Doesn’t it feel as if it has been rather a long time since a well-known war poet has produced a verifiable, date-able classic of Great War verse? Well, tonight’s the night. This evening, a century back, Siegfried Sassoon, in one burst of late-night inspiration at Robbie Ross’s London flat, wrote out a nearly complete draft of “They.” Sometimes it all comes together: seminal moment, origin story, pseudo-humble retrospective commentary, and sharp, slashing verse…
TheyThe Bishop tells us: ‘When the boys come back
‘They will not be the same; for they’ll have fought
‘In a just cause: they lead the last attack
‘On Anti-Christ; their comrades’ blood has bought
‘New right to breed an honourable race,
‘They have challenged Death and dared him face to face.”We’re none of us the same!’ the boys reply.
‘For George lost both his legs; and Bill’s stone blind;
‘Poor Jim’s shot through the lungs and like to die;
‘And Bert’s gone syphilitic: you’ll not find
‘A chap who’s served that hasn’t found some change.
And the Bishop said: ‘The ways of God are strange!’
Although, of all things, the word “syphilitic” will prove to be a bridge too far and require (temporary) emendation, this poem will shortly be published and mark Sassoon’s arrival as a war poet. He will come to describe the genesis of this poem in his rather strained self-deprecating-gentleman mode:
I merely chanced on the device of composing two or three harsh, peremptory, and colloquial stanzas with a knock-out blow in the last line…
Perhaps, but it’s probably not really that simple. The technique–which others have used, under other guises–is an obviously effective way to approach sonnet-sized verse… if you can land it.
Many critics have noted Sassoon’s debt to Hardy–which Sassoon himself acknowledges at precisely this point in the memoir–but surely the technique must be a bit more deliberate. It’s an old dodge, the creative writer preferring to describe himself as a discoverer rather than a creator… and there are always models.
The other familiar antecedents are, of course, Masefield–who had been the first target of Sassoon’s unlikely success as a parodist-into-satirist-into poet–and Kipling. Kipling’s influence–or rather his presence as the arch-representative of the imperial old guard, poetic and militaristic both–is perhaps more obvious in the “A Ballad,” another recent provider of a knock-out blow.
Never mind that Sassoon is an officer and a gentleman, possessed of both a private income and a strangely Somme-long sick leave: Kipling is old and something is not right with the war, and that’s what matters now. The adoption of Kiplingesque rhythms in a poem that claims to speak for “Tommy” against the powers that be reads to us, now, as a strangely tone-deaf assumption of privilege–the privilege, in this case, of speaking for the presumably silent soldiers under one’s command, a replacement of one sort of overlord with a more understanding and humble sort of… well, officer in command. It would not have been as consistently read that way, a century back, both because of the broader acceptance of class privilege and because there are many lines and Sassoon is–or has been, and will be–on the right side of the most important one. Generals and Kiplings and other old men are almost all safe, but lieutenants die as often as privates.
Nevertheless, this speaking-for-the-troops is also an aggressive move at literary place-making. This is Sassoon’s effort, as disarming as he will later try to be, to take that poetic hammer to the father-god’s kneecaps, and clear out the older generation. And that, of course, would leave a vacuum…
But we are straying–back to the fortunate moment. Creations make for good stories even if the creator/storyteller wishes to stand aside for the muse with a Bertie Wooster-ish look of polite bemusement:
One evening toward the end of October, when I was staying with Robbie at his rooms in Half Room Street, he had been exercising his wit rather freely at the expense of the Bishop of London, who–for some reason unknown to me at the time–was a frequent target of his. My own acquaintance with the Bishop had been restricted to a single occasion… I had in fact been confirmed by him in St. Paul’s Cathedral..
This was thirteen years before–an amusing coincidence–and Sassoon then has a mild laugh at the subject of this confirmation becoming the first English poet to work “syphilitic” into his verse.
On the evening I am describing Robbie read me an extract from a speech or sermon reported in some newspaper in which the Bishop had expressed his belief that those who were serving on the Front would return with their souls purged and purified by what they had experienced, or words to that effect. This sort of thing was often said at the time, by those beyond the age of active service. As an abstract idea there was nothing against it… But on the whole one was justified in resenting it as inappropriate though well-intentioned bunkum. Anyhow I went upstairs to bed after several hours of lively talk, feeling too tired to be bothered about the Bishop of London or anybody else. But while I lay there with the light out, not quite succeeding in falling asleep, the first few lines of they came into my head as though from nowhere. So I got up to scribble them in my note-book, and the rest of the poem was written then and there…
The peculiar thing about it was that while writing the first draft I was so drowsy that I could scarcely keep my eyes open, and was fast asleep in a few minutes after finishing it. Such was the ‘fine frenzy’ with which I composed what subsequently proved to be the most publicly effective poem I had yet written…
As it happens, we have a letter, today, from one of the very few educated, poetic, future-author-types who is actually serving in the ranks, writing from a miserable dugout several months into his continuous Somme-front service. This is Frederic Manning, mired amidst the events which will form the basis for the climax of his novel. Manning describes working as a messenger, as his fictional alter-ego will in turn.
We are supposed to go in pairs but so far I had always gone alone… I am not ashamed to say that I have felt fear walking beside me like a live thing: the torn and flooded road, the wreckage, mere bones of what were living houses … absolute peace of the landscape and indifferent stars, then the ear catches the purr of a big shell, it changes from a purr lo a whine and detonates on concussion. Another comes, then a third. After that a short space of quiet. Sometimes, as I have said, I feel fear, but usually with the fear is mingled indifference which is not pious enough to be termed resignation.
Could there be a more effective way of pointing up the insufficiency of Sassoon’s poem? Many men come home outwardly whole, and terribly changed nonetheless. Sassoon, with his initial enthusiasm for the boyish exercise and excitement of war and his scant experience of prolonged line-holding, has decided to hunt the more obvious game first. But he will turn to the inward battle, in time, as all the real poets must.
References and Footnotes
- Probably! See Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, 302-7. ↩
- I hadn't read Siegfried's Journey when I decided to start referring to the "hammer blow," but I probably stole the phrase from somewhere... poetry has rhythm, after all, and we are a violent-metaphor-loving species... ↩
- Siegfried's Journey, 29-30. ↩
- The Last Exquisite, 125. ↩