The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Repression of War Experience” is an unrhymed poem in three stanzas. Along with the poem’s publication date, the title suggests an unwillingness or inability to recall or accept experiences undergone during World War I. In using the clinical word “repression,” Siegfried Sassoon might well be making direct reference to the book Die Traumdeutung (1900; The Interpretation of Dreams, 1913), in which psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud pointed out that although a person may not fully register traumatic experiences at the time they occur, repressed memories always return to haunt the sufferer. Because Sassoon speaks through the persona of an English soldier rather than in his own voice, “Repression of War Experience” is not a lyric but a dramatic work. As is true of all dramatic monologues, the voice of the persona dominates the poem.

In the first stanza, the soldier is at home in England on a summer night. He lights some candles and watches as moths flutter around the flames, wondering why they seek that which will kill them. Almost immediately, however, he finds that the moths trigger memories of his own wartime terrors, thoughts that he has “gagged all day.” In the second stanza, the longest of the three, the mood changes as the soldier gives himself instructions on how to behave: He resolves to maintain control by lighting his pipe and seeks solace in nature by wishing for a rainstorm “to sluice the dark” with “bucketsful of water.” Needing a more immediate solution, however, he gazes at the books lining the room but becomes unnerved by the sight of a huge moth bumping against the ceiling, which leads him to think about the garden outside the house; he imagines ghosts in the trees, not of his comrades lost in battle but of an older generation, “old men with ugly souls” who stayed at home to die slow, natural deaths. In a final effort to pull himself together, the young man reassures himself that he is far away from the war. In this last stanza, however, the soldier imagines that he hears the ominous sound of muffled guns on the front lines in France. They are sounds he cannot silence.