"They were going to look at war, the red animal – war, the blood-swollen god."

Archive for the ‘poetry’ Category

Poets of the Great War: Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen

In Literature, poetry, Uncategorized on March 9, 2011 at 10:57 am

Manuscript of "Dulce Et Decorum Est" by Wilfrid Owen. Rough draft with suggested revisions by Siegfried Sassoon. (Scroll down to read finished poem.)

Two great British war poets, Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, both served as army officers during World War I, experiencing first-hand the horrors of trench warfare at the front and, in the case of Owen, gas attacks. Sassoon and Owen met when hospitalized for shell shock (now called post-traumatic stress disorder) in Craiglockhart War Hospital near Edinburgh.  The poems reprinted at the end of this post, Sick Leave by Sassoon and Dulce Et Decorum Est by Owen, were written at Craiglockhart. Sassoon served as a mentor to the younger Owen, encouraging him and suggesting revisions to some of his poems.

Dubbed “Mad Jack”by his men for the boldness of his exploits under fire, Sassoon came to believe that the war was an unconscionable slaughter that must be stopped.

Siegfried Sassoon. Photograph: George C Beresford/Hulton Archive

IN 1917, while back in England recovering from a shoulder wound, Sassoon, already a decorated war hero and published poet, wrote a letter of protest to his commander, Finished with the War: A Soldier’s Declaration.  With the support of prominent pacifists, including philosopher Bertrand Russell who would later go to prison for anti-war activities, Sassoon had the declaration read out in the British House of Commons and printed in the London Times.  The result was a political firestorm. Sassoon was threatened with court-martial and military execution until his friend, writer-soldier Robert Graves, successfully argued that Sassoon was mentally unfit due to shell shock, or “war neurosis,” and should instead be sent for treatment to Craiglockhart.

Siegfried Sassoon, 1917, by Glyn Warren Philpot. Fitzwilliam Museum, England.

At Craiglockhart, Sassoon met Wilfred Owen, a brilliant young lieutenant who had been hospitalized after surviving numerous horrendous combat experiences, including being trapped in a trench under heavy fire for several days with the remains of a fellow officer.

Wilfred Owen

Owen was a great admirer of Sassoon’s poetry and the two became friends.  Both men felt a tremendous sense of responsibility to the soldiers they had left at the front, a feeling expressed by many soldiers today when they leave a combat unit. Although both Sassoon and Owen could have avoided being sent back to action, each insisted on returning to the front. Sassoon, wounded a second time and sent home, tried fiercely to prevent Owen from returning to battle.

Owen was killed in action on November 4, 1918, a week before the Armistice. He was 25.

Ors Communal Cemetery in France, where Wilfred Owen is buried (click for image website)

Sassoon’s poem, Sick Leave, conveys the overwhelming pull of bonds of love and guilt formed on the battlefield. Owen’s Dulce Et Decorum Est describes a poison gas attack and gives a bitter twist to Horace’s ancient line (much-quoted by jingoistic writers of the time): “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.”

Sick Leave
by Siegfried Sassoon

When I’m asleep, dreaming and lulled and warm, –
They come, the homeless ones, the noiseless dead.
While the dim charging breakers of the storm
Bellow and drone and rumble overhead,
Out of the gloom they gather about my bed.
They whisper to my heart; their thoughts are mine.
“Why are you here with all your watches ended?
From Ypres to Frise we sought you in the line.”
In bitter safety I awake, unfriended;
And while the dawn begins with slashing rain
I think of the Battalion in the mud.
“When are you going out to them again?
Are they not still your brothers through our blood?”

Dulce Et Decorum Est
by Wilfred Owen

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori

Story by Melissa Cooper

Note: Pat Barker’s extraordinary novel, Regeneration, tells a fictionalized version of the meeting of Owen and Sassoon. Regeneration is the first book in a trilogy about the Great War that includes The Eye in the Door and Ghost Road.

War is Kind

In Literature, poetry, Stephen Crane on March 4, 2011 at 6:56 pm

Stephen Crane once wrote, “I understand a man is born into the world with his own pair of eyes and he is not at all responsible for his vision – he is merely responsible for his quality of personal honesty. To keep close to this personal honesty is my supreme ambition.”

Known for his war novel, The Red Badge of Courage, and his extraordinary short stories, Crane also wrote poems. In 1899, he published War is Kind and Other Lines, his second book of poetry.  He died of tuberculosis in 1900 at the age of 27, following a short life packed with adventure and hard work.

War is Kind by Stephen Crane, 1899. (Click photo to go to website.)

War is Kind

Do not weep, maiden, for war is kind.
Because your lover threw wild hands toward the sky
And the affrighted steed ran on alone,
Do not weep.
War is kind.

Hoarse, booming drums of the regiment,
Little souls who thirst for fight,
These men were born to drill and die.
The unexplained glory flies above them,
Great is the battle-god, great, and his kingdom
A field where a thousand corpses lie.

Do not weep, babe, for war is kind.
Because your father tumbled in the yellow trenches
Raged at his breast, gulped and died.
Do not weep.
War is kind.

Swift blazing flag of the regiment,
Eagle with crest of red and gold,
These men were born to drill and die.
Point for them the virtue of slaughter,
Make plain to them the excellence of killing
And a field where a thousand corpses lie.

Mother whose heart hung humble as a button
On the bright splendid shroud of your son,
Do not weep.
War is kind.

War Primer by Bertolt Brecht

In Literature, poetry, Uncategorized on February 21, 2011 at 6:26 pm

War Primer by Bertolt Brecht

A morning visit to my neighborhood independent bookstore, BookCulture (a great store – go visit at 112th Street east of Broadway), yielded a surprising find: War Primer by the great poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht. I hadn’t even known of the existence of this extraordinary document, but since the over-sized hardcover volume was marked down from $60.00 to $14.99, I promptly bought a copy.

By 194o, already many years into his long exile from Hitler’s Germany, Brecht had begun to clip photos of war from newspapers and magazines, and to write terse and fierce four-line poems to accompany the images. He mounted the photos and poems on paper, creating what he called “photo-epigrams.”

Young sufferers of war in Russia, France, Greece and Sicily

You, in your tanks and bombers, mighty warriors,
You that in Algiers sweat, in Lapland freeze
In scores of battles you have been victorious
See whom you’ve conquered. Hail your victories!

War Primer is a collection of these photo-epigrams, which Brecht worked on as he and his family moved from country to country, “changing countries more often than our shoes,” trying to stay ahead of Hitler’s invasions.

"Exhausted Soldiers"

Those you see lying here, buried in mud
As if they lay already in their grave–
They’re merely sleeping, are not really dead
Yet, not asleep, would still not be awake.

In 1941, Brecht lived in Sweden, Finland and Russia before arriving in the United States, where he would remain for six years.  Throughout World War II and its aftermath, Brecht continued to work on War Primer, while writing some of his greatest plays, including Mother Courage, The Good Person of Setzuan and The Caucasian Chalk Circle. He completed War Primer in 1947, the same year he testified before the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities (HUAC).

The day after his HUAC testimony, Brecht left the U.S. for Switzerland.  In 1949, after fifteen years of exile, he finally returned to East Berlin.

That’s how the world was going to be run!
The other nations mastered him, except
(In case you think the battle has been won)–
The womb is fertile still from which that crept.

(Kriegsfibel was published in Germany in 1955. It was published in English as War Primer in 1998.  John Willett translated and edited; Libris is the publisher. A small stack of the books remains at Book Culture. What a find.)

Here, for good measure, is a poem of Brecht’s that has served me for years as a mental talisman:


Everything changes. You can make
A fresh start with your final breath.
But what has happened has happened. And the water
You once poured into the wine cannot be
Drained off again.

What has happened has happened. The water
You once poured into the wine cannot be
Drained off again, but
Everything changes. You can make
A fresh start with your final breath.