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

On 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

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

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

On 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

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

Revisiting: More on Siegfried Sassoon, bitter and sweet

On 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

Continue reading Revisiting: More on Siegfried Sassoon, bitter and sweet

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

On 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

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“Unlock the abodes of Elysium and call forth/Death herself, and force her to confess to me/which ones of us she’s hunting.”

I like to do requests when I can, and sadly I was not able to fulfill one last week about Erictho, the amazing witch who appears in Book VI of Civil War. Not only that, but David beat me to it with this excellent post, which you should absolutely read if a grisly witch “in touch with the genuine puppetmaster: not merely abstract Fortune, but the celestial watchmaker of the evil watch himself” sounds like fun to you. (It is.)

So instead of repeating much I’d want to from his post, I’ll use Erictho instead as another window into the discussion of Fortune and the idea that “knowledge is at best useless, and at worst a curse.” Over the course of Book VI, Caesar and Pompey end up in Thessaly, which an editor of my Penguin Classics edition helpfully summarizes as being “a cursed land, long fated and well prepared for this world cataclysm of Roman civil war” because of “geography, mythology, and history.” This is where Sextus consults Erictho. He does so “[s]purred by fear to foreknow the course of Fate”:

impatient with waiting, sick from everything coming, he doesn’t consult Delos’ tripods, or Pythia’s caves, nor is willing to find out what Dodona—who nursed us with first fruits—would sound from Jupiter’s bronzes, or who could discern fates in entrails, or read birds, or watch the flashing sky and scrutinize the stars with Assyrian worry, or any other kind of secret that is permissible. He investigated things the gods above detest, savage Magis’ arcane lore and altars sad with funeral rites, trusting in shades and Dis, and pitifully he was certain the gods above know far too little.

Instead, he goes to see the wicked witch of eastern Greece, who deals not with the gods above but

Continue reading “Unlock the abodes of Elysium and call forth/Death herself, and force her to confess to me/which ones of us she’s hunting.”

“The Glass Essay” by Anne Carson

The first poem in Anne Carson’s Glass, Irony & God is called “The Glass Essay,” and if you’re anything like me, the title might seem odd. Essay? As Guy Davenport’s introduction to the collection explains, though, Carson’s poems can seem like verse essays: “She writes in a kind of mathematics of the emotions, with daring equations and recurring sets and subsets of images. As with Matthew Arnold, truth and observation are more important than lyric effect or coloring. If a good line happens, it happens.” This seems just slightly unfair since good lines happen more often than not, but it’s accurate.

“The Glass Essay” is, roughly, the story of the aftermath of a breakup between the narrator and her partner Law, after which she goes back home to spend time with her mother (her father is in an elder care home). There is a fair amount of narrative about her activities with her mother, her walks on the moor, and her dreams, many of which are disturbing and features “nudes” that she uses to help guide her on her way to recovery. All this is mixed in with anecdotes and musings on Emily Brontë, a woman with powerful emotions and plenty of sexual energy in her work, though she apparently knew nothing of men and hardly anything even of people outside her own family.

The poem is lovely, but emotional content runs high. I wouldn’t say it was “difficult to read,” but it’s not exactly an upper. A representative passage about Law:

Perhaps the hardest thing about losing a lover is to watch the year repeat its days. It is as if I could dip my hand down

into time and scoop up blue and green lozenges of April heat a year ago in another country.

I can feel

Continue reading “The Glass Essay” by Anne Carson

“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

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

“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

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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

Continue reading Sassoon in the news—who knew?

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

Continue reading More on Siegfried Sassoon, bitter and sweet