Siegfried Sassoon

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The New Republic (essay date 1918)

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SOURCE: "Absolution," in The New Republic, Vol. XIV, No. 180, April 13, 1918, pp. 330-31.

[In the following review of The Old Huntsman and Other Poems, the critic asserts that Sassoon's war poems are his "true utterance" and that they are superior to the verse in the volume that concerns prewar England.]

When John Masefield returned here some months ago he brought praise of Mr. Sassoon's war-poetry. It was a surprise to him that this poetry, published in London in May, 1917, and dedicated to Thomas Hardy, should not yet have reached Americans. Here is the book now, issued in the handsome war-forgetful style conferred on it by Mr. Heinemann; and only a year late.

It is not all war-poetry. Half of the volume contains verse that Mr. Sassoon must have written in the England that is gone. This part of the volume might by itself have made some reputation if there had never been a long war, and if it had been published with peace-time additions—but it is a thin companion to the verse that its author has added in France. Its anaemia is no evidence that its author is thinblooded, it is merely a proof that poetry had largely become a function of book-fed human beings in the traditional sphere where Mr. Sassoon resided before the war. It is distinguished verse, some of it quite charming and all of it beyond sentimentality, but it is definitely moon-luminous and pale. "The Old Huntsman" is a boyish attempt to secure a quavering sporting reminiscence. "Haunted," "Goblin Revel" and "Night-Piece" show the kind of crow's nest of fantasy to which English poets were compelled to climb so long as they had no full community with the life about them and no passionate experiences of their own. "October" and "Morning-Land" and "Arcady Unheeding" exhibit what a man with Mr. Sassoon's gift could do with classic opportunity; and "Dryads" is a fair poem to represent what I am taking to be his nostalgic youth:

     Dryads

When meadows are grey with the morn,
In the dusk of the woods it is night;


The oak and the ash and the pine
War with the glimmer of light.

Dryads brown as the leaf
Move in the gloom of the glade;
When meadows are gray with the morn,
Dim night in the wood has delayed.

The cocks that crow to the land
Are faint and hollow and shrill:
Dryads as brown as the leaf
Whisper and hide and are still.

This seems to me lovely, but it is only a forerunner of the true utterance which Mr. Sassoon finds in France. The war that he puts into poetry is not an occasion for pomp or patriotism. The word England is undoubtedly implicit in his singing, but he never gets more political than when he is

Wondering when we'll ever end it,
Back to Hell with Kaiser send it,
Gag the noise, pack up and go.

It is not war the politicality that inspires him, but war the human experience, war the terrific means to a political end. Had he remained in England he might have become a propagandist, a hate-artist. His enlistment carried him at one stroke across the mud-munitions and landed him body and spirit in the zone of death. In that zone he has not felt it necessary to apologize for his thoughts or opinions. He has framed them as they came to him, the bold and natural expression of a citizen-soldier supposedly free. The war has tested him. It has lifted him out of his old associations and lined him up with companions not chosen. It has fed his ears on gunfire and fed his eyes on the monstrosity of slaughter. The landscape of war has imprisoned all his senses, day and night, winter and summer weather. But instead of being stunned, his nature was tautened and his emotional impetus supplied. It is not that war is the supreme impetus, as some men argue. It simply happened to remit this poet's critical difficulties, to give him the spur he needed. Other men have seen and heard these same things and found them incommunicable; but the wounded comrade, the Golgotha of the sentry, the harsh imperative at dawn, the music-hall banality about the tanks, the blunt casualness of death—these incidents took a form for Mr. Sassoon which beauty and truth could arrange on, perhaps not the only form or the deepest form but one with the touch of immortality. And his liveliness, his salty wit, improved his reception of reality without trying to disguise its bitterness.

Most men succumb to the new monotonies of the war-routine, the spiritual anodyne of a strangeness beyond their mastery. They surrender personal verdict on their experience. They go dumb. But Mr. Sassoon has really mastered the inwardness and outwardness of what has happened to him. He has breasted the war. And the thrilling effect of this is not to estrange us from old human nature but to show war, the monstrous parvenu, incapable of perverting or subverting the manhood we have always recognized. That is why Mr. Sassoon's thirty war poems go so deep. Fire and flood invade him only to bring into relief his buoyant and sensitive spirit, his honesty, his normal repugnances, his laughter, his hatred of cant. His spirit has been tempered by the furnace, not contorted or reduced to melted butter. He neither weeps too little nor crooks his knee nor inflates his chest nor struts with a proud posterior. He remains a man.

The first war poem is this,

Only men who have fought can really feel this "absolution," I suppose, but no one has better expressed the purgation of war. There are other moods, however, in which Mr. Sassoon has sung witheringly of this same absolution.

Another variant on the theme of absolution is this:

You may guess from these quotations the happy accent of "Conscripts," "Enemies," "The Tombstone-Maker," "The One-legged Man," "The Choral Union," "Stretcher Case," "The Hero," "In the Pink," "A Subaltern," "The Redeemer." There is a jolly humor in some of them, "Stretcher Case" being perhaps the cleverest in the amusing turn it gives to a poignant episode. It is not forced humor, but a burst of friendly sunshine through the phantasmagoria of the war. And Mr. Sassoon is no less willing to express the grave reality, as this fine poem shows,

     The Road

The road is thronged with women; soldiers pass
And halt, but never see them; yet they're here—
A patient crowd along the sodden grass,
Silent, worn out with waiting, sick with fear.
The road goes crawling up a long hillside,
All ruts and stones and sludge, and the emptied dregs
Of battle thrown in heaps. Here where they died
Are stretched big-bellied horses with stiff legs;
And dead men, bloody-fingered from the fight,
Stare up at caverned darkness winking white.

You in the bomb-scorched kilt, poor sprawling Jock,
You tottered here and fell, and stumbled on,
Half dazed for want of sleep. No dream could mock
Your reeling brain with comforts lost and gone.
You did not feel her arms about your knees,
Her blind caress, her lips upon your head:
Too tired for thoughts of home and love and ease,
The road would serve you well enough for bed.

It is not laid on thick, Mr. Sassoon's version, but his is one of the true legends of the war, and has the accent of simpler English poetry. There are phrases and moods which remind one of ballad, the simplicity is so perfect—even the supreme imaginative ballad of English, with its calamities and portents,

All in a hot and copper sky,
The bloody Sun, at noon,
Right up above the mast did stand,
No bigger than the Moon….

Quotation is often unfair. Sometimes it puts a layer of fine apples on the top of the barrel, misrepresenting what's underneath; or else it picks out a random fruit or two that belie the actual content. But I have striven to take no advantage in making these quotations from The Old Huntsman. They represent the book as a whole. Its tone may not please every one, it must certainly disappoint the gentlemen who wish to disguise the tiger of war; but it is the tone of a youth singularly alive to actuality, and you cannot expect the man who is gripping with the actuality to take the same tone as the war-booster. The soldier is hardly less patriotic than the booster, and he is just three thousand miles nearer the fact.

Introduction

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Siegfried Sassoon 1886–1967

(Full name Siegfried Lorraine Sassoon; also wrote under the pseudonyms Saul Kain, Pinchbeck Lyre, and S. S.) English poet, novelist, autobiographer, and editor. See also Siegfried Sassoon Literary Criticism.

Sassoon was one of several English poets, including Robert Graves, Edmund Blunden, and Wilfred Owen, who gained recognition by writing about their experiences as soldiers in World War I, Using realistic detail and bitter satire, Sassoon's war poetry expresses the suffering of the battlefield and rails against the traditional, idealistic image of combat as a glorious and noble undertaking. Other poems by Sassoon consider subjects apart from warfare, frequently utilizing rural English settings as a means of contemplating man's spirituality and existence. It is his powerful reaction to the violence of the modern battlefield that distinguishes Sassoon as a poet, however, and his experiences in the First World War are also central to the well-received novels and autobiographies he later produced.

Biographical Information

Sassoon was born to a wealthy family. His father was Jewish, with relations who were prominent in English society, politics, and business; his mother, a gentile, also hailed from an affluent background. Sassoon grew up on a country estate in Kent, enjoying fox hunting, cricket, and other pastimes of the well-to-do. He studied law and history at Marlborough College and Clare College, Cambridge, but never took a degree. While a student, he began to write poetry, and he published a number of private editions of his verse prior to the beginning of World War I. Sassoon enlisted in the British army in August 1914, three days before England declared war on the Central Powers. After training as an infantry officer, he arrived in France in November 1915 and took part in fighting on the Western Front.

Although his war poetry attacks the brutality and destruction of war, Sassoon earned a reputation as a courageous fighter. Nicknamed "Mad Jack" by his fellow soldiers, he was awarded the Military Cross for his battlefield exploits and was considered for another medal after he single-handedly captured a German trench position. He was wounded and disabled several times, and while recuperating in England, he came in contact with individuals who were active in the antiwar movement. In 1917 Sassoon publicly protested against the continuation of the conflict; he threw his Military Cross into a river and wrote a letter to his commanding officer that was, as he put it, a "wilful defiance of military authority." The letter was published in

newspapers and read in the British House of Commons, and for a time it seemed that Sassoon would be courtmartialed for his actions. Instead, a medical board concluded that Sassoon's protest was the result of shell shock—a finding that may have saved him from a prison term. Consequently, Sassoon was sent to the Craiglockhart Military Hospital in Scotland, where he met Wilfred Owen. Owen's work, like Sassoon's, would become synonymous with World War I, and Sassoon furthered the younger poet's exposure by editing a volume of his work after Owen was killed in the final week of the war. Once he was released from Craiglockhart, Sassoon saw two more tours of battlefield duty in 1918 before another bullet wound sent him back to England to recover.

Following the war, Sassoon continued to produce poetry, but he received significant attention for his prose. He produced a trilogy of novels featuring George Sherston, a character who, like Sassoon, comes from a wealthy background and serves as an infantry officer during the war. In addition, Sassoon wrote three autobiographical volumes that directly comment on his experiences. After marrying and fathering one son, Sassoon lived quietly on his Wiltshire country estate in the final decades of his life. He died there in 1967, at the age of eighty.

Major Works

Sassoon's early poetry is considered part of the Georgian movement in English literature, a trend that emphasized Romantic elements over the rationality and realism that had marked the Victorian verse of the late 1800s. Like other Georgians, Sassoon celebrates the natural beauty of the English countryside in his early work, but these poems often suffer from archaic language and conventional subjects. His most accomplished piece from this period is "The Daffodil Murderer," a long, blank-verse monologue that parodies English poet John Masefield's The Everlasting Mercy.

Sassoon's collection The Old Huntsman and Other Poems was published in 1917, midway through World War I. The profound impact that the war had on Sassoon and many others of his generation is evident in the striking tonal contrasts among the poems in the volume. The title poem features a character's reflections on life in prewar England, and this pastoral mood is also present in a number of other pieces in the book. Some of the war poems in The Old Huntsman, including "The Kiss" and "Absolution," present the conventional, heroic view of battle, with Sassoon proclaiming the righteousness of England's cause and the character-building qualities of combat. Scholars believe these poems were written early in the war, and most are thought to have been composed before Sassoon saw any fighting. After experiencing the reality of the battlefield, his attitude abruptly changed. Thereafter, his poems feature the minute and often grotesque details of trench warfare and utilize colloquial language and a conversational tone. This newfound realism is often combined with biting satire; in "They," Sassoon lampoons a bishop who praises the glorious mission the soldiers undertake while ignoring the ugly wounds they suffer in the process. In a similar manner, "Stand-To: Good Friday Morning" presents a soldier who prays that he will be wounded so that he can escape the war.

Counter Attack and Other Poems, Sassoon's second extensive collection of verse, continues in the same vein; the title poem offers one of Sassoon's most graphic accounts of the war's carnage, while poems like "Does It Matter?" satirically downplay the physical damage inflicted on soldiers. As Bernard Bergonzi states in Heroes' Twilight, Sassoon presents these glimpses of the war and its consequences "as a means of forcibly impressing on the civilian world some notion of the realities of front-line life." Sassoon stated in similar terms that his war poems were "deliberately written to disturb complacency."

He used the same ethic in postwar volumes such as Satirical Poems and The Road to Ruin, although his targets here include politicians and the news media in addition to the continued militarism of European nations in the 1920s and 1930s. A quieter, philosophical tone is also evident in Sassoon's poetry beginning in the 1920s, with collections such as The Heart's Journey voicing the poet's questions about the meaning of life and the passage of time. These metaphysical musings are often combined with Sassoon's observations of nature and speak of his bond with the rural English landscape. In Sequences, a 1956 compilation, Sassoon's ruminations give way to religious conviction and mirror the spiritual conversion that the poet underwent in the 1950s.

Critical Reception

Sassoon's controversial war poetry has received mixed reactions. Many critics, including some of Sassoon's friends and fellow poets, have disapproved of Sassoon's treatment of combat, claiming that his verse deals only with war's immediate and startling aspects. They have maintained that his anger invalidates his work aesthetically because his descriptions appeal to the senses rather than the imagination. Wilfred Owen concluded that Sassoon's poems do not expand and intensify the horror of war into a greater human context, but rather enjoin the reader to react to the moment. According to John Middleton Murry, there is "a lack of finished artistry" about Sassoon's work, a negativity that terrifies and then numbs so that the reader cannot absorb the full aesthetic experience. Virginia Woolf stated that Sassoon "deserted art in a compulsion to express the intolerable." Others have found more value in Sassoon's work, noting that his war poems emphasize common speech, human interaction, and concrete details—traits that indicate a clear break from the abstraction and idealization of much Georgian verse. Sassoon's work has also been appreciated as a chronicle of his times, a depiction of a generation's transformation from the pastoral simplicities of the past to the violent uncertainties of the modern age. In documenting this era, Sassoon's satiric mockery of warfare has proved an influential model for other artists in the twentieth century.

John Middleton Murry (essay date 1918)

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SOURCE: "Mr. Sassoon's War Verses," in his The Evolution of an Intellectual, R. Cobden-Sanderson, 1920, pp. 75-84.

[Murry was a renowned English literary critic whose books include The Problem of Style (1922) and Keats and Shakespeare (1925). In the the following analysis, originally written in July, 1918, Murry asserts that Sassoon's work in Counter-Attack and Other Poems is "not poetry. " He faults the war verse in the volume because it fails to provide a contrast to the chaotic atmosphere of battle and because it has a distinctly prose-like quality.]

It is the fact, not the poetry, of Mr. Sassoon that is important. When a man is in torment and cries aloud, his cry is incoherent. It has neither weight nor meaning of its own. It is inhuman, and its very inhumanity strikes to the nerve of our hearts. We long to silence the cry, whether by succour and sympathy, or by hiding ourselves from it. That it should somehow stop or be stopped, and by ceasing trouble our hearts no more, is our chief desire; for it is ugly and painful, and it rasps at the cords of nature.

Mr. Sassoon's verses [in Counter-Attack and Other Poems]—they are not poetry—are such a cry. They touch not our imagination, but our sense. Reading them, we feel, not as we do with true art, which is the evidence of a man's triumph over his experience, that something has after all been saved from disaster, but that everything is irremediably and intolerably wrong. And, God knows, something is wrong-—wrong with Mr. Sassoon, wrong with the world which has made him the instrument of a discord so jangling. Why should one of the finest creatures of the earth be made to suffer a pain so brutal that he can give it no expression, that even this most human and mighty relief is denied him?

For these verses express nothing, save in so far as a cry expresses pain. Their effect is exhausted when the immediate impression dies away. Some of them are, by intention, realistic pictures of battle experience, and indeed one does not doubt their truth. The language is overwrought, dense and turgid, as a man's mind must be under the stress and obsession of a chaos beyond all comprehension.

The place was rotten with dead; green clumsy legs,

High-booted, sprawled and grovelled along the saps;
And trunks, face downward, in the sucking mud,
Wallowed like trodden sand-bags loosely filled;
And naked sodden buttocks, mats of hair,
Bulged, clotted heads slept in the plastering slime
And then the rain began—the jolly old rain!

That is horrible, but it does not produce the impression of horror. It numbs, not terrifies, the mind. Each separate reality and succeeding vision is, as it were, driven upon us by a hammer, but one hammer-beat is like another. Each adds to the sum more numbness and more pain, but the separateness and particularity of each is lost.

We are given the blurred confusion, and just because this is the truth of the matter exactly rendered we cannot apprehend it any more than the soldier who endures it can. We, like him, are 'crumpled and spun sideways.'

There is a value in this direct transcription of plain, unvarnished fact; but there is another truth more valuable still. One may convey the chaos of immediate sensation by a chaotic expression, as does Mr. Sassoon. But the unforgettable horror of an inhuman experience can only be rightly rendered by rendering also its relation to the harmony and calm of the soul which it shatters. In this context alone can it appear with that sudden shock to the imagination which is overwhelming. The faintest discord in a harmony has within it an infinity of disaster, which no confusion of notes, however wild and various and loud, can possibly suggest. It is on this that the wise saying that poetry is emotion recollected in tranquillity is so firmly based, for the quality of an experience can only be given by reference to the ideal condition of the human consciousness which it disturbs with pleasure or with pain. But in Mr. Sassoon's verses it is we who are left to create for ourselves the harmony of which he gives us only the moment of its annihilation. It is we who must be the poets and the artists if anything enduring is to be made of his work. He gives us only the data. There is, indeed, little enough harm in this; it is good that we should have the data; it is good that Mr. Sassoon should have written his book, and that the world should read it. But our concern here is with Mr. Sassoon the potential poet.

There is a danger that work such as his may pass current as poetry. It has the element of poetical popularity, for it produces an immediate impression. And since Mr. Sassoon is a young man, he may be hypnotized by popularity into believing that his work is done, and may end by wrecking the real poetic gift which at rare intervals peeps out in a line.

The last five words are beautiful because they do convey horror to the imagination, and do not bludgeon the senses. They convey horror to the imagination precisely because they contain, as it were, a full octave of emotional experience, and the compass ranges from serenity to desolation, not merely of the earth, but of the mind. The horror is in relation; it is placed, and therefore created. But in the following lines there is no trace of creation or significance:

A yawning soldier knelt against the bank,
Staring across the morning blear with fog;
He wondered when the Allemands would get busy;
And then, of course, they started with five-nines
Traversing, sure as fate and never a dud.

We choose these lines because they make a tolerable, if not a very distinguished, prose. Those that follow them in the piece which gives the book its name are more violent journalism. But why should such middling prose be ironed out into nominal blank verse lines, unless Mr. Sassoon imagined that he was, in fact, writing poetry? What he was doing was to make a barely sufficient entry in a logbook. If the lines of the whole piece were transposed into the prose form for which they clamour, they would then, surely, appear to be the rough notes (perhaps for a novel, much less probably for a poem) which they are.

Mr. Sassoon is evidently in some sense aware that an element of creation, or of art, is lacking in his work. Perhaps, on reading some of his own lines, he may have felt that they were not, after all, a new kind of poetry; and he may have been sensible of some inexplicable difference between his own verses and those of Mr. Thomas Hardy, which are a new kind of poetry. For we think we can detect a certain straining after pregnant compression, due to the attempt to catch Mr. Hardy's method. The overloading of epithet and verb in such a line as—

He winked his prying torch with patching glare

imitates the technical accidents of a poetical method, of which the real strength and newness consists exactly in the element which as yet has found only an insignificant place in Mr. Sassoon's mental composition. Against the permanence of the philosophic background in Mr. Hardy's work, each delicate shade of direct emotion is conveyed with all the force that comes of complete differentiation. With Mr. Sassoon there is no background, no differentiation; he has no calm, therefore he conveys no terror; he has no harmony, therefore he cannot pierce us with the anguish of discord.

The one artistic method which he employs is the irony of epigram. On these occasions alone does he appeal to a time beyond the immediate present of sensation. There is an effort at comparison and relation, or, in other words, an effort to grapple with his own experience and comprehend it. It is true that the effort and the comprehension do not go very far, and they achieve rather a device of technique than a method of real expression; but the device is effective enough.

The comprehension is superficial, however. The experiences of battle, awful, inhuman, and intolerable as they are, can be comprehended only by the mind which is capable of bringing their horror and their inhumanity home to the imagination of others. Without the perspective that comes from intellectual remoteness there can be no comprehension, no order and no art. Intellectual remoteness is not cold or callous; it is the condition in which a mind works as a mind, and a man is fully active as a man. Because this is wanting in Mr. Sassoon we are a prey to uneasiness when confronted with his work. We have a feeling of guilt, as though we were prying into secrets which were better hid. We have read, for instance, in the pages of M. Duhamel, far more terrible things than any Mr. Sassoon has to tell, but they were made terrible by the calm of the recording mind. Mr. Sassoon's mind is a chaos. It is as though he had no memory, and the thing itself returned as it was. That is why the fact, or the spectacle, of Mr. Sassoon is so much more impressive than his verses. That one who asked for perfect happiness so little of life as the writer of 'Break of Day'—

should be reduced to a condition in which he cannot surmount the disaster of his own experience—

Thud, thud, thud—quite soft … they never cease
Those whispering guns—O Christ! I want to go out
And screech at them to stop—I'm going crazy,
I'm going stark, staring mad because of the guns.

—that is awful and inhuman and intolerable. And to that it makes no difference that it is Mr. Sassoon who is the martyr, and we ourselves who are the poets.

Principal Works

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Poetry

*Poems [published anonymously] 1906

*Orpheus in Diloeryium [published anonymously] 1908

*Sonnets [published anonymously] 1909

*Sonnets and Verses [published anonymously] 1909

*Twelve Sonnets 1911

*Poems 1911

*Melodies [published anonymously] 1912

*Hyacinth: An Idyll 1912

*An Ode for Music 1912

*Amyntas 1913

*The Daffodil Murderer [as Saul Kain] 1913

*Discoveries 1915

*Morning-Glory [published anonymously] 1916

The Redeemer 1916

To Any Dead Officer 1917

The Old Huntsman and Other Poems 1917

Counter-Attack and Other Poems 1918

Four Poems 1918

Picture Show 1919; also published as Picture-Show [enlarged edition], 1920

The War Poems of Siegfried Sassoon 1919

*Recreations 1923

*Lingual Exercises for Advanced Vocabularies 1925

Selected Poems 1925

Satirical Poems 1926; enlarged edition, 1933

Siegfried Sassoon 1926

The Heart's Journey 1927

Nativity 1927

To My Mother 1928

A Suppressed Poem 1929

In Sicily 1930

*On Chatterton: A Sonnet 1930

Poems [as Pinchbeck Lyre] 1931

To the Red Rose 1931

Prehistoric Burials 1932

The Road to Ruin 1933

Vigils 1934; enlarged edition, 1935

Rhymed Ruminations 1939; enlarged edition, 1940

Poems Newly Selected, 1916-1935 1940

Early Morning Long Ago 1941

Selected Poems 1943

Collected Poems 1947

Common Chords 1950

Emblems of Experience 1951

The Tasking 1954

Faith Unfaithful c. 1954

Renewals 1954

An Adjustment [as S. S.] 1955

Sequences 1956

Poems [selected by Dennis Silk] 1958

*Lenten Illuminations and Sight Sufficient 1959

The Path to Peace: Selected Poems 1960

Arbor Vitae and Unfoldment 1960

Awaitment 1960

A Prayer at Pentecost 1960

Collected Poems, 1908-1956 1961

Something about Myself 1966

An Octave: 8 September 1966 1966

Selected Poems 1968

Siegfried Sassoon: A Poet's Pilgrimage 1973

Other Major Works

Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man [published anonymously] (novel) 1928

Memoirs of an Infantry Officer [published anonymously] (novel) 1930

Sherston's Progress (novel) 1936

The Old Century and Seven More Years (autobiography) 1938

On Poetry: The Arthur Skemp Memorial Lecture (nonfiction) 1939

The Flower Show Match and Other Pieces (selected prose) 1941

The Weald of Youth (autobiography) 1942

Siegfried's Journey, 1916-1920 (autobiography) 1945

Meredith, A Biography (biography) 1948

Letters to a Critic (letters) 1976

Siegfried Sassoon Diaries, 1915-1918 [edited by Rupert Hart-Davis] (diaries) 1981

Siegfried Sassoon Diaries, 1920-1922 [edited by Hart-Davis] (diaries) 1983

*These collections were privately printed.

†These works were published as The Memoirs of George Sherston in 1937.

John Drinkwater (essay date 1920)

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SOURCE: "Two 'New Poets' and Their War Poems as Mr. Drinkwater Sees Them," in The New York Times Book Review, May 9, 1920, pp. 235, 246.

[In the excerpt below, Drinkwater reviews Picture Show and questions whether war poetry can be judged by those who have not shared in the poet's wartime experiences. He also argues that Sassoon's strong emotions sometimes weaken the quality of his work, but the critic finds that the volume's best poems are "the creation of a loving and aristocratic art."]

There is an element, and, on the face of it, a very important one, in Mr. Sassoon's poetry, to which critical approach is of extreme difficulty. Rightly understood, it is the expressive part of poetry rather than the thing expressed that stimulates our mind, quickening our own perceptive faculty. Blake's sublime naturalism, Marvell's lucid intellectual passion, the romance of Morris, Crabbe's austerity—the mood of one stands with another in value to us by reason of its mastery in expression—that is, if we care for poetry and life more than we do for points of view. But this acceptance by the alert reader of the poet's experience for its own sake presupposes that such experience is in character not outside normal imaginative range, that the emotion of which the poet tells us and the circumstance in which he clothes it, although we may have no direct personal knowledge of them, are at least potentially within the scheme of our own nature as we know it. It is this condition that makes work of the fancy, in which a life of mere whim moves in no relation to universal experience, commonly so dull. Caprice always blurs the fine edge of creation. The poet whose world is a very private one, fancied rather than imagined, is likely to occupy it alone. Mr. Sassoon has a rich imagination. His work moves in essential touch with the life of a courageous and workaday world, and is bright with the poet's concentrated use of words. But a great deal of his verse, including much of his new book, is concerned explicitly with an experience which is not universal. It is not of the generalized emotion of war that he writes, but of his particular and individual reaction to the days that he spent as a soldier in the British Army in France, when he lived in a state of society where nearly every normal condition was reversed, and where the words law and license lost their habitual meaning altogether.

Mr. Sassoon's Experiences

It is upon that aspect of these poems that I feel it is impossible, for me at least, to speak, and I venture to think that no one is truly qualified to speak of it who has not shared Mr. Sassoon's experience. Of that generalized significance of war of which I speak it is possible to have imaginative as apart from direct knowledge, and many poets in the history of literature have shown this. And in the long run, when perspectives adjust themselves, this may conceivably be the profounder significance. But I think that we deceive ourselves entirely if we suppose that we can in the same way share the mood of which Mr. Sassoon writes so often. Bluntly, either we faced death in the trenches with him or we didn't. There may be perfectly good reasons for the fact if we didn't, but in that case it is none the less cant if we talk as though we knew all about it. Mr. Sassoon was distinguished as a soldier—no one could speak to him for a minute without seeing that. He came to loathe the whole business, not with reservations, but from every approach. He had the high moral courage to say so, and one cannot but respect that new and admirable gallantry. But for the most part I find the verse that came out of it all a little remote from my own imaginative experience. While I love the gallantry, as an outsider, I feel that it would be as impertinent of me to praise this poetry because of its mood, as is done rather freely by people whom I cannot but suspect of knowing as little about it as I do, as it would be a shameless insolence to censure it on the same grounds, which has also been done from vantages of cozy belligerence. If Mr. Sassoon's war verses of revolt are to be disputed, let it be by some Charles Peguy or Julian Crenfell; if eulogized, then by his fellows who lived through like endurances to a like disillusionment. We have no standing as controversialists in these things, and controversy by wrong standards is apt to beset Mr. Sassoon's work at present. This is poor homage to a poet. If there is any trying on the controversial issue to be done. Mr. Sassoon can be tried only by his peers of battle. And in the long run this, in any case, is not even a very important question in his character as a poet.

