Sassoon lived a life of privilege. He was a Georgian poet and wrote a number of volumes of poetry prior to entering the war. As an officer he was viewed as being courageous and exceptionally brave. In fact, he received the nickname of “Mad Jack,” for taking extraordinary chances when facing the enemy. It is said that he single-handedly captured a German trench. When the deed was complete he sat down and pulled out a book of poetry. On April 16th, 1917, Sassoon was shot and sent back to England to recuperate. A few months later he penned his famous protest statement. Sassoon’s words became well known as they were read before the House of Commons and published in The Times. It was at this point that Sassoon decided not to return to the military. However, because of Sassoon’s acknowledgement as a public hero, the British Army choose not to punish him for his desertion.
It was fellow poet and Royal Welch Fusilier Robert Graves who convinced the Army to declare Sassoon as suffering from shell-shock. He was sent to Craiglockhart Hospital to recover. It was here that he befriended fellow poet Wilfred Owen. At Craiglockhart, Sassoon wrote extensively as he wrestled with his decision to leave his post. He concluded during this time that he could not remain at Craiglockhart while his men were still battling in the trenches. Appearing before the medical board and convincing them of his recovery, Sassoon returned to the Front in 1918, only to be mistakenly shot by one of his own men. Returning to Britain for recovery, Sassoon continued to write and express his deep feelings for the plight of soldiers.
'Jack fell as he'd have wished,' the mother said,
And folded up the letter that she'd read.
'The Colonel writes so nicely.' Something broke
In the tired voice that quivered to a choke.
She half looked up. 'We mothers are so proud
Of our dead soldiers.' Then her face was bowed.
Quietly the Brother Officer went out.
He'd told the poor old dear some gallant lies
That she would nourish all her days, no doubt
For while he coughed and mumbled, her weak eyes
Had shone with gentle triumph, brimmed with joy,
Because he'd been so brave, her glorious boy.
He thought how 'Jack', cold-footed, useless swine,
Had panicked down the trench that night the mine
Went up at Wicked Corner; how he'd tried
To get sent home, and how, at last, he died,
Blown to small bits. And no one seemed to care.
Reflective Questions: “The Hero”
- Why is “The Hero” seen as one of the most disruptive of the war poems?
- How could the poem destroy a mother's faith in what might be said about the death of her soldier son?
- How does the poem reflect the ugliness of war?
- What stand has Sassoon taken in writing this poem? How do you interpret this stand?
- What role does a poet play in interpreting history and in raising questions?
“Does it Matter?”
Does it matter?—losing your legs?...
For people will always be kind,
And you need not show that you mind
When the others come in after hunting
To gobble their muffins and eggs.
Does it matter ?—losing your sight?...
There's such splendid work for the blind;
And people will always be kind,
As you sit on the terrace remembering
And turning your face to the light.
Do they matter?—those dreams from the pit?...
You can drink and forget and be glad,
And people won't say that you're mad;
For they'll know you've fought for your country
And no one will worry a bit.
No doubt they'll soon get well; the shock and strain
Have caused their stammering, disconnected talk.
Of course they're 'longing to go out again,' —
These boys with old, scared faces, learning to walk.
They'll soon forget their haunted nights; their cowed
Subjection to the ghosts of friends who died,—
Their dreams that drip with murder; and they'll be proud
Of glorious war that shatter'd all their pride...
Men who went out to battle, grim and glad;
Children, with eyes that hate you, broken and mad.
Reflective Questions: “Does it Matter?” and “Survivors”
- What do you think are the true feelings of the narrator of the poem, “Does it Matter?”
- What would be your feelings if you were in this situation?
- How do you think the phrase “And people will always be kind” is meant?
- In the poem “Survivors” will the “boys” soon forget?
- How will the dreams of these survivors change?
- What is meant by the phrase, “eyes that hate you, broken and mad?”
“Suicide in the Trenches”
I knew a simple soldier boy
Who grinned at life in empty joy,
Slept soundