Posts Tagged ‘Siegfried Sassoon’

Siegfried Sassoon: A Working Party

August 13, 2017

Three hours ago he blundered up the trench,
Sliding and poising, groping with his boots;
Sometimes he tripped and lurched against the walls
With hands that pawed the sodden bags of chalk.
He couldn’t see the man who walked in front;
Only he heard the drum and rattle of feet
Stepping along barred trench boards, often splashing
Wretchedly where the sludge was ankle-deep.

Voices would grunt `Keep to your right — make way!’
When squeezing past some men from the front-line:
White faces peered, puffing a point of red;
Candles and braziers glinted through the chinks
And curtain-flaps of dug-outs; then the gloom
Swallowed his sense of sight; he stooped and swore
Because a sagging wire had caught his neck.

A flare went up; the shining whiteness spread
And flickered upward, showing nimble rats
And mounds of glimmering sand-bags, bleached with rain;
Then the slow silver moment died in dark.
The wind came posting by with chilly gusts
And buffeting at the corners, piping thin.
And dreary through the crannies; rifle-shots
Would split and crack and sing along the night,
And shells came calmly through the drizzling air
To burst with hollow bang below the hill.

Three hours ago, he stumbled up the trench;
Now he will never walk that road again:
He must be carried back, a jolting lump
Beyond all needs of tenderness and care.

He was a young man with a meagre wife
And two small children in a Midland town,
He showed their photographs to all his mates,
And they considered him a decent chap
Who did his work and hadn’t much to say,
And always laughed at other people’s jokes
Because he hadn’t any of his own.

That night when he was busy at his job
Of piling bags along the parapet,
He thought how slow time went, stamping his feet
And blowing on his fingers, pinched with cold.
He thought of getting back by half-past twelve,
And tot of rum to send him warm to sleep
In draughty dug-out frowsty with the fumes
Of coke, and full of snoring weary men.


He pushed another bag along the top,
Craning his body outward; then a flare
Gave one white glimpse of No Man’s Land and wire;
And as he dropped his head the instant split
His startled life with lead, and all went out. 

Inevitably I pair Owen with Sassoon, in lots of different ways. Sassoon was Owen’s mentor at Craiglockhart, and in so many ways the pupil outshone the master. That’s not what I’m really interested in, though; what catches my eye and ear are the similarities and the differences, given the closeness of their experiences. And my writing about my chosen Owen poems over the last few days has called this particular one of Sassoon’s back to my memory, because it’s one of those where Sassoon seems to me to come closest to Owen’s way of writing.

It has the same feel in its structure as Disabled: a series of moments both connected and not, like slides, but there is a major difference, which for me adds to the poem’s power and effectiveness. Halfway through the poem we’re told of the man’s death, and then the poem shifts almost into slow motion, or action-replay mode as Sassoon shows us just how easily and swiftly a single life is ended on the western front. Notice the almost repetition of the opening line at the start of the fourth section. And there isn’t even any actual fighting going on…

The pace of the poem is slow, matching the painful trudging up to the front to repair the wire: lengthy lines and occasional incomplete rhymes develop the effect. Present participles ‘sliding… poising… groping‘ show us the difficulty of moving, as do long vowel sounds ‘lurched…pawed‘. He uses alliteration peered…puffing…point, swallowed…sense…sight…stooped…swore…sagging – why?

Two sections set the scene in considerable detail. I’m reminded of Owen’s The Sentry here, too. Then all is illuminated – look at the long ‘i’ sounds in ‘shining whiteness‘ – and then the flare dies out: ‘the slow silver moment died in dark‘. Onomatopoeia echoes the rifle-shots through short, sharp vowel-sounds: ‘split…crack…sing; how do shells come ‘calmly? and burst with ‘hollow bang? I’m really aware of Sassoon using the language to its fullest extent, in terms of poetic techniques, in the same way as Owen does, in this poem.

Somehow the man is killed: look at the stresses ‘now…never, and the now is at the start of the line and gets extra emphasis from its position. Depersonalised in death: a ‘jolting lump‘, and then humanised again briefly: ‘beyond all need of tenderness and care‘.

Then we are into the second half of the poem and Sassoon is magnificent here. Like Owen, the focus is on a single individual and that’s where the full power of the poem comes from, just as in The Sentry, Dulce et Decorum Est, or Disabled especially. It’s the ordinariness that Sassoon stresses in his detailed description in the fourth stanza – a ‘decent chap‘, looking forward to a drink and a sleep; again the alliteration makes this more appealing ‘draughty dug-out, frowsty…fumes.

