Everyone suddenly burst out singing;

Most of the poems by Siegfried Sassoon posted here have been overtly pessimistic and bleak commentaries on the misery and futility of war – specifically World War One, in which Sassoon served, observing the senseless suffering and death of the soldiers on both sides. This poem is different, it is about the joy of song, and there is only a fleeting, oblique reference to the war. It is not even clear what is the context of the singing, but that makes us use our imagination…Mine tells me it might be a poem for Armistice Day, 1918, when the war finally ended,

Everyone Sang

Everyone suddenly burst out singing;
And I was filled with such delight
As prisoned birds must find in freedom,
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark-green fields; on – on – and out of sight.

Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted;
And beauty came like the setting sun:
My heart was shaken with tears; and horror
Drifted away … O, but Everyone
Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.

From <http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/248290&gt;

There is indeed a sense of universal joy at the turning of a page, a moment of transformation. The repetition on the word’s “everybody” and “suddenly” at the beginning of the first and second stanzas signal this – there is a spontaneous and widespread coming together in the joy of song as the caged birds become free and as the horror drifted away.

The expression of joy is spontaneous and infectious, but there is also a great sense of optimism coming through in the final line, “the singing will never be done”.

The Poetry Dude

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 <http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/171922&gt;

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

‘Jack fell as he’d have wished,’ the mother said,

Siegrfried Sassoon’s World War 1 poems sometimes point out the horror and suffering of war, sometimes its futility and sometimes its pathetic absurdity. This poem is in the third category, with the title “The Hero” completely ironic, following the wishful thinking of society in categorizing all who fought, were wounded or killed in the war as heroes, irrespective of whether they took part willingly and irrespective of the manner of their injury or death. Regrettably, this attitude still prevails today when the slightest hint of calling into question the contribution and conduct of members of the military is immediately stigmatised as unpatriotic.
The poem describes the scene when the mother of the soldier, Jack, receives the news that her son has been killed in the war. The story is told simply, increasing its effectiveness in conveying the huge divide between self-deception and reality.


The Hero

‘Jack fell as he’d have wished,’ the mother said,
And folded up the letter that she’d read.
‘The Colonel writes so nicely.’ Something broke
In the tired voice that quavered to a choke.
She half looked up. ‘We mothers are so proud
Of our dead soldiers.’ Then her face was bowed.

Quietly the Brother Officer went out.
He’d told the poor old dear some gallant lies
That she would nourish all her days, no doubt
For while he coughed and mumbled, her weak eyes
Had shone with gentle triumph, brimmed with joy,
Because he’d been so brave, her glorious boy.

He thought how ‘Jack’, cold-footed, useless swine,
Had panicked down the trench that night the mine
Went up at Wicked Corner; how he’d tried
To get sent home, and how, at last, he died,
Blown to small bits. And no one seemed to care
Except that lonely woman with white hair.
Siegfried Sassoon

From <http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/the-hero-7/&gt;

The first stanza describes the reaction of Jack’s mother on hearing the news. It is full of genteel respectability, imagining her son has died a noble and worthwhile death, grateful for the attention of a letter from his
Colonel, convincing herself that she is proud of her son. That is too often what people do in the face of such news, they find comfort in acceptance and admiration rather than let their hurt and anger come forth.

The second stanza reveals that the Office who brought the news knows that it is all deception, empty words which must be said so as not to confront the realities of death in war and so as not to provoke a questioning of the whole enterprise.

And then the third stanza reveals the actual truth about the death of Jack – killed in a panic while trying to get out of the way of the conflict, to get sent home, to avoid the mine that killed him. In the game of survival he lost, and everybody will convince themselves that he was a hero. Sassoon knew that being a hero was irrelevant, only death counted.

