Although Middleton Murry’s complaint in the previous section (that Sassoon’s war poems essentially only give the reader raw data out of which the reader is supposed to create the poetry) is certainly accurate and insightful it can sometimes result in what might be termed a prepared anticipation that his work comprises nothing else. It is not far short, that is, of creating a mindset of expectation that raw data is the only thing on offer. While this is a valid response (especially to the shorter poems) I would argue that it sometimes blinds the reader to other qualities and achievements. One poem that might suffer from this is Base Details (you can find a copy here), which – at least for me – is deserving of closer attention and appreciation.
At first and even second glance it has observable similarities of technique with The Redeemer while also sharing that coruscating rage and savage linguistic facility which we saw in Blighters. The similarities of technique seen in The Redeemer include such things as the use of a narrator/observer persona who shapes the action; direct speech in the idiolect of the person supposedly speaking; control of rhyme and metre; and the magisterial closure of the final couplet. Despite these resonances the poetic intention of the two pieces is nonetheless radically different. And where the longer poem makes good use of distance, the poet operating at one remove from the narrative persona, Base Details is closely aligned with Blighters, where there is no such separation between poet and persona. In both these poems the poet is concerned to channel the language of unconfined rage against the music hall audience in the first instance and the hotel diners in the second. Further, both these poems are claustrophobic, contained within the narrow confines of the music hall and the hotel dining room. Further still, both poems appear to be heavily autobiographical – one written after a visit to the Liverpool Hippodrome, the other after an encounter in a hotel in Rouen. Or is it quite so straightforward?
We know that on 4 March 1917 Sassoon had lunch in the Hôtel de la Poste in Rouen, and later that day wrote a third-person prose description of what he saw. Jean Moorcroft Wilson helpfully unfolds the diary entry at some length, even going so far as to italicise those significant words which offer “a revealing glimpse into his creative processes”.
[I want at this point to acknowledge the admirable scholarship, precision and attention to detail which is such a hallmark of her indispensable biography; and I propose to quote this entry at some length because it does indeed seem to show that much of Sassoon’s poetry was based on actual observed events directly reported.]
But as suggested earlier, I feel that the process was probably somewhat more complex than simple reportage. It is undeniable, however, that the emotion expressed in the diary entry seems real and immediate enough. The anger and the indignation that almost overwhelm the young subaltern – presumably Sassoon himself – as he looks around the hotel dining room that day in early March fuels the poem he produced afterwards with a powerful intensity.
Sassoon wrote in his diary entry as follows:
“Grey-haired colonels with fierce eyebrows lingered over a chicken casserole with the tenderness of a lover … (A Brigadier-General) began guzzling hors d’oeuvres as though his life depended on the solidity of his meal”.
(Moorcroft Wilson’s italics)
The entry also refers to a young subaltern drinking wine at the next table feeling
“an almost irrepressible desire to walk across and pour a plate of soup down his neck”.
and quickly voices his feelings:
“O you bloody Brigadier! You bloody Brigadier! You are a professional soldier: I am not. Why can’t you go and show the Germans how to fight instead of guzzling at the Base. You have never been within thirty miles of a front-line trench, and yet you call yourself a general. And you will be alive, over-eating yourself in a military club, when I am dead in a shell-hole up on the Somme. You will guzzle yourself to the grave and gas about the Great War, long after I am dead with all my promise unfulfilled”.
(Moorcroft Wilson’s italics)
“O damn all these bald-headed incompetent belly-fillers!”
“he glanced at a Gunner Colonel with a D.S.O who was cutting himself a big slice of cheese, hoping that he at least might be a brave man. But all the really brave men were dead, or else maimed or up the line”.
(Moorcroft Wilson’s italics)
The italicised words in these extracts appear in the poem, of course, reinforcing the impression that we are witnessing something real, that this actually happened in more or less exactly the way described in the diary entry and then in the poem. We can downplay the fact that there are differences, especially the reduction in rank from the Colonel and the Brigadier to the relatively lowly Majors, and can explain to ourselves that the reason has to do with such things as emphasising the red tab worn by such Staff Officers – and the phrase “scarlet Majors” (suggested by Sassoon’s close friend Robbie Ross) is so much more resonant than ‘scarlet Colonels’ or ‘scarlet Brigadiers’ for metrical and tonal reasons.
