Base Details is interesting beyond aspects such as poetic architecture or potential interpretations in that, in my opinion, it offers some insight into the question of Sassoon’s general mental health at the beginning of 1917.
But before addressing this more directly I want to reinforce what had changed in the time between writing The Redeemer (the first poem Sassoon wrote after landing in France in late 1915) and Base Details (itself almost the first poem he writes on his return to France in early 1917). As commented previously, in those fifteen or so months the general tone and worldview – or weltanschauung – of the two texts became, as we have seen, radically different.
This is not at all surprising given the events he encountered over that period. We have already glanced briefly at his reactions to the reality of trench warfare and how it was entangled with news of the death of his brother Hamo and the more immediate death of his friend David Thomas; and how his increasingly reckless and suicidal behaviour and struggle to accommodate these events in his poetic output can be seen as a natural and understandable consequence of six or so weeks of emotional chaos. Add to these the following weeks of believing Robert Graves had died; and then months of ill health and extended convalescence where he was drawn into the persuasive orbit of such pacifists as Ottoline Morrell, Bertrand Russell and John Middleton Murry; and weeks of spending time with Robert Graves and Robbie Ross discussing their darkening attitude to the war. All this would inevitably have influenced his thinking.
Wilfred Owen offers another relevant perspective. He comments on the effects of war service in a letter to his mother dated 8 August 1917:
“Tennyson, it seems, was always a great child. So should I have been, but for Beaumont Hamel.”
In other words, the experience of modern warfare cannot help but change the people caught up in it. For Owen it results in a loss of childhood and all its related assumptions and expectations that things will always be as we wish them to be. Growing up is, in large part, a matter of beginning to see things as they really are – and then trying to deal with that reality. Despite the profound differences of view between the two poems as already noted, this need to try to see things as they really are became a constant theme in Sassoon’s work, and is also central to both The Redeemer and Base Details. Of course, it can be argued that as a theme it is sometimes – perhaps often – compromised by the sense that the more experienced Sassoon is more concerned with what he chooses to see – one of the consequences and limitations of his penchant for brevity but also, perhaps, a narrowing of his vision. The important effect of this is to increase another constant in his work – an awareness of the conflicted self.
Owen’s view on warfare is remarkably modern. It suggests that he would have expected such a change in and darkening of Sassoon’s attitude to the war experience as time passed and would have found nothing untoward or particularly disturbing in the radical shift between these two poems. Indeed, he might even have seen it as a mark of Sassoon’s emotional growth – despite the constant nightmares that the latter wrote about in letters to Robert Graves that were to prove important a few months later in persuading the War Office that Sassoon was clearly unwell.
Base Details offers another insight. In one sense it can be seen as the end result of a sequence of poems Sassoon wrote between October 1916, when he was still convalescing in London, and February 1917 when he was back in active service in France. But before considering them I want to mention a poem written in August 1916, when Sassoon was at home at Weirleigh: The Death-Bed (you can find a copy here) which for me shows something of this conflicted self when contrasted with the poems written between October through February. For one thing it is much longer and more developed, written over seven verses and forty-two lines rather than the twelve lines, eight lines, ten lines and ten lines of the poems that followed. Further, although The Death-Bed is most definitely condemnatory of the war it is very much a return to the gentler lyrical tone of The Redeemer in its description of how a young soldier slips into death, the powerful water imagery presumably linked to Sassoon’s Oxford convalescence canoeing on the Cherwell. It also offers a sudden direct appeal to the imagined reader alongside the image of a life lingering on death’s borderland which is more inclusive and compassionate than the poems that follow:
“Light many lamps and gather round his bed.
Lend him your eyes, warm blood and will to live,
Speak to him; rouse him; you may save him yet.”
It seems as if the less time he had to wait before going back to France and so being swallowed up in the attitudes, rigours and routines of military life the more his poetry grew uncompromisingly harsh and full of the graphic realism most people associate with him rather than with the human sadness of the end of a young life. Or perhaps it is just a case of being more relaxed at home and allowing his imagination a looser rein.
Staying with Ross in October 1916 he wrote They (you can find a copy here) after a reported meeting with the Bishop of London. (As already argued, the impetus for his poetry arose out of personal experiences but the poems should not be read as fundamentally autobiographical except when his control of distance is challenged – as noted earlier in Blighters, written at the beginning of February 1917 after a visit to Liverpool Hippodrome from Litherland Camp, where he was awaiting orders to return to France). They attacks what Sassoon sees as the complicity of the religious institutions in the policy of continuing the fighting and contrasts the Bishop’s portentous sermonising (deliberately interrupted within the lines by colons and semi-colons to emphasise the offensive cant of his sentiments) with the blunt end-stopped responses of the men as they give names to those who suffered – “George”, “Bill”, “Jim”, and “Bert” – as opposed to the Bishop’s patronising and insincere “the boys”. It uses a range of juxtapositions between the Bishop’s moralistic ignorance and notion of how war changes men because of their “just cause” and the litany of actual changes the men have undergone: losing legs, being blinded, shot through the lungs, contracting syphilis. This latter change caustically undercuts the Bishop’s high-flown rhetoric about how they are now sanctified (through the blood sacrifice of their comrades rather than through Christ – another marked shift from the core idea of The Redeemer) to create a better generation:
“New right to breed an honourable race.”
