He gives us only the data …
I have tried in the previous section to identify the emotional and psychological pressures that were increasingly heaped upon Sassoon in the six or so months after he wrote The Redeemer and which resulted in changes to the intensity and sharpening – and limitations – of his poetic output thereafter.
However radical such changes seem to be I would argue that, at bottom, they grow out of observable elements in that first poem: the attempt to portray as accurately as possible the actual physical conditions that men faced; the centrality of the impact and effects of the experience of those conditions; the emphasis in the writing of the visual (or cinematic or photographic)realism that consolidates the narrative; and the awareness of irony which undermines or overturns not only the narrative but also wider accepted ideas or beliefs.
These changes in large part have to do with his use and choice of language to create the tone of his poems, of course, to which Owen (in the letter to his mother of 15 August 1917 already quoted in the second section of this discussion) added choice of subject:
” I have just been reading Siegfried Sassoon, and am feeling at a very high pitch of emotion. Nothing like his trench life sketches has ever been written or ever will be written. Shakespeare reads vapid after these. Not of course because Sassoon is a greater artist, but because of the subjects, I mean, I think if I had the choice of making friends with Tennyson or with Sassoon, I should go to Sassoon.”
The reference to Tennyson is a useful reminder of the kind of poetry produced by the late Victorians; the comparison with Sassoon highlights how the first three volumes of ‘Georgian’ poetry edited by Edward Marsh from 1912 onward sought to change attitudes as to what constituted poetry and suitable poetic subjects. Marsh promoted the new writing as modern and energetic, challenging the prevailing notions of what was required to be acceptable – such as the Victorian denial of individualism, the promotion of national identity and moral responsibility, and the employment of conscious poetic diction. Much of the new early Georgian poetry took inspiration from nature and the countryside – but such common features as romanticism, sentimentality and hedonism rendered much of it somewhat flat; and in later years the term ‘Georgian’ was mostly used pejoratively.
Of course, for those fighting in France and Belgium the countryside was being destroyed, thus transforming how the war poets – including Sassoon – used Georgian themes. Clearly, Owen both recognised and appreciated Sassoon’s new voice and choice of material (although Yeats famously rejected the idea that mud and blood were fit subjects). More importantly, Owen’s description of Sassoon’s poetry as “trench life sketches” shows his perception that it fulfilled another function: essentially, that of the war correspondent, providing – alongside such cartoonists as Bruce Bairnsfather – vivid snapshots in a few short lines. As Sassoon developed his skills the best of what we might call his ‘literary cartoons’ were powerful and memorable, as in such examples as The General (you can find a copy here) or Does It Matter? (you can find a copy here).
However, the inherent nature of the cartoon as commentary creates a complication. While the cartoon offers a visual freeze-frame of a moment or event that captures a crystallised underlying truth it necessarily carries within it the sense of a simplified or polemical truth. That is, the visual abruptness which is part of the attraction for and impact on the audience inevitably contains the seeds of its own limitations. Brevity, however controlled, cannot offer the greater depth or space of longer works. And this polemical aspect of the technique often overwhelms the possibility of any wider resonance.
In other words, there is a constant tension in and difficulty with Sassoon’s later war poems, in that there is always a tendency or temptation towards this kind of simplified effect. Just as the cartoon is essentially self-contained so Sassoon often loses the opportunity to work upon that sympathetic imagination of different audiences over time and in different places which might stand as a measurement of artistic or poetic achievement. This is the root of Bernard Bergonzi’s comment also quoted in the second section of this discussion which questions Sassoon’s ability to use language “suggestive or capable of the associative effects of a poet of larger resources” – because the technique and purpose of the cartoon, however successful it might be, ensures that any associative effects reverberate back and forth within the boundaries of the individual poem rather than seek to strike chords beyond it.
Further to this somewhat technical dimension is another factor which provides both the impetus for and limitations of these later war poems: Sassoon’s purpose in writing them. This relates back to the comments above regarding how these poems essentially build on elements underpinning The Redeemer, particularly the (often brute) realism of description of how the physical conditions add to the suffering of the men in the trenches. But added to this is the anger-into-rage aspect of Sassoon’s reaction to the deaths of his brother and more immediately, the circumstances surrounding the death of David Thomas.