Critical Excursions

Apart from war verses of the kind of which I have been speaking, there is enough work in this book to give a pretty clear indication of what Mr. Sassoon's gifts really are and of the way in which they are developing. And now for a little skirmishing of our own, over country that we do know. Mr. Sassoon has more than once been tempted into critical excursions in which he has made it clear that he thinks a good many of his contemporaries (e. g., might be say, the majority of his fellows in "Georgian Poetry"?) to be indifferently small, not to say quite little, apples. In this I have of him the happy advantage of admiring most of them, many of them immensely, including Mr. Sassoon himself. I think "Georgian Poetry" misses some poets with good claims to inclusion, but I am clear that the generation that can produce those four volumes will take very important poetic rank. In his severities Mr. Sassoon seems chiefly to deplore the absence of a certain ecstatic passion in some of his fellows, a prevalence of what he might call overtranquillized expression. The complaint, I believe, points exactly by implication at the chief danger and defect of Mr. Sassoon's own work, of the excellence of which I shall have the pleasure of speaking in a moment. Poetry is emotion not only recollected in tranquillity but purged and limned in tranquillity.

If turbulence of passion, which is the glory and the sorrow of every poet, is to be matched by turbulent expression, then the negro jazz on the platform is the highest lyric art, which, enchanting though it be, it is not; in pure passion it cannot compare for a moment with Herrick or Donne or Landor, or, shall we say, Alice Meynell, and their fellows in precise and exquisite phrase. Mr. Sassoon sometimes is as shaken in his expressions as in his emotion, and then he is apt to write as though art could not contain him. But every poet must learn that no man feels too deeply or too quickly to write well, but what would he say in his critical candor of another poet who wrote of his joy being "thrilling-sweet," of his heart being "heavy-laden," of "dazzling afternoon," of "phantom-glory," of "dawn's one start," and "early morning freshness of surprise," and "lonely pride," and of "though our heaven be hell," and "bitter-sweet," to "pick a drooping spray at random." And just as in phrases there is to be found this too easy way of writing, where expression is not really achieved at all whatever the passion may be, so sometimes in a whole poem the vision is left unresolved. In "Limitations," for example, there seems to be a fine philosophical concept wandering like a ghost behind the lines. But it is not realized. It has lovely tones, but they do not articulate. Consider it beside Herrick's "To Meadows," a poem containing as subtle a web of contemplation as you will. How lucid the old verses are after 300 years. What will "Limitations" say in 2200 A. D.? This poem is a notable instance of a passion that has not been tranquillized in expression. And the end is disaster, a crumbling of beauty in our fingers.

But while it seems to me that, more clearly than any contemporary of anything like equal ability, Mr. Sassoon lives in a glass house (and poets, after all, are people), there remains his very distinguished and rare achievement. At its best here is a proud, tender poetry, indignant often but magnanimous always, the creation of a loving and aristocratic art. Over and over again life fuses into the perfect and glowing word, the intense mind seizing upon essential form, so that a moment again bears the stamp of immortality. "Vision" is exquisite, as is the lightness coming to a lovely close in "Early Chronology." And there are many others. When delight of this sort comes to us we can do little more than record it and our thanks; it is upon our differences that we become garrulous. As the greatest poet of his day has said, very simply, "Criticism is so easy, and art is so difficult."

Further Reading

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Bibliography

Keynes, Sir Geoffrey. A Bibliography of Siegfried Sassoon. London: Hart-Davis, 1962, 199 p.

Criticism

Bergonzi, Bernard. "Poets III: Sassoon." In his Heroes' Twilight, pp. 92-108. London: Constable, 1965.

Analyzes Sassoon's depiction of the war, declaring that he was "a poet of narrow but direct effects."

Blunden, Edmund. "Siegfried Sassoon's Poetry." In his Edmund Blunden: A Selection of his Poetry and Prose made by Kenneth Hopkins, pp. 310-24. London: Hart-Davis, 1950.

Positive assessment of Sassoon's work that praises him as "a poet of considerable productiveness" whose work is "as readable as it is copious."

Chase, Lewis. Review of Counter-Attack. The New Republic XVII, No. 216 (December 21, 1918): 227-28.

Comments on the bitterness expressed in Sassoon's collection but also notes a trace of idealism in the poet's "appreciation of beauty."

Fairchild, Hoxie Neale. 'Toward Hysteria." In Religious Trends in English Poetry, Volume V: Gods of A Changing Poetry, pp. 578-627. New York: Columbia University Press, 1962.

Considers Sassoon's war verse as an expression of psychological illness and compares his work to that of contemporaries such as Wilfred Owen.

Graves, Robert. Goodbye to All That. London: Cape, 1929, 446 p.

Memoir of the war that contains numerous references to Sassoon and his poetry.

Hillyer, Robert. "Great and Civilized." The Saturday Review XXXII, No. 5 (January 29, 1949): 28.

Views the volume Collected Poems as an autobiography and proclaims Sassoon "a major poet."

Levi, Peter. "Sassoon at Eighty." The Poetry Review LVIII, No. 3 (Autumn 1966): 171-73.

Laudatory essay that declares that Sassoon has been "important in the history of modern poetry."

Shanks, Edward. Review of Satirical Poems. The Saturday Review 141, No. 3683 (May 29, 1926): 653-54.

Maintains that Sassoon's collection fails as satire because the poet does not feel strongly enough about the subjects he addresses.

Walton, Eda Lou. "The Later Poetry of Siegfried Sassoon." New York Herald Tribune Books 12, No. 27 (March 8, 1936): 7.

Asserts that the poems in Vigils have several flaws but that they provide "an interesting human document" that testifies to the continuing effect the war had on Sassoon.


Additional coverage of Sassoon's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale Research: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28 (rev. ed.), 104; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 36; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol. 36; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 20; and Major Twentieth-Century Writers.

Babette Deutsch (essay date 1929)

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SOURCE: "A Solemn Music," in New York Herald Tribune Books, March 24, 1929, p. 7.

[Deutsch was an American author and educator whose poetry collections include Banners (1919) and The Collected Poems of Babette Deutsch (1969). In this review of The Heart's Journey, she criticizes several aspects of Sassoon's poetry, yet praises the visions of evil and peace that he attempts to communicate.]

One remembers Siegfried Sassoon as the author of some of the bitterest and most moving lyrics that sprang out of the horrors of the last great war. In the years that have elapsed since then his mood seems to have changed from utter despair to a kind of illumined reconciliation. He has won, however hardly, to that peace which has its roots in the spiritual life, and the poems in this slight new volume of his are at once a testimony to that peace and signal of how difficult it is of attainment. It is clear that there are moments—seasons perhaps—even now, when the soul, escaping from the spell laid upon it, turns an ear to the fiendish cacophonies of the past, and only by the most strenuous exercise of the will can it be quieted and caught and led softly back. And, indeed, it is of the conflict between the security in which the spirit is at home and the forces inviting it to self-destruction that the poet makes his finest songs. Consider, for example, the following lyric:

The wisdom of the world is this: To say There is
No other wisdom but to gulp what time can give;
To guard no inward vision winged with mysteries;
To hear no voices haunt the hurrying hours we live;
To keep no faith with ghostly friends; never to know
Vigils of sorrow crowned when loveless passions fade …
From wisdom such as this to find my gloom I go.
Companioned by those powers who keep me unafraid.

That Sassoon has not relinquished his Vision of Evil—which no less a poet than William Butler Yeats posits as the requisite for great poetry—is evidenced by more than one page of this recent book. The lyrics addressed "To One Who Was With Me in the War," with the familiar irony of its last line, the vivid anger bursting from the lines "On Passing the New Menin Gate," and much between the lines of other poems, point to the fact that he has not forgotten the waste, the filth, the brute stupidity of those four years of bloodshed. It is his firm grasp on these stained memories that allows one to credit the authenticity of his vision of peace. Here is no mere quietist, for all his pleasure in eighteenth century writers, old-fashioned music and pale flowers. Here is one who knows the worst and can believe the best. This gives force to such apparently facile verses as "The Power and the Glory," "At the Grave of Henry Vaughan," the lyric that is a gray frame for the line: "Alone … The world is life endured and known," and the sonnet "A Midnight Interior."

To-night while I was pondering in my chair
I saw for the first time a circle of brightness
Made by my patient lamp up on the ceiling.
It shone like a strange flower; and then my stare
Discovered an arctic snowstorm in that whiteness;
And then some pastoral vale of rayed revealing.
White flowers were in a bowl beside my book;
In midnight's miracle of light they glowed,
And every petal there in silence showed
My life the way to wonder with a look.

O inwardness of trust, intelligence,
Release my soul through every door of sense:
Give me new sight; oh, grant me strength to find
From lamp and flower simplicity of mind.

Technically, the work in this book is not above reproach. Especially in the poems that recall the war, Sassoon is betrayed by the fierceness of his rebellion into unnecessary explicitness. He undervalues the strength of understatement. Too often, the ultimate line is redundant. Again, he is led; by his fondness for and knowledge of music, into the employment of words for their sound rather than their sense. There are a few definitely feeble pieces, notably the love lyrics with which the book opens. There are not a few feeble lines. There is need for greater concreteness of imagery in several poems, and for more comprehension in almost all. But though technique is of extreme importance in this art, it is not the whole of it. There is no reason to suppose that Sassoon will fail to master his instrument more completely. There is reason to rejoice in his mastery of the solemn music which it is to express.

Winfield Townley Scott (essay date 1949)

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SOURCE: "'Youth That Dying—'," in Poetry, Vol. LXXIV, No. 1, April, 1949, pp. 41-3.

[Scott was an American poet, editor, and educator noted for his biographical and story poems. In the following review of Sasson's Collected Poems, Scott finds the volume to be emblematic of the English generation that came of age in the first half of the twentieth century.]

The fortunate juxtaposition of era and literary genius is a theory which most of us assume to be true. There seems to be some evidence for it; the height of Greek civilization, the Elizabethan era in England are among the familiar examples. It is perhaps less frequently noted, though the instances must be plentiful, in its minor but no less obvious emanations. Siegfried Sassoon's poems of the first World War are such an instance. He is a particularly perfect example of the Georgian poet upon whose bucolic lyrics crashed a terrible war and who out of that war made more genuine poetry than he was ever able to make before or since.

This is not news, of course. But the truth and proof of it are assembled with special force in Sassoon's Collected Poems. Indeed he himself puts the case clearly enough—if romantically—in the line of a poem dated 1916: "youth, that dying, touched my lips to song." And in this book of his whole poetic work (Sassoon is now about 62) one can see, as it were swiftly, the graph of his career.

And in a sense one can see, too, the England of the past fifty years. Perhaps not at its best or at its most regenerative; but certainly often at its most typical, and as a generation has shaped it and been shaped by it. Sassoon's early lyric poetry, tame and well-mannered, belongs to that pre-war England of seeming everlasting security—that world so lovingly recorded in so many volumes of memoirs: Sir Osbert Sitwell's, Edward Marsh's, Sassoon's own. Then the war. Then, especially for Sassoon's generation, bafflement and bitterness and nostalgia: here reflected—in Sassoon's later poetry—by the inability either to return unspoiled to the dryads-and-shepherds landscapes of one's literary youth or to cope with a real world spinning desperately down to an even worse war; and so you find satirical poems which, heavy-handed, are only a sort of sarcastic mocking, or abstract homilies, or—again the poet supplies his own descriptive phrase aptly—"rhymed ruminations."

The poetry is gone from the later work. In the early work it is literary exercise orchestrating a lyric impulse. It moves at times with a simple grace as in the stanzas of "At Daybreak":

I listen for him through the rain,
And in the dusk of starless hours
I know that he will come again;
Loth was he ever to forsake me:
He comes with glimmering of flowers
And stir of music to awake me….

It is affirmed amidst war in "Secret Music":

I keep such music in my brain
No din this side of death can quell; …
My dreaming spirit will not heed
The roar of guns that would destroy
My life that on the gloom can read
Proud-surging melodies of joy….

But in practice there is a good deal of

and—well, in short, it is all too lissom.

Here and there, sometimes in unpleasantly jerky blank verse, the young Sassoon seems pallidly Wordsworthian, as the Georgians frequently were. Probably there is some awareness of the tougher fiber—tougher than the typical Georgians'—of the early Masefield, who himself had read Wordsworth rewardingly. Certainly Sassoon's verse shows his admiration for Hardy without ever rivaling, however, the old man's blundering and yet incisive power.

With the war poems we have validity. Perhaps Hardy's example helped here; but above all Sassoon—to paraphrase Miss Rukeyser—breathed in experience, breathed out poetry. We have exact detail culminating in concentration:

He pushed another bag along the top,
Craning his body outward; then a flare
Gave one white glimpse of No Man's Land and wire;
And as he dropped his head the instant split
His startled life with lead, and all went out.

And when it is wilder, more horrible, it is still controlled:

Remembering how he saw those Germans run,
Screaming for mercy among the stumps of trees:
Green-faced, they dodged and darted: there was one
Livid with terror, clutching at his knees …
Our chaps were sticking 'em like pigs …

Except in such a phrase as "his startled life" the language is not extraordinary, not notably fresh. But on the contrary, a certain power arises from this everyday expression of unnatural events. The effect is of understatement, cold, the passion leashed-in.

These are the qualities which stamp so many of the war poems. And they all make a long, uncompromising processional which culminates in that famous, moving lyric of release, "Everyone suddenly burst out singing,"—not less moving nor less beautiful for the irony the years have brought it.

Sassoon escaped the romantic piety with which Brooke greeted the war. Nor does his poetry quite match, on the other hand, the "pity" for which Owen's is famed. But Sassoon's has a terrible dismay and anger at the waste of life, and it is these emotions which give his poetry its power. His attainment, though not inevitable, is not mysterious. The war poems are exactly the outcry of the young romantic poet whose pretty world has been, almost unbelievably, smashed. Or one might say they are an obverse side: the recorded evil, crawling and appalling, seen when the beautiful stone was suddenly overturned.

The Times Literary Supplement (essay date 1957)

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SOURCE: "Mr. Sassoon in Contemplative Mood," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 2862, January 4, 1957, p. 11.

[In the review below, the critic comments on the religious content of Sequences, noting that the poems portray Sassoon as "a recluse seeking … some spiritual light."]

Among the most beautiful things in Mr. Sassoon's Collected Poems of 1947, the sonnet "At the Grave of Henry Vaughan" will come to mind as Sequences is read, not merely because Vaughan is again honoured by name in this new book, but as some affinity of temperament again appears to exist between our living poet and the old one. The impression given by Mr. Sassoon's pages is of a recluse seeking (as did the Silurist) some spiritual light, often under the stars, and of a solitary wayfarer pausing beneath a tree, noting the butterfly and the primrose, riding along the farthest farm-track. "Alone with life," he contemplates and reconsiders the mind and soul, and derives from all he has seen in our world some prospects of the eternal. Occasionally it might be pardonable to mistake a passage from Mr. Sassoon, if it were quoted without ascription, for one from Vaughan:

I think: If through some chink in me could shine
But once—O but one ray
From that all-hallowing and eternal day,
Asking no more of Heaven I would go hence.

Lyrics, or perhaps more accurately elegiacs on philosophical or religious themes, form the larger part of Sequences. They are records of meditation on the state of man, and what he may perceive and believe. They have a tranquil though not inactive beauty and sometimes a particular landscape or an hour with nature away from even the village streets exhibits a poetical delight long associated with Mr. Sassoon's books. He does not extend these descriptive passages as once he might have done, but the thought or "intimation" of the poem is its chief business. In "The Message" he is prompted by a beautiful sunset in November, and to that extraordinary beauty he gives only a few verses—but those are equal to the occasion:

Cloud streaks and shoals, like silver wings outspread,
Spanned innocent serenities of blue,
As though, enharmonized with life below,
Some heavenly-minded message had been said.
Thus, childlike, I imagined. Yet it might be true.

In "October Trees" we discern not only a valediction to the pride of the year but to the season of youth:

How innocent were these
Trees, that in mist-green May,
Blown by a prospering breeze
Stood garlanded and gay:
Who now in sundown glow
Of serious colour clad
Confront me with their show
As though resigned and sad.

We are familiar with Mr. Sassoon's conversation-poems and such apparently easy-going pieces, and some of the kind now have their place in Sequences and diversify the book very agreeably. His peculiar skill in sketching people and places, himself and his tastes included, provides us with the amusing portrait of "old Mr. Hardy, upright in his chair" at Max Gate, quite a pleasing gentleman but with nothing in the least about him to identify him with "the Wessex wizard" of such mighty achievement. A more elaborate, historical, and imaginative piece offers a study of Grey of Fallodon in his last years. Mr. Sassoon treats himself with pleasant humour in "Cleaning the Candelabrum," but there is more in his allusions to former days and men and women, and our own kind of progress, than the manner of the poem might seem to say.

The writer of Sequences, as has been noticed, would easily be described on the evidence of the book as a hermit or an unusually private man; but there is much in these poems which the anxieties of our age, the confusions and the shocks, have evoked from one who watches all. There is not in this volume the burningly indignant Sassoon of the war poems, unless "A Post-Mortem" is in its way a counter-attack in brief. In "The Worst Of It" again the poet is in a mood of dilemma over Man's mind and soul, and the "armaments of flame" which Man has made. But "The Best of It," instantly following, rings out confidently, asserting "Life, that by no disaster is undone."

Joseph Cohen (essay date 1957)

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SOURCE: "The Three Roles of Siegfried Sassoon," in TSE: Tulane Studies in English, Vol. VII, 1957, pp. 169-85.

[Here, Cohen outlines the three roles that he believes Sassoon has assumed in regard to his poetry, those of "country gentleman," "angry prophet," and "self-effacing hermit. "]

In his conclusion to the Cambridge University Clark Lectures, Robert Graves, while naming the modern writers he considered to be in the "small, clear stream of living" poetry, said he found it "remarkable that the extraordinary five years of Siegfried Sassoon's poetic efflorescence (1917-21) should be utterly forgotten now." At a time when Graves' own autobiography of his wartime experiences, Goodbye To All That, has been reissued, along with Edmund Blunden's Undertones of War and Wilfred Owen's Poems, it is indeed remarkable that Sassoon's poetic achievement during the Great War is now forgotten, and even more remarkable that Sassoon, who has published his poems in every decade of this century, is largely unknown by the present generation and ignored by its critics. Like a decommissioned man-of-war, he rests quietly at anchor in poetry's mothball fleet.

I believe that Sassoon's poetic decommissioning is largely self-determined; that it has resulted from an amalgamation about 1940 of two roles he had played fully to that time, those of angry prophet and country gentleman, into a third role: the self-effacing hermit. This essay seeks to document these roles and to elucidate their development in Sassoon's poetry. Part I is concerned briefly with the origins of the first two roles, while II, III and IV present the poet as angry prophet, country gentleman, and hermit.

I

Sassoon was born in 1886, the second of three sons of Alfred Ezra Sassoon and Theresa Georgina Thornycroft, whose union brought together two distinguished but otherwise disparate British families. On his paternal side the poet came from a clan whose financial exploits and commercial holdings had already become legendary, and whose philosophy of life was a combination of the progressive spirit of the new world marketplace with an old world adherence to the spirit of Orthodox Judaism. Indeed, economic activity and religion were so closely intermeshed that these "Rothschilds of the East," as they came to be known for their financial operations in the Orient, even had their firm's name printed in Hebrew on all their business stationery, at a time when it did not help to advertise commercially one's Jewishness either in the East or the West.

On his maternal side, Sassoon was descended from a family whose artistic accomplishments, whether they were sculpturing or buildings ships for the British fleet, were widely recognized and highly regarded. Their philosophy was also of the old world, but unlike that of the Sassoon's, its motivating spirit was neither economic nor religious, but cultural and social, with the latter predominating. Steeped in the traditions of the landed gentry, Sassoon's maternal forebears emphasized leisurely living, acquiring the social graces, breeding horses and dogs, and hunting foxes.

From these highly diverse ancestral origins, Sassoon has developed two of his three poetic roles. On the one hand, he has delighted in being the stern voice calling the multitudes to account for their wickedness and folly, and predicting their destruction if they failed to heed the warnings around them. On the other hand, Sassoon has seen himself as the gentleman-recorder of his mother's aristocratic, pastoral traditions. In short, he has lived the roles of angry prophet and country gentleman throughout the major part of his poetic career.

II

Sassoon's enthusiasm for his role of angry prophet is amply recorded in his prose accounts of his war experiences, The Memoirs of George Sherston and Siegfried's Journey 1916-1920; but the intensity with which he responded to the role and developed it during the war years and afterward is revealed only in his poems. The prose accounts are of emotions recollected in tranquillity; the war poems are the raw unchecked emotions themselves. In the two dozen or so war poems first collected into The Old Huntsman and Other Poems published in 1917, Sassoon unleashed the exasperation, the horror, the fear, the disillusionment, and the bitter cynicism that came to characterize the poetry of the trenches in the war's last two years. From the brown rats, sucking clay, droning shells, gray weather, rotten boots, sagging wires, cracking rifles, thundering cannon, and riddled corpses, Sassoon abstracted the futility, despair, loneliness and mockery of the war, and with fury thrust it into the faces of his unsuspecting countrymen, safe and snug in England.

His approach was direct and his technique simple: he emphasized and re-emphasized the contrast between the relative comfort and safety of the homefront and the misery and insecurity of the trenches. While the poetic worth of his formula was questionable, its communicative potential was unlimited. Sassoon exploited, without hesitation, the shock value obtained from exposing the superficial optimism of those whom the people set in authority. The bishop in "They" is a typical target:

The Bishop tells us: 'When the boys come back
'They will not be the same; for they have fought
'In a just cause: they lead the last attack
'On Anti-Christ; their comrade's blood has bought
'New right to breed an honourable race,
'They have challenged Death and dared him face to face.'

'We're none of us the same!' the boys reply.
'For George lost both his legs; and Bill's stone blind;
'Poor Jim's shot through the lungs and like to die;
'And Bert's gone syphilitic: you'll not find
'A chap who's served that hasn't found some change.'
And the Bishop said: "The ways of God are strange!"

In this poem and its companion pieces one finds the requisites of the prophet. Sassoon appears as the enemy of ignorance, complacency, hypocrisy, and sin, the advocate of the poor and oppressed, the leader in social reform. His utterances are enthusiastic and seemingly inspired; his is the voice calling the people away from their wickedness into the paths of truth and righteousness. He possesses something of the mystic whose visions go beyond this world:

I turned in the black ditch, loathing the storm;
A rocket fizzed and burned with blanching flare,
And lit the face of what had been a form
Floundering in mirk. He stood before me there;
I say that he was Christ; stiff in the glare,
And leaning forward from his burdening task,
Both arms supporting it; his eyes on mine
Stared from the woeful head that seemed a mask
Of mortal pain in Hell's unholy shine.

No thorny crown, only a woollen cap
He wore—an English soldier, white and strong,
Who loved his time like any simple chap,
Good days of work and sport and homely song;
Now he has learned that nights are very long,
And dawn a watching of the windowed sky.
But to the end, unjudging, he'll endure
Horror and pain, not uncontent to die
That Lancaster on Lune may stand secure.

He faced me, reeling in his weariness,
Shouldering his load of planks, so hard to bear.
I say that he was Christ, who wrought to bless
All groping things with freedom bright as air,


And with His mercy washed and made them fair.
Then the flame sank, and all grew black as pitch,
While we began to struggle along the ditch;
And someone flung his burden in the muck,
Mumbling: 'O Christ Almighty, now I'm stuck!'
[The Redeemer]

Moreover, Sassoon's poetry is filled with warnings and predictions, both general and specific, of dire judgments, and of death by fire and sword for those who insist on fighting wars.

With these versified admonitions, Sassoon quickly established his reputation. Like most prophets, he soon became a controversial figure and in many quarters an unpopular one. Indignation began to develop in 1917, and it took only a year to crystallize. For example, when Counter-Attack and Other Poems appeared in 1918, Edmund Gosse, a family friend of the Sassoons, put his gentle affection for the young poet aside and denounced the new verses as "savage, disconcerting silhouettes." But his concern was mainly patriotic; he feared that the sentiments Sassoon expressed would "tend to relax the effort of the struggle" [as related in Gosse's Some Diversions of a Man of Letters, 1919].

Sassoon was also subjected to strong literary censure. A reviewer in The Nation [23, No. 15, July 13, 1918] began an attack on him thus:

It is the fact, not the poetry, of Mr. Sassoon, that is important. When a man is in torment and cries aloud, his cry is incoherent. It has neither weight nor meaning of its own. It is inhuman, and its very inhumanity strikes to the nerve of our hearts…. Mr. Sassoon's verses—they are not poetry—are such a cry. They touch not our imagination, but our sense. We feel not as we do with true poetry or true art that something is, after all, right, but that something is intolerably and irremediably wrong. And, God knows, something is wrong—wrong with Mr. Sassoon, wrong with the world that has made of him the instrument of a discord so jangling.

Nonetheless, Sassoon was encouraged by the public reaction to his war poems in The Old Huntsman despite the unfavorable response to much of it. Certain friends, critical of the government's conduct of the war, like Robert Ross, and outspoken pacifists, like Lady Ottoline Morrell, applauded him. His quickly achieved fame suggested to him that he had developed a new voice more cogent, more powerful, and more significant than any his poetry had known previously. But though fame came quickly, the transition from the provincial sportsman to the angry prophet had been less rapid. It had followed a pattern since discernible in the literary careers of a number of Sassoon's Georgian contemporaries: the writing of patriotic verses in 1914 and 1915 followed by disillusioned and bitter poems from 1916 on. Through most of 1915, the imitators of Rupert Brooke were everywhere apparent, and Sassoon, when he wrote "Absolution" placed himself among them:

The anguish of the earth absolves our eyes
Till Beauty shines in all that we can see.
War is our scourge; yet war has made us wise,
And, fighting for our freedom, we are free.

Horror of wounds and anger at the foe,
And loss of things desired; all these must pass.
We are the happy legion, for we know
Time's but a golden wind that shakes the grass.

There was an hour when we were loth to part
From life we longed to share no less than others.
Now, having claimed this heritage of heart,
What need we more, my comrades and my brothers?

When this poem was composed, Sassoon had not yet been in combat. Following a nine-month tour of duty in France, after which he was invalided home in August, 1916, for severe gastric fever, he began to write of the brutality of modern combat and of the homefront's tragic lack of comprehension of life and death in the trenches. When several of these verses appeared in magazines, he felt that he was justified in telling the truth as it needed to be told, even though the public and members of his own family refused to believe him. Confused by these conflicting attitudes, he remained uncertain of the validity of his position until New Year's Eve, 1916, when he read H. G. Well's Mr. Britling Sees It Through [1916]. There he found a description of the war which helped him to resolve the conflicts and to be assured that his role as prophet was proper for him. The passage read as follows:

It is a war now like any other of the mobbing, manyaimed cataclysms that have shattered empires and devastated the world; it is a war without point, a war that has lost its soul; it has become mere incoherent fighting and destruction, a demonstration in vast and tragic forms of the stupidity and ineffectiveness of our species….

