The Cherry Trees – Edward Thomas

‘The Cherry Trees’

The cherry trees bend over and are shedding,
On the old road where all that passed are dead,
Their petals, strewing the grass as for a wedding
This early May morn when there is none to wed.

NOTES

This is another short but profound poem about the fallen cherry blossom on a road, prompting a meditation that links flowers, love and loss.

STRUCTURE: An elegaic stanza– see notes for ‘In Memorium (Easter 1915)’.

The Cherry Trees: In this poem Thomas describes the cherry trees shedding their blossom. In England the flowers tend to bloom for three or four weeks after they flower in April, so once again, this a poem set during a late English spring, here in May— the associations of life and home here providing a strong contrast to the war abroad. This poem may be a response to an earlier poet’s short poem about the flowering of cherry trees: A.E. Housman’s ‘Loveliest of trees, the cherry now’ (1896). You can read Housman’s fine poem at Bartleby, here. Hausman’s poem is full of humour and promise; Thomas’ dwells on tragedy and loss. Both are suitable to the story of Easter, in which Christ dies, and is born again.

“The Cherry Trees bend over and are shedding…”: The trees, as throughout the poem, are given human qualities; they “bend over” here, like old men or women, or perhaps exhausted soldiers. The ‘shedding’ of cherry blossom occurs just weeks after blooming; if they are a symbol of abundant and beautiful life, they are also a sign that life is fleeting.

“On the old road where all that passed are dead,”: the ‘old road’ again has symbolic weight. As in ‘In Memorium (Easter 1916)’, Thomas is using traditional poetic symbols here for the journey of life; the notion of “passing”, so familiar to us now that it is a euphemistic cliché, derives from this symbolism. Thomas is quite literal, however: the soldiers who marched past on this road are indeed dead.

“Their petals, strewing the grass as for a wedding”: The blossom appears like confetti on the grass, as if scattered by human hands (“strewing”). This is a striking and powerful simile (“as”), mixing together images of life and love (flowers, a wedding), and death (the blossoms fall because flowering has ended).

“This early May morn where there is none to wed.”: The final line is devastating. The “early May morn” in the quiet English countryside becomes a reminder of the thousands of deaths occurring abroad, leaving “none to wed”.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: Another poem by Thomas that contemplates the pain of absence and loss. It again features the motif of absent or disappeared lovers, as in ‘In Memoriam’ (p.79) and ‘As the Team’s Head Brass’ (p.179). Ivor Gurney similiarly explores the effect of war on lovers in ‘To His Love’ (p.181) and the same subject is touched on in Owen’s ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ (p.188).]

In Memorium (Easter 1915) – Edward Thomas

‘In Memorium (Easter 1915)’

The flowers left thick at nightfall in the wood
This Eastertide call into mind the men,
Now far from home, who, with their sweethearts, should
Have gathered them and will do never again.

NOTES

This is a short poem of reflection: the presence of flowers in a wood prompt mourning for a richer and happier world, lost forever because of the war.

Edward Thomas: Edward Thomas was a prolific reviewer and writer before the outbreak of World War One— a man drawn to the beauty of the English countryside, who found in nature and rural life a source of deep inspiration for his work. Thomas lived in Earlsfield with his family after he and his wife defied their parents’ wishes and married. They were thrown into genteel poverty, and Thomas wrote copious literary reviews and books to sustain his family. Thomas wrote some notable books about rural life and the English countryside, only discovering poetry late on in his life, at the urgings of an American poet, Robert Frost (see ‘Range-Finding’). When war broke out Thomas (a middle-aged man of thirty-nine with a young family dependent on him) had doubts about joining up. In 1915 he did enlist, and was soon promoted to the position of officer. Before travelling to France, Thomas wrote all of the poems for which he is now famous; tragically, he was killed almost as soon as he saw action, killed in the Battle of Arras, 1917.

STRUCTURE: A simple poem of iambic pentameters in alternating rhyme, ABAB, known as an elegaic stanza (an elegy is a mournful or melancholic poem, most often written for the dead).  Part of the craft of this poem can be found in the suggestive rhyme. ‘Wood’ is rhymed with ‘should’. ‘Wood’, of course, is a homophone for ‘would’: and the poem is deeply concerned with what would have been— and what should have been. Similarly the rhyme ‘men’ and ‘again’ are linked; a hopeful possibility the poem ultimately closes off for the reader.

In Memorium (Easter 1915): ‘In Memorium’ shows this to be a poem of remembrance. Easter, when the death and resurrection of Christ is celebrated, is the most important date in the Christian calendar; a time for reflection on sacrifices made. As Professor Tim Kendall reports on his website, this title was an editor’s later addition, the poem originally going untitled.

“The flowers left thick at nightfall in the wood / This Eastertide…”: A pastoral scene; Thomas felt an intense connection with nature, as did many of the Georgian poets. It is spring; the woodland floor is “thick” with life. “Nightfall” however hints at a shadow cast over the scene this Easter.

“…call into mind the men, / Now far from home…”: the presence of the flowers (and new life) reminds the poet of an absence: that of the soldiers who are abroad.

“…who, with their sweethearts, should have gathered them…”: the poet’s recollection of the soldiers who have gone becomes intensified by the recognition that the loss of men means an end to lover’s walks, or even the possibility of love. What is mourned here is the loss of those who, together, give to this beautiful scene meaning.

“and will do never again.”: A bleak conclusion, with a terrible sense of loss; some relationships are ended forever by the war, and some relationships that might have been, never shall be.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: This poem has a haiku-like simplicity; its draws its power from its brevity and the profound observation that the presence of the beautiful flowers signifies the absence of lovers, and so a loss of profound meaning and happiness in the world. Thomas offers the reader a glimpse of a happier world, to make clearer the true horror of the war.]

Everyone Sang – Siegfried Sassoon

A message of joy: the war at an end.

NOTES

‘Everyone Sang’ relates Sassoon’s ecstatic— almost religious— joy on hearing soldiers singing, and is a song of praise for the men’s resiliance.

