Category: Death


Siegfried Sassoon’s war poetry

OK, I’m going to do something a little different, since I seem to have “dried” poetically right now. These are NOT my poems (though by God, I wish they were!)

These are five poems by one of my poetic heroes, Siegfried Sassoon. You can read more about him here, and more of his poetry here (but there are a number of textural errors in many of the poems on this site). But in my mind Sassoon is one of the absolute Gods of poetry. First World War poetry to be precise.

He isn’t as widely known or as “respected” as Wilfred Owen amongst the general public, although he is definitely considered one of the very top war poets, possibly second only to Owen; and he had a huge influence on Owen, whom he met and mentored while they were both being treated for “shell-shock” at Craiglockhart Hospital.

Owen himself felt that Sassoon was a vastly more accomplished poet than himself [Owen]. History and literary criticism seems to have decided that Owen was wrong about this; I’m undecided.

But Sassoon IS very different: where Owen is famous for his technical prowess, his magnificent imagery and his unmatched ability to evoke what he called “the pity of war”, what Sassoon specialised in is mordant, savage humour and a bitter anger at the whole war effort, its pointlessness, the incompetence of the leadership, and the way that the ordinary soldier was sacrificed by the million for no gain, without any compunction whatsoever.

Yet Sassoon himself was a war hero, with an almost suicidal personal bravery. His war career is shot through with contradictions – his bravery is only matched by his hatred for the war, and his original zeal transmuted into an intense pacifism and a refusal to continue to fight in a war that is also an example of his personal bravery: he very publicly denounced the war, declared he would fight no more, and was widely vilified for his stand. Yet even in 1918 he can write a poem like “The Kiss” – there does not appear to me to be an ironic twist to this poem. It is as if his celebration of (and attraction to) the most intense violence versus his new-found pacifism represents a split of an almost schizoid nature.

Sassoon survived the war; Owen, tragically, did not: he was shot and died literally a few days before the end of the war, leaving only a relatively tiny output of the most intense and shattering poetry. Sassoon continued to publish after the war, but I find his later poetry curiously unmoving. It’s as if with the end of the war he had lost his way poetically and also lost his poetic subject, the subject that made Sassoon Sassoon.

Frankly I had a hellish job choosing just five poems. Sassoon was prolific and his standard is so consistently high (and I love his poetry so much) that the choice ended up as not “Sassoon’s five greatest war poems” but simply as “five of his war poems”; nevertheless I think they represent his style and range rather well, and Oh Lord! I love all five of them to distraction.

Note – just in case it’s not completely obvious: the fifth poem, “Everyone Sang” is about the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11 month; the end of the war in 1918, what we now know as Armistice Day. I cannot read this poem without weeping. Over the last 30 years I have made endless efforts to set this poem to music (since I am also a musician); I have had no success. It would make a glorious song in the hands of the right composer. I simply do not have the technical skills to do it justice.
 

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Does it Matter?
 
Does it matter?–losing your legs?…
For people will always be kind,
And you need not show that you mind
When the others come in after hunting
To gobble their muffins and eggs.

Does it matter ?–losing your sight?…
There’s such splendid work for the blind;
And people will always be kind,
As you sit on the terrace remembering
And turning your face to the light.

Do they matter?–those dreams from the pit?…
You can drink and forget and be glad,
And people won’t say that you’re mad;
For they’ll know you’ve fought for your country
And no one will worry a bit.
 
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Base Details

If I were fierce, and bald, and short of breath
I’d live with scarlet Majors at the Base,
And speed glum heroes up the line to death.
You’d see me with my puffy petulant face,
Guzzling and gulping in the best hotel,
Reading the Roll of Honour. “Poor young chap,”
I’d say — “I used to know his father well;
Yes, we’ve lost heavily in this last scrap.”
And when the war is done and youth stone dead,
I’d toddle safely home and die — in bed.
 
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Memorial Tablet

Squire nagged and bullied till I went to fight,
(Under Lord Derby’s Scheme). I died in hell—
(They called it Passchendaele). My wound was slight,
And I was hobbling back; and then a shell
Burst slick upon the duck-boards: so I fell
Into the bottomless mud, and lost the light.

At sermon-time, while Squire is in his pew,
He gives my gilded name a thoughtful stare:
For, though low down upon the list, I’m there;
‘In proud and glorious memory’ … that’s my due.
Two bleeding years I fought in France, for Squire:
I suffered anguish that he’s never guessed.
Once I came home on leave: and then went west…
What greater glory could a man desire?
 
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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 noble 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.
 
