Until 1914, young Siegfried Sassoon, a wealthy English gentleman, spent his days fox hunting and playing sports. He was also a poet, albeit a minor one, of the Georgian school, a group of poets dedicated to infusing English poetry with the beauty of nature. All this changed when Europe exploded into war in August of 1914. The rest of Sassoon's long life would be spent coming to terms with his experiences fighting in the trenches of the Western Front as a Second Lieutenant in the Royal Welch Fusiliers from 1915 to 1918. A courageous war hero who rescued his men from certain death on the field, Sassoon also protested the war and risked court-martial.
“‘Blighters,’” published in 1917 as a part of the collection The Old Huntsman and Other Poems is an excellent example of Sassoon's talent for satiric, confrontational poetry, and is still in print in many collections of Sassoon's poetry, including The War Poems of Siegfried Sassoon, reprinted by Echo Press in 2006. Written in response to a revue at the Liverpool Hippodrome, which Sassoon attended in January, 1917, “‘Blighters’” attacks the civilians at home in England, the “blighters” of the title, for their ill-founded, excessive, and shallow patriotism. Their lack of understanding of the reality of war and of the conditions in the trenches elicits hatred in the narrator of the poem.
Siegfried Sassoon was born on September 8, 1886, to the wealthy family of Alfred Ezra Sassoon and Theresa Georgiana Thornycroft Sassoon near Warminster, Kent, England. Alfred Sassoon's family were Sephardic Jews who had historically established a large merchant business, extending from Baghdad to Bombay through Europe. Theresa Thornycroft was from a wealthy country family, many of whom were sculptors, including her uncle and mother. She was eight years older than Alfred Sassoon, and she was a Christian, making her doubly unsuitable in the eyes of Alfred's family. The couple married secretly in 1884 without the approval of the Sassoon family, and chose to live in the country near the Thornycrofts.
Siegfried was the second of three sons born to Alfred and Theresa. However, the marriage proved to be an unhappy one. Sassoon's father left the family in 1891 and went to London with his lover. In 1895, Alfred Sassoon died of tuberculosis. Siegfried Sassoon suffered extreme grief over his father's death and was not permitted to attend the funeral. The sense of loss apparently haunted him for much of his life.
Sassoon's education was largely carried out at home, and he was very close to his mother. In 1902, he matriculated at Marlborough College and ultimately attended Clare College, Cambridge. He was not a particularly talented scholar, and left Cambridge without a degree, spending the next years living in the country, fox hunting and writing poetry. He self-published a series of books between 1906 and 1914. He belonged to a school of poets referred to as the Georgians. The group produced beautiful sounding poetry that took nature as its subject.
By 1914, Sassoon had grown increasingly dissatisfied with his life. He enlisted in the military three days before England declared war on Germany. After breaking his arm in a fall from a horse, he left the cavalry and obtained a commission as a lieutenant in the Royal Welch Fusiliers, arriving in France in November, 1915. It was at his first assignment as a transport officer that he met fellow poet and writer Robert Graves, a man who was to have tremendous importance in Sassoon's life. During this period, Sassoon wrote a number of poems about the glory of war, somewhat in the manner of Rupert
Brooke, a popular English soldier who died early in the war while in transit to battle.
By 1916, much of the glamour of the war had faded for Sassoon. His brother Hamo had been killed fighting at the terrible defeat at Gallipoli in Turkey in 1915, and David Thomas, a young soldier Sassoon was in love with, also was killed in 1916. March of 1916 found Sassoon in the trenches, earning a reputation as a heroic and reckless officer. He rescued a number of his men from No-Man's-Land (the area between the English and the German trenches) while under fire, and earned for himself the nickname “Mad Jack.” All in all, his behavior was both brave and suicidal.
Sassoon became ill with trench fever in July of 1916 and was sent home to England to recover. During this time, he began writing the war poetry for which he became famous, including “‘Blighters.’” He returned to the trenches, only to be shot in the shoulder in 1917. Again, he was sent to England to recover. At this time, he became friendly with members of the British peace movement, including Lady Ottoline Morrell, and became increasingly disenchanted with the war. Significantly, Sassoon always supported his fellow soldiers, but grew angry and bitter about the politicians and people at the home front.
While on recovery leave, Sassoon attended a musical review at the Liverpool Hippodrome that filled him with anger and distaste. It was this review that was the inspiration for “‘Blighters,’” a poem that he included in The Old Huntsman, and Other Poems, published in 1917.
In May 1917, Sassoon wrote an essay called “A Soldier's Declaration.” This statement, sent to Sassoon's commanding officer, the London Times, and many influential people, stated his belief that the war was being mishandled by the politicians and that soldiers were paying the price for their corruption. His words bordered on treason.
Robert Graves, working behind the scenes, convinced Sassoon's superiors that he was suffering from shell shock, and that he should not be held responsible for his words. As a result, Sassoon was sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital near Edinburgh, Scotland, to be treated. There he met Captain William H. R. Rivers, a psychiatrist, who treated him for three months. The relationship proved to be an important one for Sassoon who found in Rivers the father he had missed since childhood. Sassoon also befriended and deeply influenced the young poet Wilfred Owen, also at Craiglockhart being treated for shell shock.
Eventually, Sassoon asked to be sent back to France to be with his soldiers. On July 18, 1918, he was shot in the head by one of his own men who mistook him for a German. He was sent back to England again to recover, and only the November 11 armistice prevented him returning yet again to the trenches. In 1918, Sassoon's second volume of war poems, Counter-Attack, and Other Poems was published.
Sassoon returned to the years of his youth, ending with his experiences during World War I, again and again in his later writing. He wrote three novels that were thinly veiled personal memoirs between 1929 and 1936. He followed this by writing three books of memoirs, revisiting the same territory, between 1938 and 1945. In all, Sassoon published over sixty books before his death from cancer in Wiltshire, England in 1967. His diaries were published during the 1980s.
Although Sassoon attempted to distance himself in later years from the war poetry, it is ironic that these are the very poems for which Sassoon is best remembered.
This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.
“‘Blighters’” is a poem comprised of eight lines, divided into two stanzas. As such, it is a very compact poem; Sassoon packs many meanings into just a few short lines.
- Poets of the Great War is an audiobook featuring the poetry of Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, and Isaac Rosenberg, among others. The audiobook was produced by NAXOS Audibooks in 2001.
The title of the poem itself, for example, is particularly interesting. In the first place, Sassoon places the title in quotation marks, suggesting that the title is a quotation from some common soldier, or that there is something ironic about the title. A blight is a disease or by extension, affliction. It can also be used as a verb: a war can blight the land. To complicate matters, soldiers during World War I called England (and, by extension, wherever their home was) “blighty.” In addition, in common slang, a blighter is an unfortunate fellow. (North Americans might use the term “poor guy” in the same way.) Consequently, blighters means, simultaneously, someone or something that causes a blight; someone who lives in England or at home; and an unfortunate fellow. The title, then, becomes both pitying when directed at the soldiers at the front, and accusatory when directed at the people at home.
In the first line, Sassoon writes: “The house is crammed: tier beyond tier they grin.” The house he refers to is a music hall where “they” sit crowded together to watch a show. In one sense, they are the blighters of the title: people who have stayed at home and have the free time to go to the theater to watch chorus girls sing and dance.
In the second line, the people in the audience “cackle at the Show,” and Sassoon capitalizes the word show. This small detail lets readers know that he is referring not only to the show that the audience is watching, but also to the war. The soldiers often referred to a battle or military engagement as a “show.” The effect is emphasized by placing the chorus girls in “ranks,” meaning a row or file, but also a term often used in connection with military maneuvers.
Sassoon calls the chorus girls singing on the stage “harlots” in line three. A harlot is a prostitute, and Sassoon's use of this word to describe the chorus girls suggests his deep anger at the women. In addition, as prostitutes, harlots debase themselves by acting lewdly. Thus, as they “shrill” the chorus, they are acting out what Sassoon sees as a depraved and debauched treatment of a serious issue. In addition, by using the word shrill as a verb rather than as an adjective, he makes the whole scene more graphic and more active.
The chorus that the girls sing in line four: “We're sure the Kaiser loves the dear old Tanks!” also disgusts the narrator of the poem. The Kaiser is the king of Germany. His image was used in many propaganda posters and images in England during the time. The line from the song is sarcastic and satiric in its own right: of course the Kaiser does not love the tanks. What the song implies is that the British tanks are so strong that they will destroy the Kaiser and all his soldiers. It is a way of taunting the enemy and asserting the superiority of British technology. However, Sassoon takes offense at people at home joking about things they know nothing about.
Line five opens the second quatrain. In this line, the narrator speaks in his own voice for the first time, contrasting what he would “like to see” with what he is seeing on the stage. In disgust and anger, he says that he would “like to see a Tank come down the stalls.” The stalls are simply the places where people sit; however, the word stall also refers to a place where animals are kept. The double meaning helps paint a picture of the crowd as bestial in its response to the show.
In line six, Sassoon creates an image of a tank, dancing to ragtime music, or the popular song “Home, sweet Home.” Were this to somehow be real, the raucous scene in the music hall would quickly shift from one of laughter, noise, and disrespect to one of terror and fear. The juxtaposition of a tank with the song “Home sweet Home” is particularly troubling; supposedly, the army is fighting in France to protect the people at home. However, their lack of understanding of the situation in France and of the men who are dying horrible deaths there moves the narrator to wish for the death and destruction of “Home sweet Home.” It is a deep paradox that Sassoon uncovers in this line: he hates the blighters at home, the very people he is sworn to protect.
In the final two lines, Sassoon delivers his message. He states that if the people at home were really to see a tank in their midst, they would not find themselves in a joking mood. He makes clear that he finds music hall shows about the war to be disrespectful to the men who die in large numbers in places like Bapaume, France. The image of “riddled corpses” in the final line of the poem is a stark contrast to the image of women dancing on the stage established in the early lines of the poems. It is clear that the narrator's sympathies (and by extension, Sassoon's) lie with the dead in France, rather than with the living in England.