Everyone Sang: Communal singing was common in the trenches. Sassoon was an officer in the Royal Welch Fusiliers. Graves notes that whereas in other regiments singing was often limited to music hall numbers, Welsh soldiers sang hymns, often in Welsh. This singing, perfected in Chapel and Church, was often powerfully moving. It is possible that it is this kind of singing that Sassoon refers to. Critics have suggested that ‘Everyone Sang’ describes to soldiers’ reactions to the Armistice (Robert Graves interprets the poem in this way in ‘Goodbye to All That’). Others follow Sassoon’s own account in ‘Siegfried’s Journey’ that the poem is, rather, a more abstracted paean to change and the singing represents ‘social revolution’ (see W. Lawrence’s fascinating comment to this post, above).

STRUCTURE: ‘Everyone Sang’ is comprised of two stanzas of five lines length, rhyme scheme ABCBB.

“Everyone suddenly burst out singing;”: the “Everyone” of this poem refers to a group of men singing and celebrating. The emphatic description of ‘everyone’ singing captures the broader tone of celebration of the human spirit that this poem contains.

“I was filled with such delight / As prisoned birds must find in freedom”: the conventional symbolism— that of a freed, flying bird embodying the human spirit— nonetheless captures the sense of release that the singing brings.

“Winging wildly across the white / Orchards and dark-green fields;”: the alliteration introduces a wheeling rhythm to the end of the stanza, until we gain the perspective of the freed bird, looking down on the countryside below. There is a real sense of the expanding horizons that the singing- and coming of peace- brings.

“on— on— and out of sight.”: a ponderous and deliberately slowed passage that reintroduces the listener as one gazing out at the freed bird as it flies away.

“Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted;”: Repeating the literal phrasing of the poem’s first line, the beginning of the second verse is both literal and metaphorical. The voices sing higher and louder, but the ‘lifting’ of the voices here also suggests elevation here— a transcendental tone. This metaphor of “lifted” voices logically follows on from the prior image of flight.

“beauty came like the setting sun:”: Sassoon again uses conventional imagery, here that of the beautiful, setting sun. Sassoon uses a language here that in other hands might seem hackneyed or clichéd, but manages to convey a purity of experience. The simpler and more archetypal the imagery, perhaps, the better to evoke the emotional power of the singing men. The “setting sun” here suggests death, sublime beauty– and an end.

“My heart was shaken with tears: and horror drifted away…”: the emotional and spiritual power of the song moves the listener so that their worst thoughts and memories of the war “drifted away”. Through the singing they escape the war and rediscover their common humanity. This lifting of horror, like mist or fog, is captured in the pause denoted by the ellipses.

“O, but Everyone / Was a bird;”: the suggestive capitalisation of “Everyone” here seems to suggest that ‘everyone’ in the poem have for a short while have assumed the freedom of transcendence, of becoming more than themselves. Note the building intensity in this verse, as sub-clause follows sub-clause, leading to the cry of ‘O’, and sense of profound emotional release in the last two lines.

“and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.”: The sense that the listeners experience is sublime and timeless is profound; moving beyond words, to suggest here a religious image of the eternal singing of men.

 

 

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: This poem certainly has the most religious or spiritual tone of Stallworthy’s selection of Sassoon’s poetry. Stallworthy elsewhere praises ‘Christ and the Soldier’ as a dramatic example of Sassoon’s war poetry: and makes the keen observation that “his poetry, early and late can be seen to justify the label he attached to himself… ‘I am a religious poet’”. The question of the presence or otherwise of God during the war is a profound one, and is also tackled in Isaac Rosenburg’s ‘On Receiving News of the War’ (p.183). Outside the anthology, there are other poems similarly written about the power of song at war: ‘First Time In’ by Ivor Gurney, about encountering Welsh singers on arrival in the trenches; or to Robert Graves’ ‘Sospan Fach (The Little Saucepan)’, about Welsh soldiers singing a traditional Welsh song.]

Glory of Women – Siegfried Sassoon

"You make us shells."

NOTES

This poem accuses British women of gaining vicarious pleasure from the war, and glorying in the fighting of soldiers abroad.

Glory of Women: ‘Glory’ is a religious word; a divine light that shines from the sacred. Something glorious is something worthy of honour, or praise— here, this poem purports to write about the honour or praiseworthiness of women. In this poem, therefore, the ‘Glory of Women’ is considered ironically.

STRUCTURE: ‘Glory of Women’ is a sonnet. The choice of a sonnet is again ironic— sonnets, of course, being traditionally associated with love. The poem is not necessarily a traditionally structured sonnet, however. The ‘volta’, or ‘turn’ of meaning or focus in the poem occurs before the sextet, as is traditional. There is a turn from detailing what Sassoon takes to be British women’s attitudes towards soldiering and war to a more savage imagery that shows the women to be deluded. There is also, unconventionally, an even more pronounced turn that occurs in the final three lines, as the shocking ending turns from British women to the German mother.

“You love us when we’re heroes…”: from the first, this poem has a confrontational,  accusatory tone, with the direct address of ‘you’ from a notional ‘us’; the voice of a male soldier. The idea of conditional love here— “when we’re heroes”— is the first sign of an accusation of hypocrisy leveled at women.

“Or wounded in a mentionable place”: the suggestion is that female loyalty depends on the wound that a soldier sustains, and that it must not be socially embarrassing for women to relate.

“You worship decorations”: the essential superficiality of the feminine viewpoint is suggested by the idea of worshipping “decorations”— another name for medals.

“you believe / That chivalry redeems the war’s disgrace.”: Sassoon suggests that women romanticise the war, focusing on “chivalry” and honour. The war, meanwhile, is described as being precisely dishonorable: it is a “disgrace”.

“You make us shells.”: women, Sassoon suggests, are complicit in the violence, because they are involved in the manufacture of weapons.

“You listen with delight, / By tales of dirt and danger fondly thrilled.”: the strong rhythm imparted by the alliteration here— “delight”, “dirt”, “danger”— gives a sense of a compelling parlour narrative.

“You crown our distant ardours…And mourn our laurelled memories…”: the most sarcastic lines in the poem, employing commonplace, romantic phrases and suggesting this is the limit of women’s understanding of war. To “crown… distant ardours” means to be the focus of the men’s desires; the “laurelled memories” talked of are the thoughts of the men killed and victorious (thus presented with laurel wreaths) in battle. Note the repetition of ‘our’ here; the opposition of men and women is particularly strongly sustained in these lines.