This death affected Sassoon deeply, as he wrote in Peace :
“In my heart there’s cruel war that must be waged
In darkness vile with moans and bleeding bodies maimed;
A gnawing hunger drives me, wild to be assuaged,
And bitter lust chuckles within me unashamed.”
It is no great surprise that the official view of Sassoon, as interpreted by British newspapers and others on the release of his army file by the Public Record Office in February 1998, was that he was “a lunatic”. I propose to return to this point later.
Adrian Caesar, in his 1993 study Taking It Like A Man: Suffering, Sexuality and the War Poets argues that Sassoon wanted to die – and it is difficult to disagree with that conclusion. I’ve already characterised his behaviour as a prolonged suicide attempt that demonstrated itself in acts of reckless intense and explosive courage that both led to his Military Cross and his commanding officer’s increasing concern that such actions threatened not only Sassoon’s life but those of his men – and arranged for him to be removed from the front line to recover a sense of balance. When the personal and general elements of Sassoon’s rage coalesce then it is also difficult to disagree with Caesar’s description of his war poetry as “angry, violent and sadomasochistic”. I would argue that this ‘man of action’ persona or mode of being inevitably carries over into his writing where, in a few brief angry strokes he sketches his perceptions in the literary equivalent of his outer life, developing an active, intense and explosive style.
It seems to me that Sassoon offers us a clear explanation of what became his purpose in his infamous A Soldier’s Declaration in July 1917 (you can find a copy here), particularly in the following statements:
“I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers.”
“I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops … 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.”
“I believe that it 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.”
Although this was intended as an explanation of his political convictions (and influenced and even half-written by such prominent pacifists as Lady Ottoline Morrell, Bertrand Russell and John Middleton Murry) it clearly expresses the motivation and purpose of his poetry. As such, it shows both the breadth of his ambition and the inevitable entanglements that were a direct consequence of it. How can all this be encompassed in a few brief lines – or even longer pieces?
Sassoon’s preparatory notes for A Soldier’s Declaration show the necessary distillation process at work, where he summarises his thoughts in a more abrupt form:
“Fighting men are victims of conspiracy among (a)politicians; (b)military caste; (c) people who are making money out of the war.
In terms of his poetry it seems to me to be the case that this necessary distillation had the effect of turning his subjects into targets rather than resonant ideas. When added to the fact that any resonant ideas that might exist were inevitably turned back on themselves because of the cartoon-like structure he used to communicate his visions this results in the simultaneous but complex outcome of essentially splintering positive popular appreciation and less favourable critical assessment.
Examples of this process of treating his subjects as targets can be found in various shorter more brutal poems that address exactly the three divisions of the preparatory notes: the politicians in pieces like Fight to a Finish (you can find a copy here); the military caste in The General; and those who display callous indifference and make money out of the war in the angry outburst of Blighters (you can find a copy here). All share the same power of a deeply personal heartfelt rage and lashing irony, brilliant freeze-frame images that capture the moment as well as the indignation. Equally, however, it can be argued that ultimately they are too specific and too locked into their own circumstances to move beyond their immediate context. This is the problem H.W. Massingham addressed in 2017:
“It is no reflection upon him to say that these war verses are not poetry, that they have nothing to do with poetry, because we dare venture that he would probably agree with us. Nor are they (to go to the other extreme) simply a convenient instrument for vehement rhetoric and declamation. In a word, they are epigrams – modern epigrams, thrown deliberately into the harsh, peremptory, colloquial kind of versification which we have so often mistaken for poetry.”
In the twelve lines of Fight to a Finish we can see Sassoon lay out his armoury of acutely visual, finely modulated language across a range of registers to great effect. But even while noting his gifts the poetry is in the end swamped by the polemic concerned only to make a narrow political point: the real enemies are the Press and the politicians, for it is they who have promoted the war with no regard for the human cost.
In this savage twist on Lloyd George’s famous phrase (a precursor of the modern political sound bite) the associative effects ricochet around the within the self-enclosed lines with no attempt to reach out to the audience’s human empathy for what the returning soldiers have endured – despite this focus on the human cost. For example, Sassoon uses the actual term for sensationalist journalism to suggest the lack of physical and moral courage of its practitioners. He develops this theme by contrasting the “Yellow-Pressmen” and their salacious interest in “thrills and ardours” with the “Grim Fusiliers” who know the truth first-hand. And he completes the juxtaposition by having the journalists “grunt and squeal” as they are impaled upon the bayonets – for they do not deserve the status of human beings.
