Revisiting: “Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you’ll never forget.”

poppylogoOn Fridays during my Great War project, at least until I run out of material, I intend to look back on what I can of various Great War–related reading I’ve done over the years. The original posts may have quite a different focus, but that should make things all the more interesting.


Robert Nichols, a fellow English war poet, wrote an introduction to Siegfried Sassoon’s 1918 collection Counter-Attack and Other Poems that is reprinted in my Dover Edition of the War Poems of Siegfried Sassoon. In it, Nichols recounts a conversation he once had with Sassoon, on the topic of “certain exalté poems in [Nichols’s] Ardours and Endeavours.” Sassoon likes the poems, and says:

“War has made me. I think I am a man now as well as a poet. You have said the things well enough. Now let us nevermore say another word of whatever litlte may be good in war for the individual who has a heart to be steeled.”

I remember I nodded, for further acquaintance with war inclines me to his opinion.

“Let no one ever,” he continued, “from henceforth say a word in any way countenancing war. It is dangerous even to speak of how here and there the individual may gain some hardship of soul by it. For war is hell and those who institute it are criminals. Were there anything to say for it, it should not be said for its spiritual disasters far outweigh any of its advantages.”

War poems are, in some sense, a kind of Remembrance. Many are about individual fallen comrades; many more refer to the unnamed dead. Ghosts are everywhere, and dying men are everywhere, suffering and taking their last breaths. The poems are a record of horror and calamity, and many are also accusations.

How then does one read the poems without thinking of the “hardship of soul” Sassoon gained by the war? It was the war that allowed him to see and understand these things, and the war that allowed him to develop into the poet he did. His poems could only have been written by someone who had just those spiritual advantages war does offer—and as such, there is always the subtext: you were not there, you cannot Remember the way we can. Is it possible to read Sassoon’s work while following his instruction never to “say a word in any way countenancing war”?

I think the answer to that question is yes, but it’s one that I think will dog me throughout the Great War project.

Revisiting: “What silly beggars they are to blunder in/And scorch their wings with glory, liquid flame”

poppylogoOn Fridays during my Great War project, at least until I run out of material, I intend to look back on what I can of various Great War–related reading I’ve done over the years. The original posts may have quite a different focus, but that should make things all the more interesting.


On Tuesday, one of the poems I wrote about, “To Any Dead Officer,” ends very bluntly, as I noted: “I wish they’d killed you in a decent show.” This kind of bluntness is characteristic, especially as a sort of epigrammatic last line to Sassoon’s poems. “Trench Duty” ends, “I’m wide awake; and some chap’s dead.” “The General,” one of Sassoon’s turns at the vulgarly humorous side of war poetry, finishes abruptly and unfunnily for our two comic actors: “But he did for them both by his plan of attack.” “The One Legged Man” last “thought: ‘Thank God they had to amputate!'”

One of the most powerful uses of this blunt instrument is in “Repressions of War Experience,” a poem about a demobbed soldier who is badly shell-shocked. The poem is off-putting in many ways. Sassoon abandons his usual clear if somewhat irregular stanzas for a more open form, and the narrator seems to drift through this open form just as his consciousness, troubled as it is, drifts illogically from one topic to the next (“And you’re right as rain…./Why won’t it rain?…”) Like “To Any Dead Officer,” this poem deals with Sassoon’s view of the afterlife, and like many of his war poems has a strong hint of nature about it.

There must be crowds of ghosts among the trees,—
Not people killed in battle,—they’re in France,—
But horrible shapes in shrouds—old men who died
Slow, natural deaths,—old men with ugly souls,
Who wore their bodies out with nasty sins.

There is very little logic to this former soldier’s thoughts, but there is a logic to ghosts, for him: they are here, but not the ones he knew—those ones are back where they died, of course.

The narrator’s mind continues to wander as he complains about constantly hearing guns, and here Sassoon hits us with his final line: “I’m going stark, staring mad because of the guns.” The guns no longer exist, realize; it’s just that “quite soft…they never cease.”

