is that of a latter-day Doctor Faustus. The young man who was so eager to become a famous poet saw his dream fulfilled, only then to start wondering if the price had been worth paying: the war that made the poet destroyed the man, and Sassoon’s post-war life is mainly one long attempt (he called it his spiritual journey) to find a new equilibrium after a profound experience that left him spiritually and emotionally unsettled. In later life Sassoon complained that his reputation as a war poet had become a burden to him, at the same time expressing amazement at the fact that the naive young man who went to war had succeeded as a war poet at all: “I was immature, impulsive, irrational, and bewildered by the whole affair, hastily improvising my responses, and only saved by being true to the experiences which I drew upon” (LC, 14).


Working Party Home Front Fellow Officer Personal Voice Young Poet 
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  1. 1.
    See Tony Ashworth, Trench Warfare 1914–1918 (London, 1980), p. 21.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Ivor Gurney, War Letters, ed. by R.K.R. Thornton (London, 1984), p. 29. Cf. also p. 130, where he refers to four sonnets that were intended as a 1917 answer to Brooke’s sonnets.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    ‘War Diary’, 12 June 1917. In: Herbert Read, The Contrary Experience (New York, 1973), p. 89.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Robert Graves (1929), Goodbye to All That (Harmondsworth, 1982), p. 146. Graves’ autobiography, though always readable, is not always reliable. For one thing ‘To Victory’ was written in January 1916, and Sassoon was first in the trenches in November 1915 (though admittedly before March 1916 only with working parties).Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    See Ottoline at Garsington: Memoirs of Lady Ottoline Morrell 1915–1918, ed. by Robert Gathorne-Hardy (London, 1974), pp. 90–1.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Organizational tables of the British Army are given in Haythornthwaite, A Photohistory of World War One (London, 1993). For Sassoon’s experiences, cf. his contribution to J.C. Dunn’s, The War the Infantry Knew 1914–1919 (London, 1989), p. 306.Google Scholar
  7. 8.
    Charles Carrington, Soldier fr•om the Wars Returning (London, 1965), pp. 159–60.Google Scholar
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    Henri Barbusse: Le Feu (1916). An English translation by W. Fitzwater Wray appeared in 1917 under the title Under Fire. Page reference is to the Everyman edition (London, 1965), p. 44.Google Scholar
  9. 10.
    Cf. Sassoon’s footnote to ‘In the Pink’ in The War Poems, ed. by Sir Rupert Hart-Davis (London, 1983), p. 22, where he adds that the poem was refused by the Westminster “as they thought it might prejudice recruiting!!”.Google Scholar
  10. 11.
    This first draft is included in the Diaries 1915–1918, pp. 49–50. That he omitted the final stanza when he revised ‘A Working Party’ for publication in The Old Huntsman was probably due to the fact that he considered it too sentimental, going on as it does about “widows grieving down the streets in black / And faded mothers dreaming of bright sons”.Google Scholar
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    Jon Silkin, Out of Battle: the Poetry of the Great War (Oxford, 1978), p. 132.Google Scholar
  12. 13.
    Corrigan (1973), p. 21.Google Scholar
  13. 14.
    War Poems, p. 47. The somewhat apologetic tone of these lines is probably due to the fact that they were written after Sassoon’s conversion to Roman Catholicism.Google Scholar
  14. 15.
    Herbert Read, Collected Poems (London, 1966), pp. 37–40. First published in Naked Warriors (1919), the volume singled out by T.S. Eliot in the July 1919 issue of the Egoist as containing “the best war poetry that I can remember having seen”.Google Scholar
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    Denis Winter, Deaths Men, pp. 59–60.Google Scholar
  16. 28.
    Wilfred Owen, Collected Letter.s (London, 1967), p. 484.Google Scholar
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    Cf. Sassoon’s pencilled in changes to ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’, in The Collected Poems of Wilfred Owen, ed. by C. Day Lewis (London, 1984),Google Scholar
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    Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory (London, 1975), p. 272.Google Scholar
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    Cf. Taylor, Lads: Love Poetry of the Trenches, p. 17.Google Scholar
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    Carrington, Soldier from the Wars Returning, p. 220.Google Scholar
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    John Oxenham, Alls Well! (London, 1916), p. 7.Google Scholar
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    This is, of course, in many ways an unfair comparison: Oxenham’s poems were published 18 months before Sassoon’s The Old Hunt.sman. Unfortunately Oxenham’s sales figures are scarce as the Methuen files were lost in the Blitz. Yet Oxenhain’s massive output is in itself a measure of his popular appeal: Alls Well (1915), The Kings High Way (1916), The Vision Splendid (1917), The Fiery Cross (1917), Hearts Courageous (1918), and the sequel to Alls Well: All’.s Clear (1919).Google Scholar
  23. 45.
    V. de Sola Pinto: Crisis in English Poetry (London, 1963), p. 164. Pinto (1895–1969), later Professor of English at the University of Nottingham and co-editor of D.H. Lawrence’s Complete Poems, was Sassoon’s secondin-command during the latter’s last months in France in the spring and summer of 1918.Google Scholar
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    Jon Silkin, in his Introduction to The Penguin Book of Firs7 World War Poetry (Harmondsworth, 1979), p. 28.Google Scholar
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    That same day Sassoon was shot in the head by one of his own men, when returning from a patrol in no man’s land. He was eventually invalided home.Google Scholar
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    John Middleton Murry, ‘Mr. Sassoon’s War Verses’, reprinted in The Evolution qfan Intellectual (London, 1927), p. 75.Google Scholar
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    Sir Rupert Hart-Davis in his introduction to The War Poems, p. 11.Google Scholar
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    Charles Kay Ogden (1889–1957) had founded the Cambridge Magazine in 1912 and remained its editor until 1922. In the 1920s he developed ‘Basic English’ together with I.A. Richards.Google Scholar
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    Thorpe (1966), p. 34. Sassoon himself was also quite pleased with this poem, cf. Siegfrieds Journey, p. 71.Google Scholar
  30. 61.
    Cf. Katherine Mansfield, Collected Letters — Vol. 2 (Oxford, 1987), pp. 256–61; Virginia Woolf, Letters — Vol. 2 (London, 1976), pp. 262, 270 & Diaries — Vol. 1 (Harmondsworth, 1979), p. 174; Sassoon, Diaries 19231925, p. 59.Google Scholar
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    Douglas Goldring, ‘The War and the Poets’ in: Reputations: Essays in Criticism (London, 1920), p. 109.Google Scholar

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© Paul Moeyes 1997

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