The Poetry Dude

I watched old squatting Chimpanzee: he traced

Siegfried Sassoon is best known for his First World War poems, full of pain, anger and despair at the absurdities and miseries of war. But outside his wartime experiences he lived the life of a minor aristocrat, hunting, shooting and fishing, living a life of privilege. Here he writes a poem which depicts his jaundiced view of this world, as he describes some of the people he mixes with at sporting events. A precursor of Monty Python’s upper-class twits, perhaps…

Sporting Acquaintances

I watched old squatting Chimpanzee: he traced
His painful patterns in the dirt: I saw
Red-haired Ourang-utang, whimsical-faced,
Chewing a sportsman’s meditative straw:
I’d met them years ago, and half-forgotten
They’d come to grief (but how, I’d never heard,
Poor beggars!); still, it seemed so rude and rotten
To stand and gape at them with never a word.

I ventured ‘Ages since we met,’ and tried
My candid smile of friendship; no success.
One scratched his hairy thigh, while t’other sighed
And glanced away. I saw they liked me less
Than when, on Epsom Downs, in cloudless weather,
We backed The Tetrarch and got drunk together.

Siegfried Sassoon

From <http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/sporting-acquaintances/&gt;

The two acquaintances that the poet meets are characterized as a chimpanzee and an orang-outang. These days we might consider that this is denigrating to those primates. The scene takes place on Epsom Downs, the racecourse where the Derby is run every year (in the town where I was born). Despite his disdain for the acquaintances, the solidarity of class and the occasion win the day and the poet joins his friends in betting on a horse and then getting drunk with them (and possibly going on to nab a policeman’s helmet, like one of PG Wodehouse’s characters.)

The Poetry Dude

Does it matter? -losing your legs?

Today we have another World War 1 poem, from Siegfried Sassoon. But unlike the other poems from this time posted here, from such as Sassoon himself, Yeats and Apollinaire, this poem is not so much about the immediate horror and absurdity of life in the trenches. Instead it draws attention to the aftermath of war and the fate of those who come home wounded and incapacitated in some way. They are a constant and permanent reminder of the effects of war, both to themselves and to those around them. This is very relevant today as wounded veterans continue to come back from such places as Afghanistan and Iraq. And of course, their wound might not be just physical – the psychological impact of war is now better understood than it was in Sassoon’s day, when shell-shock was too often interpreted as cowardice.

The title of the poem “Does it Matter” seems to be a direct reference to the absurdity of the situation which led to the horrific injuries described.

Does It Matter?

Does it matter? -losing your legs?
For people will always be kind,
And you need not show that you mind
When others come in after hunting
To gobble their muffins and eggs.
Does it matter? -losing your sight?
There’s such splendid work for the blind;
And people will always be kind,
As you sit on the terrace remembering
And turning your face to the light.
Do they matter-those dreams in the pit?
You can drink and forget and be glad,
And people won’t say that you’re mad;
For they know that you’ve fought for your country,
And no one will worry a bit.

From <http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/does-it-matter/&gt;

The poem seems to be written from the point of view of an ex-soldier who has lost his legs or his eyes. He cannot participate in the activities of normal life – such as hunting, but people will be kind and you can spend your time drinking and remembering. People will tolerate your behaviour as an ex-soldier who has served his country. Sassoon himself must have experienced this type of reaction, as, although not physically wounded, he was severely psychologically scarred by his time in the war. The idea is that these ex-soldiers are no longer part of mainstream society, they are marginalised and tolerated, rather than re-integrated. Just one more reason for these soldiers to question whether it was all worthwhile.

The Poetry Dude

Down in the hollow there’s the whole Brigade

Here is another World War 1 poem from Siegfried Sassoon, written while on active duty in France. He was an officer, but his poetry makes it very clear that he was highly conscious of the senselessness and suffering of the war. Probably writing poetry was a kind of therapy to help him get through the bad times and give expression to his real feelings. All his poems are very poignant. This one doesn’t give explicit space to the deaths and injuries and futile attacks, but contrasts a moment of rest with the ever-present threat of the horrors to come.
Carnoy is a place near the Somme, where some of the most destructive battles took place. I believe there is a military cemetery there, dating from this time.

