Celebrated war poet and inspiration for the new film Benediction, the real-life story of Siegfried Sassoon comes to an end in our pretty Somerset village of Mells, home to St Andrew's Church and graveyard.
You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye Who cheer when soldier lads march by, Sneak home and pray you'll never know The hell where youth and laughter go.
Terence Davies’ biopic Benediction tells the story of war poet Siegfried Sassoon. Starring Peter Capaldi and Jack Lowden, the film explores Sassoon’s life as a decorated WW1 soldier, his disillusionment with the war, and his struggles coming to terms with his sexuality.
The grave of Siegfried Sassoon can be found in St Andrew’s Church. While Sassoon himself never lived in the village, Susan Ingles comments that the ‘quintessentially English churchyard’ is a remarkably apt final resting place. Chosen by Sassoon partly for its proximity to the grave of friend and mentor Ronald Knox, the graveyard and surrounding countryside embody a sense of peace and tranquillity seldom experienced by Sassoon in life.
While Sassoon is remembered for his grimly realistic anti-war poetry dripping with sardonic wit, he was not initially critical of the war. Knowing that conflict was likely, and motivated by patriotism, Sassoon joined the army in 1914. It was not until his brother was killed in 1915 that the true horrors of the situation were fully realised. From there, motivated by personal tragedy and the influence of prominent pacifists of the era, Sassoon became increasingly cynical about the war effort.
He famously declined to return to the front in 1917, with a letter entitled 'Finished with the War: A Soldier’s Declaration', which was later read out in parliament. This was a statement of ‘wilful defiance of military authority because I believe that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it’ – a supposedly treasonous and shocking sentiment which may have resulted in Sassoon being court-martialled. Instead, Sassoon was hospitalised for shellshock.
It was here, in Craiglockhart War Hospital near Edinburgh, that Sassoon met another famous poet of war: Wilfred Owen. Both men wrote about the dangers of hailing ordinary people – often young soldiers – as heroes, without examining the causes they were losing their lives in aid of.
Their bond, literary and otherwise, is evident in the declaration of love found in their epistolary correspondence:
And you have fixed my Life – however short. You did not light me: I was always a mad comet; but you have fixed me. I spun round you a satellite for a month, but I shall swing out soon, a dark star in the orbit where you will blaze.
Within a year of sending the above letter, Wilfred Owen died in 1918.
After the war, Siegfried Sassoon dabbled in politics, involved himself with the Labour Party, and developed a reputation as a writer and editor. He also had a number of relationships with men, despite marrying and having a child with Hester Gatty.
Sassoon’s legacy as a war poet is perhaps the most significant of his achievements, although more details of his life are brought to light in the new biopic. Sassoon’s poetry is remarkable in that the poet had the courage to speak against authority in a way which was scandalous at the time and would likely still be received with shock in today’s climate. He helped to capture the devastation of the trenches and the futility of combat, making this tragedy known to everyone.
With the release of Benediction on May 26th bringing Sassoon further into the public consciousness, now is a time for reflection. The poet's passionate anti-war stance, and his questioning of authorities allowing ordinary people to become heroes and martyrs, are perhaps just as relevant now as they ever were.