An anonymous exhausted soldier finds himself suddenly stranded in the pitch blackness of an underground tunnel. Trying hard not to breathe in the fetid air, with only the weak beam of a torch and senses stretched to the highest intensity to help him inch his slow and careful way forward through a haphazard jumble of out of place domestic debris scattered underfoot, he moves slowly into and through the gloom. Almost falling, he steadies himself against the tunnel wall and looks down to see why he tripped – to find at his feet the indistinct shape of someone asleep beneath a rug that doesn’t quite cover his body. Reaching down, he grasps the man by the shoulder to bring him awake and asks for directions. But when he gets no answer all the gathered tension, anxiety and lack of sleep explodes into anger and he tries to kick him awake – until in the beam of torchlight he stares into the dead eyes of a corpse. Abruptly he stumbles his way on through the darkness and stench of decay until at last he sees a faint shaft of light illuminating other frightened shapes of what? – creatures? – hiding from the noise of artillery thundering above them in the half-light of early morning. And just as suddenly as it all began, he finds himself climbing upwards out of the tunnel, hair wet with the sweat of effort and revulsion, finally to emerge into the new horror of the battle raging all around.
This is the core narrative of The Rear-Guard (you can find a copy here), the poem Sassoon wrote a few days after he was shot and transferred back to hospital in London. He was in great pain and still unwell enough for Edmund Gosse to tell Sassoon’s uncle that he believed him to be suffering from severe shock. Gosse, for all his qualities and talents, was not medically trained and so it is impossible to know whether in saying this he was repeating a comment by one of the attending doctors or trying to give a general description of how Sassoon seemed to him. Interestingly, Sassoon disagreed with Gosse, quoting the poem as proof that he wasn’t suffering from severe shock.
Whatever the truth of Sassoon’s condition Gosse’s comment is worth a moment’s consideration. “Shock” is actually a life-threatening condition as a result of insufficient blood flow throughout the body. Indeed, within that general definition it is necessary to identify particular types of shock, such as septic, anaphylactic, cardiogenic, hypovolemic (usually related to traumatic bodily injury, such as a bullet through the shoulder that narrowly misses the jugular vein and the spine by a fraction of an inch), and neurogenic shock related to spinal cord injury. All this, in addition to the emotional or psychological shock following a traumatic or frightening event.
It is likely that Gosse used the term more loosely as he saw his young friend lying in his hospital bed, for the usual physical symptoms of shock include such things as rapid, shallow breathing; cold, clammy skin; rapid, weak pulse; dizziness or fainting; weakness. Other symptoms (depending on the type of shock) can include anxiety or agitation and eyes that appear to be staring; seizures; confusion or unresponsiveness; low or no urine output; bluish lips and fingernails; sweating; and chest pain.
Whatever the medical accuracy of Gosse’s description it is clear that Sassoon was in a debilitated state – and it seems reasonable to assume that this would have a powerful influence on anything he wrote. Indeed, writing anything would seem to suggest just how important that writing must have been to him. As usual, it went through several drafts – but the first written attempts (you can find a copy here) show that he worked hard on it from the outset, with many alterations. To suggest that the circumstances in which this poem was written possibly results in a more deeply personal and less guarded work where the autobiographical element is perhaps more significant than usual is not immediately or necessarily invalid. If not, this would make it deserving of some closer attention.
Before looking at the poem in detail it is worth pointing out that the core narrative by itself smacks of the claustrophobic suffocating stuff of nightmares and night terrors. It is an extremely powerful and vivid depiction of what we might assume to be an event based on some similar incident he experienced when returning to his headquarters through Tunnel Trench the day before he was shot. But this does not appear to be the case, even though Sassoon adds a geographical and temporal exactitude in the sub-title (Hindenburg Line, April 1917), a place and time where and when he did travel through Tunnel Trench. We know (thanks especially to Jean Moorcroft Wilson’s painstaking research) that in fact Sassoon did not record this incident at the heart of the poem in his diary. Nor does it appear in the equally exhaustive history of the wartime logs of his regiment – J S Dunn’s The War the Infantry Knew 1914-1919: A Chronicle of Service in France and Belgium with the Second Battalion, His Majesty’s Twenty-Third Foot, the Royal Welch Fusiliers, published in 1938.