I would suggest, however, that all this simultaneously implies that Sassoon the poet was distanced enough from his material before he started writing the poem – even if the finished poem strikes the reader as little more than a spontaneous attack on the complacent and self-regarding behaviour of senior officers. After all, as already said, it uses an almost identical verbal dexterity to that shown in Blighters, a poem which is most uncompromisingly an anguished howl of protest. And yet I would further suggest that beyond the control of language and juxtapositions of meanings that are evident in both poems Base Details is much more consciously controlled as a poem.
To consider this question of linguistic facility a little more: it is undeniable that both poems share and use a focused concentration on the allusive significance of words that ripples out and ricochets back and forth within the lines rather than trying to reach out beyond them. We need only notice the many strands of the respective titles. Because Base Details attacks the military where Blighters attacks civilians we find Sassoon deriving particular force from military terminology. For example, ‘base details’ are groups of men given special duties (not necessarily significant) within the base camp and thus in no immediate danger from the fighting. But the linguistic happenstance of related meanings means that its title too, just as with Blighters, carries with it a moral discourse also – as well as referring to the army camp at Rouen “Base Details” clearly implies that what follows is a description of something tawdry, something of low moral stature. I will return to the topic of linguistic compression a little later.
When we examine how language is used to create what we might call the poetic architecture it is immediately noticeable that Base Details is rather more controlled than the obvious blast of rage and resentment which powers it might suggest. Nine of the ten lines are end-stopped, creating in the reader an increasing consciousness of a deliberate accumulation of statement upon statement that gives the poem, despite its brevity, a weight and seriousness. Within this Sassoon uses alliteration to emphasise the ugliness of what is happening as well as the censure of the people there. Aside from this conventionally ‘poetic’ wordplay the language is colloquial and clear even when shifting register. This helps establish an apparent surface solidity of structure and meaning offset by the suspicion of a more flexible or labile quality where the flow of meaning does not, in fact, follow the apparent grammatical structure. It is not chopped into bite-size chunks as suggested by the end-stopping but instead falls into three sections (of three, five and two lines respectively) where the skewering of the military is sandwiched between a more direct focus on the narrator/observer’s belief that they have only one real function in the war – to stay out of the actual fighting.
This awareness of architecture is reinforced by the fact that the keystone of the poem – the middle stone in the top of the arch which holds all the other stones in place – is the phrase “scarlet Majors”, at the exact centre of the second line. Here Sassoon gathers all the poem’s lines of force – all the simultaneous discourses of Army, morality and physical portraiture – stunningly together to lock the poem in place. For “scarlet” addresses everything: the colour of the tab denoting rank and function; the mottled complexion of the high blood pressure brought on by their indulgent lifestyle; and it also, of course, brings to bear all the historical usage of moral censure, being synonymous with (among others) ‘shameful’, ‘sinful’ and ‘notorious’. And further to this it is surely not accidental that perhaps the most brilliantly compressed line in the poem – “And speed glum heroes up the line to death” – follows on immediately.
In these nine ordinary words (no poetic diction of any kind here) Sassoon sets up an extraordinarily powerful combination, a telescoped fusion of overlapping ideas. “And speed” deliberately recalls the familiar parting salutation ‘Godspeed’ to departing guests, wishing them good fortune, whilst also suggesting that they have outstayed their welcome; and also infers the sheer rush and tumult of warfare. “Glum heroes” is a resonant description of the resigned fatalistic attitude of men who know they are almost certain to die as well as a nod to the official language (pinned down as we have already seen in The Hero) used in the easy propaganda of newspaper reports and popular reflexive terminology. (It is also an interesting refinement and condensation of the description in The Redeemer, where we are told the ordinary soldier will “endure Horror and pain, not uncontent to die”) Finally, “up the line to death” gathers together the Front Line, the railway lines carrying men to the Front Line, the resigned British patience of waiting in line which feeds back into the “Glum” of a word or so before – and also anticipates Owen’s later image in Anthem For Doomed Youth of the soldiers being merely “cattle” to be fed inexorably into the abattoir.
Reinforcing the argument that Sassoon the poet was fully involved with shaping Sassoon the soldier’s reactions is the use of the magisterial caesura of the full stop ending line three. This, of course, marks the deceptively easy transition into the middle section where the other clash in the poem – the appalling gulf between complacent age and doomed youth – is laid out. The scathing unrelenting portrait/indictment of the senior military class that began in the opening line – where they are “fierce, and bald, and short of breath” – continues in simple descriptions of appearance and behaviour, the “puffy petulant face” which is “Guzzling and gulping in the best hotel” while “Reading the Roll of Honour” as they eat and drink, presumably confident that their name will never appear on those that follow. And then the focus changes to fall on the sociolect of the upper military class (and Sassoon’s own background, of course), allowing the physical portrait to shelve seamlessly into a psychological one, condemned by their own words in some two lines of direct speech.
