August 17, 2007

Siegfried Sassoon Banishment

Understanding war means not merely understanding its causes- the reasons which drive statesmen and women to start the armies marching- but also means understanding its consequences- the way that men on the battlefield relate and the way that their relations can effect the consciousness of whole generations. Perhaps in this case the First World War, whose effect on many countries in Europe was dramatic, is the ideal case- a war which consumed a generation led to that generation having a consciousness of the evils of war that never left them. Whether it be the conservative J.R.R. Tolkein's recollection of the trenches in the dead marshes outside Mordor or the young poet Wilfrid Owen writing more directly about the experience of machine gun fire, the horror of war is never far away from the writing of those who had experienced it in that generation.

It is necessary to ask though why they were so interested in publicising what had happened- for this its worth considering and thinking about Siegfried Sassoon's poem, Banishment. The text is here....


I am banished from the patient men who fight
They smote my heart to pity, built my pride.
Shoulder to aching shoulder, side by side,
They trudged away from life’s broad wealds of light.
Their wrongs were mine; and ever in my sight
They went arrayed in honour. But they died,—
Not one by one: and mutinous I cried
To those who sent them out into the night.

The darkness tells how vainly I have striven
To free them from the pit where they must dwell
In outcast gloom convulsed and jagged and riven
By grappling guns. Love drove me to rebel.
Love drives me back to grope with them through hell;
And in their tortured eyes I stand forgiven.

There are two motifs running through this poem- the first of which interestingly should help us answer our question, the second of which places the poem within the context of its times and links it say with the earlier Sassoon who in the August of 1914 reveled in going to war.

Sassoon obviously in this poem feels guilty about the men who have fought with him, probably under his command and died. Rhetoric about what they and he shared dominates the poem, the experience of trudging through war, 'shoulder to aching shoulder, side to side'. Sassoon without referring directly to the trenches gets at the hard physical labour involved in conflict there. But also note that he describes the trenches not as they were but as they might appear- his men and he are lifted from life into some spiritual hell not into something that they can comprehend. Of course Sassoon and Owen and the rest of the war poets often wrote in realistic terms- but in this poem I believe that Sassoon is trying to create a particular ideologically driven impression of war alongside his evocation of the hard labour and solidarity of the trenches.

Sassoon's picture here is ultimately religious. It is ultimately about his men marching off to hell- to a bitter waste. Sassoon wants to believe that because he shared that experience and writes about it- witnesses it- he can be forgiven by them. Ultimately this is a poem which is deeply about the forgiveness that the suffering can extend to the survivor. Sassoon of course was banished quite literally from fighting in the First World War when diagnosed with mental illness after he declared his opposition to it. Interestingly though it is again the Christian influence of the notion of love and the redeeming power of the love that Sassoon extends his men which is at the forefront of the poem- the anguish of a war being fought for ends which no man really understands is built upon the foundations of a love which Sassoon helps redeems him for his lack of suffering. The bargain between love and suffering is implicit within Christianity but here Sassoon uses it to expiate his survivor's guilt.

Also that equation between love and suffering is implicit in the reasons that Sassoon and his generation went to war so eagerly. The idea of suffering for that which one loves which motivated them and created poems like Brook's elegy to an England on the swamps of Flanders is related to Sassoon's idea of the love of an officer expiating the fact that he cannot be there with his men. What Sassoon's vision has lost is the easy idealism of Brook, Sassoon is cynical about the political powers which drove him and his men to war- furthermore his nationalism is now based on the camraderie of the front rather than the romance of the ideal of chivalric war. The suffering here is both the suffering of a viewing the beloved suffering from far away with no help of aiding them, and also the awful and purposeless suffering in the trenches- the love is not the mystical love of a nation or a cause but the love of comrades fighting to survive till the next day.

Sassoon obviously writes from a particular time and place and has translated a common idea into the parlance of the early twentieth century. There isn't as I have argued as much of a break between the ideas of banishment and the ideas that drove him to war in the first place- perhaps that is wrong- there is an obvious break but there is also an obvious consistency that is worth noting. Sassoon translates the realities of war into a framework of love and suffering- very much of his time and very different to say how the Cromwellian soldier translated his experience- but the experience and anger are in common.


dreadnought said...

An interesting post. Sassoon said very little about the military conduct of the war, other than in the poem 'The General'. In his 'Declaration' of 1917, he denounces the war's 'political insincerities'.

The traditional view of the war, which you hint at, does a disservice to those who fought and won, and died. To some nations, like Poland for example, the war is viewed as a war of liberation. Poland and others emerged from the war as independent countries. In the English speaking victorious nations, the war is wrongly viewed as a desperate waste, thanks in no small part to the ‘War Poets’ to which you refer. But it should be remembered that the Great War was the first war in Britain’s history where it bore the brunt of the fighting against the main body of the enemy’s forces. The resultant casualty levels were unique for Britain, but were much less than the other protagonists in the war, either by number or percentage. Britain may have subsequently been ‘traumatised’ by this war but it had to fight it in the manner it did out of political necessity. A fact that is lost in the poems and literature written about the war, nearly all of which focus on suffering and men who “die as cattle” and which have now blurred its historical and military realities. Additionally, this traditional view, says nothing about Britain’s truly astounding achievement of turning a tiny colonial police force into a continental sized army capable of fighting and defeating the most powerful armed forces on earth.

ario said...

Great analysis of the poem, Gracchii.

In addition I can always recommend reading Pat Barker's Regeneration trilogy (although I'd guess you know it) that is a fictional take on some of the war poets' sojourns in the war hospital where William Rivers worked. He was one of the first doctors to take seriously the effect of the mental trauma his shell-shocked patients suffered from. He was also the doctor tasked by the authorities with declaring Sassoon's alleged "mental deficiency" that supposedly had made him write his declaration against the war.

Gracchi said...

Dreadnought- of course you are right about Poland and its liberation consequent upon the war- though to be honest I think its worth remembering that the liberation of the countries of Eastern Europe was in many cases a war aim forced by circs upon the allies not invited by them. It was the fall of Russia that created the opportunity for Poland to be created. I always wonder how far the wars aims were ultimately the result of the way that the war was thought.

Ario indeed you are absolutely right the Barker trilogy is a good piece of work and Sassoons period in hospital is an interesting one.

dreadnought said...

I am absolutely certain that the aims of the countries that went to war in 1914 did not include liberation of occupied states. Britain for example went to war to stop German military dominance of Europe and for the long-term preservation of its empire. War in the 20th century became a fight for national survival. Defeat was cataclysmic. The break up of the European empires became an essential by-product of defeat.