what war poetry means to me 🥀
A Quick Tribute to War Poetry, & Why I Love Sassoon and Owen ✨
I’m not generally a huge lover of poetry, but war poems have always felt very special to me. The emergence of war poetry, in my mind, somewhat marks a turning point for the art form; there’s a sort of discordance felt as the conventional, traditions of Victorian and Romantic poetry, that had before depicted more ‘gentle’ scenes, are being used again but in a completely different way, a manner that allows the poet to articulate the absolute horror of industrial violence. My two favourites are Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, both of whom are poets that often get referred to as pacifists, but I don't think that's true - the fact remains that both personally fought in the First World War, were exposed first-hand to the brutality of warfare, and believed conflict was being unnecessarily prolonged, which I think is an important distinction to make. In 1917, a number of war poets were writing their work at a time when many people were beginning to truly question why war was going on; Owen and Sassoon spoke out because they saw the way war amounted in a way that others didn’t, and were not afraid to question its futility. In a way, the war poet becomes the witness poet, speaking for the dead as well as the living.
Siegfried Sassoon dropped out of Cambridge University without his degree when the war began. He saw serving in the army as an opportunity for him to ultimately change this life, the challenge he had been waiting for. He went into the war with a very simple, romantic notion of being a warrior, and was desperate to be in uniform on the first day. He threw himself into the role of an officer, and his courage was so close to the brink of insanity that he earned the nickname ‘Mad Jack’ by his fellow soldiers. However, his pro-war attitude was shattered, and his ability to see the cause became more and more unclear as suffering on the Western front intensified. In July 1917, in disgust with the war, he threw the ribbon of his Military Cross into the sea and wrote his famous protest statement, ‘A Soldier’s Declaration’, which was read before the House of Commons on 30th July and printed in The London Times a day later. With his declaration, Sassoon wanted to shake the callous complacency of the people at home who either refused to acknowledge or did not have the imagination to comprehend the agonies of the men on the Front. However, he does not criticize the military tactics, but in fact the political fault behind the war and that “those who have the power to end it” are deceiving the soldiers who are suffering for reasons that are “evil and unjust”. People were quick to blame the way the generals fought, but ultimately they were given a bad hand by their political masters. It was certainly very embarrassing for England that someone so decorated as Sassoon would write such an incandescent letter suggesting outright that the war was being prolonged for profit.
I am making this statement as an act of willful defiance of military authority, because I believe that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it.
I believe this war, upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation, has now become a war of aggression and conquest.
I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops, and I can no longer be a party to prolonging those sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust.
I am not protesting against the military conduct of the war, but against the political errors and insecurities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed.
Rather than be court-marshalled, a number of his friends had sent Sassoon to hospital as suffering for shellshock as an excuse to get him off the centre of the stage and remove any question of there being a debate in parliament or for him to be turned into martyr at a time when the war was going badly and there was increasing criticism of its direction. Robert Graves told Sassoon, when he made his declaration against the war, that his misguided ideas were a result of his illness. However, his doctor very much encouraged him to write about his experiences, to reframe and reflect on them rather than trying to repress the terrible memories, so that’s what he did - through poetry.
When war broke out in 1914, Wilfred Owen did not enlist immediately, but waited until 1915. He was gazetted as a second lieutenant in 1916 with the Manchester Regiment, but by the time he got to France, he had missed the whole of the Battle of the Somme. Owen had an extremely traumatic time at the Front, and his experiences of this formed the basis of the poems he later wrote. On one particularly awful day, he was blown into the air by a shell and landed among the exploded remains of an officer who had been buried there. It was at this point that he was no longer physically or mentally fit to serve. In May 1917 he was taken off the front line and sent to Craiglockhart Hospital to be treated. This happened to be the venue of one of the most important meetings of life - with Siegfried Sassoon. Despite not selling spectacularly well, Sassoon’s book The Old Huntsman and other Poems had been published in 1917, and Owen was a big fan, so he went to Sassoon’s room bearing a copy for him to sign. After this, they quickly became friends.
His friendship with Sassoon was huge for Owen. He found himself at last to be taken seriously; Sassoon encouraged him to write in a much looser, honest way, spurred by emotion, and most importantly convinced him that war can be matter for great poetry. Two other key figures fundamental in both poets’ writing were their doctors, Arthur Brock and most notably William Rivers, a neurologist who treated their shell-shock. Both men had a theory of ergo-therapy, suggesting that the way to overcome the trauma was to engage with the immediate environment that it stemmed from in some form, so of course encouraged the two poets to come out of themselves using their poetic skills to record their thoughts and experiences in prose. Between these four people, different classes and poetic traditions came together to create an environment in which they each learned from each other and ended up leading to a shift in poetry as an art form.
Their poetry does not try to offer an explanation for how the war happened, but serves to accentuate and raise awareness of its futility, and brings the myth of ‘lions led by donkeys’ to the forefront. While many of Sassoon’s poems were satirical, sparked by a lot of Hardy’s poetry, many of Owen’s poems (my favourites out of the two) describe a dream-like state where the past tense of memory immediately becomes the present state of nightmare. His preface is: ‘My subject is war, and the pity of war’, the pity coming through the horrific images he portrays in his writing. He had an incredible power to evoke the unbearable, giving the sense of language being pushed to its absolute limit to evoke threshold experiences which other soldiers could not put into words. He focuses on what combat and daily conditions of war do to the human body, bringing the true visceral nature of war to the reader rather than an abstraction of the glory of war that dominated media. They had to employ a new language drawn from the lingo of everyday soldiers, from the hybrid of French words they learned mixed with an older poetic language, juxtaposing these two different worlds together. In their poetry there is also a conflict between the exhilaration of war and the terrible waste of it, the relentless suffering endured by everybody but particularly the men on the front. In his poem ‘Christ and the Soldier’, Sassoon asks Christ how this can be allowed to happen in a Christian world that is overseen by a benign, benevolent God, and truly represents how the war shook many people’s faith beyond repair.
World War One was an unimaginably cruel environment, and yet Owen and Sassoon proved that within the English language we have the resources to bring out not only the truth of its horrifying nature, but the capacity of human beings to keep their humanity in the course of it. The most important thing war poets are responsible for in my opinion is their elimination of the word ‘glory’ from martial vocabulary, demonstrating in their writing how incessant mechanical warfare leaves no room for glory as a human experience when millions are dying in unimaginable circumstances that the public back home and leaders prolonging the conflict didn’t even have the imagination for. While their poems didn’t sell greatly during the war, both poets benefited from the years of disillusionment following it - it was much easier for the general public to sympathize with their reservations about the fighting when they could see how that ‘victory’ actually ended up with a bitter taste attached to it, when the propaganda of national pride had vanished, and how people ultimately risked their lives for very little reward. Sassoon strongly believed that the dead were not only betrayed during the war, but continued to be betrayed after, with the patriotic celebrations of victory; even the presentations of commemorations are themselves evidence of that dereliction of duty to the dead. A quote that has stuck with me ever since I came across it is: ‘England is a nation with so many memorials but no memory’. And it made me think - there is a certain complacency about the Menin Gate. It’s like we’ve put up our architecture, and therefore feel like we’ve done our duty, but in reality nothing has changed. The same politicians are in power, the same systems are in place that caused the war. Are we just going to continue in this way, keep on doing a disservice to the incomprehensible number of soldiers who were taken in by the concept of patriotism promises of glory in fighting for your Queen and country, for your God, by not ensuring that this doesn’t happen again? Well, I suppose the answer is yes, because it did happen again, didn’t it?