Sassoon captures the comfortable flow of words, polished, affable, socially at ease quite brilliantly here. The moral discourse is clear – the glib euphemisms of conventional sorrow intentionally hide the brute reality that the “Poor young chap” is in fact dead and probably died quite violently. Add to this the sense that the expression of sympathy seems directed more towards the old social connection – “I used to know his father well” – than towards the dead soldier reinforces the casual hollowness of the comment. The likely horror of the battle, described so vividly in other poems, is glossed over by using the vocabulary of the public school sports field as a “scrap”, and the losses (remember that the British Army suffered nearly 20000 deaths on the first day of the Somme attack) are reduced in exactly the same way to nothing more than “we’ve lost heavily” – akin, that is, to an inconsequential rugby or cricket score.
All of this arises out of “Reading the Roll of Honour”, itself yet another example of language as propaganda. The unwritten question that Sassoon encourages the reader to ask is: and what role of honour has this rank of the military played, other than sending countless others to their death? I would argue that these eighteen words of supposed direct speech are a master class in summarising a whole social system and class mindset through nothing more than vocabulary and tone, finally sealed by that innocuous word “toddle” in the last line.
It seems to me that this sustained concentration on using language as part of the architecture of the poem as well as for effect lifts the achievement far beyond that of Blighters, which is limited by an overpowering rage blind to other possibilities.
Base Details is memorable for the way in which Sassoon so structures the reader’s response that s/he is caught up in the immediacy and fervour of the moment, convinced that the poem is witness to something real, something that actually happened in exactly the way described. As if it were the poetic equivalent of a diary entry, perhaps.
The poem certainly caught Jean Moorcroft Wilson’s attention, prompting her to comment on “Sassoon’s inimitable way of sketching in a character and giving that character a voice”; and in an immediate parenthesis she points out that “In this case there are two ‘voices’, that of the complacent Staff Officer and that of the scathing narrator, which undercuts it.” And as already indicated by her italicisation of certain words in the original diary entry of 4 March 1917, she is very aware of the language elements that gave the poem its initial impetus. She clearly appreciates the quality and subtlety of what he achieves here.
Indeed, the poem is so subtle in its effects that I think she gets it slightly wrong, because there are not “two ‘voices’” in quite the way she presents it – there is only one voice, that of an unidentified observer imagining himself to be one of the many Staff Officers he sees all the time in the camp at Rouen and elsewhere. The description which sandwiches the direct speech generalises about such men; the direct speech is actually an attempt (however successful and convincing) to mimic how such men speak. The situation described in the poem is based on experience – but not the experience it purports to describe. A moment’s reflection suggests that this in a sense applies to the diary entry also, especially the heartfelt rant of the subaltern addressing the Brigadier. It describes his thoughts, but they certainly remained unvoiced – subalterns, however angry, do not criticise brigadiers to their face, especially in wartime. Both the diary entry and the poem then share this same basic quality of describing a situation that is partly based on an observed actual event and partly based on an imaginative recasting – for in neither piece does any real confrontation or direct speech take place.
So the vivid sense of location and event which helps make the poem seem so alive is nothing more than a construct of the poet’s imagination and ample testimony to his creative skill. Despite the fact that the opening word of the poem is “If” the dazzling intensity of the language weaving a visual magic out of a mixture of vague generalised physical attitudinal and vocal characteristics somehow distracts the reader’s attention to create the illusion of something real. Or put another way, the poem is a wonderful illustration of how Sassoon has worked on the base metal of real and imagined events, shaping and refining them in the alchemical process of turning it all into poetry.
Which brings us back to Middleton Murry’s complaint that in his war poems Sassoon gives us only the raw data – it is the reader who turns it into poetry. Base Details is fascinating because of the way it both proves and disproves this assertion, in that the poem the reader thinks s/he is creating comes about only because Sassoon creates the illusion that what is being described is as real as the emotion which nurtures it. For while Middleton Murry felt compelled to comment in his assessment of Sassoon that poetry needs a sense of emotional distance and ought to follow Wordsworth’s dictum of emotion recollected in tranquillity, Base Details clearly fulfils the sometimes forgotten first part of that famous definition of poetry: “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity”. It is, I suggest, a poem not so much about emotion recollected in tranquillity as about tranquillity recollected in just such a spontaneous overflow of emotion.
Indeed, I would argue that it is this combination of anger, indignation and disgust that makes the poem so effective. What would the poem say if they were removed?
