Friday, 19 October 2012

Siegfried Sassoon - To the Warmongers

Most traumatised soldiers want to forget their experiences, but Siegfried Sassoon was different. He wanted to remember, to retell and to challenge.

In Regeneration, her partly speculative biographical novel of the poet, Siegfried Sassoon, Pat Barker says that he wrote this poem (as well as a few others) in hospital ten days after he was wounded. About "To the Warmongers" Pat Barker says: "Everything about the poem suggested that Sassoon's attitude to his war experience had been the opposite of what one normally encountered." This was because most traumatised soldiers wanted to forget what had happened to them. Sassoon, courageously, wanted to remember and to retell. It is fortunate he did, for no history book could convey, even in many pages, the reality of war that Siegfried Sasson encapsulates in one poem.

Irony Without Humour

"To the Warmongers" is one of Sassoon's angry poems of accusation. The lines are shorter than two other poems on a similar theme, "The General" and "The Rear-Guard." This poem has a different, more direct tone than "The General" and although the irony is there, the forced humour is missing.

In this poem, Sassoon is conveying the reality of war, as he does in "The Rear-Guard." The first stanza, which is the longest, twelve lines, tells the warmongers how it is on the battle lines.
"I'm back again from hell / With loathsome thoughts to sell; / Secrets of death to tell; / And horrors from the abyss. / Young faces bleared with blood, / Sucked down into the mud, / You shall hear things like this, / Till the tormented slain / Crawl round and round again, / With limbs that twist awry / Moan out their brutish pain / As the fighters pass them by."

Avoiding the Commonplace

All the descriptive phrases in these lines are short and strong, with equally strong, concise verbs, for example, "bleared." The most natural word to use here would be "smeared" but "bleared" not only aids alliteration, but also conveys two meanings. The men are tired of suffering, and they are "bleary." Therefore, their faces are bleared, rather than smeared. The technique of turning words around in small ways so that they are no longer commonplace, helps the reader to approach Sassoon's experience in a deeper way.

In the following lines, the poem almost threatens the object of its vilification:
"For you our battles shine / With triumph half-divine; / And the glory of the dead / Kindles in each proud eye. / But a curse is on my head, / That shall not be unsaid, / And the wounds in my heart are red / For I have watched them die."

A Vindication

This second stanza directly accuses the generals, for their single-minded concern with the statistics of battle, and with winning and losing at the expense of simple humanity. Sassoon derides their righteousness and their ignorance. "For you our battles shine / With triumph half-divine."

The last four lines are a vindication of all that has gone before. Sassoon's final justification is the last line, which is steeped both in pathos and truth. "For I have watched them die."

There are many reasons why human beings fight wars. Conscription is the most obvious, while mercenaries fight for "blood money." Some may fight from pride or a sense of patriotic duty. Siegfried Sassoon was different. He spoke out against war from a sense of personal conviction, compassion and anger. All of this is demonstrated with feeling in his war poetry.

  • Sassoon, Siegfried, Selected Poems, Faber, 1968.
  • Barker, Pat, Regeneration, Viking, 1991
First published on 28 November 2010.

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