by Jayne Thompson
I passed a mere glance at poet Siegfried Sassoon during my school years. Not until I had graduated and was teaching at Widener University did I meet the man as a character in Pat Barker’s World War I fictional trilogy: Regeneration (1991), The Eye in the Door (1993), and The Ghost Road (1995). Sassoon gets the first words of the trilogy, and rightly so.
The words are from Sassoon’s public statement sent to his commanding officer stating that the war had changed from “a war of defense and liberation” to “a war of aggression and conquest.” He refused to participate further.
Though he most likely was not suffering from war neurosis (more likely a case of government silencing), Sassoon was sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital, and Pat Barker captures Sassoon’s character completely when he first arrives:
Sassoon stood for a moment, looking up at the building. Nobody arriving at Craiglockhart for the first time could fail to be daunted by the sheer gloomy, cavernous bulk of the place. Sassoon lingered on the drive for a full minute after the taxi had driven away, then took a deep breath, squared his shoulders, and ran up the steps. (9)
After some months as a “patient” to anthropologist and psychiatrist, W.H.R. Rivers, and friend to fellow patient and poet, Wilfred Owen, Sassoon “squared his shoulders” and returned to the war to be with his fellow soldiers, living up to his daredevil nickname, “Mad Jack.”
Siegfried Sassoon is a poet of polar opposites: a gifted Army officer and a war protest poet, a poet offering extraordinary empathy to some as in “Attack”:
At dawn the ridge emerges massed and dun
In the wild purple of the glow’ring sun,
Smouldering through spouts of drifting smoke that shroud
The menacing scarred slope; and, one by one,
Tanks creep and topple forward to the wire.
The barrage roars and lifts. Then, clumsily bowed
With bombs and guns and shovels and battle-gear,
Men jostle and climb to, meet the bristling fire.
Lines of grey, muttering faces, masked with fear,
They leave their trenches, going over the top,
While time ticks blank and busy on their wrists,
And hope, with furtive eyes and grappling fists,
Flounders in mud. O Jesus, make it stop!
and biting satire to others as in “The General”:
“Good-morning; good-morning!” the General said
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ’em dead,
And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
“He’s a cheery old card,” grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.
But he did for them both by his plan of attack.
He was a poet brave enough to “square his shoulders” and show his anger, grief, and bitterness at the waste of young men’s lives as in “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 march by,
Sneak home and pray you’ll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.
Tonight, as I prepared to write this blog entry, I listened to a recording of Sassoon reading “The Dug-Out”in 1953.
Why do you lie with your legs ungainly huddled,
And one arm bent across your sullen, cold,
Exhausted face? It hurts my heart to watch you,
Deep-shadowed from the candle’s guttering gold;
And you wonder why I shake you by the shoulder;
Drowsy, you mumble and sigh and turn your head.
You are too young to fall asleep for ever;
And when you sleep you remind me of the dead.
Nearly 100 years have passed since the writing of this poem; nearly 60 years have passed since the recording of it, but I can feel the moment of its creation/inspiration, see the sleeping soldier and his companion, and hear Sassoon asking in his poem “Aftermath,” Have you forgotten yet?…/Look up, and swear by the green of the spring that you’ll never forget.”
We won’t, I want to tell him. Let’s square our shoulders and not forget, not as we near the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I, not ever.