The end of this poem is angry; the beginning is bitter. The narrator’s thoughts turn to the war on his seeing moths drawn to a flame—he just can’t resist the mental metaphor. But he scolds himself,

—it’s bad to think of war,
When thoughts you’ve gagged all day come back to scare you;
And it’s been proved that soldiers don’t go mad
Unless they lose control of ugly thoughts

This is where I would say Sassoon’s bitterness most comes out—when he’s talking about how “it’s bad” and “it’s been proved,” things decided by some official yet foreign body, just as when he’s saying he wished “they’d” killed you in a decent show—the generals, who “did for them” all by their plans of attack. Also the civilian leadership back home, and civilian supporters. The calamity itself doesn’t induce as much bitterness as those who drive it along and often profit by it. In terms of Great War literature, this is a theme I first discovered in Parade’s End. Or so I thought—I’d actually encountered it long before, in “Blackadder Goes Forth” (which I saw as much, much darker after reading that tetralogy). In The Missing of the Somme, Geoff Dyer discusses the play “Oh What a Lovely War, filmed by Richard Attenborough in 1969, which sometimes tends toward “crude caricature”:

Writers may have resorted to irony, but the soldiers here rely on its more humane equivalent: the piss-take.

Appropriately and perfectly, the play ends with a song which, like that defining passage in Barbusse, looks ahead to the impossibility of conveying what happened in the trenches:

And when they ask us, and they’re certainly going to ask us,
The reason why we didn’t win the Croix de Guerre,
Oh, we’ll never tell them, oh, we’ll never tell them
There was a front, but damned if we knew where.

Blackadder’s snide remarks on General Haig’s latest “gargantuan effort to move his drinks cabinet six inches closer to Berlin” are coming from the same general place, I think, and are, similarly, just as powerful as many more “literary” attempts to describe the war. Lieutenant Blackadder asking, just as he and his troops must finally (really this time) go over the top, with classic sarcasm, “I mean, who would have noticed another madman round here?” seems to arrive, by way of the vulgar piss-take school, straight down the line from the likes of Sassoon—and by 1989, it may be cliché, but like I said, I find the show extremely dark. And I find Sassoon extremely effective.

Revisiting: More on Siegfried Sassoon, bitter and sweet

poppylogoOn Fridays during my Great War project, at least until I run out of material, I intend to look back on what I can of various Great War–related reading I’ve done over the years. The original posts may have quite a different focus, but that should make things all the more interesting.


Yesterday I ended with a question about Sassoon’s bitterness. Today I want to discuss a theme in many of Sassoon’s poems that is often treated more sweetly than you might expect: death. I mean here the state of death, the afterlife in the most literal sense possible—what happens after life ends.

Sassoon speculates often on what death is like, and though he has several reuseable phrases at hand to euphemise it—“gone out patrolling in the dark”, “beyond the wire”, “gone West”—even these are poignant and not (yet?) cliché. Sassoon’s attitute toward death is one of curiosity and interest; that curiosity may be tinged with sadness but it’s motivated by the care and love he feels for his dead comrades. Here, in “To Any Dead Officer,” he begins:

Well, how are things in Heaven? I wish you’d say,
Because I’d like to know that you’re all right.
Tell me, have you found everlasting day,
Or been sucked in by everlasting night?

Elsewhere these attitudes toward death verge on the playful. In “The Investitute,” a soldier makes his way through the pearly gates, where “God says something kind because you’re dead,/And homesick, discontented with your fate.”

If I were there we’d snowball Death with skulls;
Or ride away to hunt in Devil’s Wood
With ghosts of puppies that we walked of old.
But you’re alone; and solitude annuls
Our earthly jokes; and strangely wise and good
You roam forlorn along the streets of gold.

