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Old 01-07-2013, 03:52 PM   #1
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The War Poems of Siegfried Sassoon

This is the MR Literary Club selection for January 2013. If you've already read it or would like to read it, feel free to join in the conversation at any time!

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So, what are you thoughts on it?


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Old 01-07-2013, 07:01 PM   #2
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I love that cover.
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Old 01-08-2013, 05:50 PM   #3
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I think one of the most noticeable features of his war poetry is the sense of deep indignation and fury. Note his comment on the Menin Gate Memorial:

On Passing the new Menin Gate
by Siegfried Sassoon

Who will remember, passing through this Gate,
The unheroic Dead who fed the guns?
Who shall absolve the foulness of their fate,—
Those doomed, conscripted, unvictorious ones?
Crudely renewed, the Salient holds its own.
Paid are its dim defenders by this pomp;
Paid, with a pile of peace-complacent stone,
The armies who endured that sullen swamp.

Here was the world’s worst wound. And here with pride
‘Their name liveth for ever,’ the Gateway claims.
Was ever an immolation so belied
As these intolerably nameless names?
Well might the Dead who struggled in the slime
Rise and deride this sepulchre of crime.

This was written in 1927 and the fury is still unabated.
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Old 01-10-2013, 06:40 PM   #4
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There must have been a lot of anger felt by those who had endured the horrors, especially at all the sanitising of the whole thing that went on afterwards. I have a medal which was in a box of coins that came from my father's family, but in fact this medal belonged to a great-uncle on my mother's side of the family. He was in the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada in WW1. In case you can't read the inscription, it says "The Great War for Civilisation 1914-1919". I suppose they could hardly admit what a ghastly mess it was, but still ...
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Old 01-17-2013, 05:24 AM   #5
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I'm not generally a fan of poetry, and on the whole, I'm not enjoying Sassoon's poetry. I don't doubt the passion or the anger, I just don't get much from reading most of it.

This one is a notable exception, though:

Suicide in Trenches

I knew a simple soldier boy
Who grinned at life in empty joy,
Slept soundly through the lonesome dark,
And whistled early with the lark.

In winter trenches, cowed and glum,
With crumps and lice and lack of rum,
He put a bullet through his brain.
No one spoke of him again.

* * * * *

You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you'll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.

I'm not sure why, but that one really speaks to my emotions in a way that the others (and poems generally) don't. It may be because I've long been angered by people that call for war without thinking about the consequences.
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Old 01-18-2013, 03:45 AM   #6
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I found one of the most powerful of the poems to be the one called "Reconciliation":

When you are standing at your hero's grave,
Or near some homeless village where he died,
Remember, through your heart's rekindling pride,
The German soldiers who were loyal and brave.

Men fought like brutes; and hideous things were done:
And you have nourished hatred, harsh and blind.
But in that Golgotha perhaps you'll find
The mothers of the men who killed your son.

(November 1918)

I find it interesting, the contrast between the rabid anti-German feeling that seemed to be so common among the civilian population during WW1 (here in Australia too by all accounts) and the fellow-feeling felt by many of the British and allied soldiers for their German counterparts. They were all suffering together in a hell created by their respective leaders.

I have also been considering why I find the poems of Wilfred Owen more moving than those of Siegfried Sassoon. I think it is a combination of knowing that he did not survive, and also the use of his poems in Benjamin Britten's "War Requiem". This is an incredibly powerful work written in the 1960s for the new Coventry Cathedral, combining some of the poems of Owen with words from the requiem mass.

I think all these poems should be required reading for all politicians itching to send more of their citizens off to war.
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Old 01-18-2013, 05:19 AM   #7
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Bookpossum View Post
I have also been considering why I find the poems of Wilfred Owen more moving than those of Siegfried Sassoon. I think it is a combination of knowing that he did not survive, and also the use of his poems in Benjamin Britten's "War Requiem". This is an incredibly powerful work written in the 1960s for the new Coventry Cathedral, combining some of the poems of Owen with words from the requiem mass.

I think all these poems should be required reading for all politicians itching to send more of their citizens off to war.
I share your feelings about the war poetry of Owen. Personally, I think that Owen's poetry is generally more moving because his very real anger is modulated by a sense of deep pity. Contrast the treatment of the disabled soldier.

First Sassoon:

Does It Matter?

Does it matter?-losing your legs?
For people will always be kind,
And you need not show that you mind
When others come in after hunting
To gobble their muffins and eggs.

Does it matter?-losing you sight?
There’s such splendid work for the blind;
And people will always be kind,
As you sit on the terrace remembering
And turning your face to the light.

Do they matter-those dreams in the pit?
You can drink and forget and be gald,
And people won't say that you’re mad;
For they know that you've fought for your country,
And no one will worry a bit.

And here's Owen's approach to a similar subject in the final two verses of "Disabled"

Some cheered him home, but not as crowds cheer Goal.
Only a solemn man who brought him fruits
Thanked him; and then enquired about his soul.

Now, he will spend a few sick years in institutes,
And do what things the rules consider wise,
And take whatever pity they may dole.
Tonight he noticed how the women's eyes
Passed from him to the strong men that were whole.
How cold and late it is! Why don't they come
And put him into bed? Why don't they come?

It was a meeting with Sassoon when both were convalescing that inspired Owen to write most of his greatest war poetry. They became close friends but Owen was killed by a sniper very near the end of the war.

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Old 01-18-2013, 06:26 PM   #8
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Yes I agree - Owen's poetry lacks the bitterness that is in Sassoon's poems.

Another thought: the final poem in Sassoon's collection (in my edition anyway) is "Everyone Sang" which is one of his really famous poems. It is very beautiful, but somehow it seems quite separate from all his other poems about the war - a sudden "happy ever after" sort of ending after all the grim realities of what they had all been through.

Perhaps he felt like that in April 1919, the first spring of the peace. Then as time went on, he became more cynical and bitter because of the aftermath of the war and the glorifying, as in the Menin Gate poem you quote above, fantasyfan.
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Old 01-22-2013, 05:29 AM   #9
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Sassoon wrote They" in 1916.

THE Bishop tells us: ‘When the boys come back
‘They will not be the same; for they’ll have fought
‘In a just cause: they lead the last attack
‘On Anti-Christ; their comrades’ blood has bought
‘New right to breed an honourable race,
‘They have challenged Death and dared him face to face.’

‘We’re none of us the same!’ the boys reply.
‘For George lost both his legs; and Bill’s stone blind;
‘Poor Jim’s shot through the lungs and like to die;
‘And Bert’s gone syphilitic: you’ll not find
‘A chap who’s served that hasn’t found some change.’
And the Bishop said: ‘The ways of God are strange!’

It reminds me a bit of a scene in All Quiet On The Western Front when the young soldier refuses to exalt and glorify war to young students and their teacher. There's the same bitter tone. though the schoolroom scene has less sarcasm.

Sassoon has an interesting comment on the poem

" . . . after a long evening, . . . I was so sleepy, I could hardly keep my eyes open, but the thing wrote itself. And Eddie Marsh, when I showed it ti him one wet morning sais "It's too horrible,'. As I was walking back I actually met 'the Bishop' (of London} and he turned a mild shining gaze on me. . . ."

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Old 01-22-2013, 10:16 PM   #10
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I was pleased at the opportunity to read this collection of poems, I have been curious about Sassoon ever since reading Good-Bye to All That by Robert Graves. In that autobiography, Graves frequently alludes to his relationship with Sassoon. Speaking of which one of my favorites poems was this one:

Quote:
THE HERO

“Jack fell as he’d have wished,” the Mother said,
And folded up the letter that she’d read.
“The Colonel writes so nicely.” Something broke
In the tired voice that quavered to a choke.
She half looked up. “We mothers are so proud
Of our dead soldiers.” Then her face was bowed.
Quietly the Brother Officer went out.
He’d told the poor old dear some gallant lies
That she would nourish all her days, no doubt.
For while he coughed and mumbled, her weak eyes
Had shone with gentle triumph, brimmed with joy,
Because he’d been so brave, her glorious boy.
He thought how “Jack,” cold-footed, useless swine,
Had panicked down the trench that night the mine
Went up at Wicked Corner; how he’d tried
To get sent home; and how, at last, he died,
Blown to small bits. And no one seemed to care
Except that lonely woman with white hair.
In Good-bye to All That, Graves talks about an obscene letter (supposedly written by the mother of a young British soldier killed in the war) that was published in papers in England and heralded as showing the wonderful indomitable spirit that exhibited the best of the home front. I wish I could actually quote the letter as Graves did, but when I read this it was in a paper book and checked out from my local library. To give a summary though it was the mother going on about how happy and proud she was that she had a son that was available to be killed for the good of God and country and how she just wished she had another son that she could also contribute to the cause. Thanks to Issybird for being the one to recommend Good-bye to All That for a book club selection some time ago by the way.

