Why not have a week on Siegfried Sassoon? I mean to say, on his war poems. I can name a few good reasons: I’m not even really supposed to have read them yet; I probably ought to be writing about a lot of other things first; should one shortish book of poetry really make up a week? But as Tom suggested, these war poets make good guinea pigs for poetry-blogging, and Sassoon seems a good place to start.
Anthony recently posted on one of the problems with reading and writing history, quoting a review in the TLS by Joanna Bourke that states that ”it is noticeable that elaborate recitations on the horrors of war do not necessarily translate into a politics of non-violence.”
Geoff Dyer is fairly quick to point this out in The Missing of the Somme.
For all their abhorrence of war the poets of protest like Owen, Sassoon and Graves continued—for very different reasons—to wage it. Dominic Hibberd has pointed out how the official citation for Owen’s Military Cross refers to his having ‘personally manipulated a captured enemy M[achine] G[un]…and inflicted considerable losses on the enemy'; in the Collected Letters Owen’s family offer a milder rewrite of the citation, in which he ‘personally captured an enemy Machine Gun…and took a number of prisoners’. Sassoon seems to have oscillated between bouts of frenzied violence and bitter loathing of the war that unleased this strain in him. Graves recalls that he ‘had never seen such a fire-eater as [Sassoon]—the number of Germans whom I killed or caused to be killed could hardly be compared with his wholesale slaughter’.
Wholesale slaughter. And this a war poet—a protest poet, that is, who wrote beautifully, heartbreakingly beautifully, on the calamity he witnessed—and perpetrated. Something we should always make sure to include in our “Remembrance,” and which I hope to deal with more as the Great War project develops. And do see Sassoon’s Wikipedia page on his war service, so crazy brave he was known as “Mad Jack,” evidently.
One of Sassoon’s poems delves into this idea that, as Dyer suggests, the war itself “unleashed this strain [of extreme violence] in him.” “The Kiss”:
To these I turn, in these I trust;
Brother Lead and Sister Steel.
To his blind power I make appeal;
I guard her beauty clean from rust.
He spins and burns and loves the air,
And splits a skull to win my praise;
But up the nobly marching days
She glitters naked, cold and fair.
Sweet Sister, grant your soldier this:
That in good fury he may feel
The body where he sets his heel
Quail from your downward darting kiss.
His truest fellows in arms are his arms themselves; bullet and bayonet-outfitted-rifle are Sassoon’s greatest intimates. His calling them “Brother” and “Sister” mirrors how he treats them as family, protecting the female sibling and watching the male one show off. He begs a favor of his “sister,” just as any solder might—but this favor isn’t a regular letter, or a fresh pair of socks, but death—and a violent death. This violent death through a “sweet” gesture, a “kiss.” I note also that here, in the last stanza, it is no longer “I” but “your soldier” who speaks, and “your soldier” demands “fury.”
The surface of the poem, meanwhile, is all sweetness and light. The short stanzas scan easily, and the rhyme scheme pulls you right along. Just as the form contrasts with the content, the words themselves contrast with each other. Brother bullet “burns and loves,” “loves…and splits a skull.”
Is this the sort of thing that makes people call Sassoon “bitter”? I think I’ve read bitterer poems by him myself, but I wonder if others would count something like this among that number. I don’t think I would.