He continues by using accurate Army slang – “the boys had found a cushy job” – to prepare the notion of the lack of faith in the political class. For “trusty” refers not to the people’s elected representatives but to the bombers who will seek them out, “those Junkers”, another incisive linguistic twist aligning the British ruling class with their German counterparts.
Yet for all his control of language and display of what we might call a poetic sensibility (especially and movingly in the sincere anguished despair of “the soldiers who’d refrained from dying” with its fugitive reference to the other meaning of the word ‘refrain’ in the following line’s “the music of returning feet”) at best this is rage expressed through poetic intelligence but with no intention of channelling it to encompass anything more insightful.
Much the same comments can be made when considering Blighters, a bitter indictment of the general indifference (as Sassoon sees it) of the general public at home. Comprising this time only eight lines, it was written after a visit to the Liverpool Hippodrome. Once again he demonstrates his fine command of language to hammer home his description, playing with many resonances around the title and again the technique of juxtaposing different meanings for vocabulary. ‘Blighty’ was the soldiers’ term for ‘home’, of course, and Sassoon immediately suggests that those who stay at home are ‘blighters’ – meaning both a disrespectful term for men who behave in an offensive manner as well as ‘those who blight’ or who cause damage; and also, of course, ‘blight’ is a disease (of plants, but by extension here, of a society rotten with decay whose members find it amusing to make jokes about dead soldiers).
So from the title alone Sassoon is at his most venomous and unforgiving as he looks on in horror at the ugly truth of the war hysteria he witnesses during an evening at the music hall. The word-play of the title is continued through the poem, where he revels in the various juxtapositions of language.
The opening words “The House” have a faint echo of Parliament as well as being the technical term for the theatre (which itself is also a military term, of course). In line two “the Show” is both the entertainment itself but also Army-speak for a military engagement. Immediately he ends line two with his regular degradation of comparing people with animals in “cackle”, where the sound of laughter is the loud meaningless noise made by poultry. Then he carries over in lines two and three the chorus line, who are “prancing ranks Of harlots”, where “prancing” is another animal reference, a word usually ascribed to the movement of horses (and the association with “harlots” is yet another derogatory double-entendre, for “prancing” was also a term describing the practice of whoring around, thus subtly comparing the dancers to loose women or sluts or prostitutes). And to concentrate the disgust even more the reference to “ranks” sets up reverberations not only of how the dancers are arranged on stage but also the suggestion of the military hierarchy, and perhaps most importantly, the conflation of the smell of sweat from their physical efforts with a distinctly negative moral judgement.
The second verse follows this moral judgement with a vision in the first line (line five) of the consequent punishment of “a Tank come down the stalls”, where “the stalls” are both the ground-level seats in the theatre and yet another reference to animals and their accommodation. The second line (line six) then describes the tank as “Lurching to rag-time tunes” which refers to the kind of popular music playing in the Hippodrome and like music halls but also mimics the tank’s jerky erratic movement as if dancing to the syncopated rhythms of the music while the mention of “rag-time” tightens the violence of the deadly fraying effect of the machine gun. The only actual tune mentioned, the mawkishly sentimental “Home, sweet Home”, adds to the swelling degradation – for it is meaningless and empty of any consolation. The third and fourth lines (lines seven and eight of the poem) express Sassoon’s disgust at the notion of jokes that mock the sacrifice of the soldiers by exchanging “the riddled corpses round Bapaume” for the rancid audience in the Hippodrome. “Riddled” is an apt description of the appearance of men shot by machine guns, being full of holes. It is noticeable that Sassoon draws no distinction between these corpses – they are inclusive of both sides in their anonymity. The distinction is between the dead men laughed at by the audience drunk on patriotic fervour and alcohol.