The final stanza is slow-motion until the suddenness of the last two lines, with the effective combination of the rhyme ‘head/lead and the alliteration of ‘split… startled and ‘life..lead and the permanence of ‘all went out.

Although Sassoon does the bitter and sardonic very well in lots of different short poems where he rubs his readers’ faces in the horrors that they don’t know and can’t imagine, I find him much more moving and effective in longer poems where he takes the time to create a sense of time, place and atmosphere, and makes us care about the fate of an individual, just like his pupil Owen; in a war where casualties are counted in telephone numbers, we need this personal angle to draw us in and make us realise the full horror.

On honour, duty, loyalty and patriotism

July 9, 2017

I’ve been thinking about these topics as a result of the previous book I read, about Major-General Sosabowski’s loyalty to his country, and where it got him. I’ve never felt in the least bit patriotic, shocking as this may sound, and I’m aware that some of this lack of feeling may come from being neither fish nor fowl, half-English and half-Polish. But somewhere I’ve always agreed with Johnson’s adage that patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.

Looking rather more seriously at the issue, I have always found it almost impossible to understand why men marched to their deaths in the Great War in the way they did. I have stood at various places on the former western front, where the British climbed out into no-man’s-land on the first day of the battle of the Somme and looked into the distance at the crest of the hill some hundreds of yards away where the Germans were entrenched, and thought, my God how could anyone bring themselves to do that? And, when teaching the A level English Literature paper on Literature and the First World War, students and I would agree that we could not behave like that now, we would not be prepared to die like that…

Writers and poets of the time were clearly doing what they felt to be their duty, including rebels like Sassoon who threw his medals into the Mersey and brought much opprobrium on himself by writing in protest against the way the war was being conducted. He felt loyalty and a duty of care to the men under his command, as did Wilfred Owen, who also protested against incompetent leadership in his poems, and who ultimately gave his life.

I’ve also wondered about what creates and fosters a sense of loyalty to one’s country. Shakespeare creates a marvellous picture of ‘this sceptred isle’ in the famous speech in Richard II, and I agree that England is a beautiful country that is very fortunately situated… but to die for? And because we are an island, unconquered for nearly a thousand years, we do not perhaps understand what happens in the thoughts of others. French casualties in the Great War were horrendous, and a huge proportion of the deaths came in the first months of the war as the French strove desperately to drive the marauding German invaders from their country. I can see that men like Sosabowski felt great loyalty to their nation which, having only regained independence in 1918 after over a century of non-existence, was snuffed out a mere twenty years later by the combined treachery of Nazis and Soviets, and why thousands of men like my father volunteered for the 1st Polish Independent Parachute Brigade that Sosabowski set up in order to train men for the liberation of Warsaw (which never happened). And having read his book, I am now clearer about the enormous sense of betrayal all those men felt as a result of Churchill’s machinations after Arnhem and in the closing months of the war.

Similarly, it’s quite clear the sense of pride in their country, in the motherland, in defending their socialist homeland, that the millions of Soviet men and women who died in the Great Patriotic War felt, even in spite of the horrors of Stalinism which they had also lived through. Reading novels like Vassily Grossman’s epic Life and Fate, or the last part of Anatoly Rybakov’s Arbat trilogy, Dust and Ashes, is incredibly moving, and, for me, a learning experience about the meaning of loyalty and patriotism. And Svetlana Alexievich’s book of Soviet women at war was even more powerful, because true…

Sadly, I have to say that very little about the current nation of England (or Great Britain, or the United Kingdom) makes me feel proud, other than our National Health Service, which the current government is doing its best to wreck. And throughout the Cold War I was aware that any conflict with the Warsaw Pact would mean that ‘my’ country would be attacking the country where half my family lived, while ‘their’ country would be trying to kill us… I wasn’t looking forward to the consequences of being a conscientious objector, but mentally prepared myself. And then I discovered that I would have been a ‘security risk’ because of my family on the ‘other side’ and thus probably not liable to service anyway.

