The Redeemer

The Redeemer, written in December 1915 – you can find a copy here – is the first poem Sassoon wrote after going to France, and as such gives us a starting point, as it were, for what became his emotional, spiritual and poetic journey through the war in the trenches.

In a letter to his sister on 29 August 1917 Wilfred Owen referred to the poem as the one “I have been wishing to write every week for the last three years.” It is easy to see what elements in the poem would have appealed to Owen: the technical control; the strong visual emphasis that helps actualise the physical conditions; the subtle interfusion of poet and persona in the narrative; the identification of the officer with his men; and the use of direct vernacular speech to emphasise meaning and effect.

Above all, of course, the poem is a resonant statement of stoic sacrifice and the consolation that death, however dreadful and commonplace, has an overarching redemptive purpose. It argues that the conflict, despite its degradation of the individual, nonetheless has meaning and purpose. And at that relatively early stage of the war this was a powerful emotional message, even though it was hardly unique. As Owen again said, this time in a May 1917 letter to his mother: “Christ is literally in no man’s land. There men often hear His voice: Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life – for a friend.”

Jean Moorcroft Wilson, in her excellent Siegfried Sassoon: The Making Of A War Poet: A Biography (1886-1918) describes the poem as “a work full of concrete details of Front-Line conditions” and that “Here at last is War poetry based on actual experience.” It would be difficult to disagree with her judgement, although it is clear that the experience to which she refers has nothing whatsoever to do with the central event of the poem, where the narrator makes the momentary mistake of thinking an ordinary soldier carrying planks for the trenches was actually Christ on the Cross. She obviously means that Sassoon wrote the poem in France while engaged – on possibly a daily basis – in the kind of nocturnal working party which is the setting for the poem. Indeed, he had been in France for less than a week when he wrote the first draft and it is apparent that he understood the nature of the world he had entered: weeks of boredom interspersed with moments of ecstatic deadly chaos; a war of attrition and immobility where endurance was the only option for those who did not wish to go mad or harm themselves; where strong men learned to hide their emotions as best they could – until they found that sometimes they could not.

[That the activity described in The Redeemer was typical of life in the trenches is borne out by Herbert Read’s long poem My Company (you can find it here) in his 1919 collection of war poems Naked Warriors – though I have not been able to ascertain exactly when it was written. Alongside Sassoon Read (1893-1968) was the most decorated of the British war poets, winning not only the Military Cross but also the Distinguished Service Order – and knighted in 1953 for services to literature. There is, as it happens, a further link between the two men – in one of those odd coincidences that almost smack of something less random – in the fact that both had the announcement of their promotion to full lieutenant published in the London Gazette on the same day in July 1917. Of special interest here, perhaps, are the following lines which form the second section of My Company:

My men go wearily
With their monstrous burdens.
They bear wooden planks And iron sheeting
Through the area of death.

When a flare curves through the sky
They rest immobile.

Then on again,
Sweating and blaspheming — “Oh, bloody Christ!”

My men, my modern Christs,
Your bloody agony confronts the world.

The similarity of the scene with Sassoon’s earlier poem shows just how the war provided countless examples of almost identical experience – and how this still resulted in such radically different poetic outcomes.]

As a narrative poem The Redeemer seems to lend itself to easy summary: the first two stanzas offer a description of how an officer in charge of a nocturnal working party reinforcing the trench system to the rear of the front line is momentarily convinced that, in the sudden blinding light of a rocket flare, he sees Christ; in the third stanza he recognises that he sees not Christ but one of his men; and in the fourth stanza he is taken with the notion that in fact they are similar in their willingness to die for the greater good – until such musings are deflated by the blasphemous curse that ends the poem.

Superficially, then, this is a commonplace, perhaps lightweight, idea that expresses the general consciousness among the soldiers that – as Owen explained to his mother – Christ is present among the carnage of the battlefield. In one sense, perhaps, its appeal to readers might have been potentially caught up in the growing mythology of supernatural protection and intervention along the lines of the so-called Angels of Mons, which had started the year before.