“You can’t believe that British troops ‘retire’”: The beginning of the ‘sextet’ or final six lines of a sonnet. The poem turns from romantic images of men prevalent at home to the true actions of men in war. To ‘retire’, here, is a euphemism for retreat.

“Hell’s last horror… Trampling the terrible corpses— blind with blood”: The alliteration here accentuates the vicious and desperate retreat of the men. The aspirate ‘h’ sounds recall the heavy breath of the running men, the harsher ‘t’ sounds the crushing of bones underfoot, while the plosive ‘b’s almost mimics the projection of blood itself.

“O German mother dreaming by the fire…”: the sudden turn to the presentation of a German mother at home is surprising for the reader, after the focus on the insensitivities and moral complicity of British women in the war. In some ways she is presented more sympathetically than British women: her “dreaming”, because not elaborated on, doesn’t seem as immediately corrupt as that of British women.

“While you are knitting socks… His face is trodden deeper in the mud.”: The final couplet is deliberately shocking. The contrast between the thoughtful domestic scene and the utter savagery of a human head being stood on is horrifying, and meant as a corrective to the illusion that dominates the poem. The brutal truth, Sassoon insists, is a factual corrective to delusion.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: This is a poem that always prompts massive debate in my classes and its misogynistic tone well justifies it. ‘Glory of Women’ needs, however, to be fairly considered with those other poems that Sassoon writes at this time, in which he seeks to angrily identify those who hold some responsibility for the war. Outside of the anthology, ‘Glory of War’ contrasts interestingly with Jessie Pope’s upbeat ‘War Girls’, of course; within the anthology WWI selection, where women’s voices are massively unrepresented, it is interesting to compare this poem with Elizabeth Daryush’s ‘Subalterns’ (p.219) and May Wedderburn Cannan’s ‘Rouen’ (p.220).]

The General – Siegfried Sassoon

An early draft of 'The General' by Siegfried Sassoon- with accompanying cartoon!

NOTES

A General breezily greets a company of his men as they move up the line towards Arras. His incompetent planning will lead to their deaths.

The General: Pointedly anonymous in the poem. The General is a figurehead for the kind of planning that led to massive loss of life during the attritional warfare on the Western Front– Arras being a particularly grim example of the human cost of the war. The Second Battle of Arras was a diversionary battle that took place in April-May 1917 and was intended to draw strength away from a larger French offensive to the south at Aisne. While very successful at first, gaining ground and employing innovative new tactics, by the end of the offensive such advantage had been largely lost and over 150,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers were dead.

STRUCTURE: ‘The General’ is written with a distinctive and upbeat rhythm that reflects the General’s manner and which ironically contrasts with the deaths that result from his incompetence. This rhythm is anapaestic. An anapaest is a three syllable foot that comprises of two unstressed syllables followed by one stressed syllable. So, for example, the word ‘anapaest’ is, in fact, anapaestic, as we see here: a-na-PAEST. An anapaestic rhythm bounds and gallops forwards, with that third syllable in every foot being accentuated. There are four feet in every line of ‘The General’, meaning that this meter is known as ‘Anapaestic Tetrameter’. If we break down the rhythm in this way (an act known as scansion) then we can follow this rhythm. The second line scans, for example, like this: “When we MET / him last WEEK / on our WAY / to the LINE / ”. It is a strong, striding, strident rhythm, suitable for a poem such as this.

“‘Good-morning; good-morning!’ the General said’”: the breeziness of the General and his pleasant demeanor is used as a powerful contrast to the consequences of his actions. Sassoon’s satirical representation of the General is clever: it suggests (perhaps unfairly) that his upbeat nature somehow reflects a lack of seriousness with which he takes his charge.

“on our way to the line.”: the soldiers are making their way to the front.

“most of ’em dead”: the inverted comma signifies the lower-class accent of the speaker and dropping of the ‘th’ sound. This class voice gives the poem a more subversive tone. The consequences of the cheery General’s actions are devastating.

“And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine”: the representatives of the General staff— those soldiers working administratively at the General’s command— were often intensely disliked by the average soldier. Here, their incompetence disgusts the soldiers.

“‘He’s a cheery old card,’ grunted Harry to Jack”: the soldiers see the General as a ‘card’, or ‘character’. Their tone is generous, given the physical effort they are making (“grunted”). The names of the soldiers are common and denote that they are ‘typical’ Tommies. This is, obviously, an emotive move: the irony of the men’s appreciative statement shortly becomes clear.

“slogged up to Arras”: The Battle of Arras, April-May 1917 (see above).

“But he did for them both by his plan of attack.”: the single, end-stopped line at the end of the poem is dramatic, and is the pointed lesson of this poem: that the General and his staff are responsible for the death of the men.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: This must be the most effective condemnation of the General Staff written during the First World War. Sassoon and Graves experienced firsthand the poor planning of the General Staff at the front; in Chapter 15 of Goodbye to All That, Graves’ memoir of the war, one particularly memorable fiasco is the La Bassee offensive of August 1915, where the Royal Welch were gassed by their own side.]

 

The Rear-Guard – Siegfried Sassoon

A stone stairway out of the vast network of tunnels dug around the French town of Arras by the Allies.
NOTES
As battle rages above, a soldier moves desperately through a network of tunnels and rooms, encountering the festering corpse of a dead man before eventually escaping the depths.

 

The Rear-Guard (Hindenburg Line, April 1917): The rear-guard is a detachment that protects the rear of a military force. The Hindenburg Line was a series of defences built in North Eastern France, constructed in 1916-17. The German Army retreated to this line of strengthened, deepened concrete trenches and bunkers, set on better defensible ground, in March 1917.  In April 1917 a French assault on the supposedly ‘impregnable’ Hindenburg Line ensued, which the British supported by a diversionary thrust near the French town of Arras. This became the bloody Second Battle of Arras in which 150,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers were killed and in which Sassoon fought with the Royal Welch Fusiliers. Sassoon said of his experience at Arras: “The dead bodies lying about the trenches and in the open are beyond description… our shelling of the line— and subsequent bombing, etc— has left a number of mangled Germans— they will haunt me till I die”. Sassoon himself was shot through the throat during the action and it was while recovering from this in Britain that he wrote his ‘Soldier’s Declaration’. The Battle of Arras and the assault on the Hindenburg line had a special horror for Sassoon, then. The poem may seems to be describing an experience in one of the tens of kilometres of allied tunnels dug in the chalky ground beneath and behind no-man’s land before the Battle.

“Groping along the tunnel, step by step”: The poem begins with a sense of struggle as the reader is thrust directly into the action, beginning with the verb, “groping”. With this the reader is made immediately aware of the sense of touch on which the soldier is dependent, and how difficult it is to negotiate the tunnel, “step by step”.

“He winked his prying torch with patching glare”: The darkness in the tunnel is absolute, save for the inadequate light from the soldier’s torch, which acts as a searching eye— winking, prying and glaring. The torch only illuminates in patches, however: the soldier cannot see all around him, adding to the sense of threat.

“sniffed the unwholesome air.”: Denied vision, the sense of smell becomes acute. The lack of vision in this poem becomes symbolic of a lack of rationality that becomes more acute as the poem goes on: the soldier must rely on more direct and possibly irrational senses, like smell and touch. Note the sibilance of “side to side, and sniffed”: suggesting sniffing itself, perhaps, or the serpentine sway of the torch. The air is “unwholesome” perhaps because of lingering gas— or death.

“Tins, boxes, bottles… the mattress from a bed”: The first stanza effectively establishes a subterranean world without light. The second stanza surprises, therefore, with a shift to more familiar and homely objects. The effect here, however, is to create a sense of weird uneasiness, of the familiar appearing strangely. Sigmund Freud called this effect unheimlich (literally, German for ‘unhomely’) and we translate it as the ‘uncanny’: its psychological effect is disconcerting.

“exploring fifty feet below / The rosy gloom of battle overhead”: the extreme depth in which the soldier moves implies an almost absolute removal from the world of the surface and the fighting above, imagined as a “rosy gloom”. Fire lights the smoke of battle, perhaps: but the “rosy gloom” also voices an almost attractive quality to the grim scene above, highlighting the sense of isolation of the soldier. There is a sense that the soldier is exploring a completely ‘other’ realm. The assonance here may also suggest the muffled resonance of the bombs above.

“Tripping, he grabbed the wall”: A return to the use of a verb to begin the line, highlighting a loss of control and again, the desperate dependency of the soldier on touch.

“saw someone lie / Humped at his feet, half hidden…”: The soldier discovers what he takes to be a sleeping man.

“‘God blast your neck!’ (For days he’d had no sleep,)”: the tension that the soldier feels leads to a frustrated outburst: the parenthesis here explains the intense impatience and envy that the soldier feels for the “sleeper” he has discovered. Note, as ever, Sassoon’s assured use of colloquial language.

“Savage, he kicked a soft, unanswering heap…”: The gradual shedding of layers of humanity in the poem so far culminates in the word ‘Savage’: summing up the sense of atavistic disorder the soldier finds himself in. ‘The Rear-Guard’ is in many ways about human beings reverting to a less developed, animalistic, inhuman state: perhaps this is why the poem at times is reminiscent of HG Wells’ The Time Machine, with the time traveler exploring the realm of the degenerate subterranean Morlocks. Loss of vision, rationality, co-ordination and disorder in an underworld hell represent the violent intellectual and moral collapse of the Western world.

“…the livid face / Terribly glaring up…”: a double meaning. ‘Livid’ of course means ‘angry’ but also originally and literally here, ‘black-and-blue’— the colour of bruises. The use of the present continuous— “glaring”— again gives the disconcerting sense that the dead man is dead, yet somehow alive.

“Agony dying hard… And fists of fingers clutched a blackening wound”: The man’s face is frozen in a death-mask of horror and agony. “Fists of fingers” returns us again to a repulsive and frightening world of touch, here clutching the festering wound.

“Alone he staggered on…”: This line begins with a state and then moves to the verb, unlike those previous lines already commented on. The prime impression here is then of the soldiers loneliness in the tunnel and his sense of isolation as he stands next to the ten-day old corpse.

“Dawn’s ghost…”: the weak light of dawn is evoked in this supernatural metaphor. It is interesting to note that although this poem stages a classical descent into the underworld or journey into hell, metaphorically speaking the world above is a realm of the supernatural. Part of the bleakness of the poem is that neither upper nor lower realm has any sense of peace or consolation; unrest dominates both spaces, and the world of light, while a relief from darkness, remains troubling.

“…the dazed, muttering creatures underground”: the world below is not populated by human beings but by those reduced to inhuman ‘creatures’; demons, perhaps, or creatures from myth.

“Who hear the boom of shells in muffled sound.”: again, the use of onomatopoeia here (“boom”, “muffled”) gives a sense of the continuous din coming from the world above.

“…with sweat of horror in his hair,”: a last description that reprises the grim sensuality of the poem, especially that of touch: the soldier is in a cold, fearful sweat and feels this creep over the crown of his head in the stairway draught. The use of alliteration (“horror…hair”) suggests the heavy breath of the soldier.

“He climbed through darkness to the twilight air…”: the gathering purpose of the soldier is emphasised by the second line of the couplet, as the soldier escapes the tunnels and the dark— into the half-light of the world above.

“Unloading hell behind him step by step.”: the final line makes explicit the meaning of the narrative, as a journey into and return from the underworld— like Orpheus in Greek myth, or the Harrowing of Hell in the Christian apocrypha. Hell takes on something of its original religious power here. ‘Hell’ in everyday language or conversation is an abstract idea, a metaphor: “I’ve been through hell”, we say, but this is ultimately a figure of speech. However hell in the world of belief is not a figure of speech but a literal thing, an actual space. In this poem, the soldier makes a journey not into a metaphorical hell, but to a literal, twentieth century hell. “Unloading” conveys the physical relief that climbing out of the tunnel, and so climbing out of that underworld hell, brings. Yet the poem ends, bleakly, where it began: in ponderous movement, ‘step by step’.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: ‘The Rear-Guard’ is most obviously compared and contrasted to Wilfred Owen’s ‘Strange Meeting’, a poem that it may have directly inspired.]

NOTE:

Many thanks to Toni Peacock and her insight into the struggle of the soldier!

The Hero – Siegfried Sassoon

A painting of Siegfried Sassoon by Glyn Warren Philpott. Painted in 1917, you can see the original at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

NOTES

In this poem an officer delivers a consolatory letter to a grieving mother concerning the death of her soldier son, Jack. She is proud of her son’s glorious sacrifice— but, on leaving, the officer reflects wryly on Jack’s cowardice and incompetence in the line.

STRUCTURE: Written in iambic pentameter, ‘The Hero’ comprises three stanzas of six lines length largely made up of rhyming couplets, save the first four lines of the second stanza, which have an alternating rhyme scheme. Rhyming couplets, of course, are particularly effective in relaying neat epigrams or moral statements. The simplicity of the rhyme scheme perhaps apes the newspaper poetry of the time, which often went in for sentimental attitudes about the heroism of the British ‘boys’ and their sacrifice. The first stanza could in fact stand alone as a very effective pastiche of such poetry. The second stanza sees a shift of narrative viewpoint, admitting a more complicated reality of appearance and lies. The third stanza contains the revelation of Jack’s true nature and death, subverting the sentimentality of the first.

The Hero: the ‘Hero’ of the poem is, of course, ironically termed so: Jack is the kind of malingering coward who earned the contempt of his comrades on the battlefield, especially in a well-disciplined regiment like the Royal Welch, in which Sassoon (and Graves) served.

“Jack fell as he would have wished / The mother said”: the stock figure of the grieving mother opens this poem: a familiar, emotive image of loss in war. Here, the mother uses an everyday euphemism for dying in war— “Jack fell”— that implies an honourable soldier’s death, falling in action.

“‘The Colonel writes so nicely.’ Something broke…”: Colonels, those responsible for a regiment of soldiers, wrote letters of condolence to the bereaved on behalf of the regiment. As Graves relates in ‘Goodbye to All That’, these letters were often a duty.

“‘We mothers are so proud / Of our dead soldiers.’ Then her face bowed.”: The mother speaks as if for all British soldiers: perhaps the consolation that she finds in doing so is in subsuming herself in the collective loss of all the mothers of the nation. At any rate, these words do seem more sentimental than authentic: their clichéd expression helping to repress, perhaps, the great grief of the woman.

“Quietly the Brother Officer went out”: ‘Brother Officer’ is an unusual term— an example of military language being used in a way that is jarring at the beginning of the stanza. The camaraderie of the army, the special fellowship of men in service is introduced into the poem here.

“…poor old dear …gallant lies”: these words imply a distance that the first stanza’s heartfelt scene did not hint at.

“While he coughed and mumbled…”: the officer’s awkwardness in passing on condolences is understandable. The reason for the officer’s embarrassment only later becomes obvious.

“brimmed with joy, / Because he’d been so brave, her glorious boy.”: the alliteration in these lines, expressing the devastation of the mother, is clever. The effect of the repeated ‘b’s is to convey her restrained tears and give a suggestion of tremulously spoken words— of repressing the need to cry, of blubbering.

“He thought how ‘Jack’, cold-footed, useless swine, / Had panicked”: it is interesting to note the recurrence of the name ‘Jack’ in Sassoon’s poems. Sassoon was known as ‘Mad Jack’ by his men because of his almost suicidal bravery in battle. To name the coward and object of contempt in this poem ‘Jack’, then, is an interesting turn. Perhaps this ‘Jack’ is a kind of alter-ego for Sassoon, as, in a sense, was ‘Mad Jack’; a guilty idea of another self against whom Sassoon opposed himself (as a poet-warrior, with some success).

“How he’d tried / To get sent home”: Jack has attempted to get a ‘Blighty’ wound— an injury that would get him sent home to ‘Blighty’, or Britain, in the slang of the time. This act of desperation— shooting oneself in the foot through sandbags, holding a hand above the parapet in a sniper zone, and so on— was not an uncommon recourse to those desperate to escape the Western front. 

“…and how, at last, he died, / Blown to small bits.”: the grisly contrast of the soldier’s death to the heroism supposed in the poem’s title is clear. ‘Jack’ is “blown to bits” by a shell or a mine: the plosive sound, ‘b’ echoing the sound of the explosive and its effect on the unfortunate soldier. The halting rhythm of the line, with pauses following each stressed word (“how”, “last”, “died”), lends a sense of inevitability to Jack’s end.

“And no-one seemed to care / Except that lonely woman with the white hair.”: The final couplet is explicit, objective and powerful. The illusion of the opening stanza is replaced two related scenes of devastation: the fragmented body of the dead soldier, Jack, and the tragic image of the “lonely woman with the white hair”.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: ‘The Hero’, like ‘They’ and ‘Glory of Women’ contrasts the ignorance and sometimes willful delusion of those at home with the actual soldiers who have experienced front-line warfare.]

They – Siegfried Sassoon

Siegfried Sassoon. 'They' remains in copyright and so cannot be reproduced here.

NOTES

This poem satirically contrasts the moral improvement to British soldiers promised by a Bishop with the physical damage and moral degradation that they actually experience.

STRUCTURE: ‘They’ is comprised of two stanzas of equal length: six lines of iambic pentameter each, with rhyme scheme ABABCC. The second stanza subverts the message of the first. ‘They’ has a clever rhythmical structure, intended to create a particular tone to the poem. Sassoon subtly subverts the Bishop’s strident sermon in the first stanza by his use of colons and semi-colons as caesuras or pauses in the middle of each line. These give the first stanza a deliberately halting rhythm that, along with the rhetorical confidence of the Bishop’s sermon, gives his speech a subtle staginess that suggests an insincere performance. By contrast, the strong rhythm given to the answers of the men in the second stanza reinforces the ugly truth that they tell. The soldiers’ reply tends to pause more ‘naturally’ at the end of lines, ‘end-stopping’ each statement, giving a sense of complete meaning.