(Sassoon refers to “Kirkby shaking dead German by the shoulder to ask him the way” in his Journal for the period 11 April to 2 June, where it is listed under `Things to Remember’)
Even for the reader aware of Moorcroft Wilson’s research the visual realism and detailed context of the narrative story seem very much based on something essentially true. And even if the truth of the central event (the kicking of the dead soldier) is less certain the Journal confirms that Sassoon had been unable to sleep properly for days and was consequently more on edge. Further, encountering tunnels littered with debris in this way was not uncommon and the problems of trying to find one’s way via torchlight are well known and commonplace enough in everyday situations as well as on the battlefield. So the general physical context of the core story could well be based on an actual experience or set of experiences as indicated in the sub-title. Equally, they might have happened elsewhere and at different times and then applied to the more exact information of the sub-title without actually having existed at that precise time and in that precise place – in just the same way, for example, that modern film and television productions will use shots of different unrelated locations to create the sense of a central place.
This aura of realism establishes the poem’s power – so much so that Charles Scott Moncrieff, writing in G K Chesterton’s contemporary publication The New Witness of 18 October 1918, described the poem as “an amazing piece of war photography”. Indeed, to the modern eye it reads like a graphic novel or a film storyboard, containing enough detail to establish such notions as camera angles and placement and shot progression as well as stage directions pinning down the action. But the point to be made here is that the poem is not limited to merely reproducing this core narrative as poetry rather than prose – its reach is far greater than that. And that greater reach should be the subject of any analysis.
Of course, the core narrative helps define that greater reach to some extent. As we have noted, at this time Sassoon was writing poetry that expressed his rage against the continuation of the war and how it abused and damaged the soldiers ordered to carry it out at whatever cost. It would be reasonable to expect, then, that one of the elements the poem would add to the story would be this consistent sense of outrage expressed through some polemical drive or bitter lampoon – but the core narrative contains nothing of this. Its power derives from the neutral description of what happens and how the soldier reacts. Although there is an unsettling sense of confusion and displacement as he makes his careful way through the tunnel the explosion of verbal and physical violence when he comes across what he thinks is a sleeping rather than dead body is shocking because it erupts out of nothing. There is no attempt at satire of any kind here. E L Black (in his 1970 anthology 1914-18 in Poetry) comments that this act demonstrates “how war robs a dead man of all dignity and a living man of all humanity”. But this is a comment on the narrative rather than on the poem – which, I will argue later, offers a far more subtle reading.
The poem maintains this sense of neutral reportage of events in that the language register does not seek to expand or exaggerate the real sense of shock and revulsion at the centre of the poem. This placement of the explosion of verbal and physical violence at the very centre of the poem is, as I shall argue later, one of the elements of the poem’s greater reach in how Sassoon makes use of it.
The poem’s lack of exaggeration or polemic creates a powerful sense of unvarnished, unguarded truth at a time when, as just noted, Sassoon was offering a very deliberate viewpoint or interpretation of events. Indeed, he continued over the next months while undergoing treatment at Craiglockhart to continue to write a range of what we might call more developed but still archetypal Sassoon epigrams. So the fact that The Rear-Guard does not fit in this established pattern is both interesting and possibly significant. How can we explain it?
I have already introduced some ideas concerning the shock from which Gosse thought Sassoon was suffering. It is worth remembering that he needed to recover not only from the physical gunshot itself and the simultaneous emotional and psychological trauma but also from the rapid journey back to London and then the medical treatment he received there. The only medical treatment that he mentions receiving was anti-tetanus injections at the dressing station, and later being able at long last to fall asleep – which probably involved some form of sedation. At the time, treatment of gunshot wounds generally required anaesthesia – almost certainly a mixture of ether (diethyl) and chloroform. And while the principles of modern anaesthesia had been around in one form or another for some seventy years the practice (and choice of anaesthetics) was somewhat limited when compared to today. Whereas today medical journals are full of articles and research papers on the various effects of different anaesthetics on different patient groups divided by such factors as age, gender, medical condition, dosages and so on, in 1917 that sort of research was yet to begin. Ether and chloroform had disadvantages: ether was flammable, and chloroform could result in deaths and other injuries through the early difficulty of finding the correct dosage for individual patients. (The difference between an effective dose which was enough to make a patient insensible during surgery or a lethal one which would paralyse the lungs required skill and care). Equally, it was possible for the patient to recover some level of consciousness while still undergoing operations or procedures, resulting in awkward side-effects and possibly even lucid dreams or nightmares that could continue for extended periods of time.
