Repression of War Experience

by Siegfried Sassoon

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The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 359

“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.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 748

Since Sassoon describes warfare from the point of view of one who has actually experienced combat, those who have fought in any war or who know somebody who did can easily identify with this poem. Like the war poetry of Edward Thomas, Ivor Gurney, and Wilfred Owen, all of whom fought in World War I, Sassoon’s poetry has been widely read. As Patrick Quinn points out in The Great War and The Missing Muse (1994), Sassoon, together with these other poets, helped swing the opinion of the literary establishment in England against the war. It is easy to see why Sassoon caught the attention of the English public. Utilizing a technique of documentary realism, the poet uses the slangy language of the barracks: “jabber,” “O Christ,” and “bloody war.” Initially, too, the poem focuses on familiar images that could have been found in any house in England at the time the poem was written: candles, moths, a pipe, roses, and books. However, the poem is more than a factual journalistic record. Sassoon also uses dramatic irony, a device essential to any dramatic monologue: Caught at a critical moment, the soldier unintentionally reveals more to the reader than he realizes.

Unlike most dramatic monologues, which are addressed to an audience, the soldier in this poem is talking to himself. At times, the soldier addresses himself as “you”; at other times, he speaks in the first person. In Freudian terms, the soldier’s use of “you” seems to suggest that his superego, his commonsense self, is speaking, whereas the use of “I” implies thoughts emerging from deep inside, the Freudian id, site of the repressed memories of war. Conflict exists between these two parts of the soldier’s psyche. Sassoon makes this conflict clear through the device of juxtaposition. In the first line of the poem, for example, he juxtaposes the image of the candles the soldier lights with the moths flying into “liquid flame.” Then, to show that the soldier associates these moths with his fallen comrades, Sassoon juxtaposes an image of the war itself. In this way, the poet implies a comparison between the suicidal moths and the soldier’s mates who “blunder in” and become engulfed in gunfire at the battlefront in France. A final juxtaposition ends the stanza: The soldier’s superego admonishes, “It’s bad to think of war,” but his id reasserts itself in the young man’s fear of losing control of “ugly thoughts” and being driven out “to jabber among the trees.”

Sassoon continues this pattern of juxtaposition in the second stanza. Just after the soldier lights his pipe and remarks, “Look, what a steady hand,” he must “count fifteen” to regain control. Next, Sassoon juxtaposes the soldier’s thoughts of the delights of a possible rainstorm with the possible delights offered by the books lining his shelves, a connection that the soldier himself cannot accept. Instead, he bites his nails and lets his pipe go out, unable or unwilling to read “the wisdom of the world/waiting on those shelves.” Then, as if to show that the soldier’s id is winning its struggle against the superego, Sassoon juxtaposes the image of the suicidal moth bumping and fluttering against the ceiling with a second image generated by the id rather than a cautionary admonition from his superego as was the pattern in the first stanza, a nightmare vision of ghosts that the soldier thinks he sees lurking in the trees outside. However, it is the final series of implied comparisons of this stanza that dramatizes the extent of the young man’s angst: He first identifies these ghosts as “horrible shapes in shrouds” and then, confusing this nightmare with reality, asserts that the shrouds cannot be those that envelop the bodies of his fallen comrades because his comrades are “in France.”

In the final stanza, the soldier’s hold on reality snaps completely. Although his superego briefly reasserts itself to reassure the young man that he is “summering safe at home,” the remembered sounds of muffled gunfire trigger his primal trauma: the fear of death on the battlefield. Feeling this fear just as intensely as if he were still at the front, he says, “I’m going stark, staring mad because of the guns.” By concluding on a characteristic note of savage irony, Sassoon shows that the young soldier, far from achieving a therapeutic, Freudian breakthrough, is succumbing to his posttraumatic stress. The sound of the “whispering guns” cannot be quieted.

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