Somewhere on the other side of the scales, before I get too serious, I have to put Jaroslav Hasek’s The Good Soldier Svejk, the story of a congenital idiot who volunteers to do his patriotic duty at the start of the Great War, for the Austro-Hungarian Empire… one of only two humorous books I know of about war (Catch-22 is the other) and remind myself that, like the Irishman asked for directions, if I were you, I wouldn’t start from here. In other words, like Johnson, we ought to be stepping back from the issues of patriotism, loyalty and duty to ask ourselves why we got into the mess in the first place, and aren’t there rather better ways of dealing with our problems?

Beware those who offer you easy answers (especially if their names begin with ‘T’)!

David Jones: In Parenthesis

September 1, 2016

There was a documentary about Jones and his poem on television a few weeks ago: I was very surprised, as a teacher who’d taught First World War literature for many years, not to have heard of the poet or the work. The programme was fascinating, and now I’ve read the book.

It’s poetry in the way James Joyce’s prose is poetical, lyrical in its use of the language’s sounds and images. More prose than poetry, then, and running to nearly a couple of hundred pages, it’s not as immediately accessible as Owen or Sassoon, perhaps. We follow the speaker – an ordinary soldier – from call-up through basic training, his complicated journey to the Western Front, near Ypres first and then to the Somme, where he sees his mates killed, and he is wounded.

The writing is impressionistic. Often the soldiers are backgrounded an atmosphere takes centre-stage, very effectively. Often his verse reminds me of Whitman, with echoes of those long, gradually developing accretive sentences. Sometimes he reads like Hopkins in his use of adjectives and nonce-words. There is erudition in his epic similes, and his myriad religious references, though the constant recalling of Arthurian and Celtic mythology did pall after a while, as did having to refer to the notes Jones provided to help his readers through his text.

I was impressed by the poem; it moved me greatly, even though it was hard work. An uncanny beauty somehow conceals the horrors of the offensive, and you only gradually realise the carnage taking place around the narrator, and by the time you have realised, you are in the very middle of it, with him, sharing his perspective. I’m still not quite sure how he did it, because there is at the same time a perspective and a curious distancing effect too. I shall have to come back to this soon.

Poetry: Siegfried Sassoon

December 16, 2014

I’ve always been moved by the story that Sassoon encouraged and supported Owen in writing poetry while the two were both at Craiglockhart, during the First World War. And yet, they are very different poets, and, as I’ve been thinking more about Sassoon, I’ve realised that it’s for the ideas that I appreciate him most. Certainly he doesn’t experiment and play with the possibilities of the language in the way that Owen does.

For a start, Sassoon is often humorous, Owen very rarely. Sassoon’s humour varies, through the sardonic to the openly sarcastic to the very bitter as he excoriates those who remained at home and who have no idea what the men at the front are going through. This humour comes through in many shorter poems such as The General, Base Details and Does It Matter? The jaunty rhythms contrast with the horrors implicit in the words, as you realise what he’s saying, and also feel uncomfortable in that you are one of those safely at home, not able to comprehend…  the euphemisms and the lies in which we all are complicit are laid bare in poems like The Hero. It takes a while to realise just how angry the poet is with the idea that men are dying at a distance, and people at home are not fully engaged with what is going on – an idea that still persists to day as we fight in wars in far-off countries, killing people who are different from us. And we pay appropriate reverence to those who die, and then move on, allowing politicians to continue their wars, with our tacit consent.

Owen’s anger also shows in his poems, but it comes across rather differently: to me it’s covert, implicit. It lurks beneath the surface of chilling poems such as Disabled and Mental Cases.

Sassoon also offers graphic descriptions of the horrors of trench combat, as, for instance, in the paired poems Attack and Counterattack, and it’s interesting that he also derives much of his effectiveness from the same tactic of Owen’s that I referred to in my previous post, of focusing in on a single individual. For me, Sassoon’s most moving example of this is in the lengthy and slow-moving A Working Party, in which there is no combat, there is the death of a single man and the reactions of his mates, and the whole is intensified by the time-shift and double structure of the poem.

I’ve concentrated on probably the two best-known (to English readers) First World War poets, though there are many others I find powerful, effective and moving: these are the two whose collected works I have read and pondered, and who I feel, between them, probably say as much as can be said, and comprehended by a reader a century later.

Differences…

August 22, 2014

So, following on from my previous post, I tried to think of a couple of texts to compare, and came up with Sebastian FaulksBirdsong, and Pat Barker‘s Regeneration Trilogy. Both texts are set in the First World War, both were written in the 1990s. What differences are there to observe between a male and female novelist?

