In 1939, Siegfried Sassoon delineated his views on poetry in a lecture given at Bristol College. While what he said was not profound or revolutionary, it did indicate the kind of poetry Sassoon liked and tried to write, at least at that time. First, Sassoon said, poetry should stem from inspiration, but that inspiration needs to be tempered by control and discipline—by art. Second, the best poetry is simple and direct—Sassoon disliked the tendency toward complexity initiated by T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. Third, Sassoon held the Romantic view that poetry should express true feeling and speak the language of the heart. Fourth, poetry should contain strong visual imagery, the best of which is drawn from nature. Finally, the subject matter of the best poetry is not political (again, he was reacting against the avowedly political poetry of Auden and his associates), but rather personal, and this examination of self led Sassoon to write spiritual poetry.
A review of Sassoon’s poetry will reveal, however, that even in his best poems he did not always follow all these precepts, and that in his worst poems he seldom followed any. Sassoon’s worst poems are most certainly his earliest ones. Sassoon’s prewar lyric verses are lush and wordy, in weak imitation of Algernon Charles Swinburne and the Pre-Raphaelites, but full of anachronisms and redundancies. Some, such as “Haunted” and “Goblin Revel,” are purely escapist; Lewis Thorpe suggests that Sassoon was looking for escape from his own too-comfortable world. The best thing about these early poems is their interest in nature—an interest that Sassoon never lost and that provided him with concrete images in later pieces. The best poems that Sassoon wrote before the war, The Daffodil Murderer and “The Old Huntsman,” abandon the poetic diction for a colloquial style, and “The Old Huntsman” reveals a strong kinship with nature.
The war poetry
Sassoon’s early, idealistic war poetry is characterized by an abstract diction and generalized imagery. He was writing in the “happy warrior” style after the manner of Rupert Brooke’s famous sonnet sequence and was even able to write of his brother’s death early in the war as a “victory” and his ghost’s head as “laureled.” Perhaps the best example of these early poems is “Absolution,” written before Sassoon had actually experienced the war. Sassoon romanticizes war, speaking of the glorious sacrifice of young comrades in arms who go off to battle as “the happy legion,” asserting that “fighting for our freedom, we are free.” The poem is full of such abstractions, but no concrete images. Its language is often archaic (“Time’s but a golden wind”), and it is the sort of thing that Sassoon soon put behind him.
Edward Marsh, after reading some of Sassoon’s earlier poetry, had told him to write with his eye directly on the object. As Sassoon began to experience the horrors of trench warfare, he did exactly that. His poems became increasingly concrete, visual, and realistic, his language became increasingly colloquial, and his tone became more and more bitter as the war went on. Early in 1916, he wrote “Golgotha,” “The Redeemer,” and “A Working Party,” in which he tried to present realistically the sufferings of the common soldier. Such realistic depiction of the front lines characterized one of two main types of war poetry that Sassoon was to write in the next few years. The best example of sheer naturalistic description is “Counter-Attack,” the title poem of Sassoon’s most popular and most scathing volume of poetry. “Counter-Attack” begins with a description of the troops, who, having taken an enemy trench, begin to deepen it with shovels. They uncover a pile of dead bodies and rotting body parts—“naked sodden buttocks, mats of hair,/ Bulged, clotted heads.”
“Repression of War Experience”
The horror of this description is without parallel, but where Sassoon really excels is in his realistic portrayal of the psychological effects of the war. Perhaps his best poem in this vein is “Repression of War Experience,” from Counter-Attack, and Other Poems. The poem, in the form of an interior monologue, explores a mind verging on hysteria, trying to distract itself and maintain control while even the simplest, most serene events—a moth fluttering too close to a candle flame—bring nightmarish thoughts of violence into the persona’s mind. In the garden, he hears ghosts, and as he sits in the silence, he can hear only the guns. In the end, his control breaks down; he wants to rush out “and screech at them to stop—I’m going crazy;/ I’m going stark, staring mad because of the guns.”
Sassoon was not merely presenting realistic details; he was being deliberately didactic, trying to use his poetry to incite a public outcry against the war. When home on leave, he had been appalled by the...
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