Dan Sandman

46: The War Poems by Siegfried Sassoon

In Books, Poetry on 11/11/2016 at 12:00 pm

the-war-poems-by-siegfried-sassoonThe best known of the war poets are poets first and soldiers second. In the case of Siegfried Sassoon, his use of rhyme and metre is crafted with poetic expertise. It is Sassoon’s mastery of poetic technique which makes his poems aesthetically appealing, giving them an artistic quality which reaches out beyond the label Poets of the Great War. I expect literary history will recognize this in another hundred years, meanwhile such categorical lumping will suffice.

It is his turn to pacifism that is so often remembered about Sassoon; how his early war poems celebrate the glorious dead but his front-line poems are what he reservedly calls ‘outspoken’ (pp.10), or what might today be termed protest poems. When he is writing from the trenches in 1916, before being awarded the Military Cross for gallantry action in June of that year, his poems become increasingly full of the pacifism for which he is remembered. This period culminates in a poem addressed directly to Robert Graves, the Great War poet who is often criticized for his forthright imperialism. Writing in May, during a period of convalescence, Sassoon writes a beautifully crafted verse letter to Graves, ending the poem with the juxtaposition of two conflicting ideals: the brutal reality of warfare and the hope that good will conquer evil.

V

Robert, there’s a war in France;

Everywhere men bang and blunder,

Sweat and swear and worship chance,

Creep and blink through cannon thunder.

Rifles crack and bullets flick,

Sing and hum like hornet-swarms.

Yet, through stunning battle storms,

All the while I watch the spark

Lit to guide me; for I know

Dreams will triumph, through the dark

Scowls above we where I go.

You can hear me; you can mingle

Radiant folly with my jingle.

War’s a joke for me and you

While we know such dreams are true!

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