[Arthur Machen wrote a short story – The Bowmen – published initially in the London Evening News on 29 September 1914 – in which one of his characters claims to have seen phantom bowmen from Agincourt destroying German soldiers, describing “a long line of shapes, with a shining about them” which then got taken up by the Occult Review. In time the shining shapes became the legend of the Angels of Mons. Despite his efforts to refute the situation in his Introduction to The Bowmen and Other Legends of the War, where he wrote:

“It seemed that my light fiction had been accepted by the congregation of this particular church as the solidest of facts; and it was then that it began to dawn on me that if I had failed in the art of letters, I had succeeded, unwittingly, in the art of deceit. This happened, I should think, some time in April, and the snowball of rumour that was then set rolling has been rolling ever since, growing bigger and bigger, till it is now swollen to a monstrous size.”

Machen was unable to stem the flow. Further information can be found here.]

Irrespective of this example of the psychological effects of this new kind of industrial warfare on civilians as well as combatants, The Redeemer seems to me to be a far more serious exploration of the stresses and anxieties operating on soldiers – particularly those with Sassoon’s sensibilities, as discussed in the introductory comments.

But – and this is an important caveat to bear in mind when reading the poem – this does not mean that The Redeemer is necessarily autobiographical. Even if Sassoon based the poem on something that happened to him the “I” should not be read as Sassoon himself but as a depiction of the state of mind of a character he has created through whom he explores the themes and ideas he wants to communicate.

[As Jean Moorcroft Wilson points out, Sassoon was ordered shortly after his arrival in France to command a working party helping build a new defence scheme at Festubert. Two nights later, on a second patrol, his men “staggered and slipped beneath their burdens of hurdles and planks.” Two more working parties followed on subsequent nights, “one of them bitterly cold, the other very wet”. The Redeemer, then, is a synthesis of these several events and does not describe one specific or actual incident but uses the material gathered over several nights to try to paint a picture of the physical and psychological impacts of this new kind of warfare.]

Seen from this perspective the poem becomes more complex, both in intention and the poetic choices of language and structure Sassoon made, lifting it beyond the commonplace response suggested by the ‘easy summary’ above. For example, in the first stanza Sassoon does not merely establish a physical setting for the events which follow but creates a powerful lyrical description of the physical conditions faced on such a mid-winter night that expresses the physical, psychological and moral differences between the military and the civilian experience through a visual richness of vocabulary and atmosphere that exactly illustrates Walter Benjamin’s concept of latent potency in language as discussed here.

For Sassoon not only celebrates the communal and protective function of the military life alongside the (literally) sleeping unmindful civilians oblivious of the dangers, privations and appalling conditions the soldiers face but deliberately captures it within the frame of the “Darkness” that both starts and almost finishes the stanza before the “distant wink” of artillery that prefigures the “blanching flare” which illuminates the second stanza.

And in that second stanza one cannot but be impressed again by Sassoon’s masterful visual sense which here underpins both the event and one of the themes of the poem – for at its core it is all about seeing. Within the event, of course, the strength of the blinding flash of the flare burns the retina and creates the illusion of Christ and the Cross as the eye slowly adjusts while the brain tries to process the information. Within the theme Sassoon is establishing – that seeing clearly is difficult and impacted by emotions – there begins to emerge the moral conviction that goes on to shape his future war poems. The importance of trying to see things as they really are is to reverberate for good or ill across them all.

It is the second stanza that gives the poem its title, of course, in that the momentary vision of Christ on the Cross is the precise Christian definition of the term ‘Redeemer’. This too carries through into the rest of the poem, as we shall see. But Sassoon also uses the (mistaken) vision of Christ to set up the notion of the war as a conflict between good and evil by placing Christ’s “woeful head” and its mask of “mortal pain” in direct contrast with “Hell’s unholy shine.”

