Give sorrow words …

From conversations with friends and colleagues over the years it seems that the general image people have of Sassoon’s war poetry – if they have a view at all – is one of bitter rage compressed into abrasive short poems or, if longer, full of gory details of death and dismemberment.

And yet, as we have seen, the only actual violence in The Redeemer is that caused by the unknown soldier who flings his burden down in the mud – and then adds his direct voice to that of the narrator, thus undercutting the latter’s somewhat highly wrought musings on the similarity between the bedraggled men “Floundering in mirk” and Christ by introducing His name to a totally different effect. Otherwise, the violence is as distant as the artillery thundering in the darkness – certainly disturbing, but not threatening.

So how can we explain this perceived shift into bitter rage? The superficial – and largely accurate response – would be to say that when he wrote The Redeemer Sassoon had not yet experienced the direct physical trauma of war. His younger brother Hamo had died on 1st November 1915 of wounds received at Gallipoli – but that was a long way away, and in that sense his death was more a mental construct than a physical reality. This is not to diminish or belittle his undoubted shock and sense of loss, both of his brother and, one feels, of his early life. It is possible to read something of that feeling in the consolatory message and tone of the poem – that death is not without meaning or purpose. It is also possible to interpret the narrator’s concern for his men’s welfare as a sign of Sassoon’s determination not to let the news affect his professional duty – not quite a displacement but certainly a channel to help cope with the sudden absence of one he had known almost all his life.

Almost exactly a month later in December he wrote To My Brother (you can find a copy here). Originally titled Brothers – presumably his first instinct was to encompass wider notions of comradeship, which was used by certain writers as a code for homosexuality – it is a piece where his grief turns into a kind of aggressive sentimentality and regresses linguistically into shallow ‘poetic’ vocabulary that, in comparison with The Redeemer, topples into mediocrity. Clearly, he could not find the language to express his personal grief without compromising his persona of the cheery sportsman out to batter the Bosches; and so, it seems, he sought refuge in rather hackneyed ideas, words and structure that lacked conviction.

This is not meant as a criticism. Rather, I would argue that it is a useful indication of the hidden emotional impact his brother’s death had on him. The full Shakespeare quotation that gives this section its heading (Malcolm’s words to Macduff in Act 4 Scene 3 of Macbeth) perhaps sums up Sassoon’s dilemma over the next few weeks:

Give sorrow words. The grief that does not speak
Whispers the o’erfraught heart and bids it break.

In the poetry written at the end of 1915 through into the first weeks of 1916 he seems to have had difficulty finding the right words, illustrated by the way he contemplates his own death in A Testament (you can find a handwritten copy here). While the contemplation of his own death is understandable in the circumstances (especially given that he wrote it on New Year’s Day), the list of the things that matter most to him – music and the visual beauty of the world – are presented in a vaguely anodyne if not somewhat romantic fashion and for me at least lack the visual immediacy and final irony of The Redeemer.

But February was more successful. In The Pink (you can find a copy here) recovers the vivid description of what trench warfare was really like and builds on the latent sense of satire in The Redeemer, where the abrupt clash of tone in the final curse can be read as bringing the slightly overblown language of the narrator’s thoughts back to earth. Indeed, this later poem can be seen as hugely significant in the development of Sassoon’s technique used in so much of his later writing, particularly in its control of structure and language – the increasingly bitter irony of the title used three times in the poem, culminating in the hammer-blow of the final couplet:

Tonight he’s in the pink; but soon he’ll die.
And still the war goes on –
he don’t know why.

