Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2043
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 jingoistic ignorance and complacency on the home front. Sassoon’s second main type of war poetry made a satirical attack on these civilians, on those who conducted the war, and on the irresponsible press that spread the lying propaganda. Justly the most famous of these poems is “They” (The Old Huntsman, and Other Poems), in which Sassoon demolishes the cherished civilian notion that the war was divinely ordained and that the British were fighting on God’s side. Sassoon presents a pompous bishop declaring that, since the “boys” will have fought “Anti-Christ,” none will return “the same” as he was. The irony of this statement is made clear when the “boys” return quite changed: blind, legless, and syphilitic. The bishop can only remark, “The ways of God are strange.” “They” caused a great outcry in England by ruthlessly attacking the Church for forsaking the moral leadership it should have provided.
“They” also illustrates Sassoon’s favorite technique in satire: concentration of his ironic force in the last line of the poem. This kind of “knock-out punch” may be seen most vividly in the poem “The One-Legged Man” (The Old Huntsman, and Other Poems), which describes a soldier, discharged from the war, watching the natural beauty of the world in autumn and considering the bright, comfortable years ahead. The poem ends with the man’s crushingly ironic thought, “Thank God they had to amputate!”
Certainly there are flaws in Sassoon’s war poetry. Some of the verses are nothing more than bitter invectives designed merely to attack a part of his audience, such as “Glory of Women,” “Blighters,” and “Fight to the Finish.” Even the best poems often lack the discipline and order that Sassoon himself later advanced as one main criterion of poetry. Further, Sassoon almost never got beyond his feelings about immediate experiences to form theoretical or profound notions about the broader aspects of the war. Sassoon himself realized this lack in 1920, when he brought out his slain friend Wilfred Owen’s war poetry, which converted war experiences into something having universal meaning.
“The Dug Out”
The war poetry, however, has a number of virtues as well. It uses simple, direct, and clear expression that comes, as Sassoon advocated, from the heart. Further, it uses vivid pictures to express the inexpressible horror of the trenches. “The Dug Out” (Picture Show) is an example of Sassoon’s war poetry at its best. In its eight lines, Sassoon draws a clear picture of a youth sleeping in an awkward and unnatural position. The simple, colloquial language focuses on the emotional state of the speaker, and much is suggested by what is left unsaid. The speaker’s nerves are such that he can no longer bear the sight of the young sleeper because, as he cries in the final lines, “You are too young to fall asleep for ever;/ And when you sleep you remind me of the dead.” Arthur Lane compares such poems, in which the ironic effect is achieved through the dramatic situation more than through imagery, to those in the Satires of Circumstance (1914) of Sassoon’s idol, Thomas Hardy, suggesting an influence at work.
Perhaps the culmination of Sassoon’s attempt to transcend his war experience is the much-admired lyric “Everyone Sang” (Picture Show). It is a joyous lyric expressing a mood of relief and exultation, through the imagery of song and of singing birds. Sassoon seems to have been expressing his own relief at having survived: “horror/ Drifted away.” Lane calls these lines “pure poetry” of “visionary power,” comparing them to poems of William Wordsworth and William Blake. He might have also mentioned Henry Vaughan, Sassoon’s other idol, whose path toward poetry of a very personal spirituality Sassoon was soon to follow.
“Lines Written in Anticipation . . .”
Unquestionably, it is for his war poetry that Sassoon is chiefly admired. Still, he lived for nearly fifty years after the armistice, and what he wrote in that time cannot be disregarded. He first flirted with socialism after the war; “Everyone Sang” may be intended to laud the coming utopian society. Then he attempted satiric poetry during the 1920’s, which must be regarded as a failure. His targets varied from the upper classes to political corruption and newspapers, but the poetry is not from the heart; the satire is too loud and not really convincing. Michael Thorpe points out the wordiness of Sassoon’s style in these satires, together with the length of his sentences. One blatant example is “Lines Written in Anticipation of a London Paper Attaining a Guaranteed Circulation of Ten Million Daily.” Even the title is verbose, but note the wordy redundancy of the lines:
Were it not wiser, were it not more candid,More courteous, more consistent with good sense,If I were to include all, all who are bandedTogether in achievement so immense?
Religious searching and spirituality
Though he soon abandoned the satiric mode, Sassoon did maintain what Joseph Cohen calls the role of prophet that he had assumed in the war years, by continually warning, through The Road to Ruin and Rhymed Ruminations, of the coming disaster of World War II. His total despair for the modern world is expressed in “Litany of the Lost” (1945), wherein, with the ominous line “Deliver us from ourselves,” Sassoon bid farewell to the poetry of social commentary. By now he was more interested in his spiritual quest.
Next to his war poems, Sassoon’s poems of religious searching are his most effective. The quest begins with “The Traveller to His Soul” (1933), in which Sassoon asks, as the “problem which concerns me most,” the question “Have I got a soul?” He spends over twenty years trying to answer the question. His work, beginning with The Heart’s Journey and Vigils, is concerned with exploration of self and uncertainty about the self’s place in the universe, with increasing questioning about what lies behind creation. With Rhymed Ruminations, Sassoon ends the 1930’s on a note of uneasiness and uncertainty.
The questions are answered in the three volumes Common Chords, Emblems of Experience, and The Tasking, which were combined to make the book Sequences. In the poem “Redemption” (Common Chords), Sassoon yearns for a vision of the eternal, which he recognizes as existing beyond his senses. Sassoon’s lines recall Vaughan’s mystical visions when he asks for “O but one ray/ from that all-hallowing and eternal day.” In The Tasking, Sassoon reached what Thorpe calls a spiritual certainty, and his best poems in that volume succeed more clearly than the war poems in satisfying Sassoon’s own poetic criteria as expressed in 1939. In “Another Spring,” Sassoon speaks in simple, direct, and compact language about feelings of the heart—an old man’s emotions on witnessing what may be his last spring. The natural imagery is concrete and visual as well as auditory, concentrating on “some crinkled primrose leaves” and “a noise of nesting rooks.” Though the final three lines of the poem add a hint of didacticism, the poem succeeds by leaving much unsaid about the eternal rebirth of nature and its implications for the old man and the force behind the regenerative cycle of nature. It is a fine poem, like many in The Tasking, with a simple, packed style that makes these poems better as art, though doomed to be less familiar than the war poems.