[Bapaume (a small town close to Arras and Cambrai) was occupied by German troops on 26th September 1914, and by the British on 17th March 1917. A small cemetery known as the Australian Cemetery, covering an area of just over five hundred square metres enclosed by a rubble wall, was established and expanded after two engagements in March and August/September 1918 and now commemorates over eighty men, including twenty-three German troops]
Unlike Fight to a Finish, where there is some element of poetic sensibility, Blighters does not try to mediate this ferocious picture of alienation even though the skilful and controlled writing clearly reveals Sassoon’s linguistic ability. In the end the hostility wipes out any sympathy on the part of the reader, who also finishes with a sense of alienation – an instinctive rejection of the writer as well as what he describes. This is the downside of the literary cartoon or epigram, however powerful or brilliant. It might well be the case also that the more directly autobiographical the subject the more difficult it is for him to exercise any poetic distance – though this is not always the case, as we shall see.
While convalescing in Somerville College after being returned home with trench fever and spots on the lung (which seemed to quickly disappear) he wrote several poems that expand the dark thoughts of Stand-To: Good Friday Morning and its prayer asking to be wounded. Chief among them are The One-Legged Man (you can find a copy here) with its powerful last line rejoicing that the loss of a leg guarantees the end of the war for him; and The Hero (you can find a copy here) a three-verse exploration of the meeting between an officer and the mother of a dead colleague which seems to be about the universal situation of bereavement addressed by Owen (with Sassoon’s help) in Anthem For Doomed Youth (you can find a copy here)- but which is quite different.
The Hero offers, it seems to me, another element which shapes Sassoon’s satire. Longer than the brief poems commented on above (at eighteen lines) structurally it moves from the direct speech and physical description of the bereaved mother through the thoughts of the officer escaping the claustrophobic confines of the meeting as he considers her reaction and ends with the memory of how her son died, not a hero but a “cold-footed, useless swine”. It emphasises the gulf between the military and civilian understanding of the reality of the war and clearly favours the military view. Virginia Woolf appreciated how this impacted on his writing:
“At the same time, it is difficult to judge him dispassionately as a poet, because it is impossible to overlook the fact that he writes as a soldier. It is a fact, indeed, that he forces upon you, as if it were a matter of indifference to him whether you called him poet or not.”
As already commented, the italicised lines quoted above from A Soldier’s Declaration reveal the fundamental concerns or purposes behind his poetry after the death of David Thomas: his conviction that the soldiers at the Front needed someone to speak on their behalf about a perceived betrayal by the political and industrial elite; and his self-appointed role of redressing through his writing the general public’s lack of knowledge and imagination about the “agonies” the soldiers suffered. As we have seen, underpinning these aims is a furious rage which might best be seen as a howl of pain and personal agony and which finds expression in the form of the literary cartoon or epigram but simultaneously fails as a vehicle to explore more universal human themes however much he recognises them.
That said, the visual element of his snapshots and his use of a determinedly demotic language (especially in direct speech) do lend his writing a sharply modern feeling. For readers brought up on the established criteria of what constituted ‘poetry’ his technique was definitely problematic despite its kinship with contemporary movements in painting, for example, where unfinished brushwork was interpreted as a sign of documentary or spiritual realism. I have suggested already that the brute reality of dismembered bodies (as in Counter-Attack) might have some significance beyond the desire or need simply to shock and sicken the reader, that Sassoon was lamenting how industrial warfare demolished and literally fragmented any sense of the human spirit. Seen from this perspective he is not too far removed from, say, Stanley Spencer’s later paintings based on the war – such as The Resurrection of the Soldiers (you can find a copy here) and the other eighteen paintings that make up the astonishing and powerful mural in Sandham Memorial Chapel.
The Hero is interesting also because it demonstrates very clearly the problem of how to reconcile the soldier developing his polemic and the poet using language to widen its appeal.
The polemic has to do with various strands of the artificiality of social role-playing: the death must always be presented in positive, heroic terms of sacrifice and duty necessitating “some gallant lies”; the bereaved also must be stoic and strong and proud of “our dead soldiers”; and the messenger must always be careful to “nourish” the official image that needed to be given, even if the hypocrisy of it all made him “cough(ed) and mumble(d)”, for the ceremony must be carried through with due decorum – and that’s an order. The military institution follows its due process irrespective of any specific circumstance or actual truth: just as the death is impersonal so must the notification be.