Early in 1917, Sassoon returned to France, with a clear concept of his poetic purpose. Four months of combat, ended by a bullet wound which resulted in his removal again to England, convinced him that not only was Wells right but that for himself some decisive, dramatic act of protest was necessary. Here the confirmed angry prophet in him moved toward a desperate plan. He would refuse to fight again and issue an explanatory proclamation outlining his reasons. The late John Middleton Murry helped him draft the proclamation, and Bertrand Russell subsequently saw that the document found its way to Parliament about the same time as Sassoon's copy to his commanding officer. It read:

I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority, because I believe that the War is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it. I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that this War, upon which I entered as a war of defense and liberation, has now become a war of aggression and conquest. I believe that the purposes for which I and my fellow soldiers entered upon this War should have been so clearly stated as to have made it impossible to change them, and that, had this been done, the objects which actuated us would now be attainable by negotiation. I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops, and I can no longer be a party to prolong these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust. I am not protesting against the conduct of the War, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed. On behalf of those who are suffering now I make this protest against the deception which is being practiced on them; also I believe that I may help to destroy the callous complacency with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share, and which they have not sufficient imagination to realize.

For this act of defiance the government decided to incarcerate Sassoon in a mental institution. He was ordered to the Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh, where his therapy was directed by the famed psychologist, W. H. R. Rivers. Much of it consisted of playing golf and writing verses. Sassoon subsequently returned to combat and distinguished himself in action, but he continued to belabor the home front for its lack of imagination, understanding, and sympathy.

It must be recognized, in retrospect, that Sassoon's war poetry suffered from his indulging too much in the role of prophet, for once he decided that it was proper for him, he entered upon the role with so much exuberance that he permanently hurt his reputation as a poet. True, he pleaded effectively for the combatants and just as effectively castigated those whom he held responsible for the suffering of the soldiers. But his verse pleadings and remonstrances reduced his efforts to political propaganda. Though he foresaw and foretold the misery involved in the prolongation of the war, his rash attacks alienated many whom he might otherwise have induced to accept his point of view. Most of all, he lacked the compassion which gave needed balance and restraint to the works of two other poets of the war, then unknown, Wilfred Owen (whom Sassoon discovered while in hospital), and Osbert Sitwell.

A comparison of the war poems of Owen and Sassoon, particularly, will reveal that a strong spirituality underlies the war poems of the former but is lacking in the war poems of the latter. Sassoon is preoccupied with justice and the futility of sacrifice, whereas Owen tempers justice with mercy and describes sacrifice in terms of Christian love. Owen's "At A Calvary Near the Ancre" is typical:

An effective contrast, and one more typical of Sassoon's approach than the previously quoted stanzas from "The Redeemer," is "Stand-to: Good Friday Morning":

Sassoon has himself recognized the absence from his war poems of that spiritual essence which would have engendered pity. While writing in Siegfried's Journey of the poems he composed in the war he observed, "Unconsciously, I was getting nearer to Wilfred Owen's method of approach. (For it was not until two years later [1920] when I edited his poems, that I clearly apprehended the essentially compassionate significance of what he had been communicating)." Yet Sassoon's poems composed in the 1930's when, in my opinion, he reached the fulness of his prophetic powers, remained untempered by compassion in their relentless attack on man's propensity to fight.

When World War I ended, Sassoon continued to write satirical poems, castigating hypocrisy, vanity, and political corruption. His brief flirtation with the Labor Party right after the war provided him with some new material, but he failed to sustain his interest in local politics. He subsequently directed his thrusts mainly at the big-time "rumour breeders," the newspapers, whom he regarded as irresponsible molders of public opinion. His "Lines Written in Anticipation of a London Paper Attaining a Guaranteed Circulation of Ten Million Daily" ends on this pugilistic note:

I damn your circulation as a whole,
And leave you to your twice-ten-million readers
With deep condolence from my lenient soul.

When the war clouds reappeared over Europe and the arms race began that culminated in World War II, Siegfried Sassoon, the angry prophet, spoke once more to the people to warn them of destruction to come, of death to be rained down from the heavens, of cities to be leveled. These prophecies appeared chiefly in two volumes: The Road to Ruin (1933), and Rhymed Ruminations (1940). A typical prophetic utterance occurs in the third and fourth stanzas of "Thoughts in 1932":

Above Stonehenge a drone of engines drew
My gaze; there seven and twenty war-planes flew
Manoeuvering in formation; and the drone
Of that neat-patterned hornet-gang was thrown
Across the golden downland like a blight.

Cities, I thought, will wait them in the night
When airmen, with high-minded motives, fight
To save Futurity. In years to come
Poor panic-stricken hordes will hear that hum
And Fear will be synonymous with Flight.

In The Road to Ruin Sassoon predicted death by fire, gas, and disease. He offered no hope for mankind. He anticipated and elaborated both of the great fears of World War II, chemical and biological warfare. He foretold the development of "super-savage Mammonistic states" and the creation of the "bomb-proof roofed Metropolis", and he deplored "Men's biologic urge to readjust / The Map of Europe." Of course, he was not alone in sounding prophecies and no monopoly is claimed for him here, but he was playing masterfully a role he had determined for himself years before.

In the late 1930's, Sassoon ceased, however, to be comfortable in the role of prophet. By March, 1939, he was sufficiently dissatisfied with it to ignore his having been a political poet, and, in a lecture on poetry exclaim:

Politics and poetry! I must confess that I don't like the sound of it at all. But, as somebody at once reminds me, 'the poet cannot remain a spectator of life.' And 'life—at the present time—is largely concerned with political action. We don't need to be reminded of that—heaven help us!—and I am not here to-night to plague you with the distresses and uncertainties of world affairs.

Sassoon came to the end of the role of prophet in 1940. After World War II broke out, he stopped his warnings and paid as little heed as possible to world affairs. Strangely, when he used the war for a subject, his approach contained none of the earlier prophetic anger. He did not attack the government for misrepresentation or the people at home for indifference. His "Silent Service" is so unlike the poems which made him famous that it is difficult to accept the fact that he composed these lines:

We are impressed, indeed, by the resemblance between this poem and Sassoon's "Absolution" in 1915, quoted above. No longer the prophet, he has become instead an apologist for a government whose policies had long been anathema to him.

The extent to which Sassoon has since moved away from "Politics and Poetry" is clearly indicated by this middle stanza of a recent poem called "Elsewhere":

He, for appeasement of his tortured mind,
Since nothing that one man can think or say
Could prove effective in the feeblest way,
Must look elsewhere to be
Defended and befriended and resigned
And fortified and free.

Like the prophets of antiquity, who sometimes became disillusioned, Sassoon in his old age has thus ceased to be concerned directly with the affairs of this world, and he has begun to contemplate eternity. The prophet in Sassoon has turned into the hermit.

III

Shortly before World War I started, Sassoon began to develop in his poetry the role of country gentleman. Since he did not publish The Old Huntsman and Other Poems, which reveals the presence of this role, until 1917, it was prematurely eclipsed by his immediate acceptance as prophet. Yet Sassoon believed at the time of publication that his long blank-verse title-piece, "The Old Huntsman," was more important than either the war poems or a third section he included, made up of lush romantic lyrics composed between 1908 and 1916. He had written "The Old Huntsman" in deperation in 1915 when he realized that he was nearly thirty years old and had not yet found his own voice. He knew that the romantic lyrics with their distillations of his childhood reveries, filled as they were with goblins, dragons, witches, and other shadowy spirits, were not only inconsequential but lacking in authenticity. In 1913 he had heard, for the first time, his authentic voice when he composed a parody of John Masefield's Everlasting Mercy, called The Daffodil Murderer. This poem, which impersonated a jailed Sussex farmhand awaiting trial for homicide, Sassoon published under the pseudonym of Saul Kain with the help of T. W. H. Crosland. A typical stanza runs:

I thought how in the summer weather
When Bill and me was boys together
We'd often come this way when trudgin'


Out by the brooks to fish for gudgeon.
I thought, when me and Bill are deaders
There'll still be buttercups in medders,
And boys with penny floats and hooks
Catching fish in Laughton brooks.

Two years later Sassoon recognized that the Sussex farmhand was a figure more familiar to him than the ghosts of his childhood dreams, and "The Old Huntsman" began to take shape. The struggling poet found it easy to develop in a lifelike portrait the central figure of this poem just as he had the similar one in the Masefield parody, giving his hero—and here the huntsman is his hero rather than the foot-soldiers of the war poems—an authenticity he had not achieved before. Part of this authenticity comes from allowing the old rustic to develop a series of pastoral images in his simple musings:

Understandably, the war poems in the The Old Huntsman commanded all the attention, and the title-piece was subsequently ignored by the public. Having himself become preoccupied with the war, Sassoon did not return to the themes of hunting and riding to hounds, but nature remained for him a constant source of inspiration. When the war ended and the public tired of refighting its battles, Sassoon was among the first to attempt to revive the Georgian devotion to nature and pastoral sports.

For example, in Counter-Attack and Other Poems one finds a solitary nature poem called "Thrushes." Amid the din and carnage of battle the poet writes of the peaceful flight of the bird thus:

Tossed on the glittering air they soar and skim,
Whose voices make the emptiness of light


A windy palace. Quavering from the brim
Of dawn, and bold with song at edge of night.
They clutch their leafy pinnacles and sing
Scornful of man, and from his toils aloof
Whose heart's a haunted woodland whispering;
Whose thoughts return on tempest-baffled wing;
Who hears the cry of God in everything,
And storms the gate of nothingness for proof.

Some thirty years after this poem was published, we find in "Early March" [published in Sequences] that Sassoon is still fascinated by the contrast between the hearty independence of the bird and the "haunted woodland whispering" of the human heart:

Beguilements (which my middle-age can't yet dispel)
Steal into me. Rejuvenescence works its charm.
Designlessly in love with life unlived, I go
Content with the mere fact that fields are drying fast
And tiny beads of bud along the hedge foreshow
The blackthorn winter that will come too late to last.

Beyond that bare untidy orchard, now and then,
One thrush half tells how in the twilight hour he'll sing
To no one but himself his wild belief in spring.

How thoroughgoing Sassoon's attraction to nature has always been is indicated by still a third poem employing the thrush, "Strangeness of Heart," published in 1928. The hold that nature has on the poet, the part that it plays in his entire consciousness, is nowhere more clearly indicated than in these lines;

For one who knew death as intimately as Sassoon did in the trenches, this would seem to be little more than a superficial pose. Yet it was that close association with wholesale human destruction that crystallized for the poet what was of fundamental importance to him: the pleasures of a youth spent in a pastoral setting. Consequently, as he got farther and farther away from the war, he moved ever closer to the re-creation of the rustic wonderland of his mother's country estate. Not only did the Great War ultimately push Sassoon into the past; it disengaged him from the normal activities of a machine-filled world. In 1947 he said in a children's book entitled My First Horse: "The present writer, by the way, is a man of confirmed pre-Machine Age mentality: animals mean a great deal to him: engines do not interest him at all."

Elaborating his point of view more fully, Sassoon, while recalling the riding equipment he owned as a child, went on to say:

In drawing attention to these apparent trivialities, I am reminding the young that it is a mistake to turn up one's nose at the doings of one's age of innocence. Such things have a way of becoming more valuable than the achievements of our maturity. The present is a crowd of confusing voices: the future an unwelcome guest. But the past is an old friend, with whom we can talk comfortably. Middle-age, knocked about by the wear and tear of learning how to get through life, looks back with profound affection for that little radius of unreasoning childhood which had no forebodings. And the fact remains, that human beings are happiest when they get into a private world of their own. For many of us at the present time, the world is much too large and unlocalised, the parish and county boundaries of personal existence are being obliterated. Everything under the sun is explained to us and it is becoming quite difficult to have an independent idea about anything. Horses, however, are essentially unmodernisable and have absolutely refused to move with the times. … [They] are unaware of the enormously expanded range of human activities which make me feel so uncomfortable. For I must confess that I have no desire to travel five hundred miles in a minute, or to scrutinise the Prime Minister of Ruritania on a television screen. Unsuited by temperament to unlimited mobility of mind and body, I am no enthusiast for the conquest of space. Let me add that I have always entertained a positive personal antipathy to the Universe. It is too much for me, and that is all I can say about it.

This forthright statement and the previously quoted poems make further documentation of Sassoon's poetic view of himself as a country gentleman unnecessary. It remains only to be noted that with the publication of each succeeding volume, Sassoon's relationship with nature becomes more individualized, and his poems more personal. Occasionally, this close identity produces a poem of much charm, such as "October Trees" [from Sequences]:

How innocent were these
Trees, that in mist-green May,
Blown by a prospering breeze,
Stood garlanded and gay;
Who now in sundown glow
Of serious colour clad
Confront me with their show
As though resigned and sad.

Trees who unwhispering stand
Umber and bronze and gold,
Pavilioning the land
For one grown tired and old;
Elm, chestnut, beech, and lime,


I am merged in you, who tell
Once more in tones of time
Your foliaged farewell.

At other times, Sassoon sees so little outside of his immediate association with nature that his poems become banal. "Man and Dog" [from Sequences] is a disheartening example:

Who's this—alone with stone and sky?
It's only my old dog and I—
It's only him; it's only me;
Alone with stone and grass and tree.

What share we most—we two together?
Smells, and awareness of the weather.
What is it makes us more than dust?
My trust in him; in me his trust.

Here's anyhow one decent thing
That life to man and dog can bring;
One decent thing, remultiplied
Till earth's last dog and man have died.

Banality is not the only result of individualizing too much one's relationships with nature in a machine-dominated century. To deemphasize the value and the necessity of machines and, more important, of human contacts, in favor of birds, horses, dogs, butterflies, stars, and trees is to invite hermithood. Just as the disillusionment of the unheeded prophet pushed Sassoon toward the role of hermit, so has overindulgence in the role of the country gentleman.

IV

To live the role of the hermit one needs a forest, a cell, a candle, a bed, and an inclination to live alone. In Sequences, which Sassoon published in 1956, he documents his acceptance of hermithood by describing his whole existence in these terms. Moreover, he possesses an appropriately introspective melancholy:

The room, the darkness, and the bed;
Quick ticks the clock, sleep comes not nigh:
A melancholy mind must lie
With troublings of its wakeful head.

But the poet-hermit is no longer troubled with politics like the angry prophet, or concerned with pastoral sports like the country gentleman. His interests are largely metaphysical:

If Nature be indeed our mother,
(Neglectful parent though she seem)
What must remain on my arrival
From earth's anthropocentric dream?

How do you handle my dispersal—
Nameless, unlanguaged, and deminded?
Shall psyche thrive, no more purblinded?
Answer me that, O Universal.

The extensive employment of the apostrophe, as in the last line above, is a further accoutrement of the poethermit. Being alone, he must address someone or something. His apostrophes are directed among others to Christmas bells; the Primordial Cause; time; a star; the mind; and to trees. Yet, the emphasis is almost always on the personal quest for immortality, and Sassoon addresses his own "unscientific selfhood" to "Ask the night sky for intimations of God" His contemplative answer is that of the typical hermit: God exists, but man has a long and difficult journey to travel in order to reach Him:

Nature and knowledge daunt with dire denial
The inward witness and the innocent dream.
On such rough road must faith endure its trial,
Upheld by resolution to redeem
The soul, that world within an ignorant shape
One with the solar system and the ape.

Consequently, for his recent verses, and for his way of life, Sassoon is everywhere regarded today as a hermit. Indeed, he relishes being known as "the hermit of Heytesbury" (the small village in Wiltshire near his estate). The reviewer of Sequences in the Times Literary Supplement [No. 2862, January 4, 1957] begins on this theme and ends on it, but he suggests that the source of Sassoon's hermithood is in his "affinity of temperament" with Henry Vaughan. That affinity exists, but if Sassoon has patterned himself after any one poet, that poet is his early friend and mentor, Thomas Hardy. In Sequences is a poem about Hardy which reads:

Old Mr. Hardy, upright in his chair,
Courteous to visiting acquaintance chatted
With unaloof alertness while he patted
The sheep dog whose society he preferred.
He wore an air of never having heard
That there was much that needed putting right.
Hardy, the Wessex wizard, wasn't there.
Good care was taken to keep him out of sight.

Head propped on hand, he sat with me alone,
Silent, the log fire flickering on his face.
Here was the seer whose words the world had known
Someone had taken Mr. Hardy's place.

If Sassoon's name were substituted for Hardy's and Wessex changed to Heytesbury in these lines, the poem would be as descriptively applicable to the former as it is to the latter. But while Hardy, and Henry Vaughan too, have helped to shape Sassoon into the hermit, the role he plays at present is rather the product of his life experience: the transformation of the angry prophet and the country gentleman into the self-effaced hermit.

In playing all three roles, Sassoon has recorded poetically the crumbling of the old order and the disappearance of a way of life better than the one which replaced it. In this respect, Sassoon is more like Proust than like Vaughan or Hardy. Like Proust, who was also the product of a mixed religious and social union, he has sealed himself off and written compellingly from the bed of his mind, his "remembrance of things past." It is for this achievement, I believe, that Robert Graves is justified in including Sassoon among those in the "small, clear stream of living poetry."

C. E. Maguire (essay date 1959)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5120

SOURCE: "Harmony Unheard: The Poetry of Siegfried Sassoon," in Renascence, Vol. XI, No. 3, Spring, 1959, pp. 115-24.

[In the following essay, Maguire provides an overview of Sassoon's poetry, discussing major themes such as his musings on life and death, the absurdity of war, and the passage of time.]

John Middleton Murry, writing in 1918 with the stern authority only the very young critic can achieve, decided that Siegfried Sassoon's Counter Attack, then enjoying best seller status, was "not poetry." Art, said Murry, is the evidence of man's triumph over his experience. It reminds us that something has, after all, been saved from disaster. Sassoon's verse gave the opposite impression: that everything is irremediably and intolerably wrong. Not only was the language overwrought, dense and turgid, but the verse failed to express the relation of war's horror to "the harmony and calm of the soul which it shatters." "Discord in harmony has within it an infinity of disaster." This verse had not. Sassoon simply presented the data of desolation, which the reader had to relate to some serenity before art could be achieved. What was missing Murry thought obvious: it was a philosophical background which might have allowed Sassoon to grapple with his experience and comprehend it. This background would give some "intellectual remoteness' to the verse, and save it from presenting mere brute fact.

It is difficult to quarrel with this estimate, especially since Sassoon's subsequent literary career seems like a (characteristically) docile attempt to remedy the faults Murry points out.

There are few writers about whom it is easier to collect biographical evidence. Sassoon has produced several autobiographical volumes, including novels which (like the early novels of Richard Church) change almost nothing in the autobiography except names. Robert Graves, in his story of his own early years, has recounted many of the same events a third time. A book called "The Sassoon Dynasty" traces his ancestry and intricate family connections through generations of wealthy, brilliant, ambitious financiers, artists, friends of royalty. His cousins intermarried with the Rothschilds. His father entertained Sarah Bernhardt, who lost in his house a bracelet with a diamond drop given her by Victor Hugo when she played in Hernani. His father's sister Rachel edited simultaneously two rival papers, The Observer and Sunday Times (she owned one and her husband the other.) Siegfried's father was the first to marry out of the Jewish faith. His mother, Theresa Georgina Thornycroft, was herself a painter, and the daughter, niece, and sister of famous sculptors. The marriage was not a success. When the young father died, eleven years later, leaving three sons, husband and wife had already been several years separated. Except for Aunt Rachel, Siegfried had almost nothing further to do with his Sassoon relatives.

Except for Aunt Rachel also, the "art" in whose atmosphere Siegfried grew up was not verbal art. His family worked with colors or shapes and with sounds, for they were nearly all musicians. His father played the violin. Aunt Rachel composed music. The studio contained a viola da gamba and Elizabethan lutes and guitars. He himself was passionately fond of playing the piano. He also records his love of certain smells—turpentine in the studio, and lavender—and the feel of materials. When he first spent money for books, he chose them for their bindings more than for their contents. When, therefore, at a very early age, he took to making art objects out of words, he handled them as his family handled pigments and marble chords. Words were things, to be arranged so as to convey sensations, and to evoke feelings. Without his knowing it, Siegfried's theory of poetry was Mallarmé's: "Poetry is not written with ideas; it is written with words." It continued to be so written for many years—until, in fact, quite recently.

Although he always wanted to be a poet, he spent almost three decades of his life happily untouched by, or cautiously evading, intellectual influences. His school career was undistinguished, his university course cut short. His law notes were "more physical than mental exercise." Released from bondage, he devoted himself almost exclusively to fox hunting. With this sport he so identified himself, calling his first "novel" Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man and his first well known volume of verse The Old Huntsman, that he later figured in a book called From Surtees to Sassoon. But even an enthusiast like the author, F. J. H. Darton, sees that he wore his pink coat with a difference. In his case, hunting was not, as Oscar Wilde defined it, "the unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable." Hunting was for him a poetic apprenticeship akin to Wordsworth's early communing with nature. It combined adventure, beauty, comradeship. He was not coming to conclusions about people or events, but saturating his senses with the feel of things. He was not exactly becoming mature, either mentally or emotionally; his reaction to the war proves this. He was, as Murry might put it, accumulating data.

The war turned him into a rebel, though not all at once. Robert Graves reports that before he had seen action, he told Graves the latter's poems were "too realistic, and that war should not be written about in a realistic way." In the trenches, his reckless courage earned him the name "Mad Jack." Once he scared the Germans out of a trench, and then sat down in it and dozed over a book of poems. Ordered to rehearse his men—already much over-rehearsed—for an attack, he led them into a wood and read the London Mail to them. When he and Graves talked of peace, Sassoon defined it "in terms of hunting and nature and music and pastoral scenes." Graves describes his breaking in a black mare in the army, "a beautiful, combative creature with a homicidal kink," which could not, however, provoke his ill temper, for his "patience was wonderful." But the cumulative effect of the war's horrors broke both the physical strength he had built up in the hunting years and his emotional balance. When in 1917 he was invalided home, he was "a beastly wreck and in a rotten state of nerves." Out of this experience grew the horror poems of Counter Attack, which made his reputation as a fierce anti-war propagandist.

It is ironical that this aspect of his writing and his personality should be the only one remembered, for it was a brief and uncharacteristic interlude. We find him writing presently: "Not much remains, twelve years later, of the hater." He was merely a sensitive, kindly young man, who had led an incredibly sheltered life (partly through his own laziness) and who, when forced to see and share the "beastliness" of life, reacted violently against it. But the reaction was temporary, though its results were not. What those results were can most easily be shown by an analysis of his verse before and after this sensational phase.

When a very young boy, he had begun to write verse about mermaids (his younger brother said he had them on the brain) and about "knights in snowy samite clad," being "borne away to the darkness of the tomb," preferably at nightfall. But even then he was honest enough to distinguish between the "dumb dejection" he felt when he lost a young and favorite uncle from the mournfulness he enjoyed in his poems. He says of the verse of this time and even much later: "Much of my early verse was vague poetic feeling set to remembered music." He said almost nothing. It was the tune and the feeling that counted. This may explain its "unintellectual melodiousness." The word "unintellectual" recurs almost obsessively in the memoirs. When he met Rupert Brooke, he felt antagonistic at first because his "unagile intellect" was confused by Brooke's "metaphysical cleverness." Later, reading Hardy in the trenches, he discovered "how little he'd used his brain before." "Abstract ideas are uncongenial to my mind," he insists, and in his verse, the "sound of words" continued to be more important to him than "the skilful management of their meaning." Edward Marsh, who edited the Georgian poets, told him: "You have a lovely instrument to play upon, and no end of beautiful tunes in your head." He added, however, that there was not "enough meaning to satisfy the mind." All the verse he wrote, from his first dallying with mermaids until just before the war, made up, he himself admits, "beautiful soap bubbles, not pearls with enough grit in the middle to make the nucleus of a durable work."

The pre-war poems of this gentleman who had been "all his life apprenticed to idleness," he sums up as "weak, wordy and lush." It was in The Old Huntsman volume that he began to take Marsh's advice to write either "with his eye on an object" or with his "mind at grips with a more or less definite idea." He began with his eye on the object (the ideas long remained indefinite) and the objects were—after the first title poem—either the wounded, the dead, the despairing soldiers in France, or the trees and skies—remembered from England or briefly glimpsed in France—which made the horror of war worse; but as Murry points out, we rarely see the first in contrast with the second. His brain, Sassoon tells us, "absorbs facts singly, and the process of relating them to one another has always been difficult." In the long huntsman poem, there is, nevertheless, the first sign of what was to develop in his memoir writing and to provide the grit for the middle of his rare later pearls. This appears in a kindly but not intrusive interest in what others feel, rather than think, about life and death and what makes the first sweet and the second poignant. His huntsman has, like himself, "a turn / For thinking and remembering all that's past." He ruminates gently about the mild pleasures and faint puzzlements of the past. Religion plays some part in his revery. "Religion beat me. I'm amazed at folk / Drinking the gospels in and never scratching / Their head for questions." When he was young, he was too busy to have much chance to "get the hang of all / This Hell and Heaven," and now he falls asleep when "the clergy hoick / And holloa from their pulpits." What he wants to hear in heaven is "the cry of hounds like church bells chiming on a Sunday." As for God, he's come to think of Him as "something like / The figure of a man the old Duke was," shrewd, kind, giving good words, not blaming without just cause. On the whole, he says, '"Tis little enough I've understood my life," but at any rate, "Now I know / It's God that speaks to us when we're bewitched / Smelling the hay in June and smiling quiet." The war poems which follow fall into three groups: the happy warrior type ("War is our scourge, yet war has made us wise, / And fighting for our freedom we are free"); the verses foreshadowing Counter Attack, and finally verses about the common soldiers, treated affectionately and understandingly. In "A Working Party," he describes one man "Who did his work and hadn't much to say, / And always laughed at other people's jokes, / Because he hadn't any of his own."

From this time on, although nature and dawn and trees in spring recur in poem after poem, the "object" on which Sassoon lingered with deepening perception was the human object, alternately with rage against his shortcomings and, more frequently, with reverence and a sense of awe. Several times in the war poems, the soldiers are to him Christ. He is aware of a mysterious difference between the commonplace appearance and the inner sweetness, longing and power. This theme will persist to the end. In the last volume, Sequences, published in 1957, the year of his conversion, the question: "What does it mean to call oneself a man?" is a theme on which most of the poems are variations.

In the collection Picture Show, dated 1920, three successive poems, rather different from the rest, illustrate a preoccupation with man which is like a novelist's. The first, "The Goldsmith," in ten lines shows a craftsman working a gold vessel. He says: "This job's the best I've done." A friend comes in and he tells him: "Now I've got a necklace to begin." The poem ends: "This was at Gnossos, in the isle of Crete & / A girl was selling flowers along the street." It is, apparently, just a picture. In "Devotion to Duty," the observer sees a King "snatch / And briskly scan the G.H.Q. despatch." A man, we learn in modern military terms, has been killed in the front line. The King "gripped his beard; then closed his eyes and said, / 'Bathsheba must be warned that he is dead.'" In "Ancient History," Adam, now "a brown old vulture," remembers Cain, "swift as a stag," and Abel, "A lover with disaster in his face." He is only "The gaunt wild man whose lovely sons were dead." There is no "idea" in any of these; but put together, they show us what is in the poet's mind: the sameness of man's sins and joys and sorrows from age to age. The appeal is visual and emotional. It is not stories which touch this connoisseur of human nature, but what men have in common, the answer to "What does it mean to call oneself a man?"

