Soldiers are citizens of death’s grey land,

Here is another of the series of World War 1 poems by Siegfried Sassoon who both fought actively in France and was also a vocal opponent of the futility and stupidity of the war and how it was being fought, both in his poems and in speeches and meetings.

The poem has similarities with the Apollinaire poem posted here on September 16th 2015 in its contrast between the imminent danger of death and mutilation for any active duty soldier and the soldier’s yearning for the ordinary everyday experiences of life. In Apollinaire’s case, this was very personal in that the contrast is between rejoining his regiment and being with his lover, who he knows he may never see again. Sassoon, in this poem generalises the experience, concluding that any soldier would rather be doing anything else but fighting in the trenches. And both are right of course, despite all efforts to portray war as a noble or honourable pursuit.

But for the soldier on active duty, all the rest is just a dream.

Soldiers are citizens of death’s grey land,
Drawing no dividend from time’s to-morrows.
In the great hour of destiny they stand,
Each with his feuds, and jealousies, and sorrows.

Soldiers are sworn to action; they must win
Some flaming, fatal climax with their lives.
Soldiers are dreamers; when the guns begin
They think of firelit homes, clean beds and wives.

I see them in foul dug-outs, gnawed by rats,
And in the ruined trenches, lashed with rain,
Dreaming of things they did with balls and bats,

And mocked by hopeless longing to regain
Bank-holidays, and picture shows, and spats,
And going to the office in the train.

From <;

It is a sonnet, and its power comes from the simple building of one idea – that soldiers are placed in terrible and dangerous conditions in which any moment could be their last, and what can they do but dream of being back at home immersed in their daily occupations, their homes and wives, their cricket matches, their days out and days at work, going to the movies and considering what to wear.

It never ceases to amaze me that more soldiers don’t refuse to fight, in any age.

The Poetry Dude


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