Siegfried Sassoon: Siegfried Sassoon is the greatest of the British poets to have survived the war. Born into a wealthy family, Sassoon had a lonely childhood. He took the expected route of his privileged class from public school (Marlborough) and thence up to university (Cambridge), though he quit Cambridge without a degree. At Cambridge, Sassoon fell in love with David Thomas, who later died serving with Sassoon and their friend Robert Graves in the Royal Welch Fusiliers at Fricourt (Graves would write the poem ‘Goliath and David’ in tribute to Thomas; Sassoon ‘The Last Meeting’ and ‘A Letter Home’). Sassoon took Thomas’ death badly and would go out into no-man’s land nightly, “looking for Germans to kill”. Sassoon, in fact, had a reputation for bravery amongst his men (he was known as ‘Mad Jack’) and won the Military Cross for his actions during the Battle of the Somme. Sassoon was shot in 1917 and invalided home, there meeting a number of notable pacifists. Sassoon became convinced that he had to make a statement about the conduct of the war, which he described in a letter (later read to parliament) as “now become a war of aggression and conquest”. His friend Graves, fearing that Sassoon would be harshly punished, testified before the army medical board that Sassoon had shell-shock and Sassoon was sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital, Edinburgh. It was here that Sassoon met Wilfred Owen and fostered his writing ambitions. Sassoon eventually returned to fight on the Western front in 1918, but was again shot in June of that year. He did however survive the war, and published his brilliant autobiographical trilogy, The Memoirs of George Sherston over the next twenty years. He died in 1967.

They: ‘They’ are the idealised British soldiers of whom the bishop speaks. ‘They’ are quite unlike the real soldiers who go to war.

“The Bishop tells us:”: The figure of religious authority in the poem— a Bishop of the Church of England— speaks with confidence about a situation of which he has no knowledge. He represents a brand of religious cant and hypocrisy that was deeply unpopular amongst many men at the front.

“When the boys come back / They will not be the same;”: The meaning of the poem turns on this observation— that the war changes the men who fought in it. Note the easy familiarity, even patronizing tone of the reference to ‘the boys’, and the use of alliteration in this first line, as throughout the poem.

“for they’ll have fought / In a just cause;”: alliteration (‘f’) is again used to give a rhythmic force to the Bishop’s leading statements. The mention of a “just cause” reinforces the sense that the Bishop is dealing in popular platitudes about the justification for war— that it is “just”, or ‘right’.

“their comrades blood has bought…”: the soldiers are explicitly compared to Christ, who ‘bought’ man eternal life by dying for their sins. Sassoon’s earlier poem ‘The Redeemer’ explicitly made this contrast: interestingly, Sassoon now seems to refute this sentimental analogy.

“New right to breed an honourable race,”: what follows from this Christ-like redemption is more unpleasant however. The Bishop uses pseudo-scientific language, popular around the turn of the century. In Social Darwinist terms, the ‘right to breed’ is claimed through the sacrifice of soldiers. This ‘survival of the fittest’ (here, the fittest are the most “honourable”) is an idea that underlay much elitist thinking about society and often had, as here, a racist dimension. Compare and contrast this line with those found in Rupert Brooke’s ‘Peace’ and ‘The Dead’.

“they have challenged Death and dared him face to face”: the Bishop’s heroic and clichéd rhetoric unwittingly recalls the line in Corinthians 13:12, that declares “now we see through a glass, darkly; but then, face to face”. This Biblical line declares that before death we have necessarily imperfect knowledge, only attaining real enlightenment when we meet God. In many ways, the Bishop embodies this cosmic ignorance.

“‘We’re none of us the same!’ the boys reply”: The anguished agreement echoes— along with the use of the phrase “the boys” – the first line, only to subvert the Bishop’s prediction.

“For George lost both his legs…”: A grim litany of injuries follows, spelling out the true consequences of war for “the boys”. Note that the soldiers are named, rather than idealized and anonymous in the Bishop’s sermon. The description is explicit and pitiful: “Poor Jim’s shot through the lungs and like to die”.

“‘And Bert’s gone syphilitic:”: Bert has contracted syphilis, a sexually transmitted disease. Soldiers on leave would commonly visit prostitutes in the local towns and villages; brothels were even graded in some areas for use by officers (signed by blue lamps) and privates (red lamps). Venereal infection was endemic, as prostitutes could sleep with over a hundred men a day. Note the deeply ironic contrast, then, between this and the Bishop’s claim that “their comrades blood has bought / New right to breed an honourable race”.

“…that hasn’t found some change.”: the irony of this statement illustrates Sassoon’s satirical point, that a massive change has indeed come to the men, but quite different to that which the Bishop predicts.

“And the Bishop said; ‘the ways of God are strange!”: The Bishop resorts to idiotic cliché to explain the real change witnessed, essentially pronouncing that ‘God works in mysterious ways’.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: This poem is in some ways representative of the selections that Stallworthy makes from Sassoon’s poetry in the OBOWP. Stallworthy describes Sassoon’s later war poems as “launched at the reader like a hand grenade” (p.68), and this, written in 1916, fits the same billing. It is a cutting attack on the hypocrisy of authority and the kind of rhetoric used to encourage others to go abroad and fight. As such it stands special comparison with Sassoon’s own attack on the military leadership, ‘The General’ (p.177), but also G.K. Chesterton’s acerbic attack on the political class, ‘Elegy in a Country Churchyard’ (p.212).]

Reprisals – W.B. Yeats

‘Reprisals’

Some nineteen German planes, they say,
You had brought down before you died.
We called it a good death. Today
Can ghost or man be satisfied?
Although your last exciting year
Outweighed all other years, you said,
Though battle joy may be so dear
A memory, even to the dead,
It chases other thought away,
Yet rise from your Italian tomb,
Flit to Kiltartan cross and stay
Till certain second thoughts have come
Upon the cause you served, that we
Imagined such a fine affair:
Half-drunk or whole-mad soldiery
Are murdering your tenants there.
Men that revere your father yet
Are shot at on the open plain.
Where may new-married women sit
And suckle children now? Armed men
May murder them in passing by
Nor law nor parliament take heed.
Then close your ears with dust and lie
Among the other cheated dead.

NOTES

This highly political poem is addressed to Major Robert Gregory, but instead of eulogizing the man as earlier poems did it describes the British atrocities— reprisals— that have taken place in Ireland since his death. The poem protests that Gregory is not alive to defend the Irish people, who are now subject to tyranny. 