Soldiers' and Civilians' Vastly Different Experiences of World War I
Of course, Sassoon would not have identified his theme as World War I himself because he could not have known when writing “‘Blighters’” that the terrible war raging in France and throughout Europe would be the first of two global catastrophes. Nonetheless, Sassoon's war, still commonly referred to as the Great War by Europeans, is always part of his writing.
In the case of “‘Blighters,’” Sassoon's theme is not his hatred of the German enemy, but rather his hatred of the people for whom the war is being fought. In this and other poems, he ironically illustrates how complacent, insensitive, and lacking in dignity are the British civilians. Their excessive show of patriotism has no connection to their brothers and sons dying in France, and is a mockery of the soldiers' ultimate sacrifice. In the situation of this poem, the home population uses the excuse of the war to go out and have a good time at the music hall. People who have never seen a tank roll over the bodies of dead friends co-opt the vehicle, turning it from a weapon of death and destruction into a prop in a music hall number. For Sassoon, home on medical leave, and having lost two of his closest relationships to the war, seeing the war ridiculed on stage is cause for anger and reproach.
In “‘Blighters,’” Sassoon embellishes a theme that he will continue to pursue for years to come. For Sassoon, the gulf between those who have been in the trenches and those who have not is an unbridgeable chasm. The poet reserves his greatest venom for the politicians and merchants who are making a profit on the war, and for women, who are represented by the harlots dancing on the stage.
The Irony of War
Sassoon taps into the inherent irony of war in “‘Blighters’” as well as in poems such as “The General” and “They.” It is a commonplace that only people who have participated in war can understand what it means.
For Sassoon, watching a music hall show in which dancing girls promise that the Kaiser will love British tanks, the irony is overwhelming. He knows, as he sits in his comfortable chair in the Liverpool Hippodrome, that not more than two hundred miles away in France, men he knows are living in muck-filled, rat-infested trenches. He also knows that the Kaiser himself will never see a tank in action, and that this war, unlike others in the past, is not a war of battles won and lost, but is rather a war of attrition. Because the war has quickly devolved into a stalemate with the two armies facing each other from trenches across a devastated landscape known as No Man's Land, there are no great heroic battles, but rather the wholesale slaughter of thousands within hours of any new offensive.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Read Robert Graves's autobiography, Goodbye To All That, and Siegfried Sassoon's autobiography, Siegfried's Journey. In an essay, compare and contrast their memories of similar and identical events. What do the differences and similarities between these two book indicate about writing memoir, and by extension, writing history?
- Read Vera Brittain's memoir, Testament of Youth. How was her experience of the war in France similar to, and different from, that of the young men who served there? Write a paper exploring gender difference in the experience of war.
- Seek out posters and images of propaganda circulated among the public in England during the years 1914-1918. Create a collage of these materials, and write an essay about the uses of propaganda in a time of war. To what end does a government use such devices?
- From a variety of sources, gather descriptions of life in the trenches during World War I. What was life like for a common soldier during this time? Write a creative, first-person narrative in which you imagine yourself in a similar situation.
- Read a number of poems from writers such as Rupert Brooke, Edmund Blunden, Wilfred Owen, and Isaac Rosenberg. Note the dates on each poem that you read. Write an essay describing the changes you see in the poetry as time goes by. How does Brooke's work, for example, differ from Rosenberg's?
This slaughter, as represented by The Battle of the Somme, is clearly one of the ironies that Sassoon is addressing in “‘Blighters.’” Bapaume, mentioned in the last line of the poem, is a town in France, and the objective of the British forces for the first day of the Battle of Somme, an initiative that was supposed to bring the war quickly to a close. The British did not reach Bapaume on the first day, nor did they ever reach Bapaume in the entire four months that the battle raged. Sassoon, watching the music hall performance, knows that over 600,000 men have died, their bodies littering the ground round about Bapaume, as the performers and the audience joke about tanks.
Jingoism is extreme, unthinking, chauvinistic patriotism. It often refers to a popular sentiment held among the general population that force must be used to protect a country's national interests. Jingoism can also be thought of as shallow, militaristic patriotism, common among the uneducated masses, who take pride in military show of force, no matter the cost in human lives. Jingoism comes from the term “By Jingo!”, an expression found in a song by G. H. Hunt called “MacDermott's War Song,” written in 1878 and performed in London music halls. The first two lines of the chorus are as follows: “We don't want to fight but by jingo if we do / We've got the ships, we've got the men, and got the money too!” This song became very popular among patrons of British pubs who sang it as an expression of the swaggering military might of the British Empire.
For Sassoon, an upper class gentleman and a veteran of the trenches, jingoism of any sort is utterly distasteful. It reveals the ignorance and stupidity of the masses of civilians, safe in Britain, and willing to send their young men to die in a cause that has little value. Sassoon expresses this theme throughout many poems, but it is in “‘Blighters’” that it finds its most vicious expression. The jingoistic bravado of the song sung by the chorus girls in “‘Blighters,’” “We're sure the Kaiser loves the dear old Tanks!”, represents for Sassoon a betrayal by the population, a population who cannot even imagine the horrors of the Western Front.
Critics have generally agreed that Sassoon's best verse, including “‘Blighters,’” is generally epigrammatic. An epigram is a pithy saying. The Greeks wrote epigrams, as did the Romans. In the English language, there have been several masters of the form, although none has surpassed Ben Jonson, the seventeenth century contemporary of William Shakespeare. Increasingly, epigrams were used for satirical purposes; Jonson often set up his epigrams with an introduction, and then came sharply to the point in his conclusion.
This description fits the construction of Sassoon's best epigrammatic poetry. In Siegfried Sassoon: A Study of the War Poetry, Patrick Campbell notes that in Siegfried's Journey, Sassoon writes that his method includes “two or three harsh, peremptory, and colloquial stanzas with a knock-out blow in the last line.” Indeed, Sassoon received praise for this style from none other than the famous English writer, Thomas Hardy, to whom The Old Huntsman, and Other Poems is dedicated.
“‘Blighters’” begins with a quatrain (a four line stanza) that sets the scene. Readers clearly see that the poem is set in a music hall, complete with a raucous audience and dancing show girls. The poem turns at the end of the quatrain when the harlots sing “We're sure the Kaiser loves the dear old Tanks!” A first person narrator enters in the next line, shifting the focus from the action on the stage to a fantasy of the narrator's, that tanks will come and crush the people sitting in the stalls. It is in the last two lines that Sassoon drives home his point: the dead young men, lying in foreign fields, have made a sacred sacrifice. Their loss should be a cause for mourning, not an occasion for boasts, swaggering, or empty threats.
Satire is an ancient form of writing created to criticize and ridicule people, institutions, actions, and beliefs. The earliest expression of satire still in writing can be found in the comedies of Aristophanes. Roman writers Plautus and Terence continued the form, and much later, Shakespeare and Ben Jonson's dramatic satires reworked the form for English audiences.
Sometimes, satire takes a comedic form and even becomes parody. The audience watching the show in “‘Blighters,’” for example, is enjoying a parody of military might in the prancing ranks of chorus girls singing about tanks. This, however, was not a vision that coincided with Sassoon's, whose satire often took the tragic route. In “‘Blighters,’” there is an ironic gap opened between the audience's experience and Sassoon's point in the poem. The contrast between the two opposing notions of satire contributes to the overall power of the poem.
Sassoon's work has its roots in the formal verse satire of Roman writers Horace and Juvenal. These two writers took very different approaches to satire. Horace, on the one hand, wrote verse that poked urbane, genial fun at the follies and shortcomings of governments and institutions. Juvenal, on the other hand, is bitter and filled with rage. His work reveals a man sickened and horrified by corruption. Sassoon's poems such as “‘Blighters’” may be identified as Juvenalian satires. In “‘Blighters,’” Sassoon is clearly angry, so angry that he wishes death and destruction on the people in the music hall. Through poems like “‘Blighters,’” Sassoon attempts to educate his readers about the betrayal of the British soldiers by corrupt politicians and a complacent citizenry. According to Patrick Campbell in Siegfried Sassoon: A Study of the War Poetry: “That politicians, parsons and parents, indeed most of ‘Blighty’ as far as Sassoon was concerned, seemed blissfully unaware of the war's actual character mean that the revelations needed to be more rather than less shockingly veracious.”
The Oscar Wilde Case and Aftermath
Toward the end of the nineteenth century, there was a relaxation of the strict moral codes of Victorian England, and within the literary community, homosexuality was a relatively well-accepted way of life. However, during the final decade of the century, there was an event that was to have long-lasting consequences for the gay community in general, an event that in all probability influenced Sassoon's understanding of his own homosexuality.
The noted writer Oscar Wilde, flamboyant in the extreme, began a well-documented affair with Lord Alfred Douglas in about 1891. Douglas's father, the Marquess of Queensberry, was a very powerful man, and was violently angry over his son's affair. He accused Wilde of being a “sodomite,” the legal term for those who perform homosexual intercourse. Although those accused of sodomy were rarely prosecuted, it was nonetheless illegal.
In response to the Marquess's accusations, Wilde sued him for criminal libel. The case did not go well for Wilde. Not only did he lose the case, he was also arrested and ordered to stand trial for sodomy, shocking members of the literary community, and particularly other gay writers. Wilde was found guilty, and forced to serve two years at hard labor. When he was released in 1897, he was broken and bankrupt. He left England for France, and died there in 1900.
That someone could be arrested, tried, and punished for having a homosexual affair was deeply troubling for artists and writers. Many chose, in response to the Wilde affair, to hide their sexuality and to distance themselves from known gay men. For Sassoon, reaching puberty near the time of Wilde's death, the pressures to conform must have been tremendous.
As a consequence of cultural pressure, Sassoon became very much a man's man. He excelled at sport, hunting, and riding. In addition, he enlisted in the military just as England entered the war. As a soldier, he distinguished himself with bravery and courage. At the same time, paradoxically, he also developed a close group of literary friends with whom he spoke guardedly about his sexual identity.
Sassoon's writings reveal that he was content in the world of men he found in the military. This is not to say that he necessarily consummated sexual affairs with men, but rather that he found joy and beauty in the company of men such as David Thomas, a young subaltern Sassoon memorialized in a poem at his death. In addition, it is tempting to credit Sassoon's deep love for the soldiers subordinate to him to his attraction to men younger than himself.
In any event, seeing the young men of his unit mown down by German guns, and losing both his brother and David Thomas within a year, pushed Sassoon away from the beautiful verses of his youth, and toward the gritty, angry protest of poems like “‘Blighters.’”
World War I
On July 28, 1914, a young Serb terrorist named Gavril Princip assassinated the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his bride in Sarajevo, Serbia. This action, like a bolt falling into place, started a series of responses from all over Europe. Treaties that had been signed privately or publicly were put into play; by the time the air cleared, nearly every country in Europe was on one side or another, readying for war. The assassination, as tragic as it was, was not so large an event that it should have caused the response that it did. However, the growing militarism of Germany, and the subsequent military response of both France and England, made the events of 1914 seem somehow fated.
In August 1914, the Germans invaded Belgium, shooting some five thousand civilians and setting fire to buildings and homes along the way. These atrocities were played up in the British newspapers, and probably led to the British decision to enter the war, although the Germans had expected them to remain neutral. (After all, King George V of England and Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany were first cousins.) At the Battle of the Marne, the combined forces of Britain and France stopped the German invasion, in an important victory. However, they did not push the Germans back to their own country. Instead, both sides fortified lines of trenches that ended up extending from the North Sea to the Swiss border. The armies held the line that came to be known as the Western Front with very little movement for the next four years.
Each side fortified the areas outside their trenches with barbed wire and mines. The technology of the machine gun rendered obsolete all the previous history of warfare. No longer could men march in a line toward an opposing side. Whereas in earlier wars, soldiers would march forward, shoot, then drop to their knees to reload guns while the next line moved forward to shoot, and so on and so forth; in the new modern warfare, machine gunners sitting in nests at the trench lines simply mowed down everything that moved in an area that quickly came to be called No Man's Land. In addition, both sides developed mustard gas, a deadly poison that could be dropped on an opposing side and cause terrible pain, suffering and death.
It is difficult to describe the conditions in the trenches; that the conditions were so terrible and beyond the power of conventional language is probably what spurred Sassoon and other trench poets to render their experiences metaphorically. Countless accounts report that the stench of the Front met soldiers miles before they actually reached the front line. Mutilated, rotting corpses of men and beasts littered No Man's Land. Further, the winter of 1914 was one of the coldest and wettest in modern European history, and many men drowned in mud. Rats were everywhere.
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 1917: Soldier-poets such as Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, and Isaac Rosenberg write poetry and memoirs recording the realities of their lives on the battlefields of France during World War I.
- 1917: The war is nearing its end, and by that time over 900,000 British soldiers will be dead, with a total battlefield death count of 8.5 million people.
Today: In the first four years of the War in Iraq, about 3,600 Americans have been killed, with an additional estimated 70,000 Iraqis dead.
- 1917: Britain instituted a military draft in 1916 and the United States does likewise at this time, thus bolstering the ranks of what was at first a volunteer army.
Today: Both the British and the American military are volunteer forces, despite ongoing participation in the war in Iraq.
It was into to this hell that Sassoon arrived in 1915. He found at the front the chance to distinguish himself as a hero, which he did. Called “Mad Jack” by his men, he single-handedly captured a German trench and rescued members of his unit from certain death in No Man's Land. Yet by 1916, Sassoon, as well as many other soldier-writers, believed that the politicians and leaders of their countries had led them to death and destruction without a clear strategy for success. Sassoon came to believe that the loss of life in the war was simply unconscionable, and that the people responsible for sending young men to horror and death were both corrupt and culpable.
This anger is evident in poems such as “‘Blighters,’” as well as in “The General” and “They,” poems that suggest that the real enemy is not the German army bogged down on the Western Front, but rather the people in power on the Home Front.
The poems of the Old Huntsman were composed over a several year period, with “‘Blighters’” and the other war poems largely composed shortly before the book's publication in 1917. Indeed, “‘Blighters’” was written in January 1917, while Sassoon was in England recuperating from trench fever. In his biography of the poet, titled Siegfried Sassoon, John Stuart Roberts describes the volume: “Its contents ranged from a long autobiographical poem of an ageing and ailing huntsman to the savage realities of war. Sassoon also included many of his pastoral compositions and early lyrical evocations of his youthful experience.” There are, then, striking differences between the early and later poetry of the volume. As Roberts continues: “The seventy-two poems … constitute a progression from callow youth to ‘happy warrior,’ to the confused soldier and angry man of 1916.” Certainly, “‘Blighters’” was a very late poem in the volume, and foretells the direction that Sassoon's poetry would take during the rest of the war.
Indeed, the poems in The Old Huntsman, and Other Poems signal a shift in Sassoon's poetry, away from the romanticized notions of life, nature, and especially the war, toward a bitter and realistic appraisal of the situation in the trenches. Michael Thorpe, in his Siegfried Sassoon: A Critical Study, notes the discrepancy among the poems in The Old Huntsman, and Other Poems. He writes: “A few poems in The Old Huntsman show Sassoon striving, during his first months in France, to hold fast the innocent vision that had animated the early nature poems.” Poems such as “‘Blighters,’” “The Hero,” and “The General,” on the other hand, shift into the bitter satire that marks the bulk of Sassoon's war poetry. Thorpe argues that these poems at least partially owe their power to the fact that they resemble “Georgian rhyming verse in everything but the diction, so that the satiric effect is accentuated by clothing a disreputable body in formal dress.” That is, by using forms and structures he previously employed in his Georgian period, and substituting sometimes ugly words and phrases from the trenches for the beautiful, high-flown vocabulary of his earlier work, Sassoon creates poems that are deeply ironic and savagely satiric. Indeed, if the poems of The Old Huntsman, and Other Poems, notably poems such as “‘Blighters,’” indicate a transition for Sassoon, then the shift is fully realized in his next collection, Counter-Attack.
When The Old Huntsman was published in 1917, it met with critical and popular success, although there were those who found the war poetry too brutal for their tastes. One of the earliest published reviews was by Sassoon's friend Edmund Gosse, appearing in the Edinburgh Review in October, 1917. Although Gosse was impressed by the volume, in his review he finds it necessary to temper Sassoon's more bitter responses for the reading public: “The bitterness of Lieut. Sassoon is not cynical, it is the rage of disenchantment, the violence of a young man eager to pursue other aims…. His temper is not altogether to be applauded, for such sentiments must tend to relax the effort of the struggle, yet they can hardly be reproved when conducted with so much honesty and courage.”
With the passage of time, Sassoon's war poetry assumed a more and more important place in the body of his work, and various critics have taken very different approaches. Both John H. Johnston in 1966 and Fred D. Crawford in 1988 comment on Sassoon's disgust for the home front displays of patriotism. In English Poetry of the First World War: A Study in the Evolution of Lyric and Narrative Form, Johnston calls “‘Blighters’” “the last poem of Sassoon's early satiric period” and “the bitterest of his early productions; it attacks the frivolous and vulgar jingoism of the music hall and the hectic approval of the audience.” Likewise, Crawford writes in British Poets of the Great War that “In “‘Blighters,’” Sassoon attacks the frenzied jingoism of the music hall.”
Other critics explore Sassoon's emotional and psychological state as a means of approaching the wary poetry. Daniel Hipp in The Poetry of Shell Shock: Wartime Trauma and Healing in Wilfred Owen, Ivor Gurney and Siegfried Sassoon, argues that by writing the war poetry found in The Old Huntsman and Counter-Attack, Sassoon was able to “resolve his crisis of protest and rejoin his men in France.” Further, Hipp asserts that writing the war poetry immediately before and at the same time as receiving care at Craiglockhart proved a complementary therapy to that provided by his psychiatrist.
Paul Moeyes in Siegfried Sassoon: Scorched Glory argues that Sassoon was not only interested in the literary quality of his work, but also in the emotional release writing such poetry gave him. Moeyes asserts that “Sassoon's characteristic attitude towards all his literary work throughout his career was never to judge it by literary standards only: at least as important was the emotional value it had for him personally.” The inclusion of pastoral pieces as well as the satires of The Old Huntsman speaks to Sassoon's mixed emotional state from 1915 through 1916.
More recent criticism of Sassoon's work, including “‘Blighters,’” relegates Sassoon to a place somewhere behind Wilfred Owen in talent. It is of course possible that had Sassoon died like Owen, ironically just days before the November 11, 1918, Armistice, his work would have been considered the gift of a martyr. On the other hand, critics such as Brooke Allen have rediscovered Sassoon. In a New Criterion article she writes that “much of the power of Sassoon's poetry derives from a trick he had picked up from Thomas Hardy, that of ending his poems with what he called a ‘knock-out blow.’ … his real gifts were more epigrammatic than poetic … [and] his epigrammatic poems have mostly proved more memorable than his lyrical ones.”
Certainly, for all of Sassoon's repeated attempts to tell the story of his war experience, and finally get it right, it is (again, ironically) his first attempts that have proved the most lasting. Although he lived a very long time after the World War I, Sassoon's legacy to British literature will likely remain this slim collection of poems, written between 1914 and 1918.
Diane Andrews Henningfeld
Henningfeld is a professor and literary critic who writes widely for educational publications. In the following essay, she closely reads Sassoon's “‘Blighters,’” using a type of literary theory known as New Criticism and focusing on the poet's tightly controlled vocabulary and irony.
During the years between the World War I and World War II, a type of literary criticism called New Criticism flourished. As a result, many school and university students through much of the twentieth century learned a technique called “close reading” as a means of literary analysis. The New Critics (such as Cleanth Brooks) believed that literary analysis ought to focus on the work itself, rather than on the subjective feelings of the reader or the intentions of the author. They did so by concentrating on the words of the poem, and the images, symbols, and irony that the words contain. They were eager to demonstrate that a poem functions as an organic unit, due to the interaction of its parts. At its most extreme, the New Critics believed that all one needed to read a poem successfully was the poem itself and a dictionary.
In the closing years of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first century, however, the New Criticism was relegated to the past. Students were taught to read poems and literature from a wide variety of critical perspectives, including reader response, psycho-analytical, new historical, Marxist, and queer theories, among others. From these theories arose many important and interesting new ways of looking at literature.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- Vera Brittain's The Testament of Youth, published in 1933 and continuously in print since that time, offers a look at World War I in France from the perspective of a young volunteer nurse.
- Siegfried Sassoon's fictionalized memoirs, Memoirs of a Fox Hunting Man, published in 1928, and Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, published in 1930, provide significant context and background for the poems in The Old Huntsman.
- All Quiet on the Western Front (1929), by Erich Maria Remarque, provides another picture of the World War I stalemate along the trenches of the Western Front, from the perspective of a young German soldier. Many critics view this novel as the most representative piece of literature produced by a writer from either side of the conflict.
- Jon Stallworthy's Great Poets of World War I (2002) offers an examination of a number of war poets, including Sassoon, and provides striking illustrations and photographs as well.
- Poetry by Wilfred Owen, included in The Collected Poems of Wilfred Owen, published in 1965 and still in print, is often considered by critics to be among the best poetry written about World War I. Owen spent time at Craiglockhart Hospital with Sassoon and Owen was deeply influenced by his contact with Sassoon.
- Good-bye to All That (1929), written by Sassoon's friend Robert Graves, is a memoir of his time on the Western Front. Sassoon figures prominently in the memoir.
- British writer Pat Barker used the experiences of Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, Wilfred Owen, and Dr. William Rivers as the basis for her trilogy of novels about World War I, Regeneration (1991), The Eye in the Door (1994), and the Booker Award-winning The Ghost Road (1995).
Nevertheless, there is something about a poem like “‘Blighters’” that begs to be closely read, using New Critical theory. It is only eight lines long, yet those eight lines are so compacted with meaning that without a careful understanding of the nuances of the language and the interplay of ironies in the text, the poem simply becomes a witty little epigram. Brooks' essay, “Irony as a Principle of Structure” (reprinted in Contexts for Criticism), becomes particularly instructive in a close reading of “‘Blighters.’”
To begin, it is important to establish working definitions for both metaphor and for irony. A metaphor is a figure of language in which two unlike things are compared to each other, often in an unexpected way. For example, when Shakespeare writes “All the world's a stage, and we are but poor players in it,” he is comparing life to theater. When a young man calls his girlfriend “Honey,” he is also using a metaphor, comparing his girlfriend to something very sweet. Metaphor is at the heart of modern poetry; Brooks writes “One can sum up modern poetic technique by calling it the rediscovery of metaphor and the full commitment to metaphor.”
Further, irony is a rhetorical device which reveals a gap or a contradiction or an incongruity between an expectation and reality. When an audience knows more than the characters in a play or novel, the characters' actions become ironic, because the audience recognizes the gap between what the characters expect to happen and what will really happen. Likewise, when a speaker in a poem makes a statement that is unexpected by the reader, or is the opposite of what the speaker means, the result is irony. The New Critics would argue that all metaphors are essentially ironic because of the gap that opens between the literal and figurative meanings of the items being compared.
Sassoon's language in “‘Blighters’” is shot through with multiple meanings, and metaphors. Further, it is clear that the narrator of the poem is telling his audience (those who are reading his poem) something very different from the expectations of the audience in the poem, the people watching the music hall show. Thus, “‘Blighters’” in its eight lines, becomes a vehicle for tragic irony, cloaked in the cackling laughter of the crowd.
Sassoon makes clear his ironic intent before the opening line. The title of the poem is in itself ironic because Sassoon places it within quotation marks. Typically, quotation marks are used to indicate spoken language. It is not clear, however, who might be saying the word “blighters” in the poem, or even to whom the word blighters refers. Further, sometimes a person will place a word in quotation marks to actually imply the opposite of the word, an obviously ironic usage.
What is a blighter? In the first place, it is a term, often ironically endearing, applying to a common fellow, sometimes in unfortunate circumstances. For example, one might say: “The poor blighter got a ‘Dear John’ letter from his wife.” A blighter can also refer to anyone living in Blighty, another term for England, or home. A blighter is also someone who damages or destroys something through blight. When the last of these two definitions coalesce, they take on a sinister cast. The people who live in Britain not only live in Britain, they are blighting Britain.
For Sassoon, the most obvious disconnect is that between “home, sweet home” and “Blighty.” On the one hand, Sassoon clearly uses the song title “Home, sweet Home” ironically. England is anything but sweet to him. He is angry at the nation and angry with the citizens of the nation. Blighty, the term used by common soldiers to denote England, and by extension home, is also ironic. A blighted country can scarcely also be “home, sweet home.” The contradiction here is between what the soldiers expect from their nation and what they receive. Sassoon, as narrator, sees the gap. As he recovers in England from his illness, he knows that there are men in the trenches of the Western Front who want nothing more than to return to old Blighty. These men believe that when they return home, all will be well. Sassoon, however, understands that not only is home not sweet, it is blighted. As the narrator, he is in a position to observe the difference between the sentimental and conventional meaning of “home” that the soldiers hold as a fantasy, and the reality of the home front, a place where the citizens exhibit ignorant patriotism without regard to the death of soldiers, a place where an audience laughs when they should be weeping. Brooks writes that “the ‘meaning’ of any particular item is modified by the context…. The context endows the particular word or image or statement with significance.” In “‘Blighters,’” the context of soldiers fighting and dying for their home in a foreign country lends particular, ironic significance to the entire concept of home.
Brooks further argues: “The poet can legitimately step out into the universal only by first going though the narrow door of the particular. The poet does not select an abstract theme and then embellish it with concrete details. On the contrary, he must establish the details, must abide by the details, and through his realization of the details attain whatever general meaning he can attain.” Sassoon structures his poem precisely as described by Brooks. He fills the first six lines with concrete details about the music hall. The house is “crammed,” the audience members “grin” and “cackle.” Chorus girls prance and sing shrilly. The careful details of the first stanza are the “narrow door” through which Sassoon goes to reach the universal truth of the last lines of the poem.
Indeed, it is not until readers reach the second stanza that the metaphoric nature of the first stanza becomes clear. The “house” of the first line, for example, can mean not only the theater, it can also mean a house of Parliament, the governing body of Britain. This conjecture is supported by the fact that in the Houses of Parliament, members sit in tiers that rise from ground level upward, just as in the music hall. Patrick Campbell agrees with this interpretation. He writes that “The ‘House’ could also signify that chamber where politicians spout just as obscenely about the glamorous heroics of the conflict.” Sassoon, in many of his writings, expresses his belief that politicians are despicable because they are the ones sending boys to die unnecessarily. It is a small leap, therefore, to identify the audience of the music hall show with the politicians watching the show, particularly since the word show not only refers to a stage performance, it also is a term used by soldiers to refer to a battle or fight. One of the biggest “shows” of World War I was the Battle of the Somme, an exquisitely violent, and monumentally unsuccessful attempt to break the German lines that cost 21,000 British lives on the first day alone. That Sassoon has this particular battle in mind as he writes “‘Blighters’” is clear from the final two lines of the poem: “And there'd be no more jokes in Music-halls / To mock the riddled corpses round Bapaume.”
These lines are Sassoon at his ironic best. Bapaume, the name of a French town that conveniently rhymes with “home,” and thus provides an ironic contrast to the notion of home, was to have been the first day's objective for the British soldiers in the Battle of the Somme. What the generals and politicians expected of the soldiers in the field was a far cry from what the soldiers were able to accomplish, and it was those expectations that contributed to the heavy death toll. The soldiers were not properly equipped for the fight, nor were the tactics of the battle connected to the reality of the field. Consequently, the Battle of the Somme itself became a horrific irony: so many men lost, so little ground gained. The corpses in “‘Blighters’” are “round Bapaume,” not in it. The English soldiers never reached their objective, nor will they ever have any home again but for the French soil on which they fell.
In addition, the corpses of whom Sassoon writes are “riddled.” The word riddle has its roots in Anglo-Saxon English, and is deeply engrained in the language, particularly in its second sense. The obvious meaning of this word is that the bodies of the men who fought in the Battle of the Somme were shot full of holes. The second sense of the word “riddle” is a statement that is ambiguous, paradoxical, or puzzling. The great ancient Anglo-Saxon warriors, predecessors of the British soldiers who died near Bapaume, were famous for their riddles. In Sassoon's text, the corpses themselves pose a riddle in their death: why have so many young men been slaughtered in a senseless war?
Cleanth Brooks writes near the end of his essay that “the theme in a genuine poem does not confront us as abstraction—that is as one man's generalization from the relevant particulars. Finding its proper symbol, defined and refined by the participating metaphors, the theme becomes a part of the reality in which we live.” There is little doubt that Sassoon has created a genuine poem, its theme the ironic disconnect between the home front and the Western front, its reality the “riddled corpses” who will never find their way back home again.
Source: Diane Andrews Henningfeld, Critical Essay on “‘Blighters,’” in Poetry for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2008.
In the following essay, Campbell closely examines the language in “‘Blighters,’” noting that the description of the music hall is ironic.
Home on leave before returning to “unmitigated hell,” Siegfried Sassoon went to a revue at the Hippodrome, Liverpool. The date was 4 February 1917. Although the company, that of “a pleasant and intelligent” “fellow officer” apparently made for “an amusing evening,” the show, Sassoon recalled, “provided me with a bit of material for satire … I wrote the afterwards well-known lines called ‘Blighters’ in which I asserted that I'd like to see a tank come down the stalls at a music hall performance where—in my opinion the jingoism of the jokes and songs appeared to ‘mock the riddled corpses round Bapaume.’”
No poem in The Old Huntsman is briefer, the poet's recipe of “two or three harsh, peremptory and colloquial stanzas” here reduced to a minimum of two terse quatrains. As Sassoon's “farewell to England,” he wanted to keep it short—and satiric. For the targets of the title are “blighters” and the writer was consciously using the colloquialism both as a general indictment of anything that blights, of contemptible people, and, more specifically, in reference to those who had stayed in “Blighty” (England) and profited from the misfortunes of others. In the poem both general and specific meanings coalesce.
The structure appears to mirror that of another epigram, “They”—the “nation at home” pictured in the first quatrain and the “nation overseas” in the second. But the tour de force, literally, resides in Sassoon's imaginative vision of war, in the form of a “Lurching” tank that comes crashing down the stalls of the Hippodrome. Only the shock of real terror can stir audience and reader alike out of their complacency and jingoism.
The piece is shot through with heavy irony. The “tier beyond tier” of the house superficially reminds the sardonic observer of serried and disciplined soldiers anticipating a “Show” (the soldiers' jargon for a big offensive) in which many will inevitably die. But here the verbs emphasize the vulgarity of an audience that is deliberately demeaned and disparaged by the epithets “grin” and “cackle.” Worse, the chorus line of “prancing” women are no better than harlots showing off their bodies in an atmosphere of dissipation and false bonhomie generated not by the heat of battle but by inebriation (“drunk with din”). So impervious is the audience to the reality of war that it responds by indulging in the sentimental claptrap of some vapid music-hall number (“We're sure the Kaiser loves our dear old Tanks”).
The poet's reaction, that of one who has “been there,” is predictably fierce. These “blighters” need a nightmarish vision to awaken them to the real horror of war, something that will dispel forever the misplaced notion of “dear old Tanks.”
The absurd sentimental humanizing of these lumbering leviathans gives the poet an opportunity to expand the stock personification in a grimly comic way and to wish on this “House” a nightmarish vision of the hell that is trench warfare. For Sassoon's tanks do lurch in a manner reminiscent of drunken blighters or chorus girls swaying to syncopated ragtime tunes. But now, if the poet has his way, they will lurch towards the wealthy cacklers in the stalls, the jerky rhythms of their progress as metronomic as those of ragtime but mechanical, remorseless, inhuman. Now it will be the turn of these blighters to experience that sense of abject terror that is daily currency for the ordinary soldier.
The trooper may dream of “Home, Sweet Home” but the words of this song also embody a falsehood. For this world of the Hippodrome mirrors, if more nakedly, the values of a blighted nation; a place where, in Sassoon's words, “the jingoism of the songs and jokes” appears to “mock” the victims of war. It is left to the soldier-poet (here identified by the personal pronoun) and not the music-hall chorus to remind his readers of the carnage of “riddled corpses.” Bapaume, the site of a bloody offensive, may rhyme with “home,” but the name, remote and echoic, sounds a death knell at the poem's conclusion.
Source: Patrick Campbell, “Sassoon's ‘Blighters,’” in Explicator, Vol. 53, Spring 1995, pp. 170-71.
Margaret B. McDowell
In the following essay, McDowell gives a critical analysis of Sassoon's work.
Siegfried Sassoon's poetry was published over a period of more than sixty years, almost to the moment of his death in 1967, a few days before his eighty-first birthday. In the history of British poetry, he will be remembered primarily for some one hundred poems—many satirical and almost all short—in which he protested the continuation of World War I through 1917 and 1918. Many of his war poems reflect with absolute authenticity the sufferings of the soldiers in the French trenches, in hospitals, or in their homeland after many of them returned disabled or traumatized. The poetry Sassoon wrote in the last half of his life drew less attention than his war poems and is, on the whole, far less arresting and original. For the most part, these later poems are meditative, reflecting his search for identity, and are important for their psychological revelations. His lyrics became increasingly religious in nature, a trend that reached its culmination in his last ten years, when he celebrated in his poems the spiritual peace and security that he had eventually found in Roman Catholicism in 1957.
Sassoon also wrote six memorable autobiographical books. In three of these—Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man (1928), Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (1930), and Sherston's Progress (1936)—he presented his life in a partially fictionalized form through the “journeys” of a character named George Sherston. (The trilogy appeared in one volume in 1937 as The Complete Memoirs of George Sherston.) Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man sold extremely well in both England and the United States and secured an audience for the two later volumes. It introduced Sassoon as an excellent writer in prose and won for him two distinguished awards: The Hawthornden Prize and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. In a second autobiographical trilogy—The Old Century and Seven More Years (1938), The Weald of Youth (1942), and Siegfried's Journey, 1916-1920 (1945)—Sassoon presented his life to 1920 without a fictional facade.
Siegfried Lorraine Sassoon grew up in Kent, loving the weald and the outdoor sports of the country gentry—fox hunting, golf, and cricket. His parents separated in 1901, and his father, Alfred Ezra Sassoon, died of tuberculosis when Siegfried was not quite nine. Because he had had little contact with his father, Siegfried Sassoon wrote in The Weald of Youth that he had not understood how long he should feel grief, after his father's funeral in London, which he was too upset to attend with his younger brother, Hamo, and older brother, Michael. Brought up by his mother, Theresa Georgina Thornycroft Sassoon, in the Church of England, Sassoon expressed surprise later in life at how deeply his Spanish-Jewish heritage affected him and at how greatly the psychological inheritance from his father's people had conditioned his responses, his values, and his attitudes: “I sometimes surmise that my eastern ancestry is stronger in me than the Thornycrofts'. The daemon in me is Jewish. Do you believe in racial memories? Some of my hypnogogic visions have seemed like it, and many of them were oriental architecture.”
Alfred Ezra Sassoon, Siegfried's father, was the first Sassoon to marry a Gentile. Alfred's mother opposed the marriage, said all the Jewish funeral prayers for him, and uttered a curse upon his unborn children. Never relenting, she cut off his allowance and never permitted her grandchildren to visit her at Ashley Park, near Walton-on-the-Thames, an estate which included a large fifteenth-century hall, a cricket field, and a golf course. Sometimes called “the Rothschilds of the East,” the millionaire Sassoon families had typically resided in India and in the Near East since the time of the Spanish Inquisition. In the mid-nineteenth century Siegfried's paternal grandfather and several of his uncles moved to Europe and were important in the arts as well as commerce and banking. In England some of the Sassoons exercised power in Parliament, and one entertained the Shah of Persia during his much-publicized visit to London in the 1890s. Alfred Sassoon's sister, Rachel Beer, owned and edited two London newspapers, the Observer and the Sunday Times, from the early 1890s to 1904, and she wrote extensively for them. Against her mother's protests, she remained in close contact with Alfred's family and left an inheritance for Siegfried and his surviving brother, Michael, at her death in 1927.
Sassoon in The Old Century and Seven More Years suggested he had been endowed, in the Old Testament sense, with the gift of prophecy through his Jewish blood, and that this gift had found its most powerful expression in his crying out for social justice and compassion in his war poetry. Nevertheless, he identified more strongly with his mother than with his father. If he inherited from his father a contemplative spirit, an urge to speak as a minor prophet through his poetry, he, nevertheless, gained from the Thornycrofts the “common-sense” and the creative perspective that had allowed him to develop as an artist: “how I bless the Thornycroft sanity…. Introspective though I have been, I could stand aside and look at myself—and laugh.” His mother chose his name because of her love of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen, and he himself always liked the name for its heroic associations. In a letter to Dame Felicitas Corrigan in 1965, he remarked upon his mother's having given him for his third birthday a copy of Coleridge's Lectures on Shakespeare. Theresa's family, like the Sassoons, was wealthy, but its wealth derived from land. Her immediate family included notable sculptors: her grandfather John Francis; her father, Thomas; her mother, and her brother Hamo. Another brother, John, was an architect for the British navy. Theresa's mother painted many portraits of the royal family, and Theresa and her two sisters were minor painters and sculptors. Siegfried's education included private tutoring until he was fourteen, the study of law at Marlborough College from ages sixteen to nineteen, and the study of history—while he was also writing poetry—at Clare College, Cambridge. When he decided to return to Kent without taking a degree, he continued his writing and began to publish his poems privately. His mother introduced him to her friend Sir Edmund Gosse, who in turn introduced him to such literary figures as Edward Marsh and Rupert Brooke. Gosse encouraged Sassoon to spend much time in London. Marsh used some of Sassoon's early poems in his anthology, Georgian Poetry, 1916-1917. Sassoon later developed some doubts about Georgian poetry, which he described as “crocus-crowded lyrics.”
In Sassoon's early poetry his ideas and his technique are conventional and sometimes reveal the influence of the Pre-Raphaelites or the Rhymers' Club poets, whom he had read as an adolescent and as a university student. Such poets as Algernon Charles Swinburne, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Lionel Johnson, Ernest Dowson, Thomas Hardy, and George Meredith served as his models. Not all of his early poems have survived, but many appeared in pamphlets that he published privately between 1906 and 1916. Of those early efforts selected for inclusion in his collected poems, several bear titles that are pagan in orientation: “Goblin Revel,” “Dryads,” and “Arcady Unheeding.” The poems are replete with romantic references to “hooded witches,” “dulcimers,” “mournful pennons,” “the gloom of the glade,” and gentle shepherds…. As an older man, Sassoon attributed his frequent references to dawn in his early lyrics to the influence of George Meredith, and he thought his choice of archaic diction (words such as noisome, darkling, marish, weir, jollity) had derived from a desire to imitate Dante Gabriel Rossetti and other poets who had used medieval associations for romantic effects.
But these early poems also differ from the fin de siècle works that he read as a student. For example, his poems of fantasy have a more positive tone, a more direct style, and a more energetic pace than Dowson's fantasies, with their longing for death or for a return to lost innocence. In contrast to the older poets that Sassoon admired, he rarely wrote about love and sex. While in more than half of the early lyrics nature is a principal source of his imagery, his preoccupation with nature derives not only from attempts to follow pastoral conventions but also from a deeply felt love of outdoor life and an intimate knowledge of Kentish wildlife. Sassoon's depiction of nature even in the early poems reveals a freshness and a firsthand authenticity often absent in the poetry of the fin de siècle poets and the Georgian movement. This emphasis on nature continued throughout his lifetime. Even in his seventies a deep feeling for nature gave vitality to his poems of religion and the supernatural.
Much of his privately printed early verse was pallid and stilted, making his achievement as a war poet a few years later startling and unexpected. His revisions of early works, however, imply an ability to criticize his poetry and revise it in the direction of the simple and the specific. […] Yet, in moving away from conventional artifice in diction to a more direct language and syntax, he was still far from the forceful colloquial utterances in his best war poems.
Sassoon was the earliest of the World War I poets to enlist in the British service, although not the first to see action in France. On 1 August 1914 at the age of twenty-seven, he passed his examination for enlistment; England declared war on 4 August; and Sassoon found himself in uniform on 5 August. He left for France in November 1915 with the First Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers.
Some of the eight poems included by Marsh in Georgian Poetry: 1916-1917 and some printed in The Old Huntsman and Other Poems (1917) adumbrate the growth that was to occur between Sassoon's earliest poetry and the poetry that he produced during and after the Somme offensive in 1916. “Haunted,” a two-page, blank-verse poem, is conventionally romantic in its descriptions and in the image of a pale and solitary forest wanderer, who is doomed by an evil spell. But a few lines also hint at Sassoon's developing realism. For example, […] and he depicts the pale victim's unequal encounter with Fate in terms as specific as those in the war poems: […].
“The Kiss,” written in 1916 (another poem in Marsh's anthology and in The Old Huntsman), depicts the violence of the war dramatically, but, unlike the war poems, written after he had seen action in the trenches, “The Kiss” seems to celebrate militarism. In this poem the soldier hopes that, as his heel holds his enemy, he will feel him “quail” as the bayonet penetrates. According to Sassoon, he wrote this poem after hearing a Colonel Campbell address his class in military training on “The Spirit of the Bayonet.” It was written in the weeks when, according to Robert Graves, Sassoon was vacillating between being a “happy warrior” and a pacifist. Later Sassoon maintained that he had designed this poem as a satirical parody, but this assertion is of doubtful validity because he had similarly celebrated war as a cathartic experience in several other early poems.
Other poems written before his departure for France (or shortly after his arrival) present war as a positive agent that develops strength and character. [In the chauvinistic “Absolution,” composed in summer 1915], […] [r]eferring to the army as “the happy legion,” he implies that soldiers may be glad to give up their lives in a great cause. The poet adopts the view that war occupies only a moment in history: […]. This sense of war's brevity minimizes its agony, as does the comparison of that agony with the glory that comes from self-sacrifice. In “Absolution” Sassoon questions neither the necessity of the war nor the motives that led to it. This poem, influenced by poetry of Rupert Brooke, was written shortly after Brooke died.
In “The Redeemer,” written in his first weeks in the trenches, Sassoon uses vivid details characteristic of his later war poems […], and the soldier is depicted realistically as a “simple duffer” […]. The sardonic tone of Sassoon's later war poems is not yet fully developed. The speaker, seeing the duffer loaded down with planks across his shoulders in a midwinter rain, too readily envisions him as Christ. Unearned religious sentiment dominates the poem until it ends suddenly in a blunt declaration of nationalism […].
Several conventional lyrics which emphasize nature (such as “Morning Glory,” “Daybreak in a Garden,” “Tree and Sky,” “Storm and Sunlight,” and “Wind in the Beechwood”) appear in The Old Huntsman and Other Poems, and a number of the early war poems in the volume similarly treat nature in an artificial manner. “France” praises the “vivid green […].” […] In another mood he complains in “To Victory,” a poem written just after his arrival in France, of the colorlessness of the gray November landscape. In “The Dragon and the Undying” he identifies the bursting flares as dragons. The soldiers lying in the trenches relate to the landscape and the night sky as if meeting a significant destiny, in harmony with the cosmos. […] “Before the Battle” is replete with similar language and conventional imagery. Such poetry—much like the popular war verse of Robert Nichols—contrasts strikingly with even the better war poems that appear in this early book.
“To My Brother” (Autumn 1915) holds special personal significance because in it Sassoon—still in training in England—addresses his younger brother, Hamo, who was killed in action on the Gallipoli Peninsula in August 1915 and buried at sea. This graceful work is not an elegy or lament but an expression of the author's anxiety that fear may overwhelm him and of his longing for his brother's companionship in the ordeal he faces on the battlefield: […]. Unfortunately, Sassoon allows the speaker's uncertainty to be too easily resolved in the last two lines, in which the heroism of the dead is hailed impersonally as an omen of victory: […].
A second loss was to come a few months later with the death of Sassoon's “dream friend,” Lt. David Thomas, whom Sassoon calls Dick Tiltwood in the Sherston trilogy. Thomas is lamented in “The Last Meeting,” written in May 1916 at Flixecourt, during Sassoon's brief respite from front-line action. In these calm surroundings after months of devastating warfare, Sassoon also wrote the excellent poem “Stand-To: Good Friday Morning,” which he later identified as the single poem which pointed toward the satirical style that was to prove so successful in many of his poems in the next three years.
Besides the war poems and the pastoral poems in The Old Huntsman, the long title poem is of particular interest. Marked by colloquial diction and conversational rhythms, this poem is a blank-verse monologue in which an old huntsman recalls scenes and people from his past. He wonders about the religious convictions of “the old Duke” and of the clergy he has known, but he himself feels remote from heaven and hell—and finally also remote from a world “that's full of wars.” The huntsman's series of descriptive pictures reveal a grasp of realistic detail, and the huntsman's speech is an improvement over Sassoon's only other long poem in colloquial blank verse, The Daffodil Murderer (1913), a parody on John Masefield.
Of even greater interest, however, are the new war poems, written after Sassoon was sent to the front. These poems present trench warfare graphically, stress the ordinariness and the humanity of the soldiers, and usually employ colloquial diction and conversational rhythms. While “The Old Huntsman” is relaxed and humorous, the majority of the war poems in this volume lament human suffering and express rage at the futile deaths of the young men.
Sassoon's combat career from 1916 to 1918 was marked by several long leaves and hospitalizations for injuries and illnesses. For example, he was hospitalized for a gastric illness, so that he missed the worst fighting of the Somme offensive, in which British casualties were heaviest, from July to October 1916. He also found himself in 1916 and again in 1917 in close contact in England with influential pacifists: art critic Robert Ross; Lady Ottoline Morrell and her husband, an influential pacifist member of Parliament; Bertrand Russell, who had already lost his professorship because of his antiwar statements at Cambridge; and John Middleton Murry, literary critic and friend of antiwar authors such as D.H. Lawrence. Sassoon, in part through the urging of these friends, made a formal declaration of protest against the war in July 1917. He had already received the Military Cross for bringing in under heavy fire a wounded lance-corporal who had fallen near the German lines; and he had been recommended for the Victoria Cross after he captured alone some German trenches in the Hindenburg Line. When he sent his letter of protest to the war department, he threw the ribbon of his Military Cross into the River Mersey. In the protest, Sassoon said: “I believe that the War is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it…. I believe that this War, on which I entered as a war of defence and liberation, has now become a war of aggression and conquest. I believe that the purpose for which I and my fellow soldiers entered upon this war should have been so clearly stated as to have made it impossible to change them, and that, had this been done, the objects which actuated us would now be attainable by negotiation…. I can no longer be a party to prolong these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust. I am not protesting against the conduct of the war, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed.” Sassoon's declaration was read in the House of Commons at the instigation of Bertrand Russell, and he was in danger of court-martial. Robert Graves, a fellow poet, interceded at his hearing, pleading his view that Sassoon was suffering shell shock. As a result, in July 1917 Sassoon entered Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh, where Wilfred Owen was already receiving treatment. Sassoon and Owen became friends. (After Owen was killed during the week of the Armistice, Sassoon collected and edited Owen's poems—almost all previously unpublished—for publication in 1920.) By summer 1917 The Old Huntsman had been widely read, and Sassoon was writing and compiling the poems that were to appear in Counter-Attack.
While The Old Huntsman and Other Poems includes a variety of poems, the next volume, Counter-Attack and Other Poems (1918), does not. All thirty-nine poems are harshly realistic laments or satires. The typical satirical poem is short and marked by rhythms of conversation, strong and regular rhyme, considerable slang, and often a singsong, lilting verse at variance with the tragic subject. Sassoon's satires are marked by bitter irony, and they specifically attack patriotic and complacent civilians, politicians unconcerned with peacemaking, military strategists in high positions, clergymen who preach an apparently merciless God and who identify warlikeness with godliness, and all the popular media, especially the kind of journalism which emphasized military goals of absolute conquest and minimized the extent of British casualties. The horror of the battlefield and the trenches emerges as Sassoon relentlessly builds detail upon detail (rats, fragments of dead bodies, stench of rotting flesh, winter rain, mud that slows each step, sounds of guns, and sounds of ominous silence before shelling).
At the close of the war when Sassoon selected sixty-four poems for The War Poems of Siegfried Sassoon (1919), he included eighteen from The Old Huntsman (1917), nearly all of the poems in Counter-Attack (1918), and nine from the privately published volume Picture Show (1919). The war poems he excluded were primarily those in The Old Huntsman that were written prior to his combat experience—poems such as “Absolution,” “The Redeemer,” and “Victory”—that romanticized warfare. Most of the poems included in The War Poems were written in 1917 and 1918. Some reflect his own hospital experience; many were undoubtedly written in the hospital or rest home during the long leaves that Sassoon had in England and Scotland during the last year and a half of his army service. Although these periods of relief from combat service permitted him to see his experiences in perspective, he was still far from tranquil when he wrote about them. He admitted to Robert Graves that when he was back in England, he had at times visions of horror in which he saw the bodies of the dead on the city pavements. During his long leave at Craiglockhart in the summer and fall of 1917, Sassoon was torn between his wish to return to the front in order to share the sufferings of his comrades and his wish to stay in England in order to continue his protest against continuing the war to absolute victory. Poems reflecting his hospital experience include “Sick Leave,” “Banishment,” “Repression of War Experience,” “Autumn,” and “Survivors.”
Public response to Counter-Attack was more vocal and violent than the response to The Old Huntsman had been in the previous year. The satirical poems in the earlier volume followed the genial, long title poem, and harsh poems were interspersed among more conventional lyrics primarily in praise of nature. Even the gray and black book cover of The Old Huntsman contrasted with the cover of Counter-Attack, an orange cover overlaid with red, as if to call attention to the violent experiences described inside. Counter-Attack featured an introduction by Robert Nichols, whose war poetry, though inferior in its sentimentality and its lack of artistry, enjoyed great popularity in 1915-1917. (Sassoon's The Old Huntsman sold even more copies in 1917 than did Nichols's Ardours and Endurances.) In the introduction to Counter-Attack, Nichols acknowledged that war destroys more often than it develops nobility in men. He suggests, however, that Sassoon's anger may weaken his poems aesthetically. Both the British and American editions of Counter-Attack began with an excerpt from Fitzwater Wray's translation of Henri Barbusse's Le Feu, a book that Sassoon had read at Craiglockhart. The passage from Le Feu maintains that war destroys its participants morally as well as physically: war, in short, “outrages common sense, debases noble ideas, and dictates all kind of crime.” It enlarges “every evil instinct.”