For modern readers, of course, the deliberately uneducated final four words cannot avoid the sense of patrician condescension – a note which is repeated through many of his shorter and more bitter poems. And even in The Redeemer it is clear that, however much Sassoon feels his responsibilities towards the men he commands, he cannot help but judge them to be as acutely sensitive to the world around them as the planks they carry. How conscious this might be is impossible to decide. But the social and educational gulf between officers and men was extreme. It is noticeable, for example, in the names he gives those soldiers he does identify – so many Jacks, so few Siegfrieds – indeed, none. (And some four months or so after The Redeemer he wrote A Working Party, of course, already discussed briefly in the previous section, and where his brief summation in the fifth stanza of the life of the man who gets shot through the head is little short of offensive to modern sensibilities)

More important for our understanding of why Sassoon became increasingly bitter in his poetry is the recognition that it is only natural that he (like every one of us) felt greater affinity with people whose lives and background and upbringing were like his own and who, therefore, had greater value. Added to this instinctive social attraction was the complication of his latent homosexuality, which could not help but introduce a physical element even if Sassoon tried hard to suppress it. So it seems fair to assume that the death of such a person, especially if he and Sassoon had a positive or close relationship, would automatically have a powerful emotional effect that might well trigger a noticeable reaction. That such a person existed is apparent in the sonnet A Subaltern (you can find a copy here), written a month after In The Pink when Sassoon returned from leave.

Technically, it is a rather weak use of the sonnet form, in that it doesn’t offer any real forward movement of ideas nor build tension through the first three quatrains; and neither is there any powerful conclusion in the final couplet that reverberates back through the poem. Sassoon is clearly focused more on the description of a character rather than to illuminate aspects of him that introduce any wider meaning or insight. The mention of the trenches is incidental – that is where the subaltern in question just happens to be, it is a truthful but incidental background. It is a war poem simply because that was when it was written; it is not a war poem in its intention. As a portrait of the young man it is successful in achieving its purpose, although obviously idealised. Its significance lies in what it reveals about Sassoon’s mindset and his sense of attachment and springtime enjoyment in the young man’s company; the conviction that, after all, there is a hope of recovery from the devastation of Hamo’s death.

The subaltern in question is David Thomas, the “Tommy” mentioned in the Journal entry of 21st July 1916 when Sassoon is mourning the news of Robert Graves’ reported death. There is a note of resigned acceptance there that, one by one, his friends have died and will die, and that he will likely “join them soon”. But the note of resigned acceptance in July was not his initial response, which was a mixture of despair and grief and guilt when Thomas died of wounds some ten days after Sassoon had written A Subaltern.

Now this is understandable enough, given that a poem intended as a celebration suddenly turned into an epitaph. But I want to suggest that something deeper gnawed away beneath the shock that almost certainly influenced the later bitterness and ironic rage of much of the poetry that followed. For in A Subaltern Sassoon refers to his own influence on Thomas:

My stale philosophies had served him well;
Dreaming about his girl had sent his brain
Blanker than ever –

The juxtaposition of these lines strongly suggests that part of Sassoon’s advice to Thomas to help withstand the experience of the trenches was for him to concentrate his thoughts on his girlfriend back home. In itself, of course, this is nothing to be ashamed of or to feel guilty about – but I suspect the circumstances of Thomas’ death changed its meaning forever for Sassoon. On the evening of 18th March while rewiring a section of the trenches Thomas was wounded in the throat. He was apparently able to walk back to the dressing-station where the military doctor (amazingly, a throat specialist in civilian life) told him to lay still for a while and everything would be all right. But Thomas – perhaps following Sassoon’s remembered advice to focus on his girlfriend – raised his head to take a letter from her from his pocket. And died.

So the situation that emerges is one of shock after shock after shock. Thomas died only two or three days before Sassoon would have been working in the same section of trench and the sense of anxious guilt – Could I have saved him? Did he reach for the letter because I’d advised him to think of his girlfriend? – irrational but more powerful because of that, must have plagued Sassoon. All that, as well as the rage against the supreme irony: the death of the feeling of resurgent life at the beginning of spring, the death of lifting some part of the looming gloom of loneliness, the death of Hamo being slowly assimilated into some kind of balance that allowed him to continue day by day.

We know from his Journal and the poems he wrote in the immediate aftermath that his emotions were badly scrambled, especially when one adds into the mix a visit from someone who had known Hamo at Cambridge and thus brought his death too vividly back into focus. And then we find the Journal entry for 1st April.

(The significant words here are those from “I used to say I couldn’t kill anyone” to “And hate has come also, & the lust to kill”.)