Despite its bitter sarcasm this is a finely controlled piece of work and anticipates the achievement of Base Details some four months later.
Given that we have already glanced at Blighters the next poem in the sequence in question is Lamentations (you can find a copy here) written in the third week of February at Rouen and based on an actual event Sassoon witnessed in a Guard Room while trying to find his way in the dark to the store-room. When writing about this in his Memoirs of an Infantry Officer a few years later Sassoon quotes the sergeant who was supervising the grieving man as saying: “Arf crazy, ‘e’s been, tearing ‘is clothes off and cursing the War and the Fritzes”. But the poem is told through the persona of an unsympathetic officer who has “blundered in” because of the noise. Indeed, the ten lines of the poem are full of noise: crying, howling, beating the chest, raving and swearing, moaning, shouting, sobbing and choking while kneeling “half-naked”. The sergeant watching him is neutral and immobile, with his “puzzled, patient face” as if unable to understand what is going on – possibly representing the response of the ordinary soldier and contrasting with the curt final comment of the officer: “Such men have lost all patriotic feeling”. Once again, as with They, Sassoon fractures the lines with a mix of full stops and semi-colons to mirror the broken incoherence of the situation and making the final line even all the more ironic and biting as it places impersonal patriotic feeling above brotherly love. It is an uncomfortable description of what the narrator dismisses as “rampant grief”; it is a portrait of total emotional breakdown and clearly the poet (not the narrator) is deeply affected. Perhaps the fact that Sassoon was diagnosed with German measles a few hours later and thus suffered a mini breakdown of his own explains some of the sense of misery here. And some two to three weeks later he went to lunch in Rouen and launched his vitriolic attack on the officer class.
This sequence might help explain the deep rage which marks such a shift in perspective from The Redeemer. Perhaps most modern readers, like Owen, would be more perturbed if Sassoon hadn’t changed his view after the events described in the three poems prior to Base Details, especially the stark picture of his own turmoil in Lamentations (yet another Biblical reference, this time to the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple by Yahweh as punishment for their sins). The emotional and mental breakdown leading to total loss of self-control of the anonymous soldier whose brother “had gone west” (yet another Army phrase diminishing the actuality of death) is so vivid that I would argue that it impacts on Base Details in a way that itself is beyond the poet’s conscious control despite the clear linguistic and structural control of the poem qua poem.
For what does the anonymous narrator do in Base Details? I suggest that he behaves in the following ways: essentially, he talks to himself; he imagines himself to be a different person – so far as to envision how he would both look and behave; he even adopts another voice to mimic what and how he imagines he might speak as this other part of himself. How is this significant?
Well, it is clear that turning his war experiences into poetry was a major coping mechanism – a cathartic technique – for dealing with the confusion and chaos which dominated his daily existence and “those dreams from the pit” (mentioned in Does It Matter?) that dominated his nights. And here I would like to introduce a comment by Joel Kovel in his 1983 book A Complete Guide to Therapy:
“… the `I’ falls apart, shattered, and with it go all the defences against the many summed neurotic dangers. And beyond all this is the unnameable sense of dread stirred up by the feeling that, as the self breaks, so will the world itself disintegrate, for to each person the world only exists through the lenses provided by the structure of the self. The replacement for the lost world – again the contrast with the transcendent experience, with its sense of universal love, is instructive – is a chaotic swarm of broken-off bits of the self diffused in a sea of hatred. This is the core of psychosis, and though the overall picture is often mixed with more intact elements, it is well to keep this nucleus in mind when thinking of madness.”
In terms of how Sassoon’s vision shifted between November 1915 and March 1917 it is clear that The Redeemer presents us with a “transcendent experience” in the form of the vision of Christ, even while at pains to explain how it is an illusion, a trick of the mind. As already commented, it is significant that the optical mistake does not impinge on the spiritual truth, which is that there are indeed similarities between Christ on the Cross and the soldiers carrying their planks, similarities to do with the pain and difficulties of the physical act and also with the notion and nature of sacrifice. Although Sassoon is focused on establishing a more correct perspective on the illumined figure in the night, he does not demean or debunk the sincerity of what happens.
Whereas Base Details, by comparison, is full of rage and resentment for the perceived change from “the lost world” of 1915. Potentially deadly as that world was it was nonetheless suffused with awareness of communal effort towards a common purpose applicable to everyone equally, of the possibility of redemption, of things made fair. Base Details is not quite yet a depiction of disintegration – indeed, as we have seen in the previous section it is the epitome of linguistic coherence – but it is suffused with a sense of alienation, loss and betrayal via the picture of the narrator separating into an imagined other person. To me, this is a classic example of what Kovel calls “a chaotic swarm of broken-off bits of the self” embedded in the contempt which shapes the poem, awash “in a sea of hatred”.