Reprisals: The title references the reprisals that the British government sanctioned against Irish Nationalist revolutionaries in Ireland in 1920. After the First World War, the British government set up militia units to combat Irish republican fighters who, fighting for Irish independence, were attacking members of the Royal Irish Constabulary. These units, made up of demobilised British soldiers, became known as the Black and Tans, and their purpose was to stave off the revolution that had begun in Ireland. They— and other paramilitary units— soon became known for their indiscriminate violence and were responsible for a number of atrocities and murders. The British government followed a policy of reprisals— retaliation, seeking to punish IRA attacks with equal force— against IRA members, their families and communities. These were publicly condemned by the government but privately approved. At this time Hugh Gascoigne-Cecil, a conservative MP, commented: “there is no such thing as reprisals, but they are having a good effect”. In fact the violence of the militias, and British and Irish repulsion towards them, is today held to be one of the key factors in the gaining of Irish independence. It was in this bloody and polarized state of armed rebellion and political repression that Yeats writes this political poem.

It should also be noted that there is an interesting and relevant wordplay here too: to ‘reprise’ means to repeat or, in music, return to a theme. This is the fourth of four poems Yeats wrote about Robert Gregory. It went unpublished; Yeats was loathe to upset neither Gregory’s mother, who did not like the poem, nor Gregory’s wife, who did not share Yeats’ nationalist sympathies.

“Some nineteen planes, they say, / You had brought down…”: Gregory shot down nineteen  planes over the Italian front as a fighter ace. He was widely held an Irish hero, and received the Military Cross and the Legion d’Honneur from France: ‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’ celebrates this. Note that Gregory is addressed directly in this poem.

“We called it a good death.”: The first hint of a reconsideration of opinion regarding Gregory’s death. Yeats uses the word “We”: he is not only speaking for himself here, but assumes the voice of the people. Note the short, terse statement here. This terseness is a feature of the poem.

“Today / Can ghost or man be satisfied?”: a rhetorical question, in the face of contemporary political and social unrest. The suggestion of Gregory’s spiritual unrest— his unsatisfied “ghost”— is disturbing.

“Your last exciting year / Outweighed all other years, you said…”: here, Yeats addresses Gregory, rather than giving Gregory voice, as in “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death”. There, Yeats depicted Gregory as a flyer who followed “a lonely impulse of delight” and who “balanced all” before choosing death in flight. The metaphor of weighing things (and so setting them in the balance) continues here, but Yeats’ tone has changed. Perhaps it is the first person address, but the voice in this poem seems more impersonal and judgemental than in ‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’: an “impulse of delight” becomes a more banal “exciting year”, while “you said” sounds, perhaps, more accusatory.

“Battle joy may be so dear a memory”: by suggesting that “battle joy” was “so dear” to Gregory, Yeats recalls the classical ideal of the happy warrior, suggesting that this “chases other thought away”. There is an element of regret, perhaps even disapproval here from Yeats, given the British actions in Ireland that are outlined later on in the poem. In a sense, Gregory has come to represent all those Irishmen who made the choice to fight for Britain in the First World War.

“…chases other thought away…”: Those interested in applying the works of Sigmund Freud to literature may spot a symbolic act of repression here. Repression means to turn away from trauma so effectively that a person completely forgets about the thing that first troubled him or her. This poem, in bringing about Gregory’s ghostly return to Ireland, is in a sense all about exposing the deep an ongoing trauma of the unresolved conflict between Ireland and Britain.

“Yet rise from your Italian tomb…”: There is something frightening about this call for the ghostly hero to return home— to confront what has become of Kilkartan Cross and Ireland in Gregory’s absence.

“Flit from Kilkartan Cross and stay / Till certain second thoughts have come”: Gregory is called back home to Kilkartan Cross (see my notes for ‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’). What he finds there will bring “second thoughts” on fighting for Britain, “the cause you served”.

“Half-drunk or whole-mad soldiery / Are murdering your tenants there”: the parallel phrasing (“half-drunk or whole-mad”) at the beginning of these lines, expressed nonetheless in plain-speaking language, brings a gathering emotional intensity to these lines (“half” becomes “whole”, “drunk” becomes “mad”). Yeats spells out what is happening in Ireland: the British militias are lawless and murdering the very Irish peasantry who are the Gregory family’s responsibility.

“Men that revere your father / Are shot on the open plain…”: the killings are brazen, and the reference to Gregory’s father again seems to emphasise the importance of duty— to a family, to a people. This is another terse, angry couplet.

“Where may new married women sit…”: this refers to the death of Eileen Quinn in November 1920. Quinn was a pregnant mother of three, shot by Black and Tan paramilitaries from a passing lorry. The case caused scandal and was brought up in parliament: no action was taken against the killers.

“Yet… Sit”, “Plain…Men”, “Heed… Dead”: An important feature of the poem as it lists British atrocities in Ireland is Yeats’ use of a form of rhyme known as half-rhyme. In half-rhyme, the final consonant of words rhyme: though the sounds prior in each word can be quite different. In the first of the half-rhymes in ‘Reprisals’, “tomb” is rhymed with “come”, an ‘m’ sound ending the word. The half-rhymes that Yeats uses at the end of the poem link and vocalize key ideas present in the poem, about death, return and understanding. More importantly, because the sounds of the words do not wholly rhyme with each other, there is a tune of growing discord in the poem— just as Yeats points out the moral and political disorder in contemporary Ireland.    

“Armed men / May murder… take heed”: the use of enjambment and alliteration helps convey the passionate urgency of these three lines. The alliteration also connects injustice and government, as in “passing by” and “parliament”. These are striking lines of political address and protest.

“Then close your ears with dust and lie / Among the other cheated dead”: Yeats ends with another terse couplet, here suggesting an almost recriminatory tone. The “cheated dead” are those Irishmen like Gregory who were lied to by Britain, only that they might later be killed. Yeats’ ending is ambiguous, seeming both conciliatory— in calling for Gregory’s ghost to rest with his countrymen— and yet grim. The final suggestion seems to be that it is better to be entombed in dust than to live in Ireland as it is.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: the last of Yeats’ poems in the anthology, this poem of course bears fascinating comparison with ‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’ in its change of attitude and tone. As a powerful political poem that expresses betrayal and anger about the conduct of the British government, this poem naturally links to the poetry of a dissenter like Sassoon; while in a more blackly humorous tone G.K. Chesterton also attacks the failures of parliament to prevent bloodshed.]