This offers a definitive statement of how all these events together shaped Sassoon’s behaviour – and most of his poetry – thereafter. Over the next weeks Sassoon displayed reckless indifference to danger, so much so that Robert Graves described him as “a fire-eater” and “Mad Jack” (though Sassoon always denied that that became his nickname among his men). It is not difficult to see this period as a form of attempted suicide even if it resulted in the Military Cross for his courageous attempt to rescue several wounded men while under enemy fire.

Under the pressure of this high emotion – and we need to remember alongside the death of David Thomas that this was Sassoon’s first real experience of trench warfare – he discovered a new voice for his poetry that nonetheless emerges out of the religious consciousness of The Redeemer and develops its concern for realism of situation and language. He revisited The Redeemer just days before Thomas died and over the next month produced three significant poems: A Working Party, Golgotha (you can find a copy here) and Stand-To: Good Friday Morning (you can find a copy here).

Apart from the longer A Working Party (which I am tempted to see as a major reworking of that part of The Redeemer that describes life in the trenches) the other two poems are very short, being nine lines and thirteen lines respectively. This brevity becomes a recognisable feature of what we might call “the received Sassoon” of satirical epigram.

In Golgotha – a title very closely allied to that of The Redeemer, in that it is yet another reference to the Crucifixion though much darker, recalling the agony rather than its redemptive quality – the brevity results in a wonderfully condensed set of images vividly drawn in what we might call deliberately non-poetic language. It is cartoon-like in its depiction of what a sentry sees on night-duty, full of visual references and an accompanying soundtrack that fits perfectly with the cinematic technique of storyboarding. This becomes a trademark feature of Sassoon’s later work. Just as impressive is the choice and control of language, the shifting length of line that creates an uneasy difficult balance, and the carefully weak (or so-called “feminine”) rhyme at the end, “stirs” matched with “scavengers”, the brown rats that infest the trenches. The condensed or concentrated images create a deeply disturbing picture of what it is like to be caught in the unrelenting atmosphere, full of alliteration and assonance and oxymoron: the “mirthless laughter” of gunfire. It is an impressive achievement.

Stand-To: Good Friday Morning also references the Crucifixion, of course, which this time is used as the ironic backdrop to a prayer asking not for mercy or redemption but to be wounded. And where The Redeemer talks of Christ in this later poem the evocation/imprecation choice is “O Jesus”. The blasphemy is anticipated by the rain having fallen “the whole damned night”, “damned” further anticipating the “bloody” of “my bloody old sins”, where “damned” and “bloody” both stand simultaneously as description and curse. As such, this is a real cry of rage against the imprisonment of war and its relentless horrors and thus far removed from the general lyric tone of The Redeemer. Perhaps the poem is best known as featuring in a 1922 legal case in New Zealand where a newspaper editor was accused of the crime of blasphemy by publishing the poem (you can find more details here). While testifying to the poem’s power it overlooks the control of language and structure beneath the surface venom. The stark bluntness of the situation is constructed by the end-stopped lines; the contrast between the freedom and apparent happiness of the birds and the narrator’s feeling ill; and the initial rhyme scheme of four (AAAA) and then three (BBB)consecutive lines which starts to break up over the final sextet into its comparatively hidden CDE/CDE pattern reflecting the increasing despair and desperation of a soldier who has reached breaking point.

But the poem is interesting for another reason beyond its swift delineation of setting and events. Although the “I”, as in The Redeemer, is not meant to be interpreted autobiographically the poem was written after Sassoon had been on duty from two till four. And it is clear that the physical circumstances of the “frowst” or odour of sweat and fatigue and dirty damp clothing and the trench filled with water are also real. This technique of using personal experience to initiate a poem becomes highly effective (and potentially misleading) in many of his following poems.

Perhaps the final irony here is the fact that when Sassoon wrote it he knew that the following day would see him going off to a month’s course at the Fourth Army School and his own escape from the misery he has just outlined.

Having discovered this new poetic voice we now need to consider how his audience reacted to it and why so many critics nonetheless hesitated about its value.

Next section here

© 2019 Mike Liddell