There are almost no love poems. A few in Picture Show are routine stuff: "Sleep; and my song shall build about your bed / A paradise of dimness—" that sort of thing. But suddenly we come upon "The Imperfect Lover," which begins "I never asked you to be perfect—did I?" and goes on, not very expertly; but he is conveying, unsuccessfully, in outmoded romantic diction that ruins the first line, what is or could be a real situation. "You've learned to fear," he says, "The gloomy, stricken places in my soul." This does not fit in with the generalized lovers' quarrel setting. This is one lover quarrelling, not any lover. What he is struggling with is the perennial problem of the concrete universal, or, in terms more suited to his experience, he is wavering between the presentation of data for its own sake and the presentation of generalized emotions—not ideas—based on almost no specific data. This somewhat waters down what is usually meant by the concrete universal, but since ideas were not yet part of his poetic stock, it was his nearest approach to it. In his satiric poems, where one might expect to find him passing intellectual judgments on specific abuses, we find him instead airing grouches over limited imitations, and this makes them seem petty, though amusing. In the Counter Attack poems, in the same way, it is usually a single man whose death saddens him, or an officer whose cruelty revolts him, or a bishop whose insensitivity annoys him; and his generalizations are often—at least as presented—illicit. He does not use his data to any real purpose.

My own guess is that it was his highly successful experiments with prose which ultimately improved both the style and the content of his poetry. The great bulk of his prose writing is autobiographical, and I have already mentioned that he told the story of his early life twice over. He says that a story may be told either quickly or slowly, and that he prefers to tell it slowly. What happened, I suspect, in the course of his prose writing, was roughly this: by going over and over the same facts, and seeing them of their own weight fall into related position, his mind, innocent of syllogisms, eventually saw these facts in groups or patterns. Nor were the facts all chronological or external. Many were psychological. If he could not put facts together, he could take them apart. He took his characters apart, trying in a rather muddled, perhaps even subconscious way, to understand them.

By 1933, coming back to the verse, we find him in the Satirical Poems, saying: "That problem which concerns me most—about / Which I have entertained the gravest doubt—/ Is, bluntly stated, 'Have I got a soul?'" He discusses the question in a jocular, evasive way, noting how the soul seldom exerts its "white authority / On the bemused and sense-instructed way / In which your apparatus spends his day." Sometimes, he admits, "Head / And heart… feel aware of wings / And soaring Gothic aisled imaginings." He ends abruptly: "Soul, will you feel like that when I am dead?" and we do not know whether he is serious or not, probably because he does not know himself. It is worth noting here how he speaks of the head and heart and soul separately, as if he were writing a medieval allegory on man. He is already at this trick of psychological dissection which still, in the Sequences volume, provides him with disparate though highly related objects to handle, and allows him to be philosophical without being abstract. In The Heart's Journey, which followed the Satirical Poems, the process of dissection grows more complex. He is preoccupied now with the idea of time and its divisive effect on man. Man is at once his past, present, and future self—or is it selves? But historically considered, the effect of time seems the opposite. Men of the past are part of him and he is part of future men. "Look in my heart, kind friends, and tremble, / Since there your elements assemble." Moreover, man is not the same self from day to day or with different people. "I thought how strange we grow when we're alone. / And how unlike the selves that meet and talk." And what is the effect of death on the man's self—as distinguished from his becoming "part" of future men? Do not the writers and musicians "play tricks with death"? Since their works still affect us, "Who then shall dare to say that they have died?" or is this mere deception? These poems on death are worlds apart from the treatment of the same subject in the war poems. "All Souls' Day," a rather fuzzy vision, speaks nebulously of "how we travel far / From life to life, from star to star," and invokes "Thee, O ultimate power, who art / Our victory and our vision." He mentions, in no clearer context, "those powers who keep me unafraid."

In "Conclusion," the separate objects he has been handling fall, for once, in some kind of related pattern. "I am so woven of sense," he says, "That I must vanish hence. / Soon death the hooded lover / Shall touch my house of clay, / And life-lit eyes discover / That in the warbling grey / I have been early waking, / And while the dawn was breaking, / Have stolen afield to find / That secrecy which quivers / Beyond the skies and rivers / And cities of the mind." His favorite time of day has always been early morning, a preference which has behind it all the years of half artistic, half purely physical excitement of hunt mornings. But the physical excitement belongs to the "house of clay," while the secrecy which quivers beyond has been sensed by his mind. How one affects the other is a mystery he has long been trying to solve. Still laboriously muddling toward some explicable diagram, in the book called Vigils he shows man "unguided / And self-divid ed," and in "Elected Silence" remarks that "silence is the ultimate guide." The words "secret" and "secrecies" keep recurring. "The love of life," he says, "is my religion still," and he is companioned only by "what I am and what I strive to be." He tells us something about this "life" in a small fantasy about a child going out to "find the truth," and discovering that "life, encountered and unmasked in various shapes, / Dissolves in dust and cloud," so that the child, now grown up, retreats to his first dreams. At home, "his past fast asleep," he watches his "selves—once proud, once passionate with young prayers, / … I know not when they died." It is his "self sits brooding here." He continues to analyze self, but the pattern is slow to emerge from the "secrecies." One poem in this collection looks forward, introducing the concept of "good" to help in the search for understanding. "Word slowly understood; / Thought finding gradual form; / And power applied; / These are the gains of good." Those "Whose deeds their dream adore," pass "leaving us light." But this poem stands among a group of depressed and depressing verses about the dead and ghosts whom he cannot—does not even want to—exorcise. One of these ghosts was also one of the good, Dr. Rivers the psychologist, who had been his friend and doctor near the end of the war, when, after heroic service rewarded by the Military Cross, Sassoon had refused to return to action, and had been declared suffering from shell shock and sent to a sanitorium near Edinburgh. Rivers had been "selfless and ardent, resolute and gay." Does he come "once more to harmonize and heal?" Sassoon cannot answer. The work Rivers had begun in him is "still unfinished," and he is "powerless to repay." But he has not give up his search. In "Ultimatum" he says: "something we cannot reach, / Our senses, winged with spirit, wordlessly beseech." The collection Vigils closes with an ode in which man "adrift from his faith-lost learning," sees "the city of God unshaken," but asks how he can dare claim that city for his own, and ends with a cry: "Radiant life, be on earth revealed."

So far, what man is and what is his destiny has all been a matter of questions. In the 1957 Sequences, we find answers. After the gloomy verses on death and ghosts which abound in the books of the middle period, "Euphrasy," the third poem in this last collection, is startling. "The feel of winter finishing once more—/ Sense of the present as a tale half told—/ The land of life to look at and explore—/ Is this, then, to grow old?" Nor is this mindless good cheer. In "Solitudes at Sixty," he reminds us: "Mean-while myself sits with myself agreeing / That to be sixty is no easy thing." But two pages later, in "Early March," again "Designlessly in love with life unlived, I go / Content with the mere fact that fields are drying fast." His new capacity to accept the pleasant permanencies of life as symbols, without puzzling over how they fit in with the less pleasant ones, appears in "On Scratchbury Camp." He watches the clouds, hears the larks, followed by a fighter-squadron's drone, and remembers how bronze spears were once hurled over this bill. But "in the warm sweet air of summer stoops the bird," and the poet waits tranquilly while "My horse, contented, crops the grass." In "Cleaning the Candelabrum," he thinks happily of the past generations who have used its light, and though meditation "leaves us not much wiser than we were," "outside my open window, / The twilight blackbird flutes, and spring arrives." This is decidedly a book of spring, no doubt a second spring, though all these verses must have been written before Sassoon came into the Church. The first poem ends: "with nothing unforeseen to say / And no belief or unbelief to bring, / Came, in its old, unintellectual way, / The first real day of spring." His way, like the spring's, is still unintellectual. Trying to learn, even from scholars, he does so through some kind of human communion of feeling. Reading Alcuin's verse, he remembers how he "Loved listening to the nest-near nightingale," and did not worry about "pomps that fail," but "sought grace within him, given from afar … hearing while one thrush sang through the rain, / Youth, which his soul in Paradise might regain." Here peacefully, but unintellectually, Sassoon links his love of spring, his wonderings about life and death, and his passion for youth.

In "Acceptance," he sees Man—really himself in three successive roles—as simpleton (youth beguiled), as accuser (rejecting life), and as acceptor ("dumbly reconciled to suffer where he had striven.") All these in turn, "enact mortality's enigma," and the third (evidently Sassoon, then in 1957) asks no more than "Take not Thy Holy Spirit from us." This Spirit, we know from "Need," is "God within me," and only He can effectively establish a continuity among these successive "selves." In "The Messenger," these selves appear in a way which shows that Sassoon has finally seen his pattern clearly. Here we have "Mind, busy in the body's life-lit room / Seldom in strength, unpiloted at best." Mind admits "from outer gloom / The soul, in all God's world, most welcome guest." The soul "goes on incorporeal errands" and "brings rumors of the Whole." The mind is mortal and will decay as faculties grow dim, but the soul will survive. The soul is superior to matter, the mind dependent on the brain. How do soul and mind and God cooperate to make a man what he is? "Me He made / And left to build my being as best I could," he says. "What work was His where Mind its self must make?" He answers contentedly: "This making is a mystery," But at least he is clear now about what was made. Mind is "a consciousness that cries," and "a brevity whose eyes look once on light." It stands for the sum of the sensitive faculties both interior and exterior: "I, this blithe structure of sensation, / Prisoned and impassioned by my clay." It includes, therefore, the affective sense faculties. In the poem called "The Humbled Heart," he says: "Go your seeking, soul … I am but your passionhaunted dwelling," and again: "I am but the brain that dreamed and died."

The acceptance of these scholastic commonplaces of psychology may have clarified his thinking, but it also suggests, to the unaccustomed thinker, problems about survival. He knows there is a "universe beyond me; / Power that pervades my fluctuant soul, / Signalling my brain it would unbond me;" but the details of the unbonding arouse his interest. In an amusing poem called "Dispersal" he asks: "How do you handle my dispersal—nameless, unlanguaged and deminded?" But the answer (if not the explanation) comes in "The Contention," where, tempted to believe there is no spirit, he hears a voice say: "The faithful found me without fearing: / Learn this, and look forever toward your soul's unloading." The problem is solved (or shelved?) by contact with a Person. This Person is "measureless mercy and love, sought for as savior." It is not easy, he tells us in "The Trial," to hold this solution in an "unbelieving age," but faith is "Upheld by resolution to redeem / The soul, that world within an ignorant shape / One with the solar system and the ape." This faith keeps alive the "sense of spring," though "Eyes, ears are old." In "An Epitome," he realizes with surprise that by "Just thinking," he can "make endured existence known / Even as it is." This being true, "Accept your soul. Be evermore alone." Surprisingly, his mind, that "structure of sensation," has finally revealed to him what is selfhood's essence: the soul, and what is, therefore, his task: "To put world sounds behind and hope to hear / Instructed spirit speaking: / This—and thorough darkness to divine God's presence." The poem, "The Best of It," sums up in the simple imagery of the seasons, what his listening has taught him so far. There is first Spring "surgent in the self-delighted blood;" then "Prosperities of summer," full of "hope and vision … / Aware and eager;" next "Autumnal-toned attainment, trouble-taught / To mastery of emotion-hindered thought;" and at last, "Star-sown eternity for midsight old. / Winter endured … / Wisdom and wonder, faithful to enfold / Life, that by no disaster is undone." For this ending, it is worth pursuing the rebellions and desperations and despairs of a mind that came so late to recognize soul. I know, in the history of poetry, few records so complete and so rounded. It is as if Words-worth had begun further back and gone further—and more slowly—forward. Here is the story of a soul as shapely as any poet would want his verse to be.

As for the shape of his verse—this paper has used quotation so lavishly that comment on style might seem superfluous. His work shows only too evident growth in control, in apparent simplicity which becomes increasingly terse and temperately ambiguous. The "weak, wordy and lush" quality of the earliest verse, framed exclusively for musical effect, gives way to a conversational rhythm in the satirical verse, and finally—after a slow and not always steady progress—to the simple melodies which carry the packed brevity of Sequences, where "things," without losing their immediacy, create more than merely emotional effects, and where abstractions, because they are now related to—and handled as if they were—concrete objects, are neither vague nor irritating. The rhythmic effects are always simple, sometimes deceptively so, and never get out of hand except when the poet is himself in a harsh, agitated mood.

Mr. Sassoon has at last triumphed over his experience. He is not unaware that the world is in a considerably worse state than when he wrote Counter Attack. But the Counter Attack poems are what someone has called "animal cries" because they record only the reactions of his "structure of sensation." Now, although he can see man as "empowered by armaments of flame, / Unfuturing his future; self-assigned / To suicide," he knows that "something has been saved from disaster," that things are not "irremediably and intolerably wrong." His old huntsman when "riding on spring days / In meadows pied with sun and chasing clouds," had "lost the angry, eager feeling / A huntsman ought to have that's out for blood." Mr. Sassoon is no longer out for blood. He has, in the first place, learned humility. He can say: "The thought was merely mine. Yet it might be true." Besides, his quarry is "Elsewhere." Although "nothing that one man can think or say / Could prove effective in the feeblest way," still "The indestructible exists / Beyond found formulas of scientists." Murry had made against Sassoon an accusation most wounding to a musician: that he had not resolved his dissonances. As if in answer, in the last poem of Sequences, he speaks of himself as an instrument "vibrating toward harmony unheard." Neither the final resolution nor the final cadence has sounded yet, but through his last poems sound—quite audibly for us—faint echoes from beyond "Time, that anticipates eternities / And has an art to resurrect the rose."

John H. Johnston (essay date 1964)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7728

SOURCE: "Realism and Satire: Siegfried Sassoon," in English Poetry of the First World War, Princeton University Press, 1964, pp. 71-112.

[In the following essay, Johnston analyzes the war poetry in The Old Huntsman and Counter-Attack. He argues that brief satirical verse of this kind renders the experience of battle "too directly and too grossly" and lacks the fuller perspective that other poets later brought to the war.]

The thirty-nine war poems of The Old Huntsman were written between the late spring of 1915, when Sassoon began his training as an officer, and early 1917, when he returned to France for the second time. Only two or three of these poems were written in 1915, before he had been to France; his later, more characteristic productions date from the early months of 1916 and reflect, in their widening scope and intensity of presentation, a gradually increasing awareness of the true nature of the conflict.

Like so many of the early poets, Sassoon voiced the idealism of the first months of the war, but—considering the date of his enlistment—his response was somewhat belated and perfunctory. "Absolution," for instance, written in the early summer of 1915, shortly after [English poet] Rupert Brooke's death, was admittedly influenced by that poet's famous sonnet sequence. In what he later called his "too nobly worded lines," Sassoon celebrates the moral transformation brought about by the war:

The anguish of the earth absolves our eyes
Till beauty shines in all that we can see.
War is our scourge; yet war has made us wise,
And, fighting for our freedom, we are free.

Horror of wounds and anger at the foe,
And loss of things desired; all these must pass.
We are the happy legion, for we know
Time's but a golden wind that shakes the grass.

In another early poem, "To My Brother" (written after the death of his younger brother at Gallipoli, in August 1915), Sassoon similarly expresses a sense of deliverance from the prewar disquietude that had afflicted Brooke and Nichols:

Give me your hand, my brother, search my face;
Look in these eyes lest I should think of shame;
For we have made an end of all things base.
We are returning by the road we came.

These two poems merely range over the sentiments current in 1915 and display no remarkable originality of response or presentation. "To Victory," written after Sassoon had been in France for a few weeks, is likewise conventionally "poetic" and introspective in its expression of aethetic distaste for the monochromes of war:

Return to greet me, colours that were my joy,
Not in the woeful crimson of men slain,
But shining as a garden; come with the streaming
Banners of dawn and sundown after rain.

…..

I am not sad; only I long for lustre.
I am tired of the greys and browns and the leafless ash.
I would have hours that move like a giltter of dancers
Far from the angry guns that boom and flash.

This poem, incidentally, was published in the London Times through the offices of Edmund Gosse; it elicited a letter of praise from Lady Ottoline Morrell, who later drew Sassoon into the pacifist atmosphere of Garsington.

The poems of 1915 embody no authentic inspirational force; their commonplace diction and sentiments do not derive from any really profound attitude toward the conflict. The more Sassoon saw of war, however, the less disposed he was to write about it merely as a Georgian in uniform. During his period of initiation into trench fighting he wrote no poems that voice any sudden disillusionment; the transition from naïve idealism to the realistic attitude that came to be identified with his work can be marked only by an uncertainty of approach and a tendency to retain the techniques of conventional literary description and narration.

In early 1916 Sassoon began to produce a few "genuine trench poems" which "aimed at impersonal description of frontline conditions, and could at least claim to be the first things of their kind." Among these early realistic poems are "Golgotha," "The Redeemer," and "A Working Party". Written from the point of view of an interested but not deeply affected spectator, "Golgotha" is a somewhat generalized description of light and sound at the front:

Here Sassoon wavers between the literary conventionality of the guns' "mimic thunder" and "mirthless laughter," and the barely suggested horror of "the brown rats, the nimble scavengers." "The Redeemer" and "A Working Party" are brief narratives which voice a newly found compassion for the sufferings of the infantry soldier. Perhaps because he had employed the narrative form in his prewar verse, Sassoon is the first poet to manage the battle narrative with some degree of success; these short tales—clear, succinct, objective—are free from the chaotic, halfarticulated impressionism that mars the narrative efforts of Robert Nichols. "The Redeemer," however, which identifies the common soldier with the suffering Christ, still proceeds calmly and prosaically enough in its narrative pace:

Darkness: the rain sluiced down; the mire was deep;
It was past twelve on a mid-winter night,
When peaceful folk in beds lay snug asleep;
There, with much work to do before the light,
We lugged our clay-sucked boots as best we might
Along the trench; sometimes a bullet sang,
And droning shells burst with a hollow bang….

The details of trench fighting are apparently still novel enough to merit a contrast to the normal routines of civilian life; the violence of the approaching Somme battles, however, was to widen the gap between the soldier and the civilian beyond the point of conventional contrast. "A Working Party" relates the ordeals and ignominious death of an ordinary soldier, one among the hundreds of thousands in France:

He was a young man with a meagre wife
And two small children in a Midland town;
He showed their photographs to all his mates,
And they considered him a decent chap
Who did his work and hadn't much to say,
And always laughed at other people's jokes
Because he hadn't any of his own.

This young man, the "hero" of the tale, is of course a deliberate antithesis to the hero of song and story. The narrative emphasizes his low origin, his commonplace personality, his weary resignation, the tedious nature of his duties, and his sudden defenseless end:

He pushed another bag along the top,
Craning his body outward; then a flare
Gave one white glimpse of No Man's Land and wire;
And as he dropped his head the instant split
His startled life with lead, and all went out.

Though "A Working Party" may have been effective in dissipating popular myths about the excitement and glory of warfare, the artistic possibilities of this type of narrative are seriously limited. Passive suffering, as Yeats observed, is not a theme for poetry. The protagonist of "A Working Party" merely endures without any clear conception of the struggle or of his part in it; he goes out with his fellows to perform some incomprehensible drudgery and is "carried back, a jolting lump / Beyond all need of tenderness and care." The unrelieved pathos of his life as a soldier is naturally succeeded by the bathos of his death: "all went out." The effect of the poem is entirely negative; Sassoon has reversed the heroic theme to such an extent that he excludes the possibilities of tragic interpretation.

At this early period, however, Sassoon did not find that the war restricted his own opportunities for action and excitement. In the winter of 1916 he made a name for himself as a volunteer scout; doubtless "The Kiss"—a canticle devoted to the qualities of "Brother Lead and Sister Steel"—reflects the combative instincts of the aggressive young infantry officer. But in his capacity as censor of his men's letters he can sympathetically read the thoughts behind awkward assurances of good health. "This leaves me in the pink," a soldier lamely concludes a letter to his sweetheart …

And then he thought: to-morrow night we trudge
Up to the trenches, and my boots are rotten.
Five miles of stodgy clay and freezing sludge,
And everything but wretchedness forgotten.
To-night he's in the pink; but soon he'll die.
And still the war goes on—he don't know why.
("In the Pink")

When Sassoon first met Robert Graves, the preceding November, the younger poet had been secretly amused by the romanticism of Sassoon's early war verse, just as Sassoon had been disturbed by the nature of Graves's "realism"; by the spring of 1916, however, Sassoon's attitude and style had changed considerably, and he had tentatively embarked upon the kind of poetry which was to express most forcefully the emotional revulsion of the later war years. Another poem which more clearly anticipates Sassoon's later methods is "Stand-to: Good Friday Morning." Its somewhat blasphemous character differs sharply from the sacrificial motifs suggested in the earlier "Golgotha" and "The Redeemer," its colloquial tone establishes a medium of direct expression which Sassoon was to employ almost exclusively in his later satiric poems:

Deep in water I splashed my way
Up the trench to our bogged front line.
Rain had fallen the whole damned night.
O Jesus, send me a wound to-day,
And I'll believe in Your bread and wine.
And get my bloody old sins washed white!

Here Sassoon creates an effect of double shock: he measures the desperation of his experiences by the desperation of his unwilling recourse to prayer and the sacramental benefits, which he invokes not out of faith or hope but out of despair. Descriptive effects of squalor and suffering—easily weakened by repetition—are thus made more real in terms of their ironically presented relationship to accepted religious values. Owen was later to employ this same device, though with greater subtlety and poetic art than Sassoon.

In April Sasson was relieved of his front-line duties in order to take a refresher course at Flixecourt. Here he was able to relax, and his leisure is reflected in the calm mood of "The Last Meeting" (an elegy for his friend David Thomas, who had been killed in March) and in the lighthearted tone of "A Letter Home." The tensions of the approaching Somme Offensive are visible, however, in "Before the Battle" (dated June 25, 1916), wherein Sassoon expresses something of the half-mystical, half-poetic emotion that sustained W. N. Hodgson and Leslie Coulson during the same crisis.

Incapacitated by gastric fever and shaken by his Somme ordeal, Sassoon was in England by early August and did not return to France until the following February. During these six months he had ample opportunity to reflect upon the significance of the war and to evaluate his own experiences. His private doubts about the struggle had been aroused by the same forces that had produced the general mood of disillusion among his fellow-soldiers in France; fresh disappointment followed the failure of the "Great Advance" on the Somme; in England he was exposed to civilian ignorance, frivolity, and apathy, and to the scepticism of the Morrell circle. Most of the poems of this period, therefore, reflect an increasingly wrathful sense of the discrepancy between the shameful euphoria of the people at home and the sufferings of the soldiers overseas.

Earliest among the post-Somme poems were "Died of Wounds," in which the war's horror echoes in the pathetic ravings of a dying man, and "Stretcher Case," which presents the clouded, groping consciousness of a soldier being brought home in a hospital train. There is an ironical disparity between the nature of his experiences in France and his first clear perceptions in England:

But was he back in Blighty? Slow he turned,
Till in his heart thanksgiving leapt and burned.
There shone the blue serene, the prosperous land,
Trees, cows and hedges; skipping these, he scanned
Large, friendly names, that change not with the year,
Lung Tonic, Mustard, Liver Pills and Beer.

The sudden turn of the last line—to which the reader has been unsuspectingly led—became a special device of Sassoon's for concentrating the force of his ironic contrasts. Unlike Sorley, whose subtle ironies are derived from a detached and essentially tragic outlook, Sassoon emphasizes external discrepancies obvious enough to any reader of the Morning Post or the Daily Mail, If Sorley's ironic methods indicate an objectivity and a complexity of attitude beyond the reach of Georgian writers, Sassoon's venture into ironic realism, however crude, represents the end of Georgian lyrical introversion and a renewal of social purpose in modern poetry.

The above two poems were written in August, while Sassoon was confined to an Oxford hospital. In September, appalled by the general civilian attitude toward the war, he wrote the first of a number of poems "deliberately devised to disturb complacency." "The One-Legged Man" depicts the musings of a discharged soldier enjoying the prospect of a return to normal life:

… he'd come home again to find it more
Desirable than ever it was before.
How right it seemed that he should reach the span
Of comfortable years allowed to man!
Splendid to eat and sleep and choose a wife,
Safe with his wound, a citizen of life.
He hobbled blithely through the garden gate,
And thought: "Thank God they had to amputate!"

The poet thus deals an effective blow to civilian misapprehensions about the spirit of the fighting soldier, whose cheerful confidence had become a theme of home-front propaganda. Again, the turn of the final line, like a whiplash, completes the ironic contrast.

Other notable satiric poems written in the autumn of 1916 were "The Hero," which explodes the journalistic fiction of universally courageous behavior on the part of the British soldier, and "The Tombstone-Maker," which strikes out at civilian selfishness and hypocrisy. Discovering himself possessed of a hitherto unemployed skill for "composing two or three harsh, peremptory, and colloquial stanzas with a knockout blow in the last line," Sassoon later acknowledged an inability to account for any possible literary influence, save a faint echo of Hardy's Satires of Circumstance in his longer poems. In October, encouraged by Robert Ross to continue in this satiric vein, Sassoon produced one of his most scathing poems. "'They'" is an attack leveled directly at the fatuities and empty consolations of formal religion, whose representatives, for the most part, had dismally failed to gauge the physical and moral havoc wrought by the war. With unctuous rhetoric, the Bishop of '"They"' declares that the nobility of the struggle against "Anti-Christ" will have an elevating effect on those who return: "They will not be the same."

"We're none of us the same!" the boys reply.
"For George lost both his legs; and Bill's stone blind;
"Poor Jim's shot through the lungs and like to die;
"And Bert's gone syphilitic: you'll not find
"A chap who's served that hasn't found some change."
And the Bishop said: "The ways of God are strange!"

This kind of writing proved almost too easy for Sassoon, for he seldom advances much beyond the brash satirical techniques encouraged by such obvious targets. Wilfred Owen's sense of the cruel irrelevance of conventional religious values emerges not as satire but as tragedy; the contrasts he observes deflate no pompous bishop but reveal the underlying ironies of mortality in war and peace.

The last poem of Sassoon's early satiric period was written in January 1917, just before he returned to France. '"Blighters,"' inspired by a revue at the Hippodrome in Liverpool, is probably the bitterest of his early productions; it attacks the frivolous and vulgar jingoism of the music hall and the hectic approval of the audience:

The House is crammed: tier beyond tier they grin
And cackle at the Show, while prancing ranks
Of harlots shrill the chorus, drunk with din;
"We're sure the Kaiser loves our dear old Tanks!"

I'd like to see a Tank come down the stalls,
Lurching to rag-time tunes, or "Home, sweet Home,"
And there'd be no more jokes in Music-halls
To mock the riddled corpses round Bapaume.

