Siegfried Sassoon: The War Poems

May 16, 2014

After my recent visit to Craiglockhart I realised that, although I’d often browsed through Owen‘s Collected Poems, I didn’t even have Sassoon‘s; I rectified the omission, and read through the volume, and found myself – perhaps not surprisingly – unable to avoid comparing and contrasting the two.

It’s a complex business; Sassoon survived the war, and some of the poems in the collection date from the 1920s and 1930s; though he can do hindsight, I didn’t necessarily feel he did it that well. Owen, on the other hand, perhaps gains in our estimation from his tragic death a week before the armistice. Sassoon is usually spoken of as Owen’s mentor, in their Craiglockhart days together, and you can see his influence on Owen at certain points, but there are inevitable similarities and reflections in their work because they were moved to write by the same horrendous events, and there are only so many (limited) words that can be used to write about them.

What I noted particularly: Sassoon’s highly effective use of the third person viewpoint (the omniscient poet?) to shape his reader’s response, particularly when focusing on a single individual. Counterattack is the obvious example, but I was surprised by how many others there were in a similar vein. He uses a variety of verse forms; he does the sardonic/ sarcastic far more than Owen, and very successfully.

Similarities between Sassoon and Owen: Sassoon’s attitude to those at home, and to women, seems pretty similar to Owen’s, in poems such as Glory of Women and Their Frailty. In subject matter and tone they are often (inevitably?) similar; we can understand, perhaps, how close they may have been whilst at Craiglockhart, writing about the same war, the same events and places, having the same responses to what they had seen. Though I frequently found echoes of Owen in Sassoon’s poems (purely because I was more familiar with Owen), and similarities at times in style and use of language, Sassoon is far less inventive and experimental in his use of verse structure, language and imagery.

Surprises: the scariness of The Kiss, Remorse, the trope of a rewritten bible story familiar in Owen’s Parable of the Old Man and the Young and unfamiliar in Sassoon’s Devotion to Duty.

I don’t think I changed my opinion, that while Sassoon is wider in scope in his poems, Owen is, in the end, the more powerful poet. I did find myself reflecting on anthologies: when you have the complete collections in front of you, you can’t always see why certain poems are picked out (always the same few) to be included in general anthologies of war poetry, and others, which are good or better, are passed over. And, it’s significant that the best writing about war is poetry…

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