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POETRY of WORLD WAR 1.: Siegfried Sassoon

Siegfried Sassoon [1886-1967]

Born into a wealthy Jewish family, sometimes called the "Rothschilds of the East" because the family fortune was made in India, Sassoon lived the leisurely life of a cultivated country gentleman before the First World War, pursuing his two major interests, poetry and fox hunting. His early work, which was privately printed in several slim volumes between 1906 and 1916, is considered minor and imitative, heavily influenced by John Masefield (of whose work The Daffodil Murderer is a parody). 

Following the outbreak of the First World War, Sassoon served with the Royal Welch Fusiliers, seeing action in France in late 1915. He received a Military Cross for bringing back a wounded soldier during heavy fire. After being wounded in action, Sassoon wrote an open letter of protest to the war department, refusing to fight any more. "I believe that this War is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it," he wrote in the letter. At the urging of Bertrand Russell, the letter was read in the House of Commons. Sassoon expected to be court-martialed for his protest, but poet Robert Graves intervened on his behalf, arguing that Sassoon was suffering from shell-shock and needed medical treatment. In 1917, Sassoon was hospitalized. 

The Survivors

No doubt they'll soon get well; the shock and strain

  Have caused their stammering, disconnected talk.

Of course they're 'longing to go out again,'--

  These boys with old, scared faces, learning to walk.

They'll soon forget their haunted nights; their cowed

  Subjection to the ghosts of friends who died,--

Their dreams that drip with murder; and they'll be proud

  Of glorious war that shatter'd all their pride...

Men who went out to battle, grim and glad;

Children, with eyes that hate you, broken and mad.

"How to Die"

Dark clouds are smouldering into red
  While down the craters morning burns.
The dying soldier shifts his head
  To watch the glory that returns;
He lifts his fingers toward the skies
  Where holy brightness breaks in flame;
Radiance reflected in his eyes,
  And on his lips a whispered name.

You'd think, to hear some people talk,
  That lads go West with sobs and curses,
And sullen faces white as chalk,
  Hankering for wreaths and tombs and hearses.
But they've been taught the way to do it
  Like Christian soldiers; not with haste
And shuddering groans; but passing through it
  With due regard for decent taste.

Suicide in the Trenches

I knew a simple soldier boy

Who grinned at life in empty joy,

Slept soundly through the lonesome dark,

And whistled early with the lark.

In winter trenches, cowed and glum,

With crumps and lice and lack of rum,

He put a bullet through his brain.

No one spoke of him again.

You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye

Who cheer when soldier lads march by,

Sneak home and pray you'll never know

The hell where youth and laughter go.