An essay exploring the features of Sassoon's work
|After approximately 13000 people were killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916, poets of the Great War often adopted a bitter, sardonic tone to their poetry. Following this bitter standard format, the poetry of Siegfried Sassoon highlighted the horrors of the war, and therefore opened the eyes to many against the propaganda encouraging young men to enlist.
When Sassoon was admitted to Craiglockhart Hospital in 1917, he met Wilfred Owen, and the two creative minds combined to create some of Sassoon’s best work. His representation of war in the poem “Survivors”, which he wrote at Craiglockhart, gives a startling impression of his experiences, and the bitter, violent tone of his poetry is apparent. Sassoon writes about “stammering, disconnected talk”; his own interpretation of the effects of neurasthenia, or “shell shock”; the effects of which were the loss of the ability to string a sentence together and a prominent stutter. To further indicate his sardonic, sarcastic and unwavering feelings toward the war, Sassoon writes, “- and they'll be proud/Of glorious war that shatter'd all their pride”. The reader is given initial hope, which is then ruined by the use of the adjective “shattered”. This patriotism, and then its decline, could easily be viewed as a map of the direction of Great War poetry. This line in particular shows Sassoon’s hatred towards the war and his sympathy to the survivors. He presents the idea that the survivors of the war will eventually be able to look back on the war with pride, but first they must overcome the impressions that the war has left on them. He insinuates that the war will be something that the survivors will have to live with forever, and their nightmares will be something that they can’t escape. Sassoon’s bitter tone is most apparent here.
Sassoon also indicated a sinister complacency towards the war in the poem Survivors when he writes, “No doubt they’ll soon get well”. He adopts the opinion that he thinks the public have, and therefore shows the unfazed attitude he assumed people outside of the trenches had. This attitude is also adopted in his poem “Does It Matter?”, which boasts an ambiguous rhetoric style, asking questions directly to the reader. The repetitive use of the question mark throughout the poem adds a sense of irony to the text, and questions the honour of dying for your country. The concept of honour is often present in “Does It Matter?” and this provokes more thought from the reader on the ambiguous subject of death; it was not until later in life that Sassoon found some solace in religion, and therefore had his own ideas on the subject at this time.
Also throughout “Does It Matter?” the idea that the public are ignorant and are able to forget the Great War is presented. He writes that “no one will worry a bit” which shows how Sassoon thought that the war was a taboo, infantile subject to the people who weren’t directly involved with the combat. The idea that life will carry on without the soldiers that are injured or killed is further pursued in Sassoon’s poem “Suicide in the Trenches”. Sassoon writes “He put a bullet through his brain/ No one spoke of him again.” The simple rhyme scheme reflects the simplicity of suicide and murder, and reiterates the idea that there is little bravery or honour in death. However, Sassoon didn’t always write in rhyme to successfully present his ideas and beliefs, and this is obvious when reading his prose-like poem “Counter-Attack”. In this case, the use of ellipses to lengthen the sentences is a successful representation of Sassoon’s opinions. “Counter Attack” uses complex sentences to provide the reader with the impression of speed and blind fear. When reading “…And he remembered his rifle...rapid fire...And started blazing wildly...then a bang…” reading automatically speeds up because there is no punctuation to split apart or put a stopper into any of the sentences, and an indication of how petrified the soldiers were is successfully portrayed. As a reader, it is easy to believe that you understand the emotions that Sassoon writes about, and I think that this is one of the main things that Sassoon wanted to prevent. Throughout the majority of his poems he presents the idea that he holds everyone who believes they understand in contempt; he wanted to make people understand that they had no idea of what happened in the trenches, and unless they were there or experienced the same things, they could never grasp the issues he wrote about. It is this that makes the reader feel almost guilty about trying to understand what Sassoon writes, and that society didn’t help, with the government spilling out propaganda and young men desperate to enlist.
The anger that Sassoon felt towards the general public, for their stupidity, belief of propaganda and patriotic stupidity is also prevalent in his poem “The Hero”. Sassoon reflects upon the feelings of the Mothers at home that are blinded by their patriotism and pride. “We mothers are so proud of our dead soldiers” highlights the difference in opinion to the men on the front line. Sassoon uses “soldiers” instead of “sons” and therefore shows how mothers have ignored their feelings for their boys, and are trying to come to terms with the sacrifice that they have made.
Sassoon’s poetry is typically written in a bitter, sarcastic, ironic tone, because this reflects his beliefs about the war. He represents the war as an ambiguous subject, and something that only the soldiers that fought could ever understand. The reader is almost made to feel guilty about their ignorance to some of the issues raised. Neurasthenia, death, fear and loss of a son are all difficult, ambiguous concepts to grasp unless you have experienced them yourself, and it is this that makes Sassoon’s poetry so difficult to accept and come to terms with.