The satirical poems here are all short. In most of them Sassoon employs epigrammatic statements, often climactically in the last line or two. There is also a tautness in the diction and structure evident in many of the poems. The typical figure is a simple, honorable, and patient soldier who is incapable of sophisticated argument against war. The soldiers are “poor duffers” who accept their unheroic lot. The poetry is not marked by an unusual degree of richness, and there is not much subtlety or ambiguity present. If the soldier protagonist is capable of intense feeling, the poetry is seldom complicated enough to require reflection and analysis on the reader's part.
Some readers became angry with Sassoon's blatant lack of patriotism in poems such as “Lamentations” and “How to Die.” Some others became angry with Sassoon's apparent blasphemy and disrespect for the Christian religion in poems such as “The Investiture,” “To Any Dead Officer,” “Stand To: Good Friday Morning,” “The Choral Union,” and “They.” In “Stand To: Good Friday Morning,” for example, a soldier mocks the benevolence and compassion universally attributed to Christ, and in his hope for a sick leave shouts, “[…] send me a wound […] And I'll believe […].” Similarly glad for a wound that has allowed him to go home, the veteran in “The One-Legged Man” breathes a [thankful] prayer in the last line […].
Even the responses of Wilfred Owen, John Middleton Murry, and Virginia Woolf to Counter-Attack were not wholeheartedly enthusiastic, although their points of view on the war were similar to Sassoon's. Like Nichols, they questioned whether Sassoon's technique of shocking the reader is aesthetically valid and whether he might not be writing propaganda rather than poetry. Not long before he was killed in action, Wilfred Owen wrote Sassoon in October 1918 that he had been made more fearful by reading the Counter-Attack poems than he had been when he had held a young soldier wounded in the head for half an hour and felt the soldier's blood soak through to his own shoulder. He wrote, “My senses are charred.” For Owen, Sassoon's poetry failed to place the intense and horrible moment into a more general context of human association. Rather, Sassoon's poetry tended to hypnotize the reader so that he saw the horrible moment only in isolation. The reader is confronted with a violent “spot in time” which, intense in itself, leads to no discernible resolution or reasoned conclusion. In his preoccupation with the irrationality of war, Sassoon deliberately angered the reader and left him with a cryptic epigram that could give him little comfort. Owen at least must have appreciated Sassoon's revulsion against war, even though Sassoon was apparently unable to attain Owen's measured response to it.
John Middleton Murry wrote in his review of Counter-Attack that he found a city of pain in each poem, but he did not find a finished artistry. After reading Sassoon's poems, Murry could only conclude that there was no meaning at all left to human experience. Sassoon, said Murry, tends to numb his readers, to terrify them, and to deaden their sensibilities, all responses fatal to full aesthetic experience. For Murry, Sassoon failed to universalize his experience, because he concentrated so fanatically on one part of it. A truly great poet, Murry contended, must be able to get beyond even an annihilating experience to see it in its unusual implications; Sassoon gave us only the shocking intensity of the annihilating moment in many of his poems. Murry cited two lines from “Prelude: The Troops” to illustrate the element of balance he could not find in most of the poems: […]. These lines, because of the reference to the blossoming sky, present “a full octave of emotional experience … from serenity to desolation,” a range of emotion lacking in most of Sassoon's grim new poems. Murry thought, moreover, that Sassoon had become too greatly dependent upon a single mode of expression in these poems, “the irony epigram.”
Virginia Woolf's views on Counter-Attack are similar to Murry's. She suggested in the Times Literary Supplement that Sassoon had deserted art in his compulsion to express the intolerable. “Beauty and art have something too universal about them to meet our particular case,” she commented as she criticized the narrow range of the individual poems. Like Murry, Woolf felt that rage by itself could never lead to the aesthetic effect that requires its presentation against a background of harmony—or some hope, however dim, of an orderly universe with which the horrible moment contrasts. Some sense of harmonious resolution must be present for a genuine artistic expression of emotional experience. Yet, in spite of Sassoon's inability to reach a largeness of vision in his war poetry, Woolf sees in his “contempt for palliative or subterfuge … the raw stuff of poetry.” She says, in effect, that without his unusual and violent experience Sassoon would not have written at all.
Actually, at times in his war poems Sassoon shows the range of imaginative power that Murry and Woolf deny him. In these instances he can relate the violence about which he writes to a larger humanistic context, and his irony depends upon his suggestion that what would be the normally expected in peacetime cannot be relied upon to happen in wartime when human values must at times yield to struggle for survival. In two poems, “The Rear-Guard, Hindenburg Line, April, 1917” (sometimes published under the title “The Deceiver”) and “The Dug-Out, St. Venant, July, 1918,” Sassoon relates incidents in which a soldier mistakes a comrade's death for sleep in one case and mistakes a comrade's sleep for death in the other. The protagonist's terror in “The Rear-Guard” when he discovers the man is dead strikes suddenly. In “The Dug-Out,” the narrator's recognition that the boy is only asleep calms his fears—but only for the moment. Any sleeping man can remind him of the many dead men he has seen. The incident punctuates his chronic fear, a fear which is appropriate in the trenches and the only possible emotion, perhaps, that can be experienced in the uncertainty of existence there. (Sassoon also describes this incident in Sherston's Progress.) In “The Rear-Guard” the soldier's actions and speech are presented by a detached narrator. In “The Dug-Out” the point of view is first person as the protagonist muses but never speaks aloud to the sleeping boy. In “The Rear-Guard” the poet implies that sleep constitutes the normal state and death is a shocking aberration. Conversely, in “The Dug-Out” the poet's awareness that death is the norm in the trenches has made sleep an abnormal state. Sassoon masterfully communicates that in wartime the normal expectations of one's previous experience are unlikely to be realized and that the unexpected converse of these expectations becomes the usual pattern for men who live under abnormal and distorted circumstances.
In spite of Murry's implication that a balanced view is unusual for Sassoon, Sassoon frequently uses natural backgrounds of beauty—sky, sunset, or dawn—to intensify his sense of desolation in the trenches. Always he describes the desolation of no-man's-land for what it is. Sassoon's poems avoid the artifice in some sentimental and popular war poems. No nightingale or lark is needed to heighten the effect of Sassoon's battlefields with their blighted trees and twisted wire, as in this description from “Counter-Attack”: [….]
The depth and intensity of Sassoon's rendition of experience in itself provide a degree of universality in his poems which his critics often felt was not there.
Though Sassoon's satirical war poems possess strengths that his early critics tended to ignore, these works also reveal some weaknesses. In “Base Details” and “The General” Sassoon satirizes too easily the high-ranking military officers. His complacent generals and his irresponsible majors are so stereotypical that they become scapegoats without much human substance. More effective, but equally biased, are poems which regard women as insensitive civilians. In “The Hero” a soldier visits his comrade's mother and tries to keep secret his knowledge that her son was not courageous under fire. She continues to idealize the boy and refuses to recognize that he might have been a fearful and suffering individual before he died. In “Their Frailty” Sassoon presents women as complacent about the deaths of thousands of men mowed down by German machine guns, as long as the men in their own families are safe. In “Glory of Women” Sassoon inveighs against women who demand that soldiers be heroes and who do not realize that even British soldiers may flee from combat when fear grips them: […]. In the last three lines of the poem Sassoon shifts abruptly to German grandmothers who knit socks for their men—men whose faces have already been ground into the mud by the retreating British. These complacent women, like the British women, cannot view their soldiers as suffering human beings. Sassoon's characteristic distrust of women, revealed in all his verse, finds its strongest expression in these poems.
In Sassoon's best war poems he achieved new dimensions in literary art through his use of techniques already established in fiction but not common in poetry—short, trenchant statements; colloquial language punctuated with oaths; the accumulation of graphic detail; the use of cryptic language; and the presentation of shocking incidents accompanied by little authorial comment. If his prewar poems had been overly conventional and dulled by artifice, his war poems either succeeded or failed because of their unconventionality and unpredictability. In his poems written after the war he seldom sought to shock, he used satire far less frequently, and he seldom employed the colloquial and epigrammatic technique that had marked his wartime verse. He did not lapse into the conventionality of his prewar romantic poems, but his work was more traditional and the emotional appeal was muted. His diction, though consistently simple, was not colloquial. His maturity as poet appeared in the order and grace of the verse rather than in its originality of thought or image. He aptly described his own style in the decades after the war as his “cello voice.”
In July 1918 Sassoon was accidentally shot in the head by a member of his own company, and he was discharged prior to the Armistice. He seems to have lost his subject for a time. He briefly but vigorously supported the campaign of Philip Snowden in the general election following Armistice because Snowden had attempted to shorten the war and had supported postwar assistance for widows and for unemployed former soldiers. Since Snowden was involved in the Labour movement, Sassoon's “Tory-minded,” fox-hunting companions taunted him for becoming a “budding Bolshevik.”
If his occasional poems, often requested in the 1920s and 1930s, addressed social problems, the prophetic fervor and the intensity that had characterized the poems from 1915 to 1919 had largely vanished. In his war poems he had attained considerable universality, attacking war itself rather than the German forces or even World War I itself. Nevertheless, after the Armistice was signed, his rage against war and its madness, which had given the war poems their intensity, was inadequate to the resolution of the complex social and political problems emanating from the war and to the treatment of contemporary issues generally.
Sassoon spent nearly all of 1920 in the United States, speaking and reading his poetry to large audiences. In collecting new war poems in Picture Show (1919) and collecting previously published war poems for republication in The War Poems of Siegfried Sassoon (1919), he saw the need to exhort readers not to forget the horror of one war, lest another war might someday occur. Such purpose also prompted his writing of the poems in The Road to Ruin (1933). In the satiric “An Unveiling” he has an orator call for the building of a “bomb-proof roofed Metropolis” in London, dedicated to “for What-they-died-for's sake,” and the orator praises the courage of victims of poison gas. Sassoon did not protest England's entry into World War II and regarded that war as necessary to exorcize the evil of Hitler's regime. In his old age, he still regarded his protest declaration and his poems of World War I as a significant dramatization of the horror of war, although he had begun to doubt their permanent impact.
Sassoon returned to his practice of having single poems or small pamphlet editions of a few poems privately printed, particularly in the 1920s and again following World War II. The poems in these small publications were periodically collected in larger, commercially published volumes. In his old age, he said that The Heart's Journey (1927) was the last of his books of poetry to receive any favorable or full acknowledgment. Actually, in the twenty-five years following World War I, Sassoon wrote relatively little poetry and concentrated upon his seven major prose works: Meredith (1948) and the two autobiographical trilogies. Perhaps the best of his war poems is a lyric which heralds the Armistice, “Everyone Sang” (Picture Show, 1919). […] In 1965, two years before his death, Sassoon was startled to see this poem printed on the back page of the Times as a memorial to Winston Churchill, who as a member of Parliament had fifty years before heard his protest against war. The lyric, with its childlike simplicity and joyous spirit, typifies much in Sassoon's maturity and old age.
In each decade Sassoon produced a few fine poems, which are not widely known. In “Alone” (1924) he shows his ability to enliven an abstract lament with the sharp specificity of the ordinary. As he speaks of the strange person that one becomes when alone, he contrasts that desolate state with the everyday, ritualistic, common acts of community. In “Revisitation” (Vigils, 1934) he speaks to his psychiatrist, Dr. W. H. R. Rivers, who returns as a ghost to his “heart room”; they continue to talk as they had done in summer 1917 at Craiglockhart. Sassoon portrays Rivers as a man who is both a good scientist and a “fathering friend.” In him Sassoon sees “human sainthood,” and he recognizes that the spiritual healing which Rivers had begun in him has been truly augmented by memory in the passing years. The poem's dignity precludes sentimentality.
During the late 1930s Sassoon wrote several brief poems on his son's birth and early years. In the best of these, “Meeting and Parting,” Sassoon looks with love at his newborn son and then thinks of the grown-up man looking down at him at the time of his death. (Sassoon in his last years commented on the pleasure he had in talking with his son, who had recognized in his father his “second self.” George Sassoon was present at his father's death.)
In the 1950s and 1960s Sassoon wrote meditative and philosophical poetry, focusing often on religious issues. He was preoccupied with such issues as the essential mystery of God as other and God as immanent in the spirit of the individual. The poems lack concentration and intensity and seldom achieve profundity. Very short—often only four lines long—they articulate momentary insights into what constitutes for Sassoon an ultimate reality, or they represent momentary affirmations of belief, or they are prayerlike and spontaneous celebrations of a unity recognized between God and himself. Often the poems of this period focus on a single image, like the opening of one flower. Biblical juxtapositions recur with the oxymoronic overtones that sometimes occur in the scriptures: losing oneself in order to find the self, becoming blind in order to see, dying in order to live. Familiar truths and paradoxes are presented with a sense of rediscovery or surprise.
In 1953 Sassoon remarked that he had remained under the spell of Swinburne, not only in his prewar poems but in all of his poetry after the war—that he had the rhythms of Swinburne in his mind and that their effect continued to hypnotize him. He related Swinburne's overpowering “auditory” influence to his own “cello voice” in a poetry characterized by the use of melancholy, nostalgic, and somewhat monotonous rhythms. Actually, in his best poems Sassoon may still have found Thomas Hardy to be a more dominant influence than Swinburne. During the war Sassoon had dedicated his first commercially produced collection, The Old Huntsman and Other Poems, to Hardy, and he had referred to his having read Hardy's novels in a dugout and not wanting to be killed before finishing the Hardy novel that he was then reading. In one of the later poems that reflects Hardy's ability to create graceful, if rugged, poems and to limn a sharp portrait, Sassoon created a memorable picture of the aged Hardy. The sonnet “At Max Gate” (1950) recalls a visit to Hardy in 1924. Hardy sits beside the fire, petting his dog, and appears as a man of hope and contentment. In the ironic and surprising last line—typical of Hardy but in its subtlety less typical of Sassoon's final lines—the poet expresses his recognition in 1950 that someone else “had taken Mr. Hardy's place.”
In 1953 Sassoon sought to describe in his diary his various types of poetry: (1) his declamatory poems with their “loud-speaker” style; (2) his “strongly-drawn cartoons,” which had given him wartime success as a satirist but had not satisfied him; (3) his poems characterized by an “indirect” style, which he felt that he had not yet perfected but which he longed to perfect; and (4) his “soliloquies,” which dominate his late work. He observed that his poems were not visually evocative, and that he had much difficulty in trying to make them so, although while writing them he had always thought in terms of visual images. He also expressed distaste for the “loud ones” with their closing “fortissimo line,” which had brought him fame thirty-five years earlier. He now saw himself as a poet whose work could not be appropriately evaluated aesthetically because of stereotypical opinions about it. He had been typed as a war poet who had written dramatic and strident poems. Sassoon felt that the poet should communicate directly with the common reader, and he believed that his audience had diminished as critics turned readers toward the predominant mode of the period, an intense, concentrated, elliptical, and intellectualized kind of poetry. To Sassoon, T. S. Eliot seemed “too professorial,” and he commented that he could make neither head nor tail of The Waste Land. But he amiably conceded a few years before his death that Eliot had become an important touchstone by which his contemporaries were to be measured: […]. Sassoon thought that even his friend Dame Edith Sitwell had been encouraged to turn away from his work as “old-fashioned,” and he also felt that it was difficult for devotional religious poetry to be evaluated on its aesthetic merits.
Sassoon chose to live a relatively solitary existence in the last two decades of his life, but he was never a recluse. In 1933, at the age of forty-seven, he had married Hester Gatty and became a father three years later. The couple apparently lived together about ten years and then separated, but they remained good friends. During the years of World War II, Heytesbury House was largely taken over for refugees—some of whom Sassoon complained were unclean and ill-behaved. He complained also of the cold in the large house during those years, but the years of his son's childhood were happy ones for him. In the 1950s and 1960s his letters and diary entries comment on the extended visits of his son and his wife. Though he was practicing a disciplined preparation for death and eternity through meditation and prayer and writing, he had considerable contact with neighbors, particularly the nuns from Stanbrook Abbey. He greatly missed old friends such as Thomas Hardy, Max Beerbohm, Robert Ross, T. E. Lawrence, Edith Sitwell, E. M. Forster, and Walter de la Mare. (One of his last public speeches was the dedication of the memorial for de la Mare at St. Paul's Cathedral in December 1961.) But some old friends remained. He wrote that the high point of his eightieth birthday, 8 September 1966, was his having received a letter from John Masefield, the poet he had parodied in The Daffodil Murderer (1913), and he also rejoiced that year that his old friend of fifty years, Edmund Blunden, had received double the votes “of his American adversary, Robert Lowell” for the Oxford Professorship of Poetry: […].
For his eightieth birthday, the Arts Council of Britain honored him with the publication of eight short poems, An Octave. In honor of this birthday the Stanbrook Abbey Press presented him with a calligraphic edition of SomethingAbout Myself a story about cats that Sassoon had written at age eleven and illustrated for his mother. The dedication described Sassoon as “poet, warrior, and fox-hunting man, who even to serene old age has kept the heart of a child.” As the dedication indicates, Sassoon had lived the active life of one concerned about and enjoying society, and he had lived the passive, contemplative life. The paradox is that as a poet he had actualized his career as a soldier so much more memorably than his life as a religious seeker. On 3 September 1967, he died in the company of his son quietly at home, an occasion toward which he had looked with joyful anticipation.
Source: Margaret B. McDowell, “Siegfried Sassoon,” in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 20, British Poets, 1914-1945, edited by Donald E. Stanford, Gale Research, 1983, pp. 321-35.
Allen, Brooke, “Rediscovering Sassoon,” in the New Criterion, Vol. 24, No. 3, November 2005, pp. 15-20.
Brooks, Cleanth, “Irony as a Principle of Structure,” reprinted in Contexts for Criticism, 2nd edition, edited by Donald Keesey, Mayfield Publishing, 1994, pp. 74-81.
Campbell, Patrick, Siegfried Sassoon: A Study of the War Poetry, McFarland, 1999, pp. 15, 42, 58, 134-35.
Crawford, Fred D., British Poets of the Great War, Susquehanna University Press, 1988, pp. 119-38.
Fussell, Paul, The Great War and Modern Memory, Oxford University Press, 2000, pp. 7-8, 75-105.
Gosse, Edmund, “Some Soldier Poets,” in the Edinburgh Review, Vol. 226, No. 4, October 1917, pp. 296-316.
Hipp, Daniel, The Poetry of Shell Shock: Wartime Trauma and Healing in Wilfred Owen, Ivor Gurney and Siegfried Sassoon, McFarland, 2005, pp. 152-53.
Johnston, John H., English Poetry of the First World War: A Study in the Evolution of Lyric and Narrative Form, Princeton University Press, 1964, pp. 71-112.
Moeyes, Paul, Siegfriend Sassoon: Scorched Glory, St. Martin's Press, 1997, pp. 16-18, 58-59.
Roberts, John Stuart, Siegfried Sassoon, Metro, 2005, pp. 88-89.
Sassoon, Siegfried, “‘Blighters,’” in The War Poems of Siegfried Sassoon, Echo Library, reprinted edition, 2006, p. 30, originally published 1919.
Thorpe, Michael, Siegfried Sassoon: A Critical Study, Oxford University Press, 1966, pp. 15-38.
Featherstone, Simon, War Poetry: An Introductory Reader, Routledge, 1995.
This book contains both an anthology of poetry and prose commentary from World War I and World War II, as well as a comprehensive discussion of critical and cultural concerns related to the poems.
Giddings, Robert, ed., The War Poets, Bloomsbury, 1988.
This book includes biographies, paintings, illustrations, and commentary on World War I poets.
Howard, Michael, The First World War: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2002.
This volume offers a short, readable history of World War I by a noted historian.
Hynes, Samuel, A War Imagined: The First World War and English Culture, Pimlico, 1998.
This study, along with Paul Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory, is one of the most important cultural studies of World War I.