In a fascinating paper in the February 2015 edition of the BJA (British Journal of Anaesthesia, Vol. 114, Issue 2) titled Neurological complications of surgery and anaesthesia, G.A. Mashour, D.T. Woodrum and M.S. Avidan review the incidence, risk factors, outcomes, prevention, and treatment of a number of important neurological complications in the perioperative period – the period which covers initial ward admission, anaesthesia, surgery, and recovery (you can find a copy here). They comment almost en passant:
“Delirium or agitation upon emergence from general anaesthesia occurs frequently”
Delirium is usually defined as a serious disturbance in mental abilities that results in confused thinking and reduced awareness of the environment. Onset can be sudden and intermittent. The Mayo Clinic explains that contributing factors include severe or chronic illness, changes in metabolic balance, medication, infection, surgery, or alcohol or drug intoxication or withdrawal (my italics). Changes in behaviour can present as hallucinations, restlessness and agitation or combative behaviour, and disturbed sleep patterns among others. Emotional disturbances are revealed through anxiety, fear or paranoia; depression; irritability or anger; and rapid and unpredictable mood shifts.
It seems to me that, even if Sassoon was not anaesthetised, the totality of the experience surrounding the severe and almost fatal wound and subsequent hospitalisation might well have an impact both on the core narrative of The Rear-Guard and on the wider poem. The core narrative certainly can be read as an exercise in disorientation, difficulty in seeing the world clearly, irritability and rapid and unpredictable mood shifts; and the poem uses language and structure to create a subset of meanings based on the central metaphor of the tunnel (used by other poets, of course) where all the action takes place underground, in the dark air rank with the decay of death, full of obstacles and anxieties. So it is tempting, then, to wonder whether the poem itself is a product of injury and medication, held in place by the scaffolding of Sassoon’s established linguistic facility and poetic techniques, and a conscious (or unconscious) metaphor for Sassoon’s own physical and mental state after being shot. Not only severely wounded, struggling with the sudden trauma and pain and trying to maintain a sense of normality (he wanted to carry on fighting and was busy planning a fresh assault until stood down by a written order from the colonel in charge of the situation) he found (as reported in his Journal) that a few hours later he was “hurting like hell”, feeling “very chilly and queer” and “half-dead for lack of sleep”. Irrespective of what he claimed publicly as to his willingness and preparedness to carry on, he was clearly incapacitated and unwell. He needed hospitalisation to recover at all. Or as the poem has it, “He climbed through darkness to the twilight air”, which is to say – not quite into the full light of day.
This interpretation helps explain the absence of those dominant elements in his poetry of the time already noted (no absolute rage, withering contempt, or scornful satire) because this poem becomes not so much about the need to persuade of the awfulness of war in a general sense but focuses on the pressures squeezing the individual. And as already suggested, it is likely that, for once, the individual here is Sassoon himself – even if the described encounter with and violence towards a dead body is probably more metaphorical than actual. It helps explain why the overall tone is confessional rather than polemical. And it becomes clear that, whether or not he wants to do so, Sassoon finds himself writing about something much more significant than one anonymous man’s journey through a tunnel beneath a battlefield.
His first concern, of course, is to create not only the visual impact of the situation but also a complementary linguistic one which functions within the chosen structure or architecture of the poem – and is itself a complex interaction between such technical aspects as vocabulary, metre, rhyme, sound (voiced or unvoiced) and so on, out of which there develops a sense of meaning beyond simple description.