Having established this note of high moral intensity Sassoon then skilfully introduces the bathos of “an English soldier” and the decrescendo of flattened descriptions of headgear and the banalities of everyday life before the war. Indeed, this deliberately sketchy profile of the “simple chap” who loves “work”, “sport” and “homely song” means that he too is a generalisation, one of the anonymous millions caught up in a conflict not of his choosing. Having deflated the moral tone Sassoon then lifts it again by revealing that in the flow of thoughts that are almost simultaneous with the immediate and mistaken interpretation of the shape and posture of the figure silhouetted against the sudden brightness is the more sober assessment that there is nonetheless some continuing connection between the illusion of Christ and the everyday reality of this anonymous ordinary soldier.

I want to suggest that at this point Sassoon demonstrates just how controlled his language is. For the commonality between the vision and the soldier is beautifully expressed by the words “unjudging”, “endure” and “not uncontent to die”, in that all of these are certainly attributes of Christ on the Cross – but when applied to the soldier become weakened notes. There is still the sense of willing sacrifice, but the language of heroism is subtly reduced to that of mute uncomprehending stoicism more akin to inertia. So much so that, though the notion of sacrifice is still willing, the act is most definitely unwilled.

The fourth stanza – especially the final line – caused most offence to his readership; and to most if not all of his contemporary critics. He was accused of blasphemy, particularly through the deliberate conflation of the soldier with Christ in line three and the curse of the final line. Many saw this use of the vernacular as destructive of an otherwise highly patriotic and positive view of the men caught up in the fighting. This focus on the religious offensiveness blurs the subtlety of what Sassoon actually writes, for the soldier who swears is not the person the narrator mistakes for Christ; and the earlier conflation of soldier and Christ clearly emphasises the redemptive qualities of sacrifice and forgiveness. Modern readers might find it difficult to call this offensive.

I have already mentioned Jean Moorcroft Wilson’s comments on the poem and her praise of it as “a work full of concrete details” and “based on actual experience.” She is correct to see it as an important contribution to the poetry of the time because of these qualities; indeed, it might be argued that it establishes realism of subject and language as a valid central concern and thus represents a shift in the earlier patriotic but more idealised and even sentimental verses of Rupert Brooke and others. I would suggest that The Redeemer offers something more than factual accuracy alone, however important that might be. It seems to me that Sassoon also presents us with an evocative and precise delineation of how the stress of this new kind of warfare impacts on individuals – specifically, the individual who narrates the experience of what happens in the cold and dark of a winter’s night and discovers that illumination can also be illusion.

The “I” of the poem immediately presents as someone operating under the pressure of a very elevated consciousness which is heightened to a pitch where every sense is absorbed in the task of moving along the communications trench in foul weather at the dead of night, nerves ajangle at the surrounding threat of violence from bullets and shells. Seen from this perspective it is evident that, while this is poetry based on experience, it is simultaneously poetry commenting on the quality and nature of that experience. While the narrator is totally immersed in the situation the poet is working the material at one remove, as it were – for dreadfully difficult as the conditions are, they are carefully separated into the weather (which is not limited to the war, of course) and to the threat of violence ranging from bullets through sudden flashes of brightness from rockets that might reveal their position, and the shells from enemy artillery. This sense of separation is underlined in the final line of the stanza, where the “wink of a huge gun” is described as “distant”, showing that at this moment the war and its violence is a potential danger rather than an imminent one and that the narrator unconsciously acknowledges to himself as well as to the reader that perhaps his heightened awareness is working overtime here. Of course, the purpose is to prepare the ground for the (mistaken)vision of Christ.

This same sense of uneasy exaggerated responses and reactions conditioned by the narrator’s feverish perceptions, expectations and anxieties – so that, for example, his use of the term “loathing” to describe his attitude to the weather is somewhat disproportionate – helps to establish the lyrical force of the generally ‘normal’ vocabulary whose effect is far more than mere reportage. This might be better illustrated if we glance at another, slightly later poem written during his first tour of the trenches which describes much the same physical conditions as The Redeemer, especially the mud. A Working Party (you can find a copy of the poem here) shifts into a more abrupt realism of the dangers involved when carrying out nocturnal working-parties.

