Themes and Meanings
“Repression” is a poem about the power of repressed memory. It is also a highly serious, accusatory work. As Erich Maria Remarque wrote in Im Westen nichts Neues (1929; All Quiet on the Western Front, 1929), it focuses on a soldier who, while he may have escaped physical harm, was “destroyed by the War.” By tracing this young man’s failure to come to terms with his war experience, Sassoon may be suggesting that the trauma of World War I, mostly fought from muddy, vermin-filled trenches, is so great that it renders any such accommodation impossible.
This poem differs from other war poems written during this period: Thomas describes the way the war violated the natural order of things, Gurney recaptures particular scenes with painful quietness, and Owen mourns the tragedy of young men killed in battle, while “Repression of War Experience” dramatizes in a particularly direct fashion the manner in which the experience of war can inflict permanent psychic damage so painful that is must be repressed. However, the poem also suggests that the young soldier was not the only one to repress the war, implying that others, perhaps military censors, the press, or those who profited from the war—the “old men with ugly souls”—also engaged in repression, preventing the British public from becoming aware of the futility of continuous, massive bombardments by the guns that “never cease.” Sassoon’s sudden twisting of the reader’s expectation at the end of the poem—the soldier’s descent into madness, which makes the reader feel uncomfortable or perhaps even responsible for the soldier’s breakdown—may suggest that Sassoon saw as his poetic mission the necessity to pierce the dehumanization and complacent patriotism of many people in England during this period. In the end, it is this poem’s direct indictment of the brutal consequences of repression for both the soldiers who fought and those who sent them out to “blunder in/ And scorch their wings” that makes it so powerful.