The central characters in the main part of Birdsong are male: it’s set in the trenches. The overture to the story features the hero’s passionate affair with the wife of his employer several years earlier, and the hero’s story is being researched by his granddaughter. There are rather more female characters in Regeneration, and more completely integrated in the structure of the story. Both novels contain graphic details of warfare, injuries, death and destruction. The mental effects of warfare appear in both.

In many ways, Birdsong feels like a more ‘traditional’ novel, with a fairly conventional structure, although the central narrative is framed by earlier and later years. The Regeneration Trilogy – which is therefore rather longer – is more complex, more diffuse, with a number of plots loosely converging and intertwined: treatment of shellshock at Craiglockhart, the relationship between Owen and Sassoon, the relationship between Sassoon and Graves and the former’s protest against the conduct of the war, various political intrigues during the FWW, the work of Rivers the psychologist, the relationship between the shellshocked Billy Prior and Sarah Lumb, women’s work during the war… Home Front and Western Front take on equal importance, it seems to me.

The central relationship in Birdsong is that between Stephen and his friend Weir, and we are constantly aware of Stephen’s distancing himself from what he is experiencing. The horrors of combat are foregrounded, and graphically described; the enduring and psychological horrors are revealed as his granddaughter gradually uncovers more and more of his story many years later. Although Barker can match Faulks in terms of graphic details of conflict and its consequences, it’s not her primary focus, which is the mental and psychological effects of combat and the stress of the frontline on officers and men, and the attempts to treat it, to rebuild the men who are suffering (so that they can then be shipped back to the front!). She explores a range of different relationships – peer to peer, superior to inferior, male/ male and male/female.

Both writers clearly researched their subject-matter in great depth; both adopt a no-holds-barred approach to unpleasant detail: there is not much to choose between them here. Yet, in a blind reading, if asked to decide which of the two was written by a man, I’m sure most would go for Birdsong. If asked to read Regeneration and then identify the gender of the author, I’m not so confident about readers’ ability to identify a female writer. Why? It’s very difficult to nail down. Is the tightness of Birdsong’s structure, and of Faulks’ writing, self-evidently masculine? Is it the openness of Barker’s treatment of both characters and subject-matter, the looseness or freeness of scope, structure, direction a more female trait?

If you’re interested in exploring these issues, I recommend these two novels, and will just append two others for you to think about: All Quiet on the Western Front, by Erich Maria Remarque, a classic from 1929 that most will have heard of, and Not So Quiet, a response by Helen Zinna Smith, from 1930, which is largely undiscovered. One recounts the FWW from an exclusively male perspective, the other from female one. Which is better/more powerful/more effective?

 

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…

Craiglockhart, Slateford, Midlothian

April 3, 2014

According to the headed notepaper, that was the postal address of the struggling hydropathic establishment commandeered by the British Army in 1916 for the treatment of officers with shellshock, or neurasthenia, as it was called then. So, not even officially in Edinburgh at the time. It has taken me until my third visit to the city to trek out to the grim-looking building where Wilfred Owen was sent in 1917, where he met Siegfried Sassoon, and was encouraged to work on his war poems.

The place, its grim work, and the historic encounter was vividly brought to life by Pat Barker in her excellent Regeneration trilogy. The horrors, not only of shellshock, but also of its barbaric treatment at the time, are described in detail, as are the efforts of Dr Rivers to develop a more humane and effective treatment. I find Barker’s portrayal of Rivers particularly fascinating, and my visit to Craiglockhart has renewed my interest in finding out more about him and his work. One has to remember that the treatment available at the hospital was only for officers; enlisted men were rather more likely to find themselves charged with cowardice in the face of the enemy, court-martialled and shot.

The hospital is now part of Napier University, which has grafted a modern edifice onto the back of the building, but the front elevation, the terrace and the grassy slope down to a lawned area, seen in those photographs from a century ago, are still very much recognisable. The university library hosts a small exhibition dedicated to the war poets in what was the entrance foyer to the building. The curator is very knowledgeable and helpful and the exhibition was fascinating. There is an excellent collection of literary texts and historical works connected with Craiglockhart Hospital and patients who stayed during the First World War, much interesting ephemera, such as copies of The Hydra, the hospital magazine, which Owen edited during his time there, and letters from officers under treatment. I was very moved by the sense of shame that many experienced as a result of their illness. There are also photos and objects and other memorabilia from the time.

