Three poems by Siegfried Sassoon for Remembrance Sunday

by Kim on November 8, 2007

The English poet Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967) was a staunch patriot when he entered the Great War, and a courageous soldier and relentless commander during the action he saw. Such was the near suicidal daring of his exploits that his men called him “Mad Jack”, and he was awarded the Military Cross “for gallantry during active operations against the enemy”. But the horror of the trenches and the death of a close friend opened his eyes to the real enemy, the posturing politicians and glory-gorging generals, and, throwing his medal into the Mersey River, Sassoon worked to expose their pomposity and deceit in verse that became increasingly bitter and sardonic (if compassion is the keynote of Wilfred Owen’s war poetry, anger is the keynote of Sassoon’s). Truth being the first casualty of war, “No truth unfitting” became the poet’s watchword. But in contrast to Emily Dickinson’s “Tell all the truth but tell it slant”, Sassoon spit it straight in your face. These three poems show him at his satirical best - and the church at its complacent and compromised worst.

‘They’

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!”

Vicarious Christ

The Bishop of Byegumb was an old friend of our General;
In fact he knew him out in the Soudan.
He preached to our Brigade; and the impression that he made
Was astounding; he was such a Christian man.

He compared us to the martyrs who were burnt alive and strangled;
O, it made us love the war - to hear him speak!
“The Americans,” he said, “are coming over in large numbers;”
“And the Huns are getting weaker every week.”

The Bishop of Byegumb has preached on Victory, I am certain,
(Though I haven’t seen it mentioned in the Press).
But when I was his victim, how I wished I could have kicked him,
For he made me love Religion less and less.

At the Cenotaph

I saw the Prince of Darkness, with his Staff,
Standing bare-headed by the Cenotaph:
Unostentatious and respectful, there
He stood, and offered up the following prayer.
“Make them forget, O Lord, what this Memorial
Means; their discredited ideas revive;
Breed new belief that War is purgatorial
Proof of the pride and power of being alive;
Men’s biologic urge to readjust
The Map of Europe, Lord of Hosts, increase;
Lift up their hearts in large destructive lust;
And crown their heads with blind vindictive Peace.”
The Prince of Darkness to the Cenotaph
Bowed. As he walked away I heard him laugh.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1

paul 11.08.07 at 4:04 pm

I thought innocence was the first casualty of war!

2

Nadia Latham 11.13.13 at 5:22 pm

Thank you Richard as this has really helped me today with researching two contrasting war poems for my first poetry assignment and having always been brought up to believe that you must respect your elders no matter what you might really think as respect, manners and courtesy were the imperative in my childhood days, suddenly my eyes are wide open but I am so glad that my subconscious state made sure that my ears were always to the ground as of course we all know that sound is an echo and that is why when I took my long and lovely and wonderful walks by my beloved ocean before leaving North Norfolk, my boys, the rescued Labradors who rescued me, would make me listen to the echoes of the ebbing and flowing waves before we all took to the sacred waters and thanked God that we had respectively and collectively been brought together. Such wonderful and happy memories and we always knew when it was time to leave as the Bells of Eccles Church which fell from the cliffs when Jonah’s bait was taken, never failed to toll for the three legends of legacy. RIP my beautiful three Bruin Hounds and I cannot wait to walk Coco Bean once more. Much love to one and all, Nadia Amor(e). xxxxxxxx

Leave a Comment

You can use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>