These lines, like the ones I quoted yesterday, are a good example of Sassoon’s frequent use of juxtaposition: skull snowballs and puppy ghosts. The puppy ghosts are almost a double juxtaposition; just as the sad ghost conflicts with the cute puppy, the resultant creepy image of ghost-puppies conflicts with what Sassoon is really talking about here, beloved old friends. On the scale of the stanza there is a larger juxtaposition: the first half is the joke, the second half rejects jokes now that “you’re alone; and solitude annuls” them. The final juxtaposition—the dead man “forlorn” among “streets of gold,” could be a taste of the bitterness. I don’t think so, actually, I think it’s more acceptingness.

The bitterness undoubtedly shows up at the end of the poem previously quoted, however, “To Any Dead Officer.” Here, Sassoon is scathing, describing how the eponymous dead officer was listed on the “bloody Roll of Honour” as

“Wounded and missing”—(That’s the thing to do
When lads are left in shell-holes dying slow,
With nothing but blank sky and wounds that ache,
Moaning for water till they know
It’s night, and then it’s not worth while to wake!)
*****
Good-bye, old lad! Remember me to God,
and tell Him that our Politicians swear
They won’t give in till Prussian Rule’s been trod
Under the Heel of England….Are you there?…
Yes…and the War won’t end for at least two years;
But we’ve got stacks of men….I’m blind with tears,
Staring into the dark. Cheero!
I wish they’d killed you in a decent show.

And that is where he packs his punch. It feels almost unlicensed to actually feel so much from it—isn’t everything just ironic now, or something?—but Sassoon’s biting style does not seem cheap to me, but really powerful.

Revisiting: “The Kiss” by (and more on) Siegfried Sassoon

poppylogoOn Fridays during my Great War project, at least until I run out of material, I intend to look back on what I can of various Great War–related reading I’ve done over the years. The original posts may have quite a different focus, but that should make things all the more interesting.


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.

“Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you’ll never forget.”

Robert Nichols, a fellow English war poet, wrote an introduction to Siegfried Sassoon’s 1918 collection Counter-Attack and Other Poems that is reprinted in my Dover Edition of the War Poems of Siegfried Sassoon. In it, Nichols recounts a conversation he once had with Sassoon, on the topic of “certain exalté poems in [Nichols’s] Ardours and Endeavours.” Sassoon likes the poems, and says:

“War has made me. I think I am a man now as well as a poet. You have said the things well enough. Now let us nevermore say another word of whatever litlte may be good in war for the individual who has a heart to be steeled.”

I remember I nodded, for further acquaintance with war inclines me to his opinion.

“Let no one ever,” he continued, “from henceforth say a word in any way countenancing war. It is dangerous even to speak of how here and there the individual may gain some hardship of soul by it. For war is hell and those who institute it are criminals. Were there anything to say for it, it should not be said for its spiritual disasters far outweigh any of its advantages.”

War poems are, in some sense, a kind of Remembrance. Many are about individual fallen comrades; many more refer to the unnamed dead. Ghosts are everywhere, and dying men are everywhere, suffering and taking their last breaths. The poems are a record of horror and calamity, and many are also accusations.

How then does one read the poems without thinking of the “hardship of soul” Sassoon gained by the war? It was the war that allowed him to see and understand these things, and the war that allowed him to develop into the poet he did. His poems could only have been written by someone who had just those spiritual advantages war does offer—and as such, there is always the subtext: you were not there, you cannot Remember the way we can. Is it possible to read Sassoon’s work while following his instruction never to “say a word in any way countenancing war”?

I think the answer to that question is yes, but it’s one that I think will dog me throughout the Great War project.

“What silly beggars they are to blunder in/And scorch their wings with glory, liquid flame”

On Tuesday, one of the poems I wrote about, “To Any Dead Officer,” ends very bluntly, as I noted: “I wish they’d killed you in a decent show.” This kind of bluntness is characteristic, especially as a sort of epigrammatic last line to Sassoon’s poems. “Trench Duty” ends, “I’m wide awake; and some chap’s dead.” “The General,” one of Sassoon’s turns at the vulgarly humorous side of war poetry, finishes abruptly and unfunnily for our two comic actors: “But he did for them both by his plan of attack.” “The One Legged Man” last “thought: ‘Thank God they had to amputate!'”

One of the most powerful uses of this blunt instrument is in “Repressions of War Experience,” a poem about a demobbed soldier who is badly shell-shocked. The poem is off-putting in many ways. Sassoon abandons his usual clear if somewhat irregular stanzas for a more open form, and the narrator seems to drift through this open form just as his consciousness, troubled as it is, drifts illogically from one topic to the next (“And you’re right as rain…./Why won’t it rain?…”) Like “To Any Dead Officer,” this poem deals with Sassoon’s view of the afterlife, and like many of his war poems has a strong hint of nature about it.

There must be crowds of ghosts among the trees,—
Not people killed in battle,—they’re in France,—
But horrible shapes in shrouds—old men who died
Slow, natural deaths,—old men with ugly souls,
Who wore their bodies out with nasty sins.

There is very little logic to this former soldier’s thoughts, but there is a logic to ghosts, for him: they are here, but not the ones he knew—those ones are back where they died, of course.

The narrator’s mind continues to wander as he complains about constantly hearing guns, and here Sassoon hits us with his final line: “I’m going stark, staring mad because of the guns.” The guns no longer exist, realize; it’s just that “quite soft…they never cease.”

The end of this poem is angry; the beginning is bitter. The narrator’s thoughts turn to the war on his seeing moths drawn to a flame—he just can’t resist the mental metaphor. But he scolds himself,

—it’s bad to think of war,
When thoughts you’ve gagged all day come back to scare you;
And it’s been proved that soldiers don’t go mad
Unless they lose control of ugly thoughts

This is where I would say Sassoon’s bitterness most comes out—when he’s talking about how “it’s bad” and “it’s been proved,” things decided by some official yet foreign body, just as when he’s saying he wished “they’d” killed you in a decent show—the generals, who “did for them” all by their plans of attack. Also the civilian leadership back home, and civilian supporters. The calamity itself doesn’t induce as much bitterness as those who drive it along and often profit by it. In terms of Great War literature, this is a theme I first discovered in Parade’s End. Or so I thought—I’d actually encountered it long before, in “Blackadder Goes Forth” (which I saw as much, much darker after reading that tetralogy). In The Missing of the Somme, Geoff Dyer discusses the play “Oh What a Lovely War, filmed by Richard Attenborough in 1969, which sometimes tends toward “crude caricature”:

Writers may have resorted to irony, but the soldiers here rely on its more humane equivalent: the piss-take.

Appropriately and perfectly, the play ends with a song which, like that defining passage in Barbusse, looks ahead to the impossibility of conveying what happened in the trenches:

And when they ask us, and they’re certainly going to ask us,
The reason why we didn’t win the Croix de Guerre,
Oh, we’ll never tell them, oh, we’ll never tell them
There was a front, but damned if we knew where.

Blackadder’s snide remarks on General Haig’s latest “gargantuan effort to move his drinks cabinet six inches closer to Berlin” are coming from the same general place, I think, and are, similarly, just as powerful as many more “literary” attempts to describe the war. Lieutenant Blackadder asking, just as he and his troops must finally (really this time) go over the top, with classic sarcasm, “I mean, who would have noticed another madman round here?” seems to arrive, by way of the vulgar piss-take school, straight down the line from the likes of Sassoon—and by 1989, it may be cliché, but like I said, I find the show extremely dark. And I find Sassoon extremely effective.

Sassoon in the news—who knew?

On Monday, Dwight pointed me to an article in The Guardian about new poems by Sassoon recently unearthed by his biographer. As reported, these poems “show how the young poet, who joined his battalion in France in November 1915, did not immediately plunge into writing angry poetry about the horrors of his experience, rather seeing war at first as a heroic venture.”

“It surprised me because we always had this idea that Sassoon, when he went out to France, would have changed instantly from his heroic ideal of war to an anger that burst over into his poetry,” [Dr. Jean Moorcroft Wilson] told the BBC. “So when he gets there you’re not surprised to find him talking about the trenches. But when I found this trench diary, after the angry war poems I found there were poems that were full of the glory of war and the idea that war is a heroic venture.”