Well, history shows us that as warfare becomes increasingly industrialised and technological the average age of the actual combatants grows younger and younger – and further, that as age increases so physical skills and competence diminish, so that the older one grows the further removed from deliberate fighting one is likely to be. Seen in this light, there is nothing intrinsically reprehensible or shameful in the fact that middle-aged Staff Officers are not likely to be found in the Front Line. It is not an appropriate place for them to be because their skills and experience are much better used in other functions and locations than the battlefield.
Likewise, attributes such as baldness and being less fit than the younger fighting men are simply part of the natural attrition of the ageing process and as such carry no moral weight. Indeed, other descriptors – “short of breath”, “scarlet”, “puffy” (face) – become suggestive of something close to a medical condition: hypertension, say, or some form of congestive heart disease. Once the emotional baggage of the poem is removed the portrait painted here could easily be interpreted as middle-aged men struggling against actual or encroaching ill health. And “fierce”, which in the poem has negative overtones, might reflect that struggle to be seen as still worthy of respect – as part of some self-defensive behaviour attempting to deflect any negative judgements or insults from younger fitter men.
Building on this developing alternative reading even the pejorative “Guzzling and gulping in the best hotel”, which is a scathing condemnation of insensitive behaviour in Sassoon’s poem, takes on a more neutral meaning. The more forgiving reader might well argue that such men eat and drink – even overeat and drink to excess – as a form of self-compensation, either against the pressure they are under to meet deadlines or solve logistical nightmare situations, or possibly against the sense of frustration or guilt arising from the knowledge that, even if their work is successful, men will die or be maimed in the hundreds and thousands. Or even, perhaps, because they know too well how vulnerable they are to the contempt of others – contempt being one of the hallmarks of the poem.
The notion of “the best hotel” (my italics) is clearly seen by Sassoon as biting sarcasm, an indictment of rank self-indulgence (or the self-indulgence of rank). Yet if looked at through a slightly different lens then we might wonder whether this is not a little harsh: for this is the hotel the anonymous narrator chose for his lunch, as either the only available or the one offering the best value and quality. Irrespective of the reason, it becomes difficult to see why this simple everyday act should carry any moral weight.
Attempting to read the poem in a more neutral light also defuses the imagined Major’s imagined comment. While what he says may not be especially profound or insightful, nor offer anything other than the bland expression of a bland sentiment, it is not necessarily in and of itself significantly malicious or uncaring. It still captures the sociolect of the public school/Officers’ Mess stereotype very effectively but does not actually contain anything innately offensive in the words themselves. Indeed, it suggests a fairly normal reaction to recognising a name in an obituary column, acknowledging a social connection and making a general sad observation. Moreover, we might consider that the blandness of the expression does not inevitably indicate indifference – again, the more forgiving reader might see it as masking a deep personal shock and emotion the speaker is trying desperately to hide.
The final couplet also becomes open to a different tone, where far from being smugly complacent the lines express a sense of ironic acceptance of the deskbound unheroic inglorious life of the middle-aged middle-ranked officer. Denied the chance of truly significant or vital action, aware of the disdain of younger men desperate for an opportunity to prove themselves, the couplet acknowledges the understanding that even their death will pass unnoticed by the world at large.
To sum up, then: if we read Base Details in this more neutral way and ignore the perspective Sassoon develops with such economy it is possible to see in it an almost lament for the insignificant unregarded life of the ageing career officer who buries the increasing emptiness and unimportance of his life beneath the blanket of affable conversation and excesses of overwork, tension and irascibility. And who, perhaps, drinks himself into quiet oblivion before drifting out of this long period of almost sleep into the longer sleep of death.
I am not suggesting for one moment that Sassoon created a ‘hidden’ poem beneath the glittering venomous surface of Base Details to trap the unwary or careless reader. The rage and venom are all too clear, all too serious, and all too intentional. I am merely pointing out that it is given expression through Sassoon’s masterly use of language and its allusive qualities, the very nature of such allusive or multiple associations being to emphasise the imbricated nature of the complexities of things which are just beyond our ability to see fully. The fact that the poem is so short – only ten lines, one hundred syllables – concentrates the intensity. Or perhaps it is so short because his emotions at the time of writing were at such a high pitch. It is impossible to know.
Whatever the truth of this might be the agony behind the poem is the one from the diary entry: “long after I am dead with all my promise unfulfilled”. Refined in the poem to the echoing “and youth stone dead” it shows how much it mattered to Sassoon. It should matter to us.
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© 2019 Mike Liddell