The anger here is certainly excessive and without a worthy target. Satire that loses its sense of proportion becomes mere invective; but to Sassoon, on his way to France for the second time, the scene apparently epitomized the spirit of wartime England.

The most important war poems of The Old Huntsman thus represent the character of Sassoon's response during the course of a single year, from January 1916 to January 1917. That year was psychologically the most crucial of the entire war, and Sassoon's poetic growth clearly accompanies the growing disaffection of 1916. No greater contrast could be imagined than that between the selfindulgent aestheticism of "To Victory" and the cold wrath of '"Blighters."' Significantly, however, The Old Huntsman, when it was published in May 1917, was far outsold by Robert Nichols' Ardours and Endurances, which appeared at approximately the same time. Even at this late date Nichols' uncritical and romantic interpretation of the war was more in accord with current taste than Sassoon's unpalatable truths.

The thirty-nine poems of Counter-Attack, for the most part inspired by Sassoon's experiences in the Battle of Arras, were written during his second period of convalescence in England. At this time he was undergoing the profound personal crisis which resulted in his protest against the war and his eventual assignment to Craiglock-hart. The tormented state of mind which provoked this difficult act of rebellion also produced the agonized poems of Counter-Attack. As in the case of the early volunteers, the urgency of the occasion had again combined poetry with the necessity for practical action; as Rupert Brooke's personal response had symbolized the initial enthusiastic acceptance of the war, so Sassoon's Counter-Attack, and the personal crisis out of which it arose, represented an uncompromising rejection of all the war had come to signify.

Published in July 1918, in a "blood-red and yellow paper cover," Counter-Attack was prefaced by a brief quotation from the final apocalyptic pages of Barbusse's Le Feu, one of the most powerful anti-war novels produced by World War I:

"Dans la trêve désolée de cette matinée, ces hommes qui avaient été tenaillés par la fatigue, fouettés par la pluie, bouleversés par toute une nuit de tonnerre, ces rescapés des volcans et de l'inondation entrevoyaient à quel point la guerre, aussi hideuse au moral qu'au physique, non seulement viole le bon sens, avilit les grandes idées, commande tous les crimes—mais ils se rappelaient combien elle avait développé en eux et autour d'eux tous les mauvais instincts sans en excepter un seul; la méchanceté jusqu'au sadisme, l'égoïsme jusqu'à la férocité, le besoin de jouir jusqu'à la folie."

[In a footnote, the author gives a translation by Fitz-water Wray in Under Fire, 1917: "In their troubled truce of the morning, these men whom fatigue had tormented, whom rain had scourged, whom night-long lightning had convulsed, these survivors of volcanoes and flood began not only to see dimly how war, as hideous morally as physically, outrages common sense, debases noble ideas and dictates all kind of crime, but they remembered how it had enlarged in them and about them every evil instinct save none, mischief developed into lustful cruelty, selfishness into ferocity, the hunger for enjoyment into a mania."]

As he records in Sherston's Progress, Sassoon read Le Feu in the English translation during his first few weeks at Craiglockhart. Although he tells us that the novel acutely increased his exasperation and antagonism, it is not clear to what extent he was artistically inspired or encouraged by Barbusse's indictment of the war. Beyond the inclusion of this prefatory quotation in Counter-Attack, Sassoon—invariably scrupulous in such matters—does not acknowledge any direct literary influence. The conclusions that both men reached were obvious and inevitable in 1917; Sassoon's use of the passage from Le Feu merely keynotes and confirms the main theme of Counter-Attack.

The poems of The Old Huntsman had dealt boldly and impressively enough with the phenomena of modern warfare, but the opening lines of the first poem in Counter-Attack ("Prelude: The Troops") reveal a stricken world whose inhabitants have been overwhelmed by some unspeakable disaster:

Dim, gradual thinning of the shapeless gloom
Shudders to drizzling daybreak that reveals
Disconsolate men who stamp their sodden boots
And turn dulled, sunken faces to the sky
Haggard and hopeless.

Like the survivors of the deluge in Le Feu, these men seem paralyzed by the enormity of their common misfortune; the "sad, smoking, flat horizons" bound a nightmare of tedium and misery, of ruin and death. Edmund Blunden is more successful, perhaps, in evoking the sinister particulars of a war-ravaged landscape, but in his title poem Sassoon almost vengefully shifts his vision to the obscene details that more shockingly summarize the war's undepicted horror:

The place was rotten with dead; green clumsy legs
High-booted, sprawled and grovelled along the saps
And trunks, face downward, in the sucking mud,
Wallowed like trodden sand-bags loosely filled;
And naked sodden buttocks, mats of hair,
Bulged, clotted heads slept in the plastering slime.
And then the rain began,—the jolly old rain!

Few other lines in World War I poetry can equal this passage—with Sassoon's characteristic ironic fillip at the end—in sheer graphic intensity. To the horrors of simple carnage are added the frantic, intermingled, struggling grotesqueries of violent death: the final degradation of the human body which made modern warfare such an intolerable outrage to the poets who first confronted its effects. It was from scenes like this that Sassoon returned to England in April, so distraught that, as he told Graves, he often "saw corpses lying about on the pavement." The poet's seriously obsessed mental state—visible even in his postwar verse—is depicted in his "Repression of War Experience":

You're quiet and peaceful, summering safe at home;
You'd never think there was a bloody war on! …
O yes, you would … why, you can hear the guns.
Hark! Thud, thud, thud,—quite soft … they never cease—
Those whispering guns—O Christ, I want to go out
And screech at them to stop—I'm going crazy;
I'm going stark, staring mad because of the guns.

It was in such an overwrought state of mind that "Counter-Attack" was probably composed. This brief narrative attempts to depict the chaotic effects of a British assault and an abortive enemy counter-attack, and, indeed, the poem powerfully conveys a sensation of irredeemable horror and confusion. Considered as a narrative, however, "Counter-Attack" is no more successful than Robert Nichols' "The Assault." The progression is crude and ill-adjusted, amounting

to no more than a loose series of narrative and descriptive notations. Again, the point of view shifts from generalized narration to the consciousness of an individual soldier, and the action ends abruptly with the death of that soldier. Finally, the visual perspective narrows from a generalized narrative actuality to a grim and purposive description of the dead, then adjusts itself to the dazed perceptions of the soldier who unaccountably emerges in the second stanza as the protagonist. In "Counter-Attack" confusion of form attends confusion of matter because Sassoon, like Nichols, has neglected to distinguish between the haphazard continuity of actual experience and the progression demanded by the narrative mode. No communicative intent, however urgent, can justify the fallacy of imitative form. Urgency and chaos, by their very nature opposed to the formal element in art, require both the discipline of traditional forms and the unremitting exercise of the poet's intellectual and imaginative powers. Concerned only with communication, Sassoon relies upon the raw force of his materials and their impact upon his personal sensibilities.

Though Sassoon's description of the dead has an overwhelming graphic power, its gruesome particulars are not really relevant to the central action and serve no discernible function with regard to the perceptions or fate of the protagonist. It is the poet himself who halts to observe the "naked sodden buttocks" and the "bulged, clotted heads"; in his desire to communicate the shock of this ultimate atrocity, he forgets his obligations to the action he has initiated and resorts to the dubious techniques of photographic realism. His depiction is not only irrelevant, but objectionable on other artistic grounds. As Middleton Murry observes [in The Evolution of an Intellectual, 1920], this scene of carnage "is horrible, but it does not produce the impression of horror." The appeal is to the senses and not to the imagination; such a method "numbs, not terrifies, the mind." Thus undisciplined realism, since it tends to concentrate narrowly on purely sensory aspects and details, can distort the reality of warfare as much as undisciplined romanticism.

The narrative movement of "Counter-Attack" is by turns sluggish and frenetically abrupt; it terminates blankly with the last obscure sensations of the protagonist, who sinks to his death amid "a blurred confusion of yells and groans." "We are given the blurred confusion," writes Murry, "and just because this is the truth of the matter exactly rendered we can not apprehend it any more than the soldier who endures it can." The continued attempt to depict the shattering physical realities of warfare was obviously destined to failure unless the poet could exercise some kind of control over his material. As Murry further observes, "The experiences of battle, awful, inhuman, and intolerable as they are, can be comprehended only by the mind which is capable of bringing their horror and their inhumanity home to the imagination of others. Without the perspective that comes from intellectual remoteness there can be no comprehension, no order and no art." This dictum touches the artistic dilemma that afflicted many World War I poets, whose Georgian literary background had hardly encouraged the discipline of intellectual remoteness. Thoroughly saturated with the sights and sounds of war, their imaginations lacked the support of a living poetic tradition capable of assimilating new materials and dealing with the disorder and violence of warfare. Thus poetry was but a single step from action and reflected—sometimes too directly and too grossly—the physical extremities that inspired it.

A number of other poems in Counter-Attack, though not as graphically insistent and confused as the title poem, seem to be marked by the same agonized intensity of presentation. "The Rear-Guard," for example, deals with a frightful incident in a tunnel under the Hindenburg Line. The protagonist, exploring the darkness, stumbles over what he supposes to be the body of a sleeping soldier. The soldier, however, does not respond to his tugging or to his angry demands for guidance. The protagonist, nerves on edge, completely loses his temper:

Savage, he kicked a soft, unanswering heap,
And flashed his beam across the livid face
Terribly glaring up, whose eyes yet wore
Agony dying hard ten days before;
And fists of fingers clutched a blackening wound.

Alone he staggered on until he found
Dawn's ghost that filtered down a shafted stair
To the dazed, muttering creatures underground
Who hear the boom of shells in muffled sound.
At last, with sweat of horror in his hair,
He climbed through darkness to the twilight air,
Unloading hell behind him step by step.

It is worth while to contrast Sassoon's prose account of the same incident in Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, written after the war with a somewhat different artistic purpose in view: "Once, when I tripped and recovered myself by grabbing the wall, my tentative patch of brightness revealed somebody half hidden under a blanket. Not a very clever spot to be taking a nap, I thought, as I stooped to shake him by the shoulder. He refused to wake up, so I gave him a kick. 'God blast you, where's Battalion Headquarters?' My nerves were on edge; and what right had he to be having a good sleep, when I never seemed to get five minutes' rest? … Then my beam settled on the livid face of a dead German whose fingers still clutched the blackened gash on his neck…. Stumbling on, I could only mutter to myself that this was really a bit too thick. (That, however, was an exaggeration; there is nothing remarkable about a dead body in a European War, or a squashed beetle in a cellar.)"

Here, in the larger context of prose narration, the incident obviously could not be isolated and intensified; it is part of a narrative progression composed of many such incidents. Sassoon actually minimizes the experience and its effect on his sensibility, whereas in the poem he deliberately heightens its horrific aspects. The lyric medium, together with the curative purpose for which it was being utilized, thus encouraged a strained emphasis and insistence which afforded little opportunity for the exercise of selection, proportion, and control. There is, indeed, nothing remarkable about a dead body in a European war unless the war itself is depicted as a significant event. As Frederic Manning states in his Prefatory Note to Her Privates We [1930], "War is waged by men; not by beasts, or by gods. It is a peculiarly human activity. To call it a crime against mankind is to miss at least half its significance; it is also the punishment of a crime." These words, if applied to Sassoon's attitudes and techniques, have an artistic as well as a moral import. In his parenthetical afterthought about the Hindenburg tunnel incident, Sassoon seems to be admitting that his poetic version was based on simple emotional reactions rather than on an effort to evaluate his experience in its actual historical context.

Other poems in Counter-Attack both portray and embody the emotional intensities of combat. "Attack," for instance, depicts the terrible anxiety of men about to cross the parapets:

Lines of grey, muttering faces, masked with fear,
They leave their trenches, going over the top,
While time ticks blank and busy on their wrists,
And hope, with furtive eyes and grappling fists,
Flounders in mud. O Jesus, make it stop!

The fellowship of suffering completes Sassoon's identification with the men he must lead "To the foul beast of war that bludgeons life." Unlike Owen, he describes the demoralizing psychological effects of battle more often than wounds or physical anguish, and for the first time poetry reveals what modern scientific violence can do to men's minds. Sassoon's soldiers are numb with fear or horror, or they break down completely under the prolonged emotional strain of trench fighting. He pays tribute, of course, to the courage and tenacity of his "brave brown companions," but he never makes that bravery the subject of a specific poem. If young Hughes, in "Wirers," exerts himself manfully in repairing the barbed-wire defences in No Man's Land, Sassoon gives the account a bitter twist that nullifies any heroism involved:

Young Hughes was badly hit; I heard him carried away,
Moaning at every lurch; no doubt he'll die to-day.
But we can say the front-line wire's been safely mended.

One wonders how much positive action and achievement is excluded from Counter-Attack in the interest of thematic unity. As an anti-war propagandist, Sassoon could hardly depict a successful attack or even an incident representing individual heroism; he could hardly portray a soldier mastering his own emotional turmoil and responding to the imperatives of duty. To write about such things would have been to grant that the war had some positive moral or historical significance, and Sassoon was in no state of mind to make such an admission. His interest in psychopathological effects was no doubt renewed during his stay at Craiglockhart, where the phenomena of "shellshock" and other war neuroses engaged the attention of medical science. His own ordeals, plus a deep sense of identification with the common soldier, produced the haunted mental condition described in "Repression of War Experience" (the title indicates familiarity with the then novel terms of psychoanalysis). Other poems written during Sassoon's period of convalescence at Craiglockhart—"The Dream," "Dead Musicians," "Sick Leave," and "Banishment"—all portray a mind obsessed with suffering and death. In "Sick Leave" the poet is reproached by ghostly forms that gather about his bed:

"Banishment" eloquently summarizes the feeling which led to the poet's protest against the war and which eventually compelled him to forgo his "bitter safety" for the comradeship of the "patient men who fight":

If Sassoon is a compassionate observer of mental and spiritual stress among his fellow-soldiers, he also expresses his own strained sense of the opposition between his duty as a soldier and his obligations as a poet.

These spells of troubled remembrance apparently did not diminish Sassoon's capacity for trenchant critical commentary. Most of the critical poems of Counter-Attack have a bitterly satiric intent or at least a strong ironic turn, but a few express unadulterated anger and hatred. Among these, "Fight to a Finish," which attacks "Yellow Pressmen" and the "Junkers" in Parliament, is one of his most violent poems; the poet, in company with his "trusty bombers," imagines himself to be ruthlessly exterminating these groups after the war. "Suicide in the Trenches" wrathfully lashes out at civilian ignorance:

You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you'll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.

In "Glory of Women" the poet directs his scorn at woman's shallow ingenuousness and her inclination to accept the falsities of the romantic interpretation of war:

You love us when we're heroes, home on leave,
Or wounded in a mentionable place.
You worship decorations; you believe
That chivalry redeems the war's disgrace.
You make us shells.

In the same vein, "Their Frailty" condemns woman's selfish incapacity to visualize the war in terms other than those that affect her son, lover, or husband. These attacks are rather immoderate and indiscriminatory; they reveal a mind harried by a vast injustice and therefore disposed to magnify aspects of the undeniable disparity between the sacrifices demanded of soldiers and those demanded of civilians.

Among the poems in which the ironical method is employed with best effect are "How to Die," "Lamentations," "Does it Matter?", and "Survivors." Each of these poems is concerned in some way with current attitudes toward death and suffering; Sassoon caricatures these attitudes with a decorous gravity that barely conceals his own underlying wrath. Thus "How to Die" mocks the popular conception of death in battle:

"Lamentations" depicts the hysterical grief of a soldier for his dead brother; "in my belief," remarks the poet, turning distastefully from the scene, "such men have lost all patriotic feeling." "Does it Matter?" similarly mocks the blithe consolations that civilians afford the crippled ("people will always be kind") and the sightless ("there's such splendid work for the blind"). Written at Craiglock-hart in October, "Survivors" portrays the afflicted state of those whose nerves had given way under the stress of battle:

No other war poet can approach Sassoon's facility as an ironist, and Sassoon himself is at his best as a poet when he finds a legitimate target for this particular skill.

Occasionally, however, explicit satire replaces the oblique ironic method. "Editorial Impressions," "The Fathers," "Base Details," and "The General" are directed against types rather than attitudes; their simplicity and singleness of effect resemble that of the clever, hard-hitting political cartoon. For instance, "Base Details"—with its equivocal title—attacks the pompous Staff officers who were safely remote from the dangers of the front line:

"The General" similarly indicts the military caste for the incompetence and lack of imagination that characterized British staff work during most of the war. The smiling General reviews his soldiers on their way to the line:

"He's a cheery old card," grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.

…..

But he did for them both by his plan of attack.

Counter-Attack was very nearly suppressed before it was published; no doubt "The General"—which violated the rule against criticism of the conduct of the war—was partially responsible for this difficulty with the censor. These aggressive satires are indeed essentially negative and destructive. They strike out at specific targets, but in so doing indict the whole national military effort without taking any stand that would honor the positives implicit in that effort (and visible in Sassoon's own individual exploits as a soldier). Sassoon abolished the romantic myth of war, as Vivian de Sola Pinto observes, but he provided no new myth to take its place. It is for this reason, perhaps, that he is seldom mentioned as an influence on postwar verse. The younger poets of the thirties—Auden, Spender, Day Lewis—could hardly have been unaware of his reputation as a figure of angry revolt; but the negative aspect of his work was such that it provided no inspiration for poets who were dealing with broad social and ideological issues.

"To Any Dead Officer," written in June 1917, while Sassoon was still hospitalized with his throat wound, may be classed as an elegy, though the poet's grief is partially concealed by a playful colloquial tone, and interspersed with satiric thrusts. The imagined telephone conversation thus concludes:

The contrast between "To Any Dead Officer" and the dignified elegiac symbolism of Brooke's Sonnet IV is almost profound enough to have been deliberate. Sassoon's manner, furthermore, is directly opposed to the style of other consolatory and inspirational elegies—Laurence Binyon's "For the Fallen" was perhaps the best known—that found public favor during the later years of the war.

Sassoon's intentions in Counter-Attack are revealed in his ironically ambiguous title: he was at war not so much with the enemy as with war itself and the people who were for one reason or another insensible to its terrible import. In pursuing these intentions he produced a volume that has no rival in its revelation of terror, stupidity, selfishness, and suffering. Though Sassoon's techniques of realistic depiction are less sound artistically than his satiric methods, they constitute the first real attempt to present the truth of the war, and the effect of his break with the conventions and traditions of earlier war poetry can hardly be overestimated.

This break is especially obvious when one compares Sassoon's verse with that of Kipling, who is in some ways Sassoon's predecessor as a "soldiers' poet." Kipling celebrated his own martial themes with expansive energy and confident, resounding rhythms. His early verses helped to establish the popular conception of the British "Tommy"—competent, cheerful, and mindless—which Sassoon was to expose with a mixture of savagery and compassion. Kipling also helped to popularize the public school athletic-military code of honor (best expressed, perhaps, in Newbolt's "Vitaï Lampada") which lies, too obvious a mark for direct attack, behind much of Sassoon's satire. In a great deal of their work both Kipling and Sassoon were propagandists; their levels of appeal do not differ markedly. By means of techniques which would assure him a vast public audience—simple rhythms, simple notions, and simple colloquial language—Kipling created a legend around the professional soldiers who protected the Empire by their strength and vigilance. As a civilian soldier newly initiated into the effects of national conflict on a grand scale, Sassoon made war not only on war itself but also on many of the popular conceptions which Kipling was indirectly responsible for perpetuating; his techniques—basically as simple as Kipling's but shrill, abrupt, discordant, and shocking—were therefore calculated to be as unsettling as the older poet's were reassuring. Only twenty or thirty years separate Kipling's Indian and Boer War verse from Sassoon's Counter-Attack; the contrast in attitude and technique, however, reflects the astonishing rapidity and profundity of the changes with which we are dealing.

After Sassoon was wounded in July 1918 he spent a few weeks at the American Women's Hospital, Lancaster Gate, London. Counter-Attack had just been published and the poet had leisure to review his accomplishments and speculate about the future. Though he felt it was probable that the war would last another year, he was conscious of no obligation to return to France, and Dr. Rivers assured him that he need feel no such obligation. In Siegfried's Journey Sassoon thus summarizes his reflections at that time: "… in spite of my hatred of war and 'Empery's insatiate lust of power,' there was an awful attraction in its hold over my mind, which since childhood had shown a tendency towards tragic emotions about human existence. While at Lancaster Gate I was disquieted by a craving to be back on the Western Front as an independent contemplator. No longer feeling any impulse to write bitterly, I imagined myself describing it in a comprehensive way, seeing it like a painter and imbuing my poetry with Whitmanesque humanity and amplitude. From the routine-restricted outlook of battalion sectors I had seen so little, and the physical conditions were a perpetual hindrance to detached and creative vision. But I had experienced enough to feel confident that I could now do something on a bigger scale, and I wanted to acquire further material which would broaden and vitalize what was already in my mind."

Sassoon goes on to describe the nocturnal visions which haunted his sleepless hours and which brought him "a delusive sense of power to put them into words": "An army on the march moved across the darkness, its doomdestined columns backed by the pulsating glare of distant gunfire…. I saw the shapes of sentries, looming against the livid and sombre cloud-shoals of forlorn front-line daybreak. Or it seemed that I was looking down on a confusion of swarming figures in some battle-ravaged region—an idea derived, perhaps, from the scenic directions in Hardy's Dynasts." A page or so later, he continues in the same vein of artistic self-examination: "… I was developing a more controlled and subjective attitude towards the war. To remind people of its realities was still my main purpose, but I now preferred to depict it impersonally, and to be as much 'above the battle' as I could. Unconsciously, I was getting nearer to Wilfred Owen's method of approach. (For it was not until two years later, when I edited his poems, that I clearly apprehended the essentially compassionate significance of what he had been in process of communicating.)" [In a footnote, the author states that Sassoon has confirmed "that subjective ('a more controlled and subjective attitude') is a misprint … for objective."]

Two months after Sassoon's release from the Lancaster Gate hospital the war was over and he had no cause for returning to the front either as a soldier or an "independent contemplator." In 1919, however, he published Picture Show, which contains about a dozen war poems written during 1918 and 1919. Although these poems are generally elegiac in tone, one or two, like "Battalion-Relief and "Memorial Tablet," embody the satirical animus of Counter-Attack. Some pieces, like "Memory" and "Aftermath" (dated March 1919), show how persistently memories of the war disturbed Sassoon's consciousness. "Have you forgotten yet?" he asks his fellow-soldiers. "Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you'll never forget." Even poems which are not directly concerned with the conflict evince an obsession with the old themes: death, suffering, and grief. The war poems of Picture Show are clearly anti-climactic; Sassoon's role as a satirist had been brought to an end by the Armistice, and his moods of haunted reminiscence embody no new ideas or techniques.

The poems of Counter-Attack, though they were inspired by events that took place in the spring of 1917, were thus to be Sassoon's last effective commentary on the war. The two passages quoted above, therefore, refer to attitudes and techniques that the poet had no opportunity to realize in verse; in so doing, however, they offer an indirect but interesting appraisal of the kind of poetry upon which his reputation is based. Sassoon acknowledges the obvious physical disadvantages of writing as a soldier: the individual (as Douglas Jerrold points out) is limited to the operations of his own unit and knows little of the larger movements in which that unit is engaged. The trench poet's response, therefore, is restricted to the phenomena that fall within the range of his personal experience; within that range, moreover, he is inclined to respond to gross externalities rather than to the less shocking but more significant aspects of the struggle. His depictions, created purposefully to communicate the physical horrors of war, exist in themselves, without any reference to the larger military or historical context in which these aspects could assume their proper value.

Thus as an "independent contemplator" Sassoon hoped to eliminate the physical and psychological restrictions imposed on his poetry by the circumstances of its inspiration. It is significant that he also hoped to deal with the war "on a bigger scale," viewing it in a "comprehensive way" after the manner of the painter. Sassoon apparently was beginning to understand the inadequacy of the brief lyric and narrative forms he had been employing. It is not clear just what new poetic form he had in mind. He may have intended to expand the scope of his visualizations within the lyric, as Sorley did in "A Hundred Thousand Million Miles We Go." Again, he may have intended to employ a longer, objectified narrative from in which he could order and arrange the visions that haunted him at Lancaster Gate. Sassoon's desire for a larger and more comprehensive medium (and his interesting reference to The Dynasts) indicates that he may have considered a modified epic form. At any rate, it is evident that he felt some dissatisfaction with the forms and techniques he had employed in The Old Huntsman and Counter-Attack. He is frank in confessing his belated recognition of Owen's accomplishment; the implied revaluation of his own satiric and realistic methods indicates to what extent those methods had failed, in his opinion, to voice the profounder aspects of the war.

Michael Thorpe (essay date 1966)

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SOURCE: "Achievement," in Siegfried Sassoon: A Critical Study, Universitaire pers Leiden, 1966, pp. 253-59.

[In the following excerpt, Thorpe assesses Sassoon's accomplishments, commenting on the poet's role as an innovative writer of protest verse, his similarity to a number of past writers, and the religious content of his later works.]

There is no universally accepted sliding-scale of values by which a writer's achievement may be measured. According to one viewpoint, a writer's stature is virtually determined by the extent to which he endeavours to grapple with and reconstruct the disordered world, material and intellectual, of the particular fragment of time in which he happens to have been born; according to another, it may be important that he has refused to touch the broken images of the present, but has instead explored the ramifications of the microcosmic self; yet a third—most exacting—viewpoint will demand that the search for "selfhood's essence" be seen to have taken place under the pressure of the time and that this agonising union result in an ordering of reality (as it may seem) that will be important to others.

Sassoon's writing has, at different times, responded to the first two demands, but never to the high intensity of the third. This failure to achieve what to many seems the ideal synthesis is inherent in the very success of his war poetry: a local, qualified success, of style and feeling, not of vision. Though his achievement at that time chimed with the freshest modern spirit, it cannot be claimed as an original influence upon the development of contemporary writing. Before 1914, D. H. Lawrence and Kipling had already revived the tradition of colloquial verse far more vigorously than either Sassoon or the begetter of The Daffodil Murderer, Masefield; whilst the Eliot of 'The Love Story of J. Alfred Prufrock' and the Yeats of Responsibilities needed to learn nothing in technique from their contemporary, and they it was who, for good or ill, would be the models for later poets. Certainly, the healthy effect of his war satires upon Owen's writing is well attested, but there can be no doubt that so critical an artist as Owen would soon enough have taught himself Sassoon's lesson anyway: most fruitful, one supposes, was the mutual sharpening and clarification that sometimes results from the meeting of minds at a crucial moment, as was the case with Wordsworth and Coleridge.

The quality of Sassoon's war poetry is remarkable, not when it is compared stylistically with the work of his more original contemporaries, but when its content is viewed in relation to the cramping Edwardian social and literary context in which Sassoon himself was reared. Looking back, one must wonder at how, by sheer truth and force of feeling, he broke out of the constricting mould of dead poeticism which, at nearly thirty years old, had almost stifled him. If he was no prophet, his famous war poetry makes him a portent. In his raw and heated satires the emasculated versifying of an outworn society is betrayed from within—his contributions to the 1918-1919 volume of Georgian Poetry give the lie to its heart. They are symptomatic of a new vitality which was to undermine the irresponsible rule of Marshianism. [In a footnote, the author explains that "Marshianism" refers to the negative qualities of the lesser poetry published in Edward Marsh's Georgian Poetry anthologies, qualities that he believes are responsible for the criticism often directed at "Georgian" poetry; he exempts many poets, including Sassoon, from the "Marshian" group.] Sassoon's revival of the Byronic protest vigorously renewed the involvement of the poet with society at the centre of society. The excellence of his war satire was, like that of much Byron wrote, one less of form than of "sincerity and strength."

