Wednesday, 25 March 2020

The Poetry is in the Pity

More from the book pile

The War Poems, Siegfried Sassoon, (Faber, 1983), edited by Rupert Hart-Davis.

Sassoon was one of the War Poets who actually survived the First World War, despite being wounded several times.  His Wikipedia entry is very interesting (including his coaching and encouragement of Wilfrid Owen and the fact that he used to play cricket with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle!), and provides useful context for these poems.

The book is a rather elegant, if somewhat austere collection.  Hart-Davis brings together all of Sassoon’s wartime poems, including those published at the time and several which only survived in manuscript form, and presents them with minimal notes in the (best-guess) order in which they were composed.  He also includes a few post-War poems which take the War as their subject.  There is a brief and rather dry chronology of Sassoon’s life to create a sparse framework for the poems – it is possible to see which were composed in the trenches and which were created when he was in England, convalescing.

What emerges, slowly, is a story of a man who enlisted willingly and early on in the conflict, full of patriotism and a belief that he was doing the right thing for Country and God, but who, as he witnessed and suffered the horrors of war slowly shifted his position, eventually condemning those who led the War as well as those who eloquently supported it while staying at home. The poems in the middle section in particular constitute a complex recounting of the brutal experiences in the trenches.

There is a significant sense of tough realism to the poems, which meant that several of them couldn’t be published while the War was happening.  He speaks several times of the happiness that the soldiers felt if they received a ‘Blighty wound’ – bad enough to incapacitate them and get them sent back to England, but not killing them. (‘Splendid to eat and sleep and choose a wife/Safe with his wound, a citizen of life’ – ‘The One-Legged Man’, 1916).  And of the men who would sometimes manufacture such wounds for themselves.  He writes of rotting corpses and the arbitrariness of death, and the wretched reality of living in the trenches for months at a time.

Sassoon was an officer, and in combat was renowned for his almost suicidal bravery (his men called him ‘Mad Jack’). He won several awards for bravery.  But finally he realised he hated leading his young troops towards the enemy, and seeing them cut down.  In 1917 he wrote a statement against the continuation of the War, ‘Finished with the War: A Soldier’s Declaration,’ which was read out in the House of Commons.  This led to him being shunted out of the way to the Craiglockhart War Hospital to be treated – ostensibly – for shell-shock.  Although he did eventually return to the front.

Admittedly, none of the individual poems shines quite like, say Owens’ ‘Dulce et Decorum Est,’ but the collection as a whole has a layered, rich quality that works differently, and the whole cycle (if they can be called that) has quite a powerful effect.
I’ll include one here (picked almost at random).

               Suicide in the Trenches

               I knew a simple soldier boy
               Who grinned at life in empty joy,
               Slept soundly through the lonesome dark,
               And whistled early with the lark.

               In winter trenches, cowed and glum,
               With crumps and lice and lack of rum,
               He put a bullet through his brain.
               No one spoke of him again.
                      .     .    .
               You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
              Who cheer when soldier lads walk by,
              Sneak home and pray you’ll never know
              The hell where youth and laughter go.
                                                      (Feb 1918)

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