It is possible to see the first two verses as a reasonable attempt to fulfil this function and make the point that there is necessarily a ritual which allows the formalities (and formality) to be accomplished. More importantly, the reader is allowed to deconstruct for him/herself the message that is created behind or within the way the poet uses language – Walter Benjamin’s “latent potency” once more. The reader can see immediately that the poet is presenting archetypes or representative generalisations by the fact that both characters – the mother and the brother officer – are capitalised. This is further enhanced by the simple but effective stage directions (folding the letter, voice breaking, half looking up then bowing her head) for the bereaved mother; and the officer’s perception of her physical frailty (the “tired” voice, the “poor old dear”, and “weak” eyes shining with tears). Although this shows a definite poetic awareness at work the fact that Sassoon chooses to use the officer as the medium through which the reader creates the tone (and therefore the resonance) of the poem limits its effectiveness somewhat – for the officer is not a poet, never mind the poet creating the situation.
Sadly, Sassoon is not able to resist his anger at what he clearly feels is an enforced hypocrisy. So he chooses to add the third verse, which focuses on the brother officer’s own very specific anger, scorn and contempt for the dead soldier and the manner of his death. And while this certainly captures how the attrition and horror of the war coarsens the officer’s responses, it also complicates any sense of empathy the reader might feel. Thus, the pressure of the polemic squeezes the poem’s structure to such an extent that the reader hesitates. Even the final thought:
“Blown to small bits. And no one seemed to care
Except that lonely woman with white hair.”
cannot rescue the sense of toppling into blaming not just the general hypocrisy but also transferring it to the mother, who is suddenly seen to be indeed following stage directions and a script composed of commonplace empty rhetoric that reduces her emotion to a theatrical performance. Instead of connecting on a human level with a common (but not commonplace) situation and reaching out and sharing that sense of loss and heartbreak Owen encompassed – the pity of war, as he called it in his poem about another Strange Meeting (you can find a copy here) – Sassoon cannot fight the constrictions of the polemic. He just cannot break through to that deeply human emotion even though the reader feels that there is something akin to Owen’s compassion struggling to find a voice. And so in the end the poem itself is also “Blown to small bits.”
That he was aware of this is demonstrated by the fact that he made no attempt at the time to get it published in his usual range of magazines and periodicals. He did publish it, but only in the small circulation anti-war magazine The Cambridge Journal. And he did not include it in those later anthologies over which he had some editorial control. Perhaps the poet in him knew that it would not be received well, however important its argument. He called it “thoughtfully caddish” despite being “pathetically true”, and further, “the average Englishman will hate it.”
I want to finish this section by quoting something John Middleton Murry – one of the conscientious objectors who so influenced Sassoon’s decision to write A Soldier’s Declaration in July 1917 – wrote in his perceptive analysis Mr Sassoon’s War Verses almost exactly a year later, in July 1918. Middleton Murry attempts to explain exactly the difficulty we’ve just explored in The Hero and other poems thus:
“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 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 …”
In some ways this is an excellent exposition of what might be seen as the slow decay of the old attitudes that was hurried on by the earthquake of the war – but it is also a fine exposition of the particular difficulties of replacing them with something more appropriate to the times. Middleton Murry is surely correct to point out that Sassoon’s poetry cannot be “emotion recollected in tranquillity” even if it is clear that, at bottom, he does not understand why that is so. Sassoon, like so many others damaged by their war experiences, could no longer find any tranquillity – he carried the war in all its awful grandeur inside his head, ready to erupt into life at any moment, as so powerfully expressed in Repression of War Experience (you can find a copy here), written a few short weeks before his explosive A Soldier’s Declaration.
And while Middleton Murry is also correct to complain that Sassoon offers the reader “only the data” the data that he offers is so overwhelming that shaping it into something more controlled is essentially impossible when one is only too aware of the possibility of going “stark, staring mad because of the guns.” Perhaps the truth of the matter is that this new modern frightening world requires the audience to be more involved in the process of coming fully to grips with what it all implies, means or threatens.
If Sassoon is ultimately to be assessed as unable to overcome the difficulties of escaping the constrictions of his military experience – which was the wellspring of his work – it is surely equally the case that that failure is more complex than might at first appear.
Next section here
© 2019 Mike Liddell