Although I’m interested in all aspects of war poetry, it probably wouldn’t shock anybody to learn (or not to learn, as the case may be) that I’m an Owen girl through and through. He was my first deep—maybe too deep—literary love, he introduced me to what is now one of the biggest passions in my life, and I’ve sometimes struggled to see beyond him and his individual experience of the war. In my youthful obsession (which is still very much present, albeit slightly more under control), I forgot one very important thing: that you can’t have Owen without Sassoon.
The two met at Craiglockhart War Hospital in 1917, where both had been sent for treatment for shell shock—Sassoon as a result of his public protestation of the war. Owen was a great admirer of Sassoon’s poetry (in a surviving letter he refers to him as “Keats and Christ and Elijah”) and it was under his influence and supervision that Owen persevered as a poet, going on to pen some of his most famous war pieces. Sassoon’s verse is often satirical, always truthful, and he writes with such a striking discordance, that it’s easy to see why he was revered as much a century ago as he is today.
Here is a selection of ten of his poems, most of which are personal favourites.
Wound for red wound I burn to smite their wrongs;
And there is absolution in my songs.
‘The Poet As Hero’ was published towards the end of 1916, shortly before Sassoon declined to return to active service. In it, he explores his transition from warrior to pacifist and his rejection of the sword in support of the pen, through the deconstruction of an Arthurian ideal.
But death replied: “I choose him.” So he went,
And there was silence in the summer night;
In ‘The Death Bed’, Sassoon takes us away from the blood-stained battlefields to a dying soldier in a distant hospital bed. It’s sensual and vivid, and explores an individual’s cacophonous life amongst the midst of thousands of others and the endless drumming of battle.
For death has made me wise and bitter and strong;
And I am rich in all that I have lost.
One of Sassoon’s much less cynical pieces of poetry, ‘Memory’ was written in February 1918, whilst he waited to travel to Egypt. It’s a mournful evocation of the world in which he lived before the war, as well as an acknowledgement that it’s one which he can never return to.
Love drives me back to grope with them through hell;
And in their tortured eyes I stand forgiven.
Like ‘The Poet As Hero’, ‘Banishment’ is structured in the form of a sonnet, but in a full inversion to its predecessor, Sassoon now laments the futility of his poetry. It was written during his convalescence at Craiglockhart, in 1917, shortly before he returned to serve in France.
I know that he is lost among the stars,
And may return no more but in their light.
Sassoon wrote ‘The Last Meeting’ in memory of his friend, David Thomas, who was killed at Fricourt in 1916. In it, he embarks on a physical pilgrimage through nature, in an attempt to reunite with his fallen comrade, rejecting the warmth of the living in favour of the dead.
Sneak home and pray you’ll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.
In ‘Suicide In The Trenches’, Sassoon simultaneously examines the psychological effects of the war and exposes the gulf between soldiers and civilians. His bitterness is palpable as he exploits the hypocrisy of those who do not fight and defends the actions of those who do.
…and how, at last, he died,
Blown to small bits. And no one seemed to care
Except that lonely woman with white hair.
The divide between the front line and the home front is explored further in ‘The Hero’, in which the circumstances of a soldier’s death are altered in a letter to fit the mother’s hopes. When the poem first appeared in print in 1917, it received an immediate negative reception.
Here was the world’s worst wound. And here with pride
‘Their name liveth for ever’, the Gateway claims.
The Menin Gate, which is engraved with over 54,000 names of the missing, was unveiled in Ypres in1927 and Sassoon wrote this response to it a year later. Written in traditional sonnet form, I’ve always read this poem as an unconventional love song for the fallen, hidden beneath his contempt for futile commemorations.
Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you’ll never forget.
Written in 1919, during the time of Sassoon’s demobilisation, ‘Aftermath’ was often broadcast on the radio on Armistice Day, in the immediate years which followed the combat. It’s rich, haunting, and bursting with the enormities of war.
You are too young to fall asleep for ever;
And when you sleep you remind me of the dead.
‘The Dug-Out’ is perhaps my favourite of all of Sassoon’s poetry and one which stands out to me against his others, in all its confusion and sorrow. It was written in August 1918, after he was accidentally wounded by a fellow British soldier and discharged from active service.
What are some of your favourite Sassoon poems? Let me know in the comments below!
This post was originally written as a feature for Interesting Literature.