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Everyone Sang

Everyone suddenly burst out singing;
And I was filled with such delight
As prisoned birds must find in freedom,
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark-green fields; on–on–and out of sight.

Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted;
And beauty came like the setting sun:
My heart was shaken with tears; and horror
Drifted away … O, but Everyone
Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.
 

Weeping

She wept, and told me you were dead.
Dead, and your corpse cremated
for fear your disease might contaminate us all.
I wept with her; but shamefully, not for you.
Fear of death – my death – swept through me
like fire in dry grass.  I barely thought of you at all.
I wept while waiting in the STD clinic
certain of what the test results would be.

The doctor beckoned me into his chambers
and stood well clear as I passed him.
He did not accept my proffered handshake;
he pointed to a chair; said curtly: “sit down”.

He took his time; he looked at me and curled a disdainful lip.
He spoke of how “this new disease is sweeping through your kind”.
I think he quite liked that word, “sweeping”:
a new broom, ridding the world of filth.

He spoke of “the unnatural sexual practises your kind pursue”
although no description of them passed his primly purséd lips.
He discoursed at length of rampant promiscuity and its inevitable sequelae:

disease;

death;

decay;

damnation.

With each moment his moral surety surged stronger.
Oddly, that surety now dragged his speech into the gutter:
“Your kind can’t fuck every arse in sight and not expect repercussions”.
The phrase seemed to satisfy him. He repeated it.

I was still sitting in the chair.
I was not weeping.
I was simply listening to him spewing execration.

“Look”, I said, “You don’t know me;

you didn’t know Peter;

you don’t know what

we did or didn’t do in bed.

And it clearly does not matter to you,

and frankly it’s none of your fucking business,

but what mattered most between us wasn’t sex:

it was love.

So cease your sanctimonious ramblings
and give me the test results.”

He studied the report, and then, pointedly, read it again.
He put the report back in its file and slammed it on his desk.
He paused, possibly briefly; decades, centuries passed for me.
Then, his disappointment palpable, said: “you’re HIV-negative.”

I don’t remember leaving the clinic.
I do remember weeping;
But this time, at last, I wept for Peter.

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I’m going to explain this poem a bit.  Peter was my first partner, and still the only man I can say I loved unreservedly.  I miss him every day of my life.
At the time of his death we were not together -we were separated by work commitments.  I did not know he was ill; I think he tried to tell me but couldn’t bring himself to do it.  The first I knew of his death was when a mutual friend phoned me in hysterics to say that she had just been to his funeral and that Peter had died of AIDS.
I still have no idea why I remained HIV-negative.  Safe sex was only just starting to be talked about, and Peter and I not only had never practised safe sex, our sex was just about as risky as is possible to imagine.
This was 1987.  AIDS hysteria was hitting a peak.  Peter was cremated, against the wishes and beliefs of his family – it was actually government policy at the time that AIDS victims could not be buried, a sign of just how pervasive the hysteria about AIDS was at the time.
All of us in the Gay community were living in fear – not just of the illness but of the tremendous outpouring of loathing and hatred, from the usual suspects (of course)  but  also from the general community and indeed much of the medical establishment.  Perhaps the only upside was that actual “poofter bashing” (practically a national sport in Australia at the time) decreased markedly, since the bashers were suddenly aware that they might catch AIDS  from their victims.
Government attempts at “public education” served only to heighten the hysteria.  Watch this Australian advert from the period if you don’t believe me.

So, how are things round Sirius?
Or is it to Arcturus that you’ve gone?
Some star, anyway;
some far-flung sphere of gas.
Revolving, circling, orbiting,
on asteroid or planet,
you’re etiolated by its alien light.
Blanched and waxen, whitened;
waiting for infinity
to fill your once-quick mind.

You’d tell me of your travels
between star and star;
spinning webs of story,
Homerian Odysseys.
But always you’d return
at journey’s end
to home; to stay – a while, at least –
beneath familiar light,
beneath Sol’s friendly warmth,
firm-footed, fixed, on Earth.

Why did you leave me, Captainless,
waiting, always waiting,
in hopeless hope of your return?
You’re gone for good
and yet it’s ill you’ve done me.
Lost, I’m waiting still,
forlornly lingering
on Terra’s clay;
while you circle, orbit,
eternally revolve, beyond my reach.

For Peter

Almost hour-glass in shape;
A bobbin trapped within.
Chromed steel.

Turn the wheel within its cage:
It catches, in a slot,
The key;

Slides it down along the shaft,
To nestle with the keys
Beneath.

It’s strange how things remind us of the man;
His steely mind could take a complex thought,
And turning, slot it in its proper place.