April 27, 2004

Rupert Brooke, Siegfried Sassoon & The War Obsession

"The Soldier" by Rupert Brooke

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England's, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

"They" by Siegfried Sassoon

The 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!"

"The General" by Siegfried Sassoon

"Good-morning; good-morning!" the General said
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of em dead,
And were cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
"Hes a cheery old card," grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.

But he did for them both by his plan of attack.

The reading for this day was lumped under the general heading "Voices from World War I," and we actually read works by four different poets (the other two being Ivor Gurney and, of course, Wilfred Owen). Of the four, Brooke and Owen died in the war (Brooke in 1915, Owen in 1918). Brooke died of dysentery and blood poisoning on board a troopship en route to Gallipoli. Owen died in the fighting a week before the war ended. Sassoon got sniped in the chest in mid-1917, but survived and was sent back to England. At that time, he made public a statement he had sent to his commanding officer:

I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority, because I believe that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it.

I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that this war, upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation, has now become a war of aggression and conquest. I believe that the purposes for which I and my fellow-soldiers entered upon this war should have been so clearly stated as to have made it impossible to change them, and that, had this been done, the objects which actuated us would now be attainable by negotiation.

He was diagnosed with shell shock and bundled off to a hospital in Edinburgh where he actually met Wilfred Owen. The two became good friends while they were there, and Sassoon had a great influence on Owen's poetry. Owen returned to the front in late 1917, and Sassoon returned in 1918. Sassoon was wounded again and returned to England for the remainder of the war. He didn't die until 1967.

So there's your background . . . now on to the poems. You can't help but note the violent contrast between Brooke and Sassoon . . . less a contrast resulting from differences between the men themselves, perhaps, and more because of what took place between 1914 (when the first was written) and 1916-17 (when the other two were written).

Brooke's "The Soldier" is proudly, even nauseatingly, patriotic. I can't help but think of Maturin here: ". . . patriotism is a word; and one that generally comes to mean either my country, right or wrong, which is infamous, or my country is always right, which is imbecile." Clearly we are dealing with a rather advanced case of Type-II patriotism here. When you know what lies ahead, ready to challenge this simple, innocent idealism as it marches into the meat grinder with a cocky grin and a twinkling eye, or perhaps with an honest, earnest expression of hope and a quiet knowledge that it is fighting for a just cause . . . Well, if you can think of that without wincing a bit, you're a right cold one and no mistake.

Note what England is made into in "The Soldier." It is not a country so much as an ideal, a cause, a collective consciousness of good and right, a loving mother producing faithful children . . . Ugh. And we, the English, (sic) carry England inside of us. No matter where we die, that spot becomes a little piece of England, and is improved thereby. And, of course, the heart is purified through dying a martyr's death for England's sake and rests in peace forever. Beautiful. It almost seems a mercy that he died thinking this.

Now, sit there for a second and think of two years of trenches and shelling and machine gun fire and mud and rats and disease and mustard gas and no man's land and barbed wire and unimaginable waste of lives . . . It's a wonder Sassoon could still write. I'd have been a babbling idiot (no comments regarding whether I already am or not, thank you).

So, look at "They." A Bishop, sitting safely at home, speaks authoritatively of a war he hasn't experienced. He promises that soldiers will not be the same when they come back home again. And he's right. Nobody is the same as they were. They're all mutilated . . . missing limbs, lacking senses, full of holes, crippled by disease, probably half-crazed . . . all different. So what does the Bishop say to this? "The ways of God are strange!" That'll turn your stomach . . . revoltingly callous and trite. It's not just that the poem's cynical . . . I can handle cynical. I am cynical, when it suits me. Ironic also . . . I love irony. But it is so very bitter.

We have the same issue in "The General," slightly comic in tone, perhaps, through some abortive attempts at levity, but still reeking chiefly of bitter irony. We have a General deigning to grace the troops with his presence just before he sends them on an idiotic and suicidal offensive. A couple of the soldiers think he's all right. Well, that won't save them from dying as a result of his poor tactics.

The Battle of Arras, by the way, which is referred to in the poem, was a major British assault that started on April 9th, 1917. It resulted in something like 160,000 casualties, and was considered (more or less) a victory for "our" side, as the Canadians managed to capture a very important strategic defensive position. 84,000 of the battle's casualties were British soldiers. Imagine if you left for the weekend and when you got back, everyone in Longview, plus 10,000 of their visiting relatives and friends, had died in a very violent and gory manner . . . use your imagination to walk through town for just a second and try to take that in. That would be just the British casualties.

In any case, it is fascinating, albeit sickening and more than a little disheartening, to watch the attitudes, worldviews, hopes, dreams, etc. of an entire generation hinge and shift around and through two short poems. There was a saying in Britain after World War I: "We went to war with Rupert Brooke, and came back with Siegfried Sassoon." Yeah. Yeah they did. I've gotten a double dose of WWI this semester in both Western Civ and American History, but looking at it that way is a bit different. A proper study of history seems almost to require supplementation from just a bit of the mind and heart of the common man, as expressed through the literature of the time. History draws the picture, literature colors it in.

Posted by Jared at April 27, 2004 11:59 PM | TrackBack