I actually appreciated all of these poems and could make this a very long post indeed by quoting in entirety just a few of those that made a particular impression on me. So I will just list the titles of those:
  • Stand-to Good Friday Morning
  • The Dug-Out
  • Base Details
  • Editorial Impression
  • Fight to a Finish
  • Joy Bells
  • The Tombstone-maker
  • Memorial Tablet
  • Aftermath

I actually had a relative that fought in WWI. He was part of the American Expeditionary Force and saw combat in France. Of course America did not enter the war until Germany was on the verge of collapse, so he did not share the sort of experiences that the soldiers on both sides had endured for years that inspired these poems. When he would talk to me about the war and his experience in it though he really at the time thought he was fighting to make the world a better place forever; “The War to End All Wars.” Sad that when the peace was negotiated with such harsh terms for Germany—To the Winners the Spoils—that another war was almost inevitable.
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Old 01-27-2013, 05:09 PM   #11
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shame on me, I've never read Owen, so I can't compare, but I do agree with the rawness of Sassoon's poems, which I quite like. One aspect of his writing that struck me considerably is the fact that his verses rhyme, and at least to my ear this increased considerably the dramatic effect, in the sense that the strident contrast between the "singsong" and the content of the verse adds to their grimness.

Many of these poems refer to passages of Sassoon's The complete memoirs of George Sherston, another great suggestion by Issybird, or rather many passages expand on the poems, and I am glad I read the memoirs first (a great read by the way).

As Hamlet, I found myself highlighting so much of the text to make highlighting pointless - however I'll just add this (from The Kiss, where the sister is the bayonet), which perhaps helps me clarify my point above:

Quote:
Sweet Sister, grant your soldier this;
That in good fury he may feel
The body where he sets his heel
Quail from your downward darting kiss.
- and the implied necessity of that "good fury" makes me shiver.
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Old 01-27-2013, 05:23 PM   #12
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I've never read either one, but they look like interesting reading. Thanks for the link. One poem by another soldier I have heard of is this one:
Quote:
HIGH FLIGHT

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of—wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air....
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark nor even eagle flew—
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

John Gillespie Magee

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Old 01-27-2013, 05:37 PM   #13
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A Treasury of War Poetry British and American Poems of the World War 1914-1917
http://www.amazon.com/Treasury-Briti...+War+1914-1917

The Collected Poems of Wilfred Owen
http://www.amazon.com/Collected-Poem...d_sim_kstore_4
Owen's is currently .99 cents at Amazon.
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Old 01-27-2013, 05:45 PM   #14
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There must have been a lot of anger felt by those who had endured the horrors, especially at all the sanitising of the whole thing that went on afterwards. I have a medal which was in a box of coins that came from my father's family, but in fact this medal belonged to a great-uncle on my mother's side of the family. He was in the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada in WW1. In case you can't read the inscription, it says "The Great War for Civilisation 1914-1919". I suppose they could hardly admit what a ghastly mess it was, but still ...
As I've heard it one thing that led it to ending when it did was the flu. Back then it was a far deadlier strain than we know now and it led to a shortage of troops well enough to fight. It's also why they had laws about spitting on the sidewalk as it could be transmitted so easily that way. Old newsreels show police and others wearing a mask when out in public in hopes of not catching it. My paternal grandfather was in WWI. He forgot to have his ear protection on during artillery training and his hearing ended up being affected as he got older. You could be several blocks away and tell when he was watching TV according to my Dad, his hearing got that bad due to damage from the sound of the artillery shells.
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Old 01-27-2013, 07:11 PM   #15
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Yes, that poem by John Magee is beautiful - I remember reading it at school. Of course it was a very different experience from that of Sassoon, Owen and Graves, as he was in the air force in WW2 I believe.
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