Yet his example had to wait another decade for effective followers—who were not, however, to take their leadership from him or to earn his sympathy. After the First World War, he rapidly lost his hold upon his time. He could not sustain the indignant protestant's role in the peace-time world. The Pacifist Muse is a noble one, but she is apt to repeat herself: though she was briefly revived in The Road to Ruin, it was to speak with baffled feeling rather than force. Social issues were many and blurred: humanitarian feeling could distinguish no plain target. His satire in the 'Twenties, like that of Osbert Sitwell and the embittered prose of Richard Aldington, was primarily an emotional outlet. So far as it can be traced to identifiable causes, it arose from the frustrating denial of the old positives: unquestioned peace, an apparently assured future, and, when garnished with Socialism, the war's solitary fruit—the uplifting experience of men's capacity for kinship—had a bitter taste. It was marginal satire, directed upon social and political aberrations: beside the slick surgery of Auden, the leader of an unwearied later generation, it seems exhausted and querulous. "Perhaps …" writes Stephen Spender [in World Within World, 1951], "the qualities which distinguished us from the writers of the previous decade lay not in ourselves, but in the events to which we reacted. These were unemployment, economic crisis, nascent fascism, approaching war … The older writers were reacting in the 'Twenties to the exhaustion and hopelessness of a Europe in which the old regimes were falling to pieces." War-weariness underlay everything Sassoon wrote in the post-war decade: the suffering he had endured and striven to repress could not be ordered so soon. Had another straightforward crusade presented itself, a sublimation of that haunting experience might have resulted: but the tortuosities of politics, the mean distrust and fear dividing the classes, could not be cut through by one of Sassoon's cavalier temperament.

He was not, in his brief attachment to Socialism, either a sentimentalist or a fanatic, but he was ill-fitted for practical politics. Unlike the acutely class-conscious 'Thirties poets, he laboured under no harrowing sense of guilt as a member of an unjustly privileged class: but he did demand of politics more than it could give, just as in war he had overestimated the effect of the moral gesture upon the leaders of men and men themselves. His temperament and his humanity revolted equally against the drab compromise of the non-reformed society and from the indiscriminate violence and injustice that he feared would attend radical change. Lacking a reforming vision, he could only wander aimlessly in the no-man's land between, letting off stray shots at scattered enemies.

To be successful, the satirist must have total confidence in his own standpoint or, at least, a stable sense of self. For Sassoon in the aftermath of a war that had demanded of him such lacerating action, as for many of his contemporaries, the inner self was still to be explored and known. Gradually, as objective action came to seem increasingly futile, his gentle, introspective nature came back into its own. Following at last the example of his "fellow poet in Peace and War", Edmund Blunden, he withdrew into his past and explored it for the values and coherence the present seemed to deny. Through this withdrawal, his poetic self blossomed in prose—and the prose of the years from 1928 to 1938, the Sherston trilogy and the first 'straight' autobiography, The Old Century, is his highest achievement: in both the narrower aspect of finished style and the wider one of human appeal….

In his prose Sassoon exhibits qualities for which he himself is drawn towards Meredith: "He can make us remember what it felt like to be young … can make us breathe the air of early morning"; "He is the poet of Nature in action and the joy of earth" [as Sassoon writes in Meredith]. Meredithian qualities, but muted—closer in tone to some eighteenth century poets of 'retirement'—for "I am myself an inveterate quietist and self-corrector of inherent excitability." Not the Meredithian 'philosophy': the Meredith he approves, "Freed the fret of thinking … would revert to the semi-pagan self of his prime—pagan in the acceptance of the life-giving and joy-giving power of Nature … And it may be said that this is the best of him which survives." As Sassoon's religious poetry shows, this "lifegiving power" was not only to sustain him through desolate years but ultimately to assist him to a belief far removed from Meredith's pantheism. Whether or not one can walk with him "the way of Henry Vaughan", less debatable is Sassoon's honourable place amongst those few serious contemporary poets (Edward Thomas, D. H. Lawrence, Edmund Blunden, Andrew Young, Dylan Thomas and Herbert Read are others) who by attesting, in their different ways, the enduring importance of Nature—not superficially, or ornamentally, merely as a source of imagery, but as integral to man's whole awareness—have kept alive a distinctive quality of the English Romantic tradition.

A further suggestive affinity—chiefly of personality and the development of their attitudes—is one between Sassoon and Tennyson. They share, above all, a deep self-division, between the active and the contemplative, the involved and the acceptant, the public and the private selves. The unevenness of tone and the shifting viewpoints which result from this inhibit them as social satirists and moralists, as does their ill-proportioned mingling of thought and emotion. Generous feeling led them both to sympathise with the radical movement of their time, but an intense fear of violence caused them to react strongly against it when it proved extremist. Both felt the need to come to terms with deeply disruptive personal experience and to rebuild the self, a process which preoccupied them almost obsessively in their middle years. In the course of this their writing, reflecting their reaction against the uglier aspects of the present, became deeply imbued with nostalgia and they moved also toward a religious belief won slowly but finally attested by "inward evidence"—ultimately sealed in Sassoon's case by his acceptance of a definite doctrine.

In the quiet cadences of Vigils Sassoon celebrated, as Meredith had done, "the love of earth that is my law," but for him it was a love that served as a balm to the growing conviction of his own—and of man's—radical imperfection. It was not in itself an end. The burden of almost thirty years of poetry from The Heart's Journey—begun, but not ending, in a sadness akin to Hardy's—to its full realisation in The Tasking is the discovery of the spirit. He takes a path well worn by others before him, in a direction—far removed, one imagines, from that Owen might have pursued—which "misses the march of this retreating world" and so, it must be said, misses that complex synthesis of world and other-worldliness which makes for greatness, as does Vaughan when we think of him as the contemporary of Milton.

Sassoon's religious poetry is modest and self-effacing. Its deliberately muted colours and movement express the diffident gropings of the true contemplative: they suggest analogy with a rule of abstinence. There is little obscurity of meaning and no spectacular poetic device—scant appeal to the admirers of contemporaries so various as Eliot, Muir, or Dylan Thomas—but it would be unjust to write this poetry off as a survival of the minor Georgian mode, as one critic has done. On stylistic grounds, this criticism must be granted some force, for the restraint entails monotony and allows too little surprise. On the other hand, of the cardinal Georgian vices of faint, or false feeling and self-indulgence, Sassoon is rarely guilty. There is complexity of feeling, if not of form. No unprejudiced reader of Sequences can doubt that he is in the presence of a religious sensibility of great integrity. Though in manner Sassoon has, on the whole, less affinity with his contemporaries than with his spiritual fathers of the seventeenth century, The Tasking deserves to be distinguished as the most poetic of his sequences and the one most likely to satisfy modern taste: economical in language, pointed in idea, lucidly and sparely imaged, it fitly celebrates that stage of spiritual awareness where feeling is crystallized and finds its own clear form.

The pilgrimage these poems record is centred upon the self as fallen, an intuitive religious sense of the incompleteness and unworthiness of body and mind: "in spirit I am far / From self, the dull control with whom I dwell." His "seeking" is, in no pejorative sense, self-centred: linking him in spirit (as in expression) rather with Herbert and Vaughan than with such contemporaries as T. S. Eliot and Edwin Muir, whose religious poetry shows greater "general awareness" [as Eliot termed it in Selected Essays]. Sassoon builds on a less ambitious scale, using as in his prose the material of a "local, limited world" of self and of setting: the essential harmonies are, for him, the inner harmony of a man at peace with his spirit, and the outer, of man linked, through Nature, with God and a sense of Tightness beyond time. By the non-religious, the selfcentredness of such poetry—and most English devotional poetry is of this kind—is sometimes held to be its own condemnation. What is the validity of a poetry, they demand, which excludes so much human experience? In fact, what they reject is the conviction that man's spiritual experience is supreme: yet once this conviction is felt, the discipline it exacts is surely no less severe than that endured by those whose subject-matter is 'life'. In religious terms, man's first duty is to communicate with his God, then he may speak to man: or, rather, there will be one communication; his spiritual pilgrimage will speak for him.

L. Hugh Moore, Jr. (essay date 1969)

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SOURCE: "Siegfried Sassoon and Georgian Realism," in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 14, No. 4, January, 1969, pp. 199-209.

[Moore is an American critic and educator. Here, he counters the common critical opinion that Sassoon's war poetry was radically different from the verse he produced before seeing battle action. Moore contends that Sassoon's early work contains the realistic characteristics pioneered by several Georgian poets and that these prewar poems are directly related to his later accomplishments.]

The judgment that Siegfried Sassoon's pre-war poetry is pale, conventional, cloyingly romantic, and weakly derivative—in short, that it epitomizes what is today slightingly called "Georgian" verse—has become a critical commonplace. A corollary to this view assumes that the powerful war poetry of The Old Huntsman (1917) and Counter-Attack (1918) sprang full blown from his head, a result of the trauma of trench warfare. Robert Graves appears to be the first to have foisted this view upon us in his desire to praise the more exciting war verse. He claims in Goodbye to All That that Sassoon before the war had published only a few "pastoral pieces of eighteen-ninetyish flavour, and a satire on Masefield which, half-way through, had forgotten to be a satire and turned into rather good Masefield." As Graves saw it, Edward Marsh, the publisher of Georgian Poetry, and Edmund Gosse had retarded Sassoon's poetic development by keeping him to his "moons and nightingales and things" [as quoted by Christopher Hassall in Edward Marsh: Patron of the Arts, 1959]. David Daiches, later, agreed with Graves' estimate of the early verse: Sassoon began, he believes, as "a faded romantic," in whom the war developed "a bitter satiric note" [The Present Age in British Literature]. The authors of the recent spate of studies of the war poets have picked up and expanded this view. Bernard Bergonzi states colorfully in Heroes' Twilight [1965] that prior to World War I Sassoon composed "exquisite countrified verses that denoted a poetic talent minor to the point of debility" thus typifying "an echt-Georgian state of mind." The radical realism of the war poetry, Bergonzi continues, was forced upon him by the war and was inexplicable in terms of his early life and background. These assumptions need to be reexamined.

While Sassoon's early verse is definitely Georgian, this tradition contained realistic tendencies that culminated in the directness, brutality, and honesty of his best war verses. His mature war poetry, that is, merely extended the realistic revolt that was an important part of the Georgian poetic. And, further, Sassoon did not begin writing his famous war poetry until surprisingly late in World War I. Far from being the result of a shocked mind, his best war verse was the product of a much slower development than critics have assumed, for it was retarded by another, opposed, aspect of Georgianism, the taste for the lushly romantic and the insipidly pastoral.

Realism, the most striking and important phase of the Georgian poetic tradition, provides the best way to understand the Georgian poets and to appreciate the nature of their accomplishment. Georgianism in poetry began, as Robert Ross points out in The Georgian Revolt [1965], as a revolutionary attempt to change the nature of poetry, to initiate a renascence. As Edward Marsh said at the beginning of his first anthology [Georgian Poetry 1911-1912, ed. by Marsh, 1920]: "This volume is issued in the belief that English poetry is once again putting on a new strength and beauty." To these poets Georgianism was synonymous with realism; the new poetic, according to C. K. Stead [in The New Poetic, 1964], was "an attempt to come to terms with immediate experience, sensuous and imaginative, in a language close to common speech." This was the credo of the poets of Georgian Poetry I and II like Gordon Bottomley, Lascelles Abercrombie, D. H. Lawrence, and John Masefield. But, unfortunately for the reputations of these poets, Georgianism is frequently identified with the contrived and inept verse of poets like Sir John Squire, Edward Shanks, and W. J. Turner—those who dominated Georgian Poetry III and IV when the revolt had lost its drive and freshness. The movement that had begun with revolutionary realism ended with pallid escapism.

Realism, which had already triumphed in the prose of Georgians like Wells, Bennett, Galsworthy, and Shaw, then, was the essence of the new poetic at its inception. From the work of the leaders of the realistic revolt—poets and critics like Harold Monro, Osbert Sitwell, Edward Marsh, John Middleton Murry, Abercrombie, Bottomley, and Masefield—one can deduce what the term meant to the Georgians. It meant, first, a rejection of the romantic Victorian tradition, as exemplified by the early Tennyson and the fin de siècle poets, and a casting off of genteel reticence. The poet, unhampered by stale conventions and confining poetic traditions, should strive, above all else, for sincerity, vitality, and truth by reproducing honestly and faithfully what he saw and felt. To follow the dictates of poetic realism, then, frequently was to emphasize the commonplace, the trivial, and the ugly and to include details previously regarded as too nasty or coarse for poetry. Realism meant, further, a greater emphasis on physical descriptions and detailed development, a greater concern for the surface facts of the poem and their accuracy. Realism, also, was associated with an attempt to use the accents, rhythms, and diction of common speech, often the speech of the uneducated. And, finally, these poets connected realism with an interest in social justice and a concern for the lowly, the poor, the victimized.

Realism pervaded the work of the early Georgians. Although Rupert Brooke is remembered today chiefly for his World War I heroics and a few set pieces like "The Old Vicarage, Grantchester," he led the realistic revolt with poetic close-ups of subjects like physical decay, senility, and seasickness. Out to do violence to the proprieties, Brooke presumably chose these subjects because they possessed the realist's touchstone of poetic excellence, truth to life. In "Menelaus and Helen" [in Collected Poems, 1918] the poet imagines the old age of a couple from The Iliad and The Odyssey with results very different from Tennyson's. Brooke stresses the ugly details of senility: Menelaus "waxed garrulous, and sacked a hundred Troys / Twixt noon and supper" and aging: Helen "weeps, gummy-eyed and impotent," and her "dry shanks twist at Paris' mumbled name." The details of "A Channel Passage" could have been chosen by a black humorist:

Do I forget you? Retchings twist and tie me,
Old meat, good meals, brown gobbets, up I throw.
Do I remember? Acrid return and slimy,
The sobs and slobber of a last year's woe.
And still the sick ship rolls. 'Tis hard, I tell ye,
To choose 'twixt love and nausea, heart and belly.

The reviewers, not attuned to the new poetic, used terms like "sickly animalism" [quoted by Arthur Stringer, The Red Wine of Youth, 1948] and "swagger and brutality" [London Times Literary Supplement, Aug. 29, 1912] to describe these lines. Edward Marsh merely objected on the grounds of good taste and a preference for poetry he could read at meals [quoted by Hassall in Edward Marsh].

Gordon Bottomley, under the aegis of poetic truth and sincerity, expanded Georgian realism to include sex and brutality. "King Lear's Wife," first published in Georgian Poetry II and performed, after censorship, by the Birmingham Repertory Company on September 25, 1915, drew a unanimous chorus, consisting of newspaper critics, Edmund Gosse, and even D. H. Lawrence, of outraged and horrified cries of nastiness and obscenity. In its portrayal of passion this verse play does attempt more than was usual at that time, as this scene in which Lear addresses his wife's maid Gormflaith witnesses: "Enough … (kiss) Unless you do … (kiss) my will … (kiss) I shall … (kiss) I'll have you … (kiss) sent … (kiss) to … (kiss)." The play also has a gory stabbing and a grim parody of "A Frog He Would a-Wooing Go" sung by Mrs. Lear's maid as she prepared the body for burial:

'A louse crept out of my lady's shift—
Ahumm, Ahumm, Ahee
Crying Oi! Oi! We are turned adrift;
The lady's bosom is cold and stiffed,
And her arm-pit's cold for me'.

Such was the poetic realism during the period when the young Sassoon at Weirleigh and at Cambridge was writing and publishing his early verse. And, because of his friendship with Edward Marsh, the novice poet was profoundly influenced by the Georgian revolt. That Sassoon was deeply impressed by Georgian realism is evidenced by the fact that his first really successful poem began as a parody of Masefield's "The Everlasting Mercy" (1911), a poem Ross calls "the seminal realistic work of the renascence." Masefield's poem is, indeed, a compendium of the qualities that signified realism to the Georgians. It is direct and open about sex: the plot turns on the seduction of "poor Nell" by Saul Kane who admits "I drunk, I fought, I poached, I whored"; among its characters, drawn from the lower classes, is Doxy Jane, "a bouncing girl" who had a "thirst for men instead of soul." It has racy colloquial diction, that, however, never goes beyond "my closhy put.' / 'You bloody liar'" and several "by damns." It has an abundance of physical detail:

Then down, past that white-blossomed pond,
And past the chestnut trees beyond,
And past the bridge the fishers knew,
Where yellow flag flowers once grew….

Other qualities place "The Everlasting Mercy" squarely in the Georgian realistic revolution. Masefield records, with emphasis, the unpleasant and the ugly, as in the sad fate of a deceived girl who goes from pub to pub "Till health and beauty are departed, / And in a slum the reeking hag / Mumbles a crust with toothy jag." The poet includes violence and brutality in a boxing match and assorted fights. There is social concern behind the denunciation of capitalists, seen by Kane as blood suckers, fawning back-stabbers, and cringing hypocrites, and the Church: "The English Church is and was / A subsidy of Caiaphas" because, in league with the greed of the rich, it does nothing for the poor and the working man. Yet basically the poem is more conventional than revolutionary. Saul Kane through his suffering and by means of the love of God and with the help of a lovely Quaker lady is saved from his sinful ways.

Inspired and amused by Masefield's realistic poem, Sassoon wrote "The Daffodil Murderer," the most interesting and accomplished of his pre-war verse, the first of his poems with significant sales, and one of the few of his early poems that gives any indication of the power he exhibited in his war verse. Impressed by Masefield's poem, Sassoon amused himself by composing a parody. But as Graves has pointed out, the poem "half way through had forgotten to be a satire and turned into rather good Masefield." Sassoon seemed to get caught up in his story of a Sussex farmer awaiting trial for the accidental murder of the village tavern keeper. And for the first time he was following Marsh's gentle urgings toward more realistic verse: "It seems a necessity now to write either with one's eye on an object or with one's mind at grips with a more or less definite idea" [quoted by Sassoon in The Weald of Youth]. Although the inspiration for Sassoon's poem was literary, its success derives in large part from the poet's familiarity with the people and places he was writing about. To Masefield, then, belongs part of the credit for turning Sassoon away, at least for a time, from the cloying influence of the pre-Raphaelites, the decadent romantics, and the less robust Georgians. And since the searing realism of Sassoon's war poems stems directly from "The Daffodil Murderer," Masefield deserves some credit for the direction of the younger poet's development.

Like its model, "The Daffodil Murderer" [published in Siegfried Sassoon by Michael Thorpe, 1967] exhibits all the tenets of Georgian realism, although some are less well defined than others. The abundance of physical detail impressively documents the world of rural England. Although the "peewits on the fallows, / Flapping their wings and sadly calling / Because it's cold and twilight's falling" behave less like birds than literary migrants from "The Everlasting Mercy," elsewhere, Sassoon, as befits a fox-hunting man, observes the rural scene closely and accurately. The comic rhyme of Albert Meddle's reminiscence does not totally obscure a real concern for the natural surface of the poem:

I thought how in the summer weather
When Bill and me was boys together
We'd often come this way when trudgin'
Out by brooks to fish for gudgeon.
I thought 'when me and Bill are deaders,
'There'll still be buttercups in medders,
'And boys with penny floats and hooks,
'Catchin fish in Laughton brooks'.

Elsewhere he achieves verisimilitude by piling homely detail upon homely detail: "Some chap goes down the street on a bike, / Ringing his bell, he's gone in a jiffey / Down Brighton road; I wonder if 'e / Has got his lamp lit; then some motors / Goes by; and a hawker selling bloaters."

Sassoon goes beyond Masefield in the use of colloquial speech and racy diction. The publisher, T. W. H. Crosland, however, perhaps feeling Sassoon had not been bold enough or attempting to forestall criticism, explains, with tongue in cheek [as quoted by Thorpe], that "in order that the severest taste might not be offended the murderer dictates what he has to say to the Prison Chaplain. By this thoughtful expedient a clear flow of unobjectionable language is secured and the reader will doubtless appreciate the comfortable result." Sassoon approximates common speech with such spellings as "allus," "oughter," "spittin'," and "picter"; slang like "chaps," "shag," "dotty," "drivel," "gabble," "lout," "toff," and "cosh." And if such curses as "cripes" and "knock-kneed shrimp" seem more characteristic of the public school than the village tavern, others like "blasted skug" and "filthy pimp" are more in character. Even this early in his career Sassoon was as bold in his poetic diction as any of the Georgian realists.

Sassoon could well have been faulted by the critics, had they reviewed his poem, for coarseness in his treatment of sex and violence and for his inclusion of seamy and ugly details. Masefield's Saul does nothing worse than run naked through the village tormented by his betrayal of an innocent maid. Sassoon's Albert awaits the gallows for a senseless murder. And Sassoon gives the reader the truth of the violence in specific terms: "I tripp'd him up and kick'd his face in— / Bill blinked his eyes and gave a guggle, / And lay there stiff without a struggle." Even in his novels and memoirs of the thirties and forties Sassoon was reticent about sex, but here he brings it in. In prison Albert thinks "It's rotten here to lie and listen / To lovers in the twilight kissin'," a statement that adds sex while violating verisimilitude. Elsewhere he leaves to our imagination what "Talking garbage" and "a dirty yarn" denote. The coarseness of the physical descriptions and emphasis on the unpleasant plainly foreshadow the techniques of the war poems. He has Albert, for example, dwell upon physical decay, a preoccupation of the war poems: "Another month and I'll grow rotten / Like a dead dog…." And he describes the physical results of fear: "And all the guts inside my belly / Were shaking…." Finally, many other words like "sweatin'," "spittin'," "greasy-drunk," and "stinking" were chosen to suggest the physically repulsive.

Sassoon's social protest seems too sincere, too long and specific to be merely a perfunctory performance to satirize Masefield. These passages leave little doubt that Sassoon was even before the war concerned about the fate of the poor, the lowly, and especially the victimized—the elements of society being sacrificed much as, he would later feel, the young, the brave, and the poor were sacrificed and betrayed in the great war. His increasing sympathy for his peasant hero is probably responsible for the fact that what began as an amusing literary exercise became quite serious for the author. The cruel indifference and selfishness of the officials catch his ire: "The Judge's face will never soften; / The lawyers'll whisper about their fees / And pleecemen go home to their teas." And Albert, like his creator, is aware that he is being punished more for poverty than crime when he says "there's dirtier rogues than me, / Wearing broadcloth, walking free." Near the end of his narrative, Albert has a vision of social injustice so vast, so enormous that even the stars must wonder at it:

'They watch some beggar breaking stone
'For workhouse task, all skin and bone;
'They hear 'im bashing till he sickens
'Of grinding grit for some one's chickens.
'They see the King and Queen at Windsor,
'And hear the story that he spins 'er
'Of how he's been to pheasant-shoots
'With Jew-boy lords that lick his boots.

Obviously, then, it was not the war alone that gave the poet an awareness of the injustice and suffering that are not visited upon all classes equally and a compassion for those victimized.

"The Daffodil Murderer" is in itself an interesting poem, but its chief significance lies in its foreshadowing of the more powerful realism of the war poems and in the training for close observation that it provided the young poet. It certainly deserved better treatment than it received in its one review, a two-sentence notice in the anti-Crosland Athenaeum [February 22, 1913]: "This is a pointless and weak-kneed imitation of 'The Everlasting Mercy.' The only conclusion we obtain from its perusal is that it is easy to write worse than Mr. Masefield."

In the title poem of another pre-war poem, "The Old Huntsman," Sassoon continues to write in the tradition of Georgian realism, but this time with no hint of satire. Again, he chose for a narrator a plain man from the lower classes who reminisces over his life near its close. In this poem Sassoon has sharpened his eye for physical detail with the result that the poem has greater surface density and accuracy than his earlier poems. He has, moreover, managed to keep the descriptions in character, something he did not always do in "The Daffodil Murderer." The old huntsman's regretful sigh over what he will miss becomes poignant because of the dramatized details:

What a grand thing 'twould be if I could go
Back to the kennels now and take my hounds
For summer exercise, be riding out
With forty couple when the quiet skies
Are streaked with sunrise, and the silly birds
Grown hoarse with singing; cobwebs on the furze
Up on the hill, and all the country strange,
With no one stirring; and the horses fresh,
Sniffing the air I'll never breathe again.

And he remembers with pleasure the bloody violence of the hunt. At the end of a successful chase he pulls from the warren "a sharp-nosed cub-face blinking there and snapping, / Then in a moment seen him mobbed and torn / To strips in the baying hurly of the pack."

In "The Old Huntsman" Sassoon for the first time exhibits the antireligious bias of Georgian literary realism, although without the rancor he was to display in such bitter attacks against the church at war as "They." Religion lacks any relevance to the old huntsman who is more than content with the physical richness of the world he knows. "Religion beats me. I'm amazed at folk / Drinking the gospels in and never scratching / Their heads for questions." People at prayer seem to him "like children sucking sweets / In school…."

The realism of "The Old Huntsman," however mild it seems today, shocked many reviewers, who, with prissy sententiousness, guarded public morality. One critic concluded: "The title piece is a racy monologue by an old huntsman, full of grumbles and regrets, in quite good blank verse, with some unnecessary profanity" [The Atheneum, July, 1917]. Yet the nearest thing to profanity in the poem is "I'm but a daft old fool!" Racy, perhaps, but hardly profane.

Several other pre-war poems, especially "Morning Express," reveal Sassoon's early experimentation with some of the techniques of Georgian realism. Virginia Woolf, in a 1917 review of Sassoon's poems, saw how this poem foreshadowed the war poetry. She called it "a solid and in its way beautiful catalogue of facts" that indicated "an early vein of realism" which the war opened up [London Times Literary Supplement, May 31, 1917]. The poem's solidity of specification, its respect for the accurate detail, its unaffected simplicity of diction distinguish it from such innocuous poems as "Dryads" and "Arcady Unheeding." In these poems Sassoon was following the less robust aspect of the Georgian poetic practice that would come to stand, in the verse of poets like Turner and Squire, for the Georgian poetry in its entirety. Actually, "Morning Express" clearly exemplifies the continuing conflict in Sassoon's poetry between two aspects of Georgianism: romantic escapism versus realistic depiction. On the one hand he writes of "morn's long, slanting arrows" and "resplendent clouds / Of sun-blown vapour." On the other hand he makes the poem memorable with physically realized details:

Boys, indolent eyed, from baskets leaning back,
Question each face; a man with a hammer steals
Stooping from coach to coach; with clang and clack
Touches and tests, and listens to the wheels.

Sassoon, then, even before he had seen the horror of trench warfare had in his poetry a strong vein of realism that denotes a greater strength of mind than he is usually credited with. The theory that the dislocation accompanying his war experiences so profoundly shocked the young poet, given to mooning over rural felicities, that he became a realist to expóse the full horror of war to a complacent home front must be abandoned. Such a theory neglects the toughness inherent in the Georgian revolt against Victorianism and fin de siècle romanticism. Rather, Sassoon approached his war experiences with all the poetic techniques that he displayed in the war poetry of Counter-Attack. That the shock of war matured him quickly as a man and as a poet cannot be denied. Yet, contrary to expectations, Sassoon's first poetry on the war was a casting back, a rejection of Georgian realism, in order either to forget the war with escapist verse or to hide his real doubts behind noble lines.