An Irish Airman Foresees His Death – W.B. Yeats

‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’

I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate,
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public men, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.

NOTES

This poem is a eulogy to Major Robert Gregory, a man whom Yeats greatly admired. In it, the dead man (who was killed in action with the Royal Flying Corps over Italy) is given voice by Yeats. The airman’s joy in flight, it is found, transcends all other claims on him and provides his sole motivation and justification for going to war.

An Irish Airman foresees his Death: Yeats wrote four poems in total about Robert Gregory, two of which feature in the anthology (the other being the later, sourer ‘Reprisals’). Gregory’s mother, Lady Augusta Gregory of Coole, was a much admired friend of Yeats. She was an important figure in the Irish literary revival, a dramatist whose interest in the Irish language and Irish mythology helped convert her to cultural nationalism (which would in turn inform Yeats’ own outlook). Robert Gregory in his turn was admired by Yeats as a “painter, classical scholar, scholar in painting and modern literature, boxer, horseman, airman”. Yeats declared that “his very accomplishments hid from many his genius”. This poem is a eulogy to the dead man. The title contains a remnant of Yeats’ early mysticism— Gregory “foresees” his own death (Yeats had been fascinated by the occult as a young man). The notion of Gregory foreseeing his fate and choosing it nonetheless allows this poem to reflect on death, service and an Irishman’s sense of purpose in the British military.

“I know that I shall meet my fate / Somewhere among the clouds above”: A surprisingly romantic beginning to the poem, perhaps. The “clouds above” carry traditional associations of dreaming and sublime transcendence in the skies above: the sense that, in flying, we move into a realm beyond earth, and beyond material things.

“Those that I fight I do not hate, / Those that I guard I do not love;”: A renunciation of patriotic or xenophobic motivations for war. Gregory does not hate Germans, but neither does he love those he guards— the British, Italians, or even Irish people? The sentiment can be interestingly compared with Edward Thomas’ feelings for England in ‘This is no Case of Petty Right or Wrong’ (“I hate not Germans, not grow hot / With love of Englishmen, to please newspapers”). In Yeats’ work– as in Thomas’– there is a strong sense of rhetoric in the parallel phrasing used.

“My country is Kilkartan Cross… Kilkartan Poor”: Kilkartan was a small town, part of the Gregory’s barony, and home to the Gregory family in Ireland. Two readings suggest themselves here: that the reference to Kilkartan is specific, and that Gregory feels he belongs not to a nation but a specific locality, Kilkartan; next, that Kilkartan stands for the whole of an ideal Ireland (in literary terms this would be an example of synecdoche, where part of something stands for the whole). The voice given to Gregory declares solidarity with the poor of this area. Yeats seems to be suggesting that the Gregory family’s relationship with the peasantry of the district is sympathetic and friendly (we are entitled to ask, however, how far this imagined solidarity really extended between landlord and peasantry. Is this a false note?).

“No likely end could bring them loss / Or leave them happier than before”: the poor are so poor, the voice seems to declare, that they could lose nothing of material value; yet their fortitude in bearing their poverty is such that they cannot be made miserable. These lines suggest a number of things: that Yeats understood the peasants’ lives in the same fatalistic terms he conceives Gregory’s fate; that the poor in fact understood their lives in just the same way, fatalistically; and that despite poverty, the poor were happy. That this is an ideological rather than a realistic point of view seems likely, given the tendency of people the world over since money was invented to choose not to be poor— one presumes because it is not a particularly joyous state to be in. Again, there seems a romantic tone to Yeats’ eulogy.

“Nor law, nor duty bade me fight, / Nor public men, nor cheering crowds”: The voice given to Gregory declares that neither conscription nor social obligation was a motivation to fight— nor ephemeral patriotism. The “public men” are politicians. There’s a hint of contempt here, perhaps, like Edward Thomas’ “hate for one fat patriot”.

“A lonely impulse of delight / Drove to this tumult in the clouds”: Here we find expressed the true motivation for Gregory joining the Flying Corps, as ascribed by Yeats: “A lonely impulse of delight”. There is an almost instinctive personal need to experience the pleasure of flying. “Delight” emphasises some of the high, giddy joy of flying, an intoxicating pleasure in the new sensation (and it is interesting that the pleasure Yeats ascribes as a motivation to Gregory is, in a sense, the pleasure of the modernist artist— an aesthetic motivation, rather than simply martial or pragmatic).

“I balanced all…”: Here is a justification for ‘choosing’ death in the skies— Gregory weighs up his choice, accounting for his decision. Note the ‘balance’ is reflected in the line; the alliterative ‘b’ sounds and the repetition of ‘all’ establishes a formal balance that Yeats uses until the end of the poem.

“The years to come seemed waste of breath / A waste of breath the years behind”: The formal balance continues here with the use of a technique known as chiasmus. On your book, draw a line in the poem from “the years” to “the years”; then from “waste of breath” to “waste of breath”. Between the two lines you’ll notice that you’ve just drawn a cross. Now, ‘chi’ (pron. ‘Kai’) is what the ancient Greeks used to call the letter ‘X’. Chiasmus creates this ‘crossing’ structure, where the beginning of the first part of a line is repeated or rephrased at the end of the second; while the end of the first line is found repeated at the start of the second (you can find this structure in a well known phrase like “nice to see you, to see you, nice!”). Here, the effect Yeats creates is a balancing of the claims of the future with the past in Gregory’s mind: neither seem worthwhile, compared to the moment between the two.

“In balance with this life, this death”: The careful formal balance of the end of this poem (the word ‘balance’ is even repeated here) is retained until the end. “This life” is counterpoised with “this death”. The poem ends with this graceful and calm poise— reminiscent, perhaps, of a fearless man in a plane in flight who has chosen his fate.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: This is an interesting poem: the ending in particular shows off Yeats’ massive formal and technical skill. It particularly bears comparison with poems that examine soldiers’ motivation for fighting. From outside the anthology, Edward Thomas’ ‘This is no Case of Petty Right or Wrong’ bears comparison; within, poems like Asquith’s ‘The Volunteer’ and Brooke’s ‘The Dead’.]