Siegfried Sassoon

Start Free Trial

Can you analyze the poem "Absolution" by Siegfried Sassoon?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Sassoon uses metaphor and paradox to convey the idea that war brings soldiers so close to death that they learn to see anything to do with life, including war, as beautiful. In the first stanza, the speaker says that the pain of life on earth sets free the eyes of the soldiers so that they can only see beauty. War is compared, metaphorically, to a scourge, an affliction or weapon of punishment that causes pain, so that, ironically, people fighting for their own freedom actually find that they are already free. This paradox—that one fights for a freedom and yet is already possessed of freedom—hinges on the idea that there is political or social freedom, for which they might fight, and the personal freedom that one gains when one achieves a certain perspective. The pain of conflict passes away for these men because they realize that "Time's but a golden wind that shakes the grass": another metaphor, this one comparing time to a brief and beautiful breeze that comes and quickly goes. They understand and accept mortality in a way that no other can because they face it each moment. The speaker admits that there was a time when they only desired to remain alive, but now that they have experienced this "heritage of heart," this inheritance or legacy of perspective, they need nothing more than to be with their fellows in this moment.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

"Absolution" shows us Sassoon's complex attitude to war. On the one hand, he was capable of writing poems that were unapologetically anti-war and castigated the generals for their incompetence and indifference to loss of life. One such example is "Attack," with its heartfelt plea in the last line: "O Jesus, make it stop!" Yet on the other, Sassoon could still praise certain aspects of the war, for all its horrors. And this attitude, this recognition of the positive personal qualities that often emerge from the cauldron of war, finds expression in "Absolution."

The tone of the poem is elegiac, paying tribute to the wisdom and freedom that war has brought the speaker and his comrades. There is, to be sure, a frank acknowledgement of the horrors of war, of the wounds that this "scourge" inflicts. But for Sassoon, this can in no way diminish the intense feeling of comradeship that has developed between the men of the trenches. Once they feared death, but having gone through all their experiences at the front together they have gained a whole new perspective on things, a realization of time's innate transience, and with it, the transience of human life.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Sure! Siegfried Sassoon fought in World War I and was wounded in battle; he spent much of his life speaking out against war, and these pacifist feelings are easy to see in his poems.

This one, "Absolution," was published in 1917, the same year that Sassoon was hospitalized for what we know today as post-traumatic stress disorder.

"Absolution" is a short poem that contains three stanzas of four lines each. The word "absolution" means "forgiveness," and the verb form is "absolve," meaning "forgive."

So, this is a poem about war; it's saying that war is essentially a terrible sin that brings destruction to humanity and to the earth, but when it's over--when we forgive ourselves for the sin of war-- we're left with more wisdom, freedom, and happiness than we had before, and we find a deeper understanding about how valuable time is and how fast it goes by. Whether you believe the speaker is expressing these sentiments genuinely or is stating them ironically (and therefore parodying other sappy war poetry) is a matter of personal interpretation.

The speaker uses basic but powerful diction ("wise," "free, "heart," "brothers") and one simple metaphor ("Time's but a golden wind that shakes the grass"). However, you might criticize the speaker for relying also on vague, emotion-laden terms like "anguish," "beauty," "horror," and "heritage."

Each stanza follows an ABAB rhyme scheme ("eyes/see/wise/free," "foe/pass/know/grass," "part/others/heart/brothers") and most lines feature ten smooth and rhythmic syllables. You might liken this simple, plodding rhythm to a marching song or even a lullaby.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team