At first, even at the front, poetry was for Sassoon an escape into a more pleasant world rather than a means to comprehend and convey the world he was caught up in. In "The Daffodil Murderer" and "The Old Huntsman" he had tried to come to terms with the real world as he saw it, but that was before reality meant a landscape strewn with mutilated, decaying bodies where instant death fell haphazardly from random shells. He sought picturesqueness rather than honesty. "How I long to be a painter," he wrote to Marsh at the Ministry of Munitions, "everything out here is simply asking to be painted or etched; it is wildly picturesque" [quoted by Hassall in Edward Marsh]. As late as 1916 he wrote "To Victory," in which he turned his back on the first tenet of Georgian realism, to depict outward reality honestly and brutally. Here he seems to dislike war on the grounds that it is aesthetically distasteful:

Return to greet me, colours that were my joy,
Not in the woeful crimson of men slain,
But shining as a garden; come with the streaming
Banners of dawn and sundown after rain.

At this same time, Sassoon when criticizing Over the Brazier explained to Robert Graves that the war should not be written about realistically. In Goodbye to All That Graves gives his answer: "Siegfried had not yet been in the trenches. I told him, in my old-soldier manner, that he would soon change his style." Graves was right, but, given the poetic techniques which Sassoon brought to the war, the change was a long time coming. Soon the war invalidated lines like:

I am not sad; only I long for lustre.
I am tired of the greys and browns and the leafless ash.
I would have hours that move like a glitter of dancers.
Far from the angry guns that boom and flash.

The observation here is as false as the sentiment. Sassoon explained to Marsh: "I put 'angry guns that boom and flash' in my poem, but really they flash and thud—the flash comes first, and they only boom when very near and in some valley" [as quoted in Edward Marsh].

"France" falsifies the emotions of men at war with its idea that the British soldiers are fortunate to die for the lovely landscapes of France.

And they are fortunate, who fight
For gleaming landscapes swept and shafted
And crowned by cloud pavilions white.
Hearing such harmonies as might
Only from Heaven be downward wafted—
Voices of victory and delight.

In a few months Sassoon was to say no in thunder to the idea that God was on the British side. But in "Absolution" he communes with the spirit of Rupert Brooke rather than looking closely at the scenes and soldiers around him.

The anguish of the earth absolves our eyes
Till beauty shines in all that we see
War is our scourge; yet war has made us wise.
And fighting for our freedom, we are free.

After the war Sassoon was not proud of this poem [as he stated in Siegfried's Journey]: "The significance of my too nobly worded lines was that they expressed the typical self-glorifying feelings of a young man about to go to the Front for the first time. The poem subsequently found favour with middle-aged reviewers, but the more I saw of the war, the less noble-minded I felt about it." In 1920 he refused to allow it to be reprinted in an anthology on the grounds that it was completely false in its emotion.

The picturesque and the noble, Sassoon's first reactions in poetry to the war, were not a promising beginning for one who shortly was to become the most powerful voice in poetry to describe and denounce the war. In the war poems that gave him this reputation his poetic technique is merely an extension and development of the techniques of Georgian realism: accurate physical descriptions with an emphasis on the ugly and distasteful: colloquial speech and diction; coarseness, brutality, and directness; an antireligious bias; and a concern for social justice.

Sassoon became indignant at the exploitation of the young and the poor. The bloated generals, the crafty politicians yelling for German blood, the safe journalists, the indifferent civilians—all cruelly victimize the soldier. The majority of his war poems thus derive from the social concern he had already manifested in "The Daffodil Murderer" and "The Old Huntsman." Compassion for the lot of the victims alternates with fury at the exploiters. In "The Redeemer," Sassoon, like Owen in "Greater Love," finds the patient, passive suffering of the English foot soldier similar to Christ's agony. "I saw that He was Christ," wearing "a mask / Of mortal pain in Hell's unholy shine." "A Working Party" begins with a sketch of the confusion of soldiers repairing the trenches at night under fire. The narrator then poignantly focuses upon one soldier.

He was a young man with a meagre wife
And two small children in a Midland town;
He showed their photographs to all his mates,
And they considered him a decent chap
Who did his work and hadn't much to say,
And always laughed at other people's jokes
Because he hadn't any of his own.

He pushed another bag along the top,
Craning his body outward; then a flare
Gave one white glimpse of No Man's Land and wire;
And as he dropped his head the instant split
His startled life with lead, and all went out.

The war, then, strengthened Sassoon's pity for the lowly, and it increased his indignation at those who did not share his concern. In "Blighters" he dreams of directing a tank at those to whom the war was a joke: "And there'd be no more jokes in Music halls / To mock the riddled corpses round Bapaume." In "Base Details," a clever parody of Stevenson's children's poetry, he directs his outrage at the comfortable generals:

If I were fierce, and bald, and short of breath
I'd live with scarlet Majors at the Base,
And speed glum heroes up the line to death….
And when the war is done and youth stone dead
I'd toddle safely home and die—in bed.

Sassoon's renditions of the landscape of war are unforgettable. In his pre-war verse he had accurately described the English countryside and, occasionally, even focused on the ugly and distasteful. His main objective now became the destruction of romantic idealizations of war, such as Housman's "I Did Not Lose My Heart," by picking the right detail to bring home the ugly reality of war. Like the Georgian realists he set out to shock received opinions and to rebel against the poetry of the past. "Counter-Attack" grimly catalogs physical horrors:

The place was rotten with dead; green clumsy legs
High-booted, sprawled and grovelled along the saps
And trunks, face downward, in the sucking mud,
Wallowed like trodden sand bogs loosely filled;
And naked sodden buttocks, mats of hair,
Bulged, clotted heads slept in the plastering slime.

Winston Churchill so admired this poem that he memorized it, seeing it, not as a protest against war, but as a means of increasing the war effort because it showed what the English soldiers endured. Other poems like "Break of Day" stress the destruction of the spirit by the horror of war, "where men are crushed like clods, and crawl to find / Some crater for their wretchedness," by contrast with the remembered scenes of rural England: "Beyond the brambled fences … / Are glimmering fields with harvest piled in sheaves, / And treetops dark against the stars grown pale; / Then, clear and shrill, a distant farm-cock crows."

During the war Sassoon used realism to shock the home front out of their easy complacence by making them see the ugly truth. To show the cruel falseness of the romantic glorification of the soldier's attitude, Sassoon in a large number of poems set out to demolish this heroic myth by describing the anti-heroic truth. In "The Hero" a brother officer reports to the bereaved mother that Jack died "as he'd have wished." She replies, "We mothers are so proud / Of our dead soldiers!" But the truth is not so comforting:

He thought how 'Jack,' cold-footed, useless swine,
Had panicked down the trench that night the mine
Went up at Wicked Corner; how he'd tried
To get sent home, and how, at last he died,
Blown to small bits.

The subject of men at war obviously provided an opportunity for further development of the coarseness Sassoon had somewhat tentatively experimented with in "The Daffodil Murderer." His language is now bolder. "Bloody" has become more frequent, and he freely uses curses like "O Christ Almighty" and "O Jesus," expressions not found in his pre-war poetry. The prevailing tone, like the language, is colloquial, as in "To Any Dead Officer," a farewell to a friend recently killed. "Goodbye, old lad! Remember me to God…." He concludes, "Cheero! / I wish they'd killed you in a decent show." But his boldest breach of decorum consists of the use of "syphilitic" in "They. Sassoon thought this was his "most publicly effective poem," the one most singled out for attack. In Siegfried's Journey Sassoon, still an unrepentant Georgian realist, took pleasure in the fact that he was the first to bring "syphilitic" into "the realms of English verse."

In 1945 Sassoon with characteristic modesty summed up his poetic influence on Wilfred Owen: "My only claimable influence was that I stimulated him towards writing with compassionate and challenging realism" [Siegfried's Journey]. "Compassionate and challenging realism" well describes Sassoon's own poetic technique in his war poetry, but it can also be applied to the best of his pre-war verse. John H. Johnston has pointed out in a recent study [English Poets of the First World War, 1964] that the poems of Counter-Attack "constitute the first real attempt to present the truth of the war, and the effect of his break with the conventions and traditions of earlier war poetry can hardly be overestimated." If Sassoon did tell more of the truth of war than did his predecessors, part of the credit must go to the tradition of realism, the most vital part of the Georgian poetic, out of which came some of the most powerful war poetry ever written.

Arthur E. Lane (essay date 1972)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9681

SOURCE: "Coming of Age in the Trenches: Siegfried Sassoon," in his An Adequate Response: The War Poetry of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, Wayne State University Press, 1972, pp. 86-120.

[Lane is an American poet and professor of English literature. In the following analysis, he upholds the validity of much of Sassoon's war poetry, citing the poet's "deceptively simple immediacy" and his direct, nonmetaphoric use of imagery.]

[Sassoon's] prewar poetry, like the war poetry he wrote before his experience in the trenches, gives no indication of the corrosive vitality which was to characterize his poetry of the years 1916 to 1918—a vitality as much of the man as of the poet, and which occasioned a remarkable letter from a younger poet whom Sassoon met in Craiglockhart War Hospital in 1917:

Know that since mid-September, when you still regarded me as a tiresome little knocker on your door, I held you as Keats + Christ + Elijah + my Colonel + my father-confessor + Amenophis IV in profile. What's that mathematically? … If you consider what the above names have severally done for me, you will know what you are doing. And you have fixed my Life—however short. You did not light me: I was always a mad comet; but you have fixed me. I spun round you a satellite for a month, but I shall swing out soon, a dark star in the orbit where you will blaze [quoted by Robert H. Ross in The Georgian Revolt, 1910-1922, 1965].

So wrote Wilfred Owen. Yet Sassoon's first major volume of verse, The Old Huntsman and Other Poems, published in May 1917, though it was dedicated to Thomas Hardy, was a strangely uneven collection, containing seventy-two poems which ranged from his earliest weekendin-the-country Georgianisms to such accomplished pieces as "The Redeemer," "A Working Party," and "They." "Nimrod in September" may serve as an example of the poetry Sassoon was to leave behind:

When half the drowsy world's a-bed
And misty morning rises red,
With jollity of horn and lusty cheer,
Young Nimrod urges on his dwindling rout;
Along the yellowing coverts we can hear
His horse's hoofs thud hither and about:
In mulberry coat he rides and makes
Huge clamour in the sultry brakes.

It is far from being "bad" poetry; as a matter of fact, it is superior to the early (pre-trench) war poetry also included in the volume … [These poems include "Absolution," "To My Brother," "France," and "The Dragon and the Undying,"] which, in their adjectival use of nature and their abstract use of human experience, bear a strong similarity to [English poet Rupert] Brooke's war poems. Sentiment and style are academically correct; there is nothing to distinguish these productions from those of the many other Georgian poets who went willingly to their desks at the outbreak of this distant war. The terminal stanza of "The Dragon and the Undying" is typical:

Yet, though the slain are homeless as the breeze,
Vocal are they, like storm-bewilder'd seas.
Their faces are the fair, unshrouded night,
And planets are their eyes, their ageless dreams.
Tenderly stooping earthward from their height,
They wander in the dusk with chanting streams,
And they are dawn-lit trees, with arms up-flung,
To hail the burning heavens they left unsung.

It is necessary to keep in mind that, for the duration of the war, the prevalent home front images of "the slain" were on the order of "fair, unshrouded night" and "dawn-lit trees," even when Sassoon, having seen the slain for himself, offered conflicting testimony [in the poem "Counter Attack"]:

The place was rotten with dead; green clumsy legs
High-booted, sprawled and grovelled along the saps
And trunks, face downward, in the sucking mud,
Wallowed like trodden sand-bags loosely filled;
And naked sodden buttocks, mats of hair,
Bulged, clotted heads slept in the plastering slime.

To quote from "Counter-Attack" is to anticipate somewhat, but the title indicates a poetic challenge as well as a poetic subject. The anthologies of war poetry which flooded the market during and after the war years were, with some exceptions, stocked with pious and patriotic verse of the most fanciful kind. To ignore the existence of such verse was one possibility; both Sassoon and Owen were angrily democratic enough to challenge it for the public ear.

In 1915, however, Sassoon was a talent going to waste; had there been no war, he might never have been wrenched from his easygoing bucolics. But there was a war, and it became the milieu within which Sassoon the poet found his voice. The man who, in 1915, had said "fighting for our freedom, we are free" [in the poem "Absolution"] had seen through his own glib phrases as well as those of" his leaders when he risked his life in 1917 with the following statement [to his army superiors, quoted in Sassoon's Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, 1930]:

I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority, because I believe that the War is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it. I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that this War, upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation, has now become a war of aggression and conquest. I believe that the purposes for which I and my fellow soldiers entered upon this War should have been so clearly stated as to have made it impossible to change them, and that, had this been done, the objects which actuated us would now be attainable by negotiation. I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops, and I can no longer be a party to prolong these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust. I am not protesting against the conduct of the War, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed. On behalf of those who are suffering now I make this protest against the deception which is being practised on them; also I believe that I may help to destroy the callous complacency with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share, and which they have not sufficient imagination to realize.

What lay between Sassoon the fox-hunting Georgian and Sassoon the polemicist and satirist was one inescapable fact: the experience of war. He maintained his innocence up to the last moment. In November 1915, Robert Graves, visiting the 'C Company mess of the First Battalion, Royal Welch Fusiliers, found The Essays of Lionel Johnson on the table: "It was the first book I had seen in France (except my own Keats and Blake) that was neither a military text-book nor a rubbishy novel." Curious, he checked the flyleaf and found the name Siegfried Sassoon.

Then I looked around to see who could possibly be called Siegfried Sassoon and bring Lionel Johnson with him to the First Battalion. The answer being obvious, I got into conversation with him, and a few minutes later we set out for Béthune, being off duty until dusk, and talked about poetry.

Siegfried Sassoon had, at the time, published only a few privately-printed pastoral pieces of eighteenninetyish flavour, and a satire on Masefield which, half-way through, had forgotten to be a satire and turned into rather good Masefield. We went to the cake shop and ate cream buns. At this time I was getting my first book of poems, Over the Brazier, ready for the press; I had one or two drafts in my pocketbook and showed them to Siegfried. He frowned and said that war should not be written about in such a realistic way. In return, he showed me some of his own poems. One of them began:


Return to greet me, colours that were my joy,
Not in the woeful crimson of men slain …


Siegfried had not yet been in the trenches. I told him, in my old-soldier manner, that he would soon change his style. [Graves in his Goodbye to All That, rev. ed., 1957, italics added by Lane.]

Sassoon was to change more than his literary style; the experience forced upon him by the war changed his social and political allegiances. The easygoing young man of letters who had gone to Marlborough and ridden with the Cheshire Hunt would, after the war, be found campaigning in the industrial north of England for Philip Snowden, candidate of the Independent Labour Party, the man who was to become the first socialist viscount in British history.

Sassoon's transformation has been thoroughly described in two engaging autobiographical trilogies: The Memoirs of George Sherston, which includes Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man, Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, and Sherston's Progress; and a companion set comprising The Weald of Youth, The Old Century and Seven More Years, and Siegfried's Journey. In the former, Sassoon is George Sherston, a diffident recorder who continually subordinates himself and his opinions to the larger events and personalities which helped shape his saga. The Memoirs of George Sherston is in no way fictional, unless one balks at the use of pseudonyms such as Thornton Tyrrell (for Bertrand Russell) and David Cromlech (for Robert Graves). Sassoon's continual self-effacement perhaps makes for some distortion—but a self-effacing autobiography is no slight achievement, and a satisfactory proof of its factual accuracy may be found in the other trilogy where, to avoid unnecessary duplication, Sassoon will on occasion refer the reader back to the Memoirs.

One cannot overemphasize the value of Sassoon's dual memoirs. Along with Graves's Goodbye to All That and Blunden's Undertones of War, they are our best prose record of a poet's personal involvement in the Great War—all the more valuable for their having been written after the event, when the creation of an adequate narrative was possible. In a limited way, such accounts fulfill the role once played by the epic: they take in a wide social view which provides perspective and background for the action, and the action is developed along historical, sequential patterns. Furthermore, they supply a unique kind of validation for the kind of poetry which Sassoon and Owen had written from within the war. Sassoon has provided copious autobiographical material as a context for his poems—and even for some of Owen's. Whereas from Owen we have only his surviving letters, from Sassoon we have information of this nature:

While learning to be a second-lieutenant I was unable to write anything at all, with the exception of a short poem called "Absolution," manifestly influenced by Rupert Brooke's famous sonnet-sequence. The significance of my too nobly worded lines was that they expressed the typical self-glorifying feelings of a young man about to go to the Front for the first time. The poem subsequently found favour with middle-aged reviewers, but the more I saw of the war the less nobleminded I felt about it. This gradual process began, in the first months of 1916, with a few genuine trench poems, dictated by my resolve to record my surroundings, and usually based on the notes I was making whenever I could do so with detachment. These poems aimed at impersonal description of front-line conditions, and could at least claim to be the first things of their kind. The only one which anticipated my later successes in condensed satire was "Good Friday Morning" [full title, "Stand-to: Good Friday Morning"], a jaunty scrap of doggerel versified from a rough note in my diary. Here I broke into realism by introducting my Muse to the word "frowst." Six years later, the reprinting of these lines in a New Zealand Socialist paper caused the editor to be prosecuted for blasphemous libel. After several days of lawcourt proceedings the editor was discharged—the jury adding a rider "that similar publications of such literature be discouraged." Nevertheless it summarized the feelings of thousands of other platoon commanders, and I consider it one of the most effective of my war productions. [Siegfried's Journey]

Sassoon's wartime change to what he calls "realism" in poetry is the subject of the poem "Conscripts." His pastoral romanticism, dependent on an idea of what poetry ought to be, rather than on observed reality, fails him when he is confronted with a world which has not evolved in the modes of pastoral prettiness. "Conscripts" allegorizes his stock of poetic responses in terms of military reality; these are stanzas 1 and 4:

"Fall in, that awkward squad, and strike no more
Attractive attitudes! Dress by the right!
The luminous rich colours that you wore
Have changed to hueless khaki in the night.
Magic? What's magic got to do with you?
There's no such thing! Blood's red, and skies are blue."

…..

Their training done, I shipped them all to France,
Where most of those I'd loved too well got killed.
Rapture and pale Enchantment and Romance,
And many a sickly, slender lord who'd filled
My soul long since with lutanies of sin,
Went home, because they couldn't stand the din.

Incidentally, the poem may itself provide an example of the dangers of poetic abstraction—or at least the dangers of not knowing when a poem is using figurative imagery. Perhaps remembering the embarrassments of the nineties, Sir Edmund Gosse objected strenuously to the fourth stanza of "Conscripts," particularly to its last three lines. Robert Graves, maintaining a straight face, records that Gosse considered that the lines "might be read as a libel on the British House of Lords. The peerage, he said, was proving itself splendidly heroic in the war."

By November 1915, Sassoon had completed his training as an infantry officer at Litherland, near Liverpool, and was sent to the western front. As "Conscripts" and Robert Graves indicate, he took his myths with him; but he lost them swiftly, and set about to disabuse an audience which was eventually to include Winston Churchill. Whether Churchill was disabused—or could have been disabused—is a moot point; when he talked to Sassoon in 1918, his intention seems to have been that of enlightening the younger man:

Pacing the room, with a big cigar in the corner of his mouth, he gave me an emphatic vindication of militarism as an instrument of policy and stimulator of glorious individual achievements, not only in the mechanism of warfare but in spheres of social progress. The present war, he asserted, had brought about inventive discoveries which would ameliorate the condition of mankind. For example, there had been immense im-provements in sanitation. Transfixed and submissive in my chair, I realized that what had begun as a persuasive confutation of my anti-war convictions was now addressed, in pauseful and perorating prose, to no one in particular. [Sassoon, in Siefried's Journey.]

Sassoon, understandably enough, avoided debate. Like Owen, he had come to realize that there were no easy solutions to the vexing problem of a war in progress. "Had I been capable of disputing with him," he concludes, "I might have well quoted four lines from The Dynasts:

I have beheld the agonies of war
Through many a weary season; seen enough
To make me hold that scarcely any goal
Is worth the reaching by so red a road."

"Conscripts" is a convenient poetic marker. From this point on, Sassoon's own initiation into "the agonies of war," his poems will fall into two main categories: war poems of dramatic realism like "The Hero" and the more purely satirical war poems like "Base Details." There is a third category, the distortion of which results in the sharpness of the satirical poems; this is the lyric response, more basic to Sassoon than would seem evident from a first examination of his work during 1916-1918. But it is without doubt Sassoon who wrote the one pure lyric to result from the experience of war; a war lyric justified because it was born not in ignorance of pain, but in release from pain. "Everyone Sang" is a poem whose joyful transcendence has been won at the cost of blood and anguish. It breaks loose from the viciousness and filth of an exhausted war as a symbol of what Sassoon, more than twenty-five years later [as he wrote in Siegfried's Journey], felt to be his final attitude towards man's self-degradation: "The only effective answer that a poet can make to barbarism is poetry, for the only answer to death is the life of the spirit."

Despite his moral reservations about the war, Sassoon performed well as an infantry officer. He earned the nickname "Mad Jack" for his soldierly exploits, at one point single-handedly attacking an entire German trench. He was awarded the Military Cross and recommended for the Distinguished Service Order—but in 1917, in disgust and despair, he threw away his decoration:

Wandering along the sand dunes I felt outlawed, bitter, and baited. I wanted something to smash and trample on, and in a paroxysm of exasperation I performed the time-honoured gesture of shaking my clenched fists at the sky. Feeling no better for that, I ripped the M.C. ribbon off my tunic and threw it into the mouth of the Mersey. Weighted with significance though this action was, it would have felt more conclusive had the ribbon been heavier. As it was, the poor little thing fell weakly onto the water and floated away as though aware of its own futility. …

Watching a big boat which was steaming along the horizon, I realized that protesting against the prolongation of the War was about as much use as shouting at the people on board that ship. [Siegfried's Journey]

But Sassoon's poetry, while it frequently makes just such a doomed appeal, is manifestly more than that. The eight lines of "The Dug-Out," for example, succeed in conveying, despite their moderate tone, the unutterable horror of a world where nerves and imagination have been so swamped by death that the speaker can no longer bear the sight of a fellow soldier asleep:

Why do you lie with your legs ungainly huddled,
And one arm bent across your sullen, cold,
Exhausted face? It hurts my heart to watch you,
Deep-shadow'd from the candle's guttering gold;
And you wonder why I shake you by the shoulder;
Drowsy, you mumble and sigh and turn your head …
You are too young to fall asleep for ever;
And when you sleep you remind me of the dead.

By asking a question which, in any other context, would seem superfluous, Sassoon draws attention to the uniquely alien nature of this particular context—a world where death is more common than sleep.

"The Dug-Out" is an example of those poems which achieve their effect through pictorial nonmetaphoric imagery. All of the images are nonfigurative (with the possible exception of "candle's guttering gold"); the poem itself becomes the vehicle which uses connotation to indicate what is only made explicit in the tonally separated concluding two lines. In a sense, these last two lines are a gloss on what precedes them—the poem providing an exegesis of its own metaphoric process—but the poem remains simple, direct, and immensely suggestive, communicating immediately the agonized disorientation of life in the trenches.

It is this quality of immediacy, sometimes deceptively simple immediacy, which is Sassoon's chief poetic virtue. One need only compare "The Dug-Out" with Owen's "Exposure" to see that, though Owen exhibits a more sophisticated grasp of figurative language, Sassoon is more successful in conveying the mood, common to both poems, of sanity only barely maintained. Although Sassoon's war poems often lack what is conventionally understood as metaphor, they retain a high degree of symbolic value; "The Dug-Out" is a perfect example of the Coleridgean use of symbol "not as a sign that stands for something other than itself but as a living part or instance in the larger reality it manifests" [as David Perkins writes in English Romantic Writers, 1967]. The speaker in the poem demonstrates in the final two lines his own awareness of the symbolic significance of what at first seems to be little more than an everyday scene: a man asleep. This stated awareness is necessary in disclosing to the reader the effect of environment on perception; without the two italicized lines the reader would not have the shock of reinterpreting the preceding six, of learning to assimilate the pictorial image in terms of war experience. By turning in on itself, by explicitly indicating the interpretation of its own dominant image, the poem creates the requisite contrast with the "normal" world—a world where the dead are usually described as sleeping.

The problem of communicating the abnormality of life and death at the front to those who, if not directly responsible, at least concurred in the prosecution of the war became a potent stimulus. Sassoon's poetry achieved a hardness and vigor untypical of his earlier or later work. Bernard Bergonzi observes [in Heroes' Twilight, 1965] that after 1916 Sassoon "was increasingly dominated by the desire to use poetry as a means of forcibly impressing on the civilian world some notion of the realities of front-line life."

The "civilian world" was not a world which inspired admiration, especially in soldiers home as invalids or on leave. "Shameless madness" was how Robert Graves described the atmosphere of England in 1917; Reginald Farrar, a correspondent who saw the war on three fronts, wrote home from Flanders:

To find the real England you have to come to France: and there is something almost frightening and painful about the sudden intensity of the blaze in which it bursts upon you out here. England, at home, has had a difficult, unhappy atmosphere to judge in this past year. … It all seemed restless and feverish, passing greedily from the gush of war correspondents to Ephesia banners posturing perpetually for some new "Charity" or other, in some new form of frill. [The Void of War, 1918]

The "two Englands" concept was a commonplace among soldiers; most of them seem to have felt out of place when on leave in the homeland they had so recently left. Wilfred Owen, writing of wounded soldiers hospitalized in England, parenthetically observed [in "Smile, Smile, Smile"]:

And even the usually sanguine Grenfell had written home in 1915:

I am glad not to be in England now. What a sad disgraceful, unennobled, burglarious huckster among nations we are; and we are not doing much out here to right it, whether because we cannot or because they won't let us, the Lord knows, but one suspects the latter; but at least we are cheerful and willing … [as quoted in War Letters, ed. by Houseman].

Recuperating from wounds in England in early 1917, Sassoon was infuriated by the complacent patriotism only a few hundred miles from the daily slaughter of the front line. Just before he returned to the front, he went to a music-hall revue at the Hippodrome in Liverpool; the blatant jingoism and tastelessness of the performance, and his typical soldier's reaction to it, are memorialized in "Blighters":

The House is crammed: tier beyond tier they grin
And cackle at the Show, while prancing ranks
Of harlots shrill the chorus, drunk with din;
"We're sure the Kaiser loves our dear old Tanks!"

I'd like to see a Tank come down the stalls,
Lurching to rag-time tunes, or "Home, sweet Home,"
And there'd be no more jokes in Music-halls
To mock the riddled corpses round Bapaume.

"Perhaps I was intolerant," he comments in Siegfried's Journey, "but I found a good many people—Thomas Hardy among them—who agreed with me. Anyhow it was my farewell to England, and as such it was the sort of thing I particularly wanted to say." While "Blighters" is hardly a profound poetic comment on the gap between home front ignorance and the horrors of war, it does show Sassoon's typical contrastive technique: the manifest function of the tank juxtaposed with the bawdy, gay atmosphere of the music hall. The poet who had written so confidently and so recently about such abstract concepts as "sacrifice," "death," and "the slain" was by now aware that visceral reality was ill-served by either abstract metaphor or patriotic obscurantism.