Having just spent quite a bit of time with Sassoon, I would like nothing more than to see these poems—my curiosity is aroused, and I’m in as good a position as I’ll ever be to judge how they fit in with the rest of Sassoon’s work. But only a tiny “snippet” of these newfound poems has been revealed:

You and the winds ride out together
Your company the world’s great weather
The clouds your plume, the glittering sky
A host of swords in harmony
With the whole loveliness of light flung forth to lead you through the fight

[I imagine there should have been a line break after “light,” but it’s not in the article.]

This was written sometime in 1916, we learn, the same year Sassoon went to fight. But even with the obvious interpretation so plausible—that “Sassoon, like most young soldiers, was caught between the reality of war and the glorious military history he would have been taught,” as The Telegraph puts it—I want so much more than this snippet before I can say what it’s all about.

More on Siegfried Sassoon, bitter and sweet

Yesterday I ended with a question about Sassoon’s bitterness. Today I want to discuss a theme in many of Sassoon’s poems that is often treated more sweetly than you might expect: death. I mean here the state of death, the afterlife in the most literal sense possible—what happens after life ends.

Sassoon speculates often on what death is like, and though he has several reuseable phrases at hand to euphemise it—“gone out patrolling in the dark”, “beyond the wire”, “gone West”—even these are poignant and not (yet?) cliché. Sassoon’s attitute toward death is one of curiosity and interest; that curiosity may be tinged with sadness but it’s motivated by the care and love he feels for his dead comrades. Here, in “To Any Dead Officer,” he begins:

Well, how are things in Heaven? I wish you’d say,
Because I’d like to know that you’re all right.
Tell me, have you found everlasting day,
Or been sucked in by everlasting night?

Elsewhere these attitudes toward death verge on the playful. In “The Investitute,” a soldier makes his way through the pearly gates, where “God says something kind because you’re dead,/And homesick, discontented with your fate.”

If I were there we’d snowball Death with skulls;
Or ride away to hunt in Devil’s Wood
With ghosts of puppies that we walked of old.
But you’re alone; and solitude annuls
Our earthly jokes; and strangely wise and good
You roam forlorn along the streets of gold.

These lines, like the ones I quoted yesterday, are a good example of Sassoon’s frequent use of juxtaposition: skull snowballs and puppy ghosts. The puppy ghosts are almost a double juxtaposition; just as the sad ghost conflicts with the cute puppy, the resultant creepy image of ghost-puppies conflicts with what Sassoon is really talking about here, beloved old friends. On the scale of the stanza there is a larger juxtaposition: the first half is the joke, the second half rejects jokes now that “you’re alone; and solitude annuls” them. The final juxtaposition—the dead man “forlorn” among “streets of gold,” could be a taste of the bitterness. I don’t think so, actually, I think it’s more acceptingness.

The bitterness undoubtedly shows up at the end of the poem previously quoted, however, “To Any Dead Officer.” Here, Sassoon is scathing, describing how the eponymous dead officer was listed on the “bloody Roll of Honour” as

“Wounded and missing”—(That’s the thing to do
When lads are left in shell-holes dying slow,
With nothing but blank sky and wounds that ache,
Moaning for water till they know
It’s night, and then it’s not worth while to wake!)
*****
Good-bye, old lad! Remember me to God,
and tell Him that our Politicians swear
They won’t give in till Prussian Rule’s been trod
Under the Heel of England….Are you there?…
Yes…and the War won’t end for at least two years;
But we’ve got stacks of men….I’m blind with tears,
Staring into the dark. Cheero!
I wish they’d killed you in a decent show.

And that is where he packs his punch. It feels almost unlicensed to actually feel so much from it—isn’t everything just ironic now, or something?—but Sassoon’s biting style does not seem cheap to me, but really powerful.

“The Kiss” by (and more on) Siegfried Sassoon

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.