Redeeming Features

BBC Radio 4 Today Programme

Further to yesterday’s BBC Radio 4 Today programme broadcast, I have now read an article in this morning’s Telegraph online entitled “Unpublished poems shed light on Siegfried Sassoon” in which Dr Jean Moorcroft Wilson, described as “Sassoon’s biographer” (she’s actually one of several and not necessarily the most eminent, or recent) expresses her surprise that “after angry war poems” Sassoon had written “poems full of the glory of war and the idea that war is an heroic venture”. These words are taken from the BBC interview, but the re-airing of them in the Telegraph article demonstrates and reiterates a worrying lack of understanding about the poet which surprises me.

Sassoon himself dated his first “outspoken” war poem as being In the Pink which was written on 10th February 1916. So, it seems to me that anything written prior to this could be open to the interpretation that he was still coming to terms with the war and his experiences and, quite probably, hadn’t yet made his mind up as to how he wished to write about it. The fact that these unpublished works under discussion, which show an attitude that is not necessarily “typical” of Sassoon, were discovered in the January 1916 diaries is, therefore, no surprise to me.

The article in the Telegraph and the BBC interview quote Sassoon’s November 1915 poem The Redeemer (not simply “Redeemer” as stated in the article) which Sassoon ends with the the phrase “Oh Christ Almighty, now I’m stuck!”. The point of this quote appears to be to show that Sassoon had written an “angry poem” in November 1915, and then in January 1916, had written these unpublished, yet more glorifying pieces. However, The Redeemer was, according notes written by Sassoon himself, (provided in Rupert Hart-Davis’s edition of Sassoon’s War Poems (Faber and Faber 1983)), “revised and rewritten March 1916”. Therefore, its classification as a November 1915 poem is a little dubious.

Another point to note is that really The Redeemer can’t be judged as being anti-war, or “angry”, despite its final line, which is actually a description of a soldier who, having dropped a “load of planks” “in the muck” of a darkened trench, finds himself struggling, quite literally through the mud and is “stuck” – hence his declaration. The poem, as a whole, is a description of Sassoon’s perception of the fine work of the men who trudge along the trenches in the dark, carrying supplies and the ending of the third verse, in fact, reads:
“But to the end, unjudging, he’ll endure
Horror and pain, not uncontent to die
That Lancaster and Lune may stand secure.”
In light of quotes such as this, and reading the poem as whole, The Redeemer can hardly be deemed to be a piece that falls into Sassoon’s typical bitter or satirical later verses. In fact it appears to be quite supportive of the war and, more especially, the work of those involved.

If a poem praising the “nobility of the fight” had been found after, say, February or March 1916, that would, indeed, have been newsworthy. As it is, this just shows a lamentable lack of knowledge and understanding of the man as a person and a poet. One expects – perhaps a little too hopefully – a greater degree of integrity.