But angry satire is not, in itself, sufficient. The more complex poems, though they do not deny the satirical truth of "Blighters," indicate the moral difficulties involved in bridging the gap between the two fronts. "Remorse," for example, is bluntly realistic, but with significant reservations:

Lost in the swamp and welter of the pit,
He flounders off the duck-boards; only he knows
Each flash and spouting crash,—each instant lit
When gloom reveals the streaming rain. He goes
Heavily, blindly on. And, while he blunders,
"Could anything be worse than this?"—he wonders,
Remembering how he saw those Germans run,
Screaming for mercy among the stumps of trees:
Green-faced, they dodged and darted: there was one
Livid with terror, clutching at his knees …
Our chaps were sticking'em like pigs … "O hell!"
He thought—"there's things in war one dare not tell
Poor father sitting safe at home, who reads
Of dying heroes and their deathless deeds."

Given these reservations, the satirical tone of "The Fathers" takes on additional overtones of pathos:

It would be wrong to excuse the senile pugnacity of such unattractive prototypes. But even reasonable people had little concrete information with which to form an intelligent estimate of what was going on in the war. Sassoon was acutely aware of the problem. On sick leave in England, he spent a day with his uncle Hamo Thornycroft, the sculptor, and Mr. Horniman, a retired member of Parliament. The incongruity of his two roles that day—the conscience-troubled infantry officer and the politely patriotic visitor to a world of Chinese lacquer screens and waterclocks made in 1635—left him in perplexity:

How had Uncle Hamo and Mr. Horniman managed, I wondered, to make the war seem so different from what it really was? It wasn't possible to imagine oneself even hinting to them, that the Somme Battle was—to put it mildly—an inhuman and beastly business. One had to behave nicely about it to them, keeping up a polite pretence that to have taken part in it was a glorious and acceptable adventure. They must know what it was costing in lives of course; the casualty lists had told them that. But when Uncle Hamo's well-meant remark had reminded me of our battalion raid in the Fricourt sector I had felt that no explanation of mine could ever reach my elders—that they weren't capable of wanting to know the truth. Their attitude was to insist that it was splendid to be in the frontline. So it was—if one came out of it safely. But I resented their patriotic suppression of those aspects of war which never got into the newspapers. [Siegfried's Journey]

The directness which, for personal reasons, Sassoon could not achieve in talking to people he loved and respected is accomplished in the war poetry by a variety of means. He avoids the polite abstractions of his earlier poetry, uses colloquial language, and frequently resorts to a persona who presents, as direct experience, the soldier's point of view. In some cases, it is useful to regard the poem as a

self-contained dramatic piece, with its chief effect—pathos or irony, as the case may be—brought about as much by the dramatic situation as by the imagery. This technique, characteristic of Hardy's Satires of Circumstance, can be seen in "The Hero," where a difficult moral confrontation is sketched with great economy:

"Jack fell as he'd have wished," the Mother said,
And folded up the letter that she'd read.
"The Colonel writes so nicely." Something broke
In the tired voice that quavered to a choke.
She half looked up. "We mothers are so proud
Of our dead soldiers." Then her face was bowed.

Quietly the Brother Officer went out.
He'd told the poor old dear some gallant lies
That she would nourish all her days, no doubt.
For while he coughed and mumbled, her weak eyes
Had shone with gentle triumph, brimmed with joy,
Because he'd been so brave, her glorious boy.

He thought how "Jack," cold-footed, useless swine,
Had panicked down the trench that night the mine
Went up at Wicked Corner; how he'd tried
To get sent home, and how, at last, he died,
Blown to small bits. And no one seemed to care
Except that lonely woman with white hair.

As in the best of Hardy's satires, the "point" lies below the dramatic surface, or plot, of the poem. The Brother Officer's disgust is evident in his thought, "how 'Jack,' cold-footed, useless swine, / Had panicked down the trench that night …"; but his overriding impression (and ours) is of the pathos of the scene being played out: "And no one seemed to care / Except that lonely woman with white hair." Yet behind the poem, and implied by it, is the knowledge that, in contributing to the fiction of the "hero's" death, the officer is helping to distort the realities of war and of what the war has done to Jack. The deception seems called for in this particular case—but every soldier's death is a particular case; and though there is no suggestion that the sordid facts of Jack's ignobility be presented to his mother, the conundrum is plain: it is common decency itself which, on the personal level, helps to maintain a state of ignorance on the home front.

Both "The Hero" and "The Dug-Out" demonstrate Sassoon's mature use of nonmetaphoric imagery. Though one is dramatic and the other pictorial, neither is simply anecdotal; each develops the metaphoric possibilities of a factually presented situation which comes to mean "beyond the facts" because of the insight with which it is presented. The technique, learned at least partly from Masefield and Hardy, is well suited to the difficult task of rendering what Edmund Blunden called the "undertones of war" [the phrase he used for the title of his book of war memoirs, 1929], a subject which has been poorly served by those poets given to metaphoric abstraction.

For such versifiers, the war seems to have presented no unusual challenge. Poetry for them was "Poetry," sentiment both decorous and decorative. When, therefore, at the call of history, they turned from expressing private passion to articulating the concern of a nation at war, they wrote on with easy confidence. The newspaper "Poetry Corner" became hortatory in tone, an editorial page with rhyme and metrical rhythm. Unfortunately, none of the ubiquitous "public voice" poets, so sincerely attempting to express the "soul of the community," had the talent or vision of a Tennyson; and in any case, the Victorian Age had passed….

[A] touching example of home front war verse is Katherine Hale's "Grey Knitting." The poem was popular, appeared in anthologies, and is quite irrelevant to the war that was being fought; this—coupled with its symptomatic use of abstraction—is its importance. The seriousness of the reality Miss Hale so pathetically abuses is, I think, evident in Sassoon's "Attack." A useful start at discriminating between the two modes of dealing with experience is to consider the radically different roles the respective poets assign to Jesus Christ:

     Grey Knitting

Something sings gently through the din of battle,
Something spreads very softly rim on rim.
And every soldier hears, at times, a murmur
Tender, incessant,—dim.


A tiny click of little wooden needles,
Elfin amid the gianthood of war;
Whispers of women, tireless and patient,
Who weave the web afar.

Whispers of women, tireless and patient,
"This is our heart's love," it would seem to say,
"Wrought with the ancient tools of our vocation,
Weave we the web of love from day to day."

And so each soldier, laughing, fighting,—dying
Under the alien skies, in his great hour,
May listen, in death's prescience all-enfolding,
And hear a fairy sound bloom like a flower—

I like to think that soldiers, gaily dying
For the white Christ on fields with shame sown deep,
May hear the tender song of women's needles,
As they fall fast asleep.


     Attack

At dawn the ridge emerges massed and dun
In the wild purple of the glow'ring sun,
Smouldering through spouts of drifting smoke that shroud
The menacing scarred slope; and, one by one,
Tanks creep and topple forward to the wire.
The barrage roars and lifts. Then, clumsily bowed
With bombs and guns and shovels and battle-gear,
Men jostle and climb to meet the bristling fire.
Lines of grey, muttering faces, masked with fear,
They leave their trenches, going over the top,
While time ticks blank and busy on their wrists,
And hope, with furtive eyes and grappling fists,
Flounders in mud. O Jesus, make it stop!

"Grey Knitting," unfortunately, was typical of home front sentimentality—the wishful and false view of war that Sassoon and Owen strove to counteract with their own poetry.

Their art becomes thereby didactic writing, a fact they both acknowledged, but it remains art. Their insistence on public acceptance of the facts of war—an acceptance made difficult in England by heavy military censorship and the compliance of a jingoist press, to say nothing of the popular poets whose art favored metaphor at the expense of reality—was not new in English poetry. Thomas Hardy, whose observations of the darker side of things had caused him to be dismissed as a perssimist, was their precursor in both honesty and—in Sassoon's case—artistic technique. Hardy's credo, from "In Tenebris, II," that "if way to the Better there be, it exacts a full look at the Worst" could be taken as the foreword to the war poems of both poets. And D. H. Lawrence, another writer who had learned much of his art from Hardy, observed in 1916 [in a letter to Catharine Carswell published in Crisis in English Poetry, 1880-1940 by Vivian de Sola Pinto, 1958]:

The essence of poetry with us in this age of stark and unlovely actualities is a stark directness, without a shadow of a lie, or a shadow of deflection anywhere. Everything can go, but this stark, bare, rocky directness of statement, this alone makes poetry, to-day.

"Directness of statement" in poetry implies a largely nonmetaphorical use of imagery. Of some aesthetic significance is the power that such a nonfigurative context can impart to a single well-placed metonymic image. Here, for example, is the last half of "A Working Party":

Three hours ago he stumbled up the trench;
Now he will never walk that road again:
He must be carried back, a jolting lump
Beyond all need of tenderness and care.

He was a young man with a meagre wife
And two small children in a Midland town;
He showed their photographs to all his mates,
And they considered him a decent chap
Who did his work and hadn't much to say,
And always laughed at other people's jokes
Because he hadn't any of his own.

That night when he was busy at his job
Of piling bags along the parapet,
He thought how slow time went, stamping his feet
And blowing on his fingers, pinched with cold.
He thought of getting back by half-past twelve,
And tot of rum to send him warm to sleep
In draughty dug-out frowsty with the fumes
Of coke, and full of snoring weary men.

He pushed another bag along the top,
Craning his body outward; then a flare
Gave one white glimpse of No Man's Land and wire;
And as he dropped his head the instant split
His startled life with lead, and all went out.

The moment of the soldier's death is shifted only slightly from the mundane routine by the use of "instant" in the penultimate line; the shift, however, is sufficient to indicate a qualitative difference. With such typical economy in the use of figurative language, Sassoon restores to it something of the force it originally had; when he gives it free rein in "Everyone Sang," the impression is almost that of a totally new discovery.

Since his prewar background had been leisured and pleasant, Sassoon was all the more alert to the contrasts provided by the conditions of life at the front. Where Owen's compassion was Christian and undifferentiated, the older poet was more likely to particularize; "Dreamers," for example, uses the human paraphernalia of civilized life to nice ironic effect:

There is the dramatist's mode of achieving effect through character and setting (in such poems as "The Hero") and the way he names protagonists:

The contrast between the soldier as a civilized human being and his environment of mechanized savagery provides Sassoon with much material for irony. Equally pertinent is the contrast between the soldier facing the fact of death and the noncombatant safely at home with only the idea of death. "How to Die," for example, is more parody than satire—but it is a parody grimly underpinned with reality:

Sassoon's skepticism about the relevance of such abstractions as "glory," "holy brightness," and the other loosely metaphorical expressions which characterize the work of his lesser contemporaries is refreshing, particularly in view of his prewar (and, to some extent, his postwar) skill in handling metaphor for its own sake. It is unlikely that he had read Synge's 1908 pronouncement [quoted by D.S.R. Welland in Wilfred Owen: A Critical Study], "It is may almost be said that before verse can be human again it must learn to be brutal," but, perhaps out of instinct, he described the war as it was, and not as dreamers would have had it. Emotive abstractions such as "glory" had lost their value through overuse; even "God" (sometimes spelled "Gott") was more of a rhetorical convenience than anything else. And no amount of rhetoric, be it ever so comforting, could palliate the strains to which the infantry were subjected in this war. Largely because of Staff ignorance of the novel war-making machinery with which the war came to be fought, the men were exposed too long to conditions of extreme stress. The result was mental collapse. But few commanders were psychologists; unless a man were visibly wounded or unconscious, he was considered fit to fight—or, at best, in need of a rest:

The concluding couplet of "Survivors" drops the satirical tone of the preceding lines to make a direct and unambiguous statement. When the satire is unrelieved by such a tonal shift, the effect is not always satisfactory. "Does It Matter?" slips from satire into sarcasm in its last stanza, seemingly because Sassoon, intent on making his point, overconcentrates the irony:

Do they matter?—those dreams from the pit? …
You can drink and forget and be glad,
And people won't say that you're mad;
For they'll know you've fought for your country
And no one will worry a bit.

The previous stanza, by dropping the ironical stance to make a shrewd pictorial observation, is much more effective:

Does it matter?—losing your sight? …
There's such splendid work for the blind;
And people will always be kind,
As you sit on the terrace remembering
And turning your face to the light.

Here the subject is left to carry its own burden of meaning; the sardonic poet is absent, and the juxtaposition of the compassionate observation with the preceding irony makes the bitter point without intrusive bitterness.

The art of pointed juxtaposition—so necessary if the satiric poems are to extend themselves into areas of moral concern—is Sassoon's most typical device. "Suicide in the Trenches" shows the economy with which his two most obsessive contrasts could be made—but it also, in the last stanza, shows his weakness for rhetorical oversimplification:

I knew a simple soldier boy
Who grinned at life in empty joy,
Slept soundly through the lonesome dark,
And whistled early with the lark.


In winter trenches, cowed and glum,
With crumps and lice and lack of rum,
He put a bullet through his brain.
No one spoke of him again.

…..

You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you'll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.

Stanzas 1 and 2 are unsentimental and to the point: even the compliant sanguinity of the most unreflective soldier is vulnerable to terror and privation. Granting Sassoon the credibility of his material, these two stanzas are an effectively understated horror story, sufficient in themselves. But he wished to use the contrast between the soldier and the suicide (and its implications) as a single term in yet another contrast—hence the typographical separation between stanzas 2 and 3. The third stanza, which oversimplifies rather than understates, shows something of the overt propaganda which occasionally diminishes the value of Sassoon's poetry. "Sneak home …" is an instance of anger over-riding art, a making of a point by insult instead of observation. Sassoon's anger at civilian complacency is justifiable—and, at times, insult may be called for—but the rhetoric of scorn here prevents the poem from doing its own work. Our attention is drawn away from the material of the poem to the poet, to his reaction: we are being told.

A more successfully worked contrast between human values and the abstract values of a nation at war is "Lamentations," in which Sassoon, by adopting a persona, allows the poem to make its own point without his editorial intrusion:

I found him in the guard-room at the Base.
From the blind darkness I had heard his crying
And blundered in. With puzzled, patient face
A sergeant watched him; it was no good trying
To stop it; for he howled and beat his chest.
And, all because his brother had gone west,
Raved at the bleeding war; his rampant grief
Moaned, shouted, sobbed, and choked, while he was kneeling
Half-naked on the floor. In my belief
Such men have lost all patriotic feeling.

The extent to which Sassoon "used" the materials of this poem for satirical purposes may be seen by comparing the poem with a prose account of the actual occurrence [from Memoirs of an Infantry Officer]. Returning to the front in February 1917, he was obliged to spend a night at the Fifth Infantry base depot at Rouen. After reporting in, he went in search of the storeroom for blankets:

After groping about in the dark and tripping over tent ropes I was beginning to lose my temper when I opened a door and found myself in a Guard Room. A man, naked to the waist, was kneeling in the middle of the floor, clutching at his chest and weeping uncontrollably. The Guard were standing around with embarrassed looks, and the Sergeant was beside him, patient and unpitying. While he was leading me to the blanket store I asked him what was wrong. "Why, sir, the man's been under detention for assaulting the military police, and now 'e's just 'ad news of his brother being killed. Seems to take it to 'eart more than most would. 'Arf crazy, 'e's been, tearing 'is clothes off and cursing the war and the Fritzes. Almost like a shell-shock case, 'e seems. It's his third time out. A Blighty one don't last a man long nowadays, sir." As I went off into the gloom I could still hear the uncouth howlings.

Though "Lamentations" is a successful thrust at the prototypical patriotism of bishops, politicians, and newspapermen, the prose passage is the more moving account of despair reduced by extremity to madness. By subordinating the inherent pathos of the situation to his satiric intention, Sassoon makes his point—but misses a much larger one. It is a characteristic limitation, one from which Owen was free: a failure of poetic sensibility at a crucial moment in order to score most obviously off the public ignorance and cupidity which Sassoon found so oppressive and so omnipresent.

This is not to say that Sassoon constantly diminishes the poetic value of experience simply to make a point; "Attack" and "Dreamers" are just two examples of his ability to forget his audience and keep his eye on the subject. And it would be purblind aestheticism to lament the force of the social concern which, to the occasional detriment of art, found its way to the surface in his work. The poem "They," for example, can be taken as an amusing satire on the limitations inherent in any institutionalized religion; but it can also be read as an expression of angry despair over the Church's abdication of humanitarian responsibility. Few poets would have even bothered with the theme; Sassoon did:

The Bishop tells us: "When the boys come back
"They will not be the same; for they'll have fought
"In a just cause: they lead the last attack
"On Anti-Christ: their comrades' blood has bought
"New right to breed an honourable race,
"They have challenged Death and dared him face to face."

"We're none of us the same!" the boys reply.
"For George lost both his legs; and Bill's stone blind;
"Poor Jim's shot through the lungs and like to die;
"And Bert's gone syphilitic; you'll not find
"A chap who's served that hasn't found some change."
And the Bishop said: "The ways of God are strange!"

The implications of the poem go beyond the ironic; the bishops may have been easy targets, but they had the public ear, and what they had to say was usually more patriotic than Christian. In a sermon which made the point that killing in war is not the "killing" forbidden in the sixth commandment of the Decalogue, the Reverend Robert F. Horton demonstrated a peculiarly "moral" position [as quoted in Christ: And the World at War; Sermons Preached in War-Time, ed. by Basil Mathews, 1917]:

When a great country … has to defend herself against the invasion of a foe, or when a great country has to vindicate her honour—which may be more precious to a country, as to a man, than life itself—the individual citizen cannot stand aside and say that that is no concern of his. We are all bound as citizens of a great State to take our part in the defence of our country and the vindication of her honour, and the only exception I know to that principle is this: that supposing the country demands of us what we believe to be contrary to the law of God; if, for example, the country passed a law that we should all habitually commit adultery …

The clergyman's moral discriminations were not unusual in his profession. The Right Reverend A. F. Winnington-Ingram, Bishop of London, demonstrated the English version of the Gott mit uns syndrome in a sermon on "The Conditions of Victory." How, he asks, may the world emerge once more from darkness into light? The answer, it appears, is really rather simple:

That the nations which are to be the instruments of God's judgments are worthy to be weapons in His hands. That is why we have these days of penitence and prayer. As God reaches down His hand to His quiver to find the weapon for the bow which He has made ready, He must find a weapon which He can use. Are we, as a nation, such a weapon? That is the question for us to-day. [Christ: And the World at War]

The Bishop's bellicose rhetoric was as irrelevant to the war as were the poems of Jessie Pope and Katherine Hale; even where men of the cloth could have contributed to the spiritual welfare of men at the front, they failed miserably. Robert Graves among others, mentions [in Goodbye to All That], the conspicuous absence from the fighting areas of the Anglican chaplains, though they were always available with patriotic exhortations in regimental rest areas. (The criticism did not, however, apply to Roman Catholic chaplains, who stayed with their troops even in the most dangerous areas, administering extreme unction to the dying and—in at least one case—assuming military command of a sector when all the other officers had been killed or wounded.) Sassoon, in a poem which uses church bells as a symbol of irrelevance, "What means this metal in windy belfries hung / When guns are all our need?", states the case with some irritation:

In a way which was, unfortunately, beyond the comprehension of the Church's spokesmen, Christ was fighting in the trenches. Wilfred Owen was to express it most cogently, but Sassoon, in a poem entitled "The Redeemer," developed a pictorial image of unmistakable pathos and relevance—a context within which even the soldier's casual blasphemy assumes a moral dimension:

I turned in the black ditch, loathing the storm;
A rocket fizzed and burned with blanching flare,
And lit the face of what had been a form
Floundering in mirk. He stood before me there;
I say that He was Christ; stiff in the glare,
And leaning forward from His burdening task,
Both arms supporting it; His eyes on mine
Stared from the woeful head that seemed a mask
Of mortal pain in Hell's unholy shine.

No thorny crown, only a woollen cap
He wore—an English soldier, white and strong,
Who loved his time like any simple chap,
Good days of work and sport and homely song;
Now he has learned that nights are very long,
And dawn a watching of the windowed sky.
But to the end, unjudging, he'll endure
Horror and pain, not uncontent to die
That Lancaster on Lune may stand secure.

He faced me, reeling in his weariness,
Shouldering his load of planks, so hard to bear.
I say that He was Christ, who wrought to bless
All groping things with freedom bright as air,
And with His mercy washed and made them fair.
Then the flame sank, and all grew black as pitch,
While we began to struggle along the ditch;
And someone flung his burden in the muck,
Mumbling: "O Christ Almighty, now I'm stuck!"

Sassoon's clear-eyed vision of the Son of Man in man may be compared with the civilian-generated myth of the "Angels of Mons" as a further instance of the curative value of his art. His "realism," even more than Owen's, was intended to destory an obscurantism which, from the artist's point of view, sapped the strength of poetry at the same time as, on a wider scale, it insulated men from the truth about a world in which they were condemned to live and die.

Sassoon's impulse toward realism has, of course, some aesthetic disadvantages. In poetically rendering the nightmare of war-induced neurasthenia, he is generally less effective than Owen, whose artistic sensibility had more affinities with Keats than with such poets as Masefield. With some notable exceptions, Sassoon's control of images becomes unsure outside the area of tangible, reportable "reality"; consequently, he has only limited success in conveying the nature of a world which is so cruelly "imaginative" without ever being abstract. Owen's most horrifying—and convincing—neurasthenic image is that of a world drenched in blood:

Sassoon, on the other hand, when he attempts to capture poetically his own experience of neurasthenia, turns to images which are auditory and experiential rather than visual and symbolic. He buttresses this technique in "Repression of War Experience" with the dramatic device of interior dialogue, in which the language is deliberately simple, almost childlike: "Books … / … Which will you read? / Come on; O do read something; they're so wise." There is no irony in "they're so wise"; Sassoon is fearfully in earnest:

I tell you all the wisdom of the world
Is waiting for you on those shelves; and yet
You sit and gnaw your nails, and let your pipe out,
And listen to the silence….

He has seen a moth fluttering close to a candle flame; the simple fact of its danger is what starts the dialogue:

No, no, not that,—it's bad to think of war,
When thoughts you've gagged all day come back to scare you;
And it's been proved that soldiers don't go mad
Unless they lose control of ugly thoughts
That drive them out to jabber among the trees.

Now light your pipe; look, what a steady hand.
Draw a deep breath; stop thinking; count fifteen,
And you're as right as rain …
Why won't it rain? …

His dramatic form allows Sassoon to use the actual moment of breakdown as the point of maximum poetic intensity; whereas Owen builds tension through a sequence of images, Sassoon builds it through a dramatic interplay of voices:

You're quiet and peaceful, summering safe at home,
You'd never think there was a bloody war on! …
O yes, you would … why, you can hear the guns.
Hark! Thud, thud, thud,—quite soft … they never cease—
Those whispering guns—O Christ, I want to go out
And screech at them to stop—I'm going crazy;
I'm going stark, staring mad because of the guns.

By 1917, Sassoon had no patriotic illusions about the war. He went back to the front after each hospitalization—even after Craiglockhart, where his anti-war statement had sent him—but not in search of glory, not to destroy the Bishop's Anti-Christ. Like Owen he went back out of loyalty to the men in the trenches, men who had no voice to tell of their wrongs, who died mutely and daily and in their millions. In one of his most moving poems, he speaks both for them and for himself:

I am banished from the patient men who fight;
They smote my heart to pity, built my pride.
Shoulder to aching shoulder, side by side,
They trudged away from life's broad wealds of light.
Their wrongs were mine; and ever in my sight
They went arrayed in honour. But they died,—
Not one by one: and mutinous I cried
To those who sent them out into the night.

The darkness tells how vainly I have striven
To free them from the pit where they must dwell
In outcast gloom convulsed and jagged and riven
By grappling guns. Love drove me to rebel.
Love drives me back to grope with them through hell;
And in their tortured eyes I stand forgiven.

"Banishment" is not a great poem—but it is, I think, adequate to its subject. The last three lines are particularly rich, and even in the first stanza the juxtaposition in lines 5 through 7 of honorific image and brutal reality shows Sassoon's ability to rescue an otherwise platitudinous expression ("went arrayed in honour") and give it once more some significant meaning.

To do critical justice to the unique relationship which existed between infantry officers and their men in the Great War would require a volume in itself. Both Owen and Sassoon offer convincing poetic testimony to the strength of this mutual loyalty, but perhaps the most direct statement of its nature was that of a Scottish poet and officer [Ewart Alan Mackintosh, quoted in The Lost Generation of 1914 by Reginald Pound, 1965] who was killed in action in November 1917:

Sassoon is more clipped and satiric in "Twelve Months After"; but in the nightmarish "Sick Leave" the ghosts of the soldiers he has watched die gather around his convalescent bed to ask the emotionally-loaded question:

"When are you going out to them again?
Are they not still your brothers through our blood?"

Sassoon did go out again, this time to the Middle East, where he was promoted to captain. He returned to the western front in May 1918; but, after suffering a head wound (ironically enough, it was inflicted by one of his own trigger-happy sentries as Sassoon returned from a skirmish with a German machine-gun post), he was safely out of the war. His convictions had not changed; "Reconciliation" and "Aftermath" show the same sober and ironical disquietude as the best of the 1917 trench poems. But he was free. And in April 1919 the fact became poetry. Sassoon described the occasion in Siegfried's Journey:

One evening in the middle of April I had an experience which seems worth describing for those who are interested in methods of poetic production. It was a sultry spring night. I was feeling dull-minded and depressed, for no assignable reason. After sitting lethargically in the ground-floor room for about three hours after dinner, I came to the conclusion that there was nothing for it but to take my useless brain to bed. On my way from the arm-chair to the door I stood by the writing-table. A few words had floated into my head as though from nowhere. In those days I was always on the look-out for a lyric—I wish I could say the same for my present self—so I picked up a pencil and wrote the words on a sheet of note-paper. Without sitting down, I added a second line. It was as if I were remembering rather than thinking. In this mindless, recollecting manner I wrote down my poem in a few minutes. When it was finished I read it through, with no sense of elation, merely wondering how I had come to be writing a poem when feeling so stupid. I then went heavily upstairs and fell asleep….

The poem which made this spontaneous entry into the world was "Everyone Sang," a lyric which expresses exultation and release through two of Sassoon's richest lyric images, song and the songbird. In Heart's Journey (first published in 1927), he was to explore the potentialities of these two images as metaphors for the human soul, and with them evolve his own lyric symbology. "Everyone Sang" was the starting point for this lyric search, just as it was the culmination of his poetic involvement in the Great War:

Everyone suddenly burst out singing;
And I was filled with such delight
As prisoned birds must find in freedom,
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark-green fields; on—on—and out of sight.

Everyone's voice was suddenly lifted;
And beauty came like the setting sun:
My heart was shaken with tears; and horror
Drifted away … O, but Everyone
Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing
will never be done.

The correspondences established by the poem have a lyric intensity and a figurative validity comparable to those of Wordsworth and Blake. Although Sassoon would never again achieve such visionary power, he has, in this one lyric, made true poetry out of the fact of his physical, emotional, and spiritual survival.

He did, in sum, survive the war, and as a poet.

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Sassoon, Siegfried (Contemporary Literary Criticism)