It deepens the description of trench-life for the ordinary soldier through effective but straightforward language that doesn’t need the jolt into the vernacular that ends the earlier poem. The decision to present a simple third-person narrative voice rather than to filter the situation through the intermediary of a created narrator helps both poet and reader to work within a framework of direct ‘factual’ description, as per the opening stanza; and in the sixth stanza we find the same night-time activity conducted in the same bitter cold. Indeed, the parallels between the two poems are striking: the drudgery of trying to work in the dark, in the wet and mud, in the cold; the deadening fatigue (“reeling in his weariness” in the earlier poem, the dug-out “full of snoring weary men” in the later one). Just as in The Redeemer, there is another brief burst of illumination as another sudden flare lights up the sky – but instead of a vision – any vision – there is only blindness in this final stanza:

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.

It is a profound difference. No thought here of framing a commonplace anonymous death within notions of sacrifice and redemption or any consolation they might bring. Just the abruptness of “all went out”.

Which brings us back to the final rebarbative stanza of The Redeemer and its odd mix of tones from the descriptive to the Biblical to the richly allusive and at last to the jarringly colloquial and final blasphemous vernacular. It seems to me that, far from destroying the poem’s positive message, these nine lines encapsulate and round it off. For another way of summarising the poem is to present it as addressing a number of related interlocking aspects: to demonstrate the pressures under which the men at the Front struggle; to show how that pressure can distort perception in the surprise and fear of the moment; to recognise that such distortion can nonetheless reveal a valid truth which in turn leads to an almost philosophical acceptance of reality; and to reinforce that reality by switching language register from the intensity of the narrator to the coarser tone of the trenches.

Now if this sort of summary has validity then it seems to me that the poem can be read as a lesson in the importance of the need to try to see things as clearly as possible, however difficult that might be in all the carnage and chaos of conflict. And I would argue that this is revealed in the different usages and purposes of Sassoon’s careful repetition of the word “Christ” at three points in the poem: ranging from the initial hallucination, through the recognition/evocation which forgives the final invocation/imprecation.

Sassoon further deliberately positions the important meaning of the act of redemption on the Cross before the curse:

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.

Nothing better describes the mumbling soldier stuck in the mud trying to find his way along the trench than as a “groping” thing – who, note, has already been forgiven and washed clean of his sins. That is, the blasphemy which so offended and infuriated his original readers and critics was voided by the act of sacrifice on the Cross called to mind in the brilliant blinding light of the flare. And while Bernard Bergonzi was perhaps mostly right to question Sassoon’s ability to use language “suggestive or capable of the associative effects of a poet of larger resources” the next lines separating this almost official definition of redemption from the final curse suggest that Sassoon could challenge that judgement from time to time:

Then the flame sank, and all grew black as pitch,
While we began to struggle along the ditch;

The connotations or associations are rich and dense here, both of “flame”(heat as well as light, power and passion), “sank”(struggling to stay afloat – with some moral undertone), “black” (malevolent, disturbing and dangerous) and “pitch” (coal black, defilement, stickiness – clearly prefiguring the last three words of the poem). It seems to me that Sassoon is developing a deliberate nudge towards a metaphor for the human condition here, reinforced by the last three words: “…now I’m stuck!”, which also have reverberations for the general plight of humanity as well as for the entrapment of the soldiers.

I am suggesting, then, that the final stanza was, for various cultural, social and emotional reasons, somewhat misread by Sassoon’s contemporary audience even while some recognised the beginnings of a new kind of poetry. The final irony is arguably the fact that, despite the apparent determined action of the “someone” who “flung his burden in the muck”, the actual expletive at the end is merely mumbled – and therefore expressive of the powerless insignificance of these anonymous soldiers struggling to keep their footing and sense of balance in all the darkness and terrible uncertainty of war. It strikes me as a fine ending to a fine poem.

So why did so many sensitive and insightful readers question the validity and value of the poetry that followed this impressive beginning? It’s a question deserving of some consideration.

Next section here

© 2019 Mike Liddell