It is clear that the poem was intended from the outset to portray a completed action: both the first and last lines end with the same phrase, “step by step”. However, the first manuscript copy is so full of alterations and crossings-out that it is difficult to be certain whether or not the poem was essentially written in one stanza of twenty-five lines. A later, more complete manuscript version (you can find a copy here – but note the mistake in dating!) offers the generally accepted division into four stanzas – though Moorcroft Wilson prints it as three stanzas of seven, eleven and seven lines, and others choose different options. If the poem is divided into stanzas that also reflect the sense of movement – going down and into the tunnel, tripping over what turns out to be a corpse, climbing up and out of the tunnel – then the visual shape on the page would follow a pattern of three, four, eleven, four and three line stanzas. As seen in the more complete but still unfinished manuscript version, Sassoon chooses to conflate the potential final two stanzas into one of seven lines. I am inclined to suggest that by retaining the opening two stanzas of three and four lines this creates a subtle imbalance on the page for the reader who is anticipating a consistent patterning. And further, that this subliminally mirrors the problem of physical imbalance which the soldier experiences as he goes deeper into the dark, underpinning that jumbled confusion of objects he has to negotiate without tripping over them. Further again, it could be argued that the irregularity of the rhyme scheme helps to gently suggest the trauma and disorientation of the experience.
(As already mentioned, in terms of the architecture beyond the division into stanzas there is another deliberate feature: the line Sassoon places at the exact centre of the poem. As promised, I will comment on this below a little later.)
Likewise, the mix of tenses and direct speech used to construct the narrative mirrors other pieces and helps develop the nightmarish quality of the experience; even at first reading the subtle repetitions of sound rippling throughout the lines catch the attention; then there is the careful camouflage of the slippery rhyme scheme which suggests a lack of control of events; and yet further the poem uses one of Sassoon’s regular literary devices of depersonification to open the poem by describing the soldier’s behaviour as rodent-like (by the end of the poem deepening into shades of what we might term a psychological depersonalisation); and so on.
As suggested, the mix of tenses driving the narrative is instrumental in creating the nightmare atmosphere of the poem, which tells the story of something that happened in the past. But the use of the present participle (“Groping”) as the opening word means that Sassoon invests what follows with a sense of the immediate, suggesting that the events happen as we read because we are abruptly in the middle of the unfolding experience. This sense of inclusion is reinforced by the use of the present tense in the explanation as to why the anonymous soldier is so bad-tempered – “For days he’s had no sleep” (my italics) – which is essentially the equivalent of the dramatic device of having a character address the audience directly and so involving them in the action onstage. As such, it is somewhat reminiscent of the direct appeal to the reader – “Lend him your eyes, warm blood, and will to live” – in The Death-Bed. But the reference to lack of sleep also fits in with the sense of unease mentioned above, the nightmare quality of “sweat of horror in his hair” – suggestive of Sassoon’s physical condition at the time of writing.
This uneasy feeling that the reader is both witnessing a past event and simultaneously – by the simple act of reading – creating it anew in an eternal present is subtly reinforced by the repetitions of sound patterns throughout the lines that carry over from one stanza into another. Allied to the elusive rhyme scheme this helps develop another uneasy feeling of a poem balanced on the edge of control – although we should remember that this unease is very much created and controlled by Sassoon: it is deliberate. It is also, in this and other aspects, surprisingly modern and prescient. Sassoon is finding ways through which to suggest that he isn’t controlling what happens. Just like the items in the second stanza, everything here is somewhat jumbled, indistinct or out of place and unsettling – the smashed mirror immediately calls up the old superstition of seven years’ bad luck and thus reinforces the growing realisation that the tunnel is somehow a negative place to be. Things being out of place and at the edge of control is the dominant poetic atmosphere Sassoon wishes to create.
The way he uses all these various technical aspects – coherent and mutually reinforcing – is testament to his basic talent despite the fact that his chosen mode of dealing with his war experience had become the minimalist epigram. Not only this, but in this poem elements which we recognise as part of his armoury – such as the depersonification at the beginning which describes how the soldier “sniffed” his way into and through the tunnel – clearly serve a different purpose from his usual reductionism into mere animalism. In Fight to a Finish, say, the Yellow-Pressmen grunt and squeal like pigs because they deserve to be seen as animals only fit for slaughter, having forfeited their humanity by peddling lies about the war. The use and purpose of the depersonification in The Rear-Guard is quite different – the anonymous soldier is described in terms of rodent-like behaviours not because he has lost his humanity but because the circumstances in which he finds himself give him no choice – groping, winking and sniffing are the only means he has of safely navigating his way through the fetid darkness of the tunnel.
