soldier sitting in a trench with his hands on his knees and his head bowed

Suicide in the Trenches

by Siegfried Sassoon

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1096

“Suicide in the Trenches,” by the English poet Sigfried Sassoon (1886-1967), is one of the many poems Sassoon composed in response to World War I. It reflects his own notable service in that especially bloody conflict. Sassoon was a brave and gallant upper-class officer who eventually opposed the war, but he never lost his admiration for the common soldiers who had to fight it. Sassoon felt contempt for the political leaders and civilian war hawks who, safe in their power and comfort, sent young men off to die in huge battles that seemed futile and pointless.

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Line 1 of the poem is as simple in style as it is in subject. There is nothing complex about its diction (word choice) or its syntax (sentence structure). This is true, in fact, of the phrasing of the entire opening stanza, which constitutes one long but very straightforward sentence. The opening stanza could almost be the opening sentence of a story for children: it is cheerful, pleasant, and appealing. For instance, the use of the word “boy,” rather than a reference to a “soldier," helps make the youth sound particularly young and vulnerable; he is “simple” in several senses: he is innocent, naïve, and not especially sophisticated or well-educated. His joy is “empty” (2) in the sense that it arises from no particular provocation. Instead, he is by nature happy and optimistic, at peace with himself and at peace with the world. He doesn’t try to hide his feelings: he “grin[s] at life” because he attributes his own good nature to life itself. He sleeps soundly even “through the lonesome dark” (3), untroubled by worries, nightmares, or fears of any kind. In every way, the boy seems at peace with himself and also in tune with nature (4).

The shift from stanza one to stanza two would have been totally unexpected—and therefore all the more shocking—were it not for the extremely explicit title of the poem. (One suspects that Wilfred Owen, a more talented war poet than Sassoon, would have given away much less information in the title if he had written on this subject and would have been far more subtle in general.) In any case, the second stanza shifts from the springtime implied in stanza one to a contrasting emphasis on winter (5). The boy who had no cause for fear in the first stanza now seems “cowed,” and while in the first stanza he had “grinned” (2), now he is “glum” (5)—a word that sounds as depressing as its meaning.

The word “crumps” (6) not only refers to the sounds of artillery shells falling in soft soil but also sounds like the kind of muffled impacts it describes. The reference to “crumps” thus helps us “hear” the sounds of trench warfare, while the alliterative references to “lice” and “lack of rum” (6) give us a sense of the feel and taste (or absence of taste) of such conflict. Crawling with vermin, thirsty, and lacking the liquor that might make life more tolerable, the innocent boy has suddenly (almost literally overnight) become a man, suffering both mentally and physically. Thus it should not surprise us (especially given the poem’s explicit title) when he actually “put[s] a bullet through his brain” (7). The speaker deliberately makes no effort to make the suicide sound less gruesome than it was. He does not say he "took his life” or even “killed himself.” Euphemisms here would be a kind of betrayal—a failure of the poet’s nerve and also a failure to confront readers with the grim and desperate realities of trench warfare. By destroying his brain, the boy destroys the seat of his consciousness and the center of his pain, even as he also chooses perhaps the most effective way to make sure that he actually dies. Line 7 is also effective, of course, because of its heavy use of alliteration and assonance: “He put a bullet through his brain.” Such phrasing makes the description of the suicide far more memorable than it might have been otherwise.

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The last line of the second stanza—“No one spoke of him again” (8)—is in some ways even more shocking than the report of the suicide itself. The idea of suicide, after all, has already been telegraphed in the very title of the poem, but the idea that no one speaks of the boy who kills himself seems very surprising and especially sad. Several reasons for this silence suggest themselves. Perhaps his fellow soldiers are ashamed of his behavior, which they may perceive as weak or selfish. Perhaps they are embarrassed for him, his family, and friends, and do not want the exact means of his death to be widely known. Perhaps they have more pressing things to do, such as trying to defeat the enemy while trying to save their own lives. Perhaps they don't want to think of his suicide because they understand what drove him to it; just as he suffered, they continue to suffer the agonies of war. Whatever their reason(s), they never speak of the boy’s death.

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Latest answer posted April 25, 2018, 10:43 am (UTC)

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Sassoon’s poem, of course, is designed to do just that, and more: not only to speak of the boy but to put his death into a larger perspective so that it is understood and not merely judged. Any who might believe that the boy’s suicide would send the youth straight to hell would be less likely to make such a snap judgment after reading Sassoon’s poem. At the very least, any reader inclined to imagine the boy's being sent to hell for killing himself would have to confront Sassoon’s charge that many of the poem’s first readers were themselves partly responsible for the deaths of this boy and others like him. By blithely supporting a pointless war, the “smug-faced crowds with kindling eye / who cheer when soldier lads march by” (9-10) have helped promote the senseless slaughter, and sometimes even the self-destruction, of boys like the ones this poem describes. Sassoon’s poem helps to ensure that boys like this one will be remembered, valued, and spoken of. Anyone who might accuse this boy (or others like him) of cowardice and who might assume he will be eternally damned needs in particular to read the poem’s final couplet:

Sneak home and pray you'll never know 
The hell where youth and laughter go. (11-12; emphasis added)

The poem seems designed to lead some of its readers to suffer from the kinds of restless, tormented nights from which the simple boy was, at one time, blissfully free.

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