At Carnoy

Down in the hollow there’s the whole Brigade
Camped in four groups: through twilight falling slow
I hear a sound of mouth-organs, ill-played,
And murmur of voices, gruff, confused, and low.
Crouched among thistle-tufts I’ve watched the glow
Of a blurred orange sunset flare and fade;
And I’m content. To-morrow we must go
To take some cursèd Wood … O world God made!
July 3rd, 1916.

From <http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/at-carnoy/&gt;

The poem is short and most of it sets the scene of a large grouping of soldiers resting in the evening in their campsite, talking quietly, enjoying the sunset, playing music and perhaps singing, perhaps writing letters home or composing poetry. It is almost an idyllic scene of peace, contentment and tranquillity, and the poet feels contentment. Then come the final line and a half which kick against all that has gone before. Tomorrow there will be action, fighting over some wood, probably of no importance, but cursed to these men – the world is indeed a terrible place.

It is only later that you start to see the technical elements of this poem – the regular rhyme scheme, 10 syllables to each line. It is somehow comforting that Sassoon was able to maintain his craft while at the same time being able to express his feeling about the awful circumstances of life at war.

The Poetry Dude

We’d gained our first objective hours before

In the blog post from October 5th, we had an example of Sassoon’s First World War poetry, “The General”, in which he scorned the insensitive and buffoonish behaviour of the officers and its tragic impact on ordinary soldiers. In this poem, “Counter-Attack”, the poet throws the reader into the midst of an engagement and spares no detail of the horror, death, violence and danger which was the daily experience of a soldier’s life in World War One.



We’d gained our first objective hours before
While dawn broke like a face with blinking eyes,
Pallid, unshaven and thirsty, blind with smoke.
Things seemed all right at first. We held their line,
With bombers posted, Lewis guns well placed,
And clink of shovels deepening the shallow trench.
The place was rotten with dead; green clumsy legs
High-booted, sprawled and grovelled along the saps
And trunks, face downward, in the sucking mud,
Wallowed like trodden sand-bags loosely filled;
And naked sodden buttocks, mats of hair,
Bulged, clotted heads slept in the plastering slime.
And then the rain began,—the jolly old rain!

A yawning soldier knelt against the bank,
Staring across the morning blear with fog;
He wondered when the Allemands would get busy;
And then, of course, they started with five-nines
Traversing, sure as fate, and never a dud.
Mute in the clamour of shells he watched them burst
Spouting dark earth and wire with gusts from hell,
While posturing giants dissolved in drifts of smoke.
He crouched and flinched, dizzy with galloping fear,
Sick for escape,—loathing the strangled horror
And butchered, frantic gestures of the dead.

An officer came blundering down the trench:
“Stand-to and man the fire step!” On he went …
Gasping and bawling, “Fire-step … counter-attack!”
Then the haze lifted. Bombing on the right
Down the old sap: machine-guns on the left;
And stumbling figures looming out in front.
“O Christ, they’re coming at us!” Bullets spat,
And he remembered his rifle … rapid fire …
And started blazing wildly … then a bang
Crumpled and spun him sideways, knocked him out
To grunt and wriggle: none heeded him; he choked
And fought the flapping veils of smothering gloom,
Lost in a blurred confusion of yells and groans …
Down, and down, and down, he sank and drowned,
Bleeding to death. The counter-attack had failed

From <http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/248224&gt;

The descriptions are unflinching in setting out the discomfort, death, fear, and ultimately, pointlessness of the fighting from the trenches, where each side battled for years over gaining or losing a few yards of territory, urged on by officers who seemed to have no care of reducing the danger. The poem gains its power by being a reflection of the actual experience of the poet who served in the trenches in France, and became an anti-war campaigner because of what he had seen and lived through.

This is another fine example of war poetry from World war one, where poets were part of the conflict and what they saw led to some great and powerful poetry.


The Poetry Dude