So rather than forfeiting his humanity through duplicity or venality or some other sinful pursuit the war has stripped him of his humanity because it is the best way (if not the only way) to have any chance of survival. It is not for nothing that when he encounters the half-hidden sleeper the only emotion is “Savage” – for one of the costs of war is the loss of all the years of struggle to reach some sense of civilised behaviour. This opening depersonification also prefigures the “dazed, muttering creatures underground” in the final verse who are seeking shelter from the noise of war raging above them – which seems to be a reference to the rats which scrape a living from the trenches, but because of the opening lines could be (and almost certainly is) a group of shell shocked less-than-human soldiers trying instinctively to avoid being butchered. Not so much depersonification as depersonalisation.
This changed use of a familiar technique suggests that Sassoon is grappling with something deeply personal. Trying to tell things as they are has always been a driving force in his war poetry. I argued earlier that he uses the technique of accurate reportage or observation as a form of illeism (which is usually defined as the tendency to speak of oneself in the third person) in order to create an emotional space which can be filled by sarcasm or other forms of satire that helps shield the writer from the impact of what he is describing. Psychologically, however, it also involves or indicates a cognitive dissonance in which a narrator or interlocutor is fighting a loss of the sense of personal being – as evidenced in the use of “creatures” illuminated by “Dawn’s ghost” and reinforcing the argument that Sassoon uses the literary cartoon as a cathartic coping mechanism which helps sustain him from having to deal directly with the horrors he faces on a daily basis. But The Rear-Guard is not a literary cartoon – and because of this it paints a stark picture of a man’s collapse and the breakdown of his self-image as a civilised being without any sheltering distance of sarcasm or satire. His only excuse is lack of sleep.
How does Sassoon construct other extra layers of meaning, then? The most obvious technique is to use the simple fact that everything takes place inside an underground tunnel. The final line locks this into place, of course, where the poem ends:
“Unloading hell behind him step by step”
which makes it clear that the tunnel is to be interpreted as the location of the Underworld in ancient myth, where heroes get lost or attempt to rescue their wives from the grip of death. This placement at the very end insists that it ripples back through the poem in a new light. If everything in the tunnel is subtly out of place it is because everything is Dis-placed, located both actually and metaphorically in the subterranean world of the dead. Hell is a place of punishment and torture, a most fitting setting for what is described.
Other enlargements of meaning become more visible if we consider the several echoes between The Redeemer and The Rear-Guard. Although it would be nonsense to argue that Sassoon consciously linked the two poems it is nonetheless instructive to take note of such echoes as part of what I called earlier “the scaffolding of Sassoon’s established linguistic facility and poetic techniques.”
Both poems, then, bring into sharp focus images of suffering – the crucified Christ and the decaying agonised body deep in the tunnel – but used for quite different emotional impact. In the earlier poem is an unequivocal statement of the guarantee of redemption:
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
We have already noticed that the very first word of The Rear-Guard is “Groping”. Within the terms of the earlier poem, then, our soldier has already been blessed and forgiven his actions – however monstrous they may be – by Christ’s sacrifice. That redemption opens up “bright” air to the one made fair and brought into the light of grace. But this is most vehemently not so in the later poem, where the descriptions of the quality of air and light are quite different: for we are smothered and suffocated in “the unwholesome air” in “this stinking place”, and the only air of freedom is “the twilight air” as the day begins to grow slowly out of darkness; and the only light that pierces the darkness of the tunnel is the “patching glare” of a “prying torch” beneath the “rosy gloom” until “Dawn’s ghost that filtered down” shows not someone washed and made fair by grace but a group of broken terrified men trapped underground.