It’s worth a visit if you are nearby; take the 23 bus from the centre of the city to its southern terminus. I came away with a much clearer sense of place, and the effect of being there, on those patients nearly a century ago.

Ernst Jünger: Storm of Steel

October 8, 2013

41THFV0041L._AA160_I was astonished to find writing about the First World War that was even more horrific than Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, but Storm of Steel manages it. It’s the account of four years on various sectors of the Western Front by a German lieutenant who survives (clearly) though wounded and hospitalised seven times, and who was eventually awarded the Empire’s highest military decoration at the age of twenty-three.

Jünger was a nationalist, and some feel his writings glorify war. I was interested, when I looked up what happened to him after, that he refused to support the Nazis or be used by them, that he experimented with LSD and other substances in the 1960s and survived to the age of 102 (among lots of other things).

What stood out for me is that this book is clearly factual – a memoir – in a way that All Quiet isn’t. It was written in 1920, so has immediacy, though not the reflectiveness of the memoirs of British writers such as Graves, Blunden or Sassoon. He fights in Flanders and on the Somme, describing the British attack of 1 July 1916 from the other side. He takes part in the German offensive of spring 1918. His picture of occupied France and Belgium is at odds with other accounts I have come across.

He pulls no punches in his descriptions of war and its effects on people and places. Comrades are mutilated and killed by the score, and he moves on, sometimes allowing that he is affected, but mostly focused on survival for himself and his comrades. You can see how his experience of war over time makes him a better soldier and survivor, even in the chaos of the First World War. You can also see how he gradually realises that Germany will be outfought. I say outfought, because we see the effects of the Allied blockade through the increasingly poor quality of the soldiers’ food, contrasted with the plenty discovered in captured British trenches and dugouts. Equally, the impression is that it’s superior firepower that tips the balance for the Allies: they just shell the daylights out of whatever they plan to attack; there is no limit to their resources, whereas it becomes increasingly clear that Germany is running out of materiél.

The nature of the war also becomes clearer in terms of what each side was faced with. Germany’s great advantage was to have attacked in the first place, and to have had a couple of years to entrench themselves and build fortifications, and it’s clear from the book and from what I saw on my recent trip to the Somme, that these were formidable. Then they could just sit tight. (OK, I oversimplify a little…). The Allies had, therefore, to throw everything they could at the enemy. This led to the total wasteland that we are familiar with from photographs. However, when the war gradually developed into one of movement, however slight, it meant that things were more even: the descriptions of hand-to-hand fighting in the trenches in 1918 are some of the most gripping and horrific in the book.

Only very occasionally do we get a glimpse of the degradation of humanity as a result of war that Remarque portrays so brilliantly in his novel. But I didn’t find myself agreeing with those who felt that Jünger’s book glorifies war. It’s a remorseless account of the effects of human stupidity on those who have no power to change and shape their world, but who want to survive.

Edmund Blunden: Undertones of War

September 20, 2013

51H9+zbjGiL._AA160_I brought this with me to re-read as I tour the Somme battlefields. It’s a memoir by someone who served, and it has become clearer to me just how different a memoir is from a fictional exploration of events. For instance, Blunden saw many horrific sights; he mentions them and you can see how he is affected, though he doesn’t write about them in detail (undertones…), whereas Faulks (to take a novelist as an example) wasn’t at the front, but researched his material very carefully. And Faulks offers us graphic description of death, maiming, injury…

Partly I think Blunden’s sometimes laconic descriptions are to spare himself as much as his readers, yet that also feels like a simplistic and patronising response. Somehow the weariness of war, and the meaninglessness of it all, are enhanced by his hands-off approach. And yet I feel him there, at the Somme, and at Ypres, losing friends and colleagues in the blinking of an eye, and accepting (?) moving on because survival is paramount.

I still find this the best of the war memoirs, preferring it to Graves and Sassoon. I like the way he uses language to describe what is around him, what he sees and the attitudes of others: he is an excellent observer who leaves the commentating to his reader. The picture of war as chaos and confusion in all directions, with no idea what is really going on, certainly no sense of one side or the other ‘winning’, is sobering; he is surrounded by pointless movement, by death and destruction, and so, through his words, are we.

He is aware that he owes his survival (many times) to chance. And we gained from this, for Blunden edited what was for years the definitive edition of Wilfred Owen‘s poems.

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