Further, Kovel’s comments seem to me increasingly descriptive of the shallower reaches of our modern understanding of what are now called Dissociative Disorders. For example, Sassoon’s suicidal behaviour after the death of David Thomas would certainly today be regarded as an associated condition related to post-traumatic stress disorder. All this, of course, seems to point to the accuracy of the War Office view as revealed by the papers released by the Public Records Office on 2 February 1998 – or, at least, the media interpretation of them as exampled here by an article in The Independent newspaper the day after headed Siegfried Sassoon: Mad, Sad or Heroically Confused and which baldly states that
“To us his anti-war poems and his sensational protest seem sanity itself, but the War Office papers, released yesterday, said he was mad.”
In fact, this is to misread what the released papers (see here) actually say. Although Sassoon is described as “a lunatic” and his action in releasing his Declaration as “insane” these are merely the vocabulary of the person acknowledging receipt of a copy of that Declaration found in a railway carriage some six months after the fact. The documents say quite clearly that the medical board officially diagnosed him as suffering from neurasthenia (or shell shock) and a gunshot wound and ordered him to attend Craiglockhart Hospital in Edinburgh for treatment.
It is generally accepted that, thanks to the intervention of Robert Graves, Robbie Ross and others, this was just as much a political as a medical decision. Sassoon’s protest against the war was a major problem – he was a decorated officer and a popular well-known poet as well as a member of the establishment who was socially very well-connected. The normal response would have been a court martial with a strong possibility of summary execution. That said, Kovel’s comments do indicate that Sassoon, who as we have seen was prone to physical health problems and infections, was beginning to show – understandably – some early signs of mental health problems; and that the diagnosis, whatever the other pressures, was medically valid.
One of his basic poetic techniques is the use a narrative persona (clearly aligned with Sassoon’s experiences as a soldier) which allows him as a poet enough distance to explore and develop his themes. This is a form of illeism, a stylistic device used in literature for various ends, but in Sassoon it emphasises an objectivity of external observation – what we might term the element of reportage, as noticed earlier in, say, such poems as Counter-Attack. Psychologically, of course, it becomes a mechanism whereby trauma which is too powerful for the individual to handle emotionally is controlled. This aspect too is present in Counter-Attack, where the utter horror of the dismembered decaying bodies squashed deep in the mud is dealt with by the disconnect offered by the emphasis on accurate reportage. The more intense and prolonged the exposure to such trauma, the more the control exercised through the literary illeism wrestles with the psychological disconnect; and the alienation of the poet with his subject spills increasingly over into what we might term the alienation of the audience from the poet. It is impossible to deny that this happened with Sassoon – we only need recall Middleton Murry’s comments on Mr Sassoon’s War Verses quoted earlier.
If all this seems a little dark and heavy – if it appears to argue that perhaps the Army officer was right, and Sassoon was indeed a “lunatic” – then perhaps it is a timely reminder that the war was not, as so many patriotic volunteers on both sides thought, a case of “swimmers into cleanness leaping” as Brooke imagined it, but rather the nightmare of drowning in the mud at Passchendaele and elsewhere. Mud which comprised not merely earth churned by shellfire but also the vomit of injured and dying men in addition to all the spilled organic matter from mutilated bodies, the rotting flesh, the chemical compounds and iron shards from the shells.
(Indeed, Sassoon’s obsession with mud was not his alone – any trawl through the poetry and novels emerging out of the war reveals myriad examples of writers addressing the problems and dangers of disappearing into oceans of mud – usually described as ‘sucking’ and ‘suffocating’, turning the body into something squelchy and rancid – into some thing no longer human.)
On Sunday 15 April 1917, exactly six weeks after writing the diary entry which led to Base Details, Sassoon was ordered to take command of a hundred bombers and act as a reserve for the 1st Cameronians who were to attack part of the Hindenburg Line. In an example of accidental or cosmic irony the German name for this defensive strongpoint was Siegfriedstellung or Siegfried Position. After meeting with the officers of the 1st Cameronians to discuss the projected attack Sassoon returned to his headquarters via the underground trench known as Tunnel Trench. The following day, Monday 16 April, he was wounded by a bullet through his right shoulder from the front. Luckily, it missed his jugular vein and his spine by a fraction of an inch, and he was sent back home to the 4th London Hospital for treatment.
Some three months later (on 6 July 1917) he wrote his A Soldier’s Declaration, sent copies to everyone he thought might be interested, apologised to his Commanding Officer – and awaited whatever the reactions and consequences might be. It is clear that he expected – and wanted – to be court-martialled; but he agreed to attend a second Medical Board (having ignored an earlier one) – and as noted above he was ordered to attend Craiglockhart Hospital in Edinburgh on 23 July.
Before all this, however, while recovering from the gunshot wound in hospital, he wrote another poem – which I shall discuss in the next section. Interestingly, it contains important echoes of The Redeemer, though we should not make the mistake of thinking they are deliberately connected pieces. It is an example not so much of emotion recollected in tranquillity as emotion recollected under tranquillizer, in which a moment of illumination reveals a terrible reality rather than a transcendent vision. And despite all the damaging pressures surrounding its creation, I would argue that it is one of Sassoon’s most profound works.
Next section here
© Mike Liddell 2019