And though darkness is a feature of both poems again there are important differences. In the earlier poem the darkness is less oppressive, part of the natural cycle of night and day, cleansed by rain and broken by “the distant wink” of artillery fire. But in the later poem the darkness is enclosed and claustrophobic, broken only by the unnatural light of the torch and where the only sign of gunfire is aural not visual – and even then is described as “muffled”.
I would suggest that these echoes and differences throw into sharp relief the fact that the later poem reveals a Sassoon more experienced in the tragedies and horrors of war and thus far less confident about the assurance of salvation. The consolatory element of The Redeemer has been replaced by something much grimmer: the bleak acceptance that, if redemption is not guaranteed suffering certainly is – and that if one is not dead the stark choice is to endure and endure and slowly move forward and up into whatever the murky light holds or to crouch terrified and broken in the shadows where that imperfect light meets the dreadful dark and the stench of rotting flesh.
And there is yet another connection to be made, because one of the truly impressive aspects of The Rear-Guard is the fact that (apart, perhaps, from the words “Savage”, “livid” and “glaring” – to which I will return) the language does not carry any specific baggage of indignation, scorn or rage. Sassoon does not rail against perceived injustice or betrayal or moral squalor but accepts the world as it is and suffers it however dreadful, degrading and demeaning it may be. The connection is this same acceptance can be found in The Redeemer, where men are “not uncontent to die”. The important difference is that the stoicism in The Rear-Guard is far from unthinking and directed towards the problem faced by men who are, perhaps, not uncontent to live but have to deal with the consequences of survival.
If we consider the architecture of the poem again for a moment, especially with reference to the line at its very centre, then we find yet another coherence. Although perfectly consistent with the frustrated outburst and curse of the previous lines, if we read it not as an abrasive authoritarian order but as a plea for help then it becomes symbolic of the wider situation of all the men caught up in the maelstrom of war:
“Get up and guide me through this stinking place.”
sheathed as it is between the verbal and then physical violence of the encounter between the dead and the living. How does one survive such horrors in any meaningful sense? How does one live one’s life if one does survive? If we read the poem here as showing the living soldier caught between the only other human beings we meet, one dead the others at least half dead, then the answers seem bleak. Is the poem suggesting that the only alternatives in war are death, unthinking violence as a result of physical and moral exhaustion, and shell shock leading to madness? Or is it making a more general point about the human condition, that we are all of us alone and fragile, shell-shocked by the madness of life, awaiting death? Given Sassoon’s own situation at the time of writing such bleakness is, perhaps, understandable. It is no surprise that the first words of the final stanza emphasise that the soldier staggers on “Alone”. As we saw in the Journal entries at the very beginning of this discussion, Sassoon always felt alone despite his friendships. Indeed, he saw it as his destiny.
It seems to me that the most significant echo between the two poems is in the fact they both derive the centre of their action and meaning from moments of illumination: the “blanching flare” of The Redeemer matched by the “patching glare” of The Rear-Guard immediately following the violence against what turns out to be a corpse. Given that one opens up the world to the possibility of redemption because of Christ’s sacrifice while in the other the anonymous sacrifice only causes yet more violence, it might seem that the echo emphasises a gulf rather than a closeness – but it is not so stark as that. It seems to me that the torch reveals a wider resonance alongside the personal intensity of the moment.
The poem’s careful choice of vocabulary to describe that moment when the soldier realises the man is dead offers a vision far more encompassing than the core narrative of the event. Flashing “his beam” (my italics) reveals “the livid face” (my italics). Note that the beam belongs not to the torch at this point but to the soldier – it is “his”. Following this, “livid” is a word of rich connotations here. It carries not only the notion of discolouration but also a weight of anger and resentment at being kicked in this way. In other words, Sassoon here describes a relationship between the two men through the clear and powerful sense of a meaningful glance between them – continued, of course, by the use of “glaring”, which reinforces the sense of outrage as well as the fixity of the stare. Further, the soldier can instantly assess how long the man has been dead – even through the sudden shock of the moment – and acknowledge and recognise the “Agony” he has suffered. (Again, this is not an accidental or careless word: it is the precise word used in the Gospels to describe the climax of Christ’s suffering in the garden at Gethsemane.)
If we accept that the poem from its opening description of the soldier as a burrowing rat-like creature sets in motion the argument that war obliterates those qualities of feeling and compassion and empathy which we like to think of as core characteristics of the human being, then this sudden understanding between the two men shows that perhaps not all is totally lost. The flash of the torch beam allows the two men, the living and the dead, to share a common humanity that transcends even the degradation of the “Savage” kick. This suggestion of recognition despite the horror and shame of the moment offers a glimpse of the possibility of redemption even now. The soldier does, after all, move past and beyond the “creatures” huddled at the bottom of the steps; he is able to climb up into the noise and tumult of battle and face that which has destroyed them.
So where does this argument take us on our journey through the poem? It seems to me – as all my previous comments on Sassoon’s trench poetry have tried to argue – that at the heart of his work is the ongoing conflict between, in Woolf’s terms, the soldier undergoing experiences and the poet writing about them; and that this is further compounded by the poet’s determination that all the spurious propaganda about the glory and transcendence of war (Owen’s “The old Lie” in Dulce et Decorum Est – you can find a copy here) needed to be challenged, whatever the professional and personal cost. Throughout his work, to greater or lesser degree, I would claim that Sassoon’s most important audience was himself, that his trench poetry was one long conversation with himself about how to maintain some kind of moral integrity in the face of such carnage, horror and greed.
If so, then The Rear-Guard forms part of that continuing dialogue with the self – the themes it deals with do not arise from any particular or specific events that may or may not have happened but spring from this long debate with himself and which caused him such anguish.
However debatable such a view may be, I want to finish by returning to that third stanza to look at an aspect of it that we have hitherto ignored: how the unfortunate victim died. On one level, of course, it is essentially irrelevant; but Sassoon is at pains to address it, even going so far as to alter part of the original text – “Wake up, you sod!” replaced by “God blast your neck!” – which, although it does not fix the locus of the wound clearly prefigures and shapes (as was intended) the way and where the “fists of fingers clutched a blackening wound”. This strongly suggests that consciously or unconsciously, Sassoon used his own wound as the model. And while this might well have had very little surface significance for him, being a convenient plot device for the narrative, there is a further somewhat intriguing piece of information: the man had died “ten days before” – possibly close to the time period between Sassoon’s getting shot and the final writing of the poem. Again, this was probably seen by him as another example of mining one’s own experience for literary ends – all writers do it. Nonetheless, it can have a significance beyond Sassoon’s intention, such as the well-known survivor guilt of having not been killed when so many countless others have died – and for no reason other than a fraction of an inch. And we know that Sassoon did suffer from such guilt, as he expressed in Sick Leave (you can find a copy here).
So what might have been “a significance beyond Sassoon’s intention”? As we have seen, usually the narrative persona in his poems is in some way representative of the poet in exactly the same way that the narrative events described seem representative of all the similar experiences the poet has contended with – we have to fight hard to separate the two. If we interpret the coincidence of the corpse dying of the same or almost the same wound that so nearly killed Sassoon as coming from some deep trauma within his psyche – for certainly it was a deeply traumatic shock – then the question arises: should we recognise Sassoon in both the anonymous soldier struggling to find his way safely through the tunnel and also in the corpse he encounters, decaying, abandoned, forgotten? And if so, is the dreadful moment at the very centre of the poem so powerful because it is emblematic of Sassoon confronting himself?
It is, of course, impossible to know how valid such a reading might be. But the poem is, as noted several times already, at its core and on the page essentially about fragmentation and displacement and the anxiety and fear they bring in their train. It offers a portrait of how the nightmare world of war causes the individual caught up in the disintegration of normality and normal values that is the fact of life in the trenches to break down in a disintegration of his own. Lost, as Kovel put it in the previous section, in “a chaotic swarm of broken-off bits of the self diffused in a sea of hatred.” It seems to me that this is a perfect description of how the poem operates and what it is about.
However one chooses to read The Rear-Guard it is undeniably a fine and profound achievement, whatever the state of Sassoon’s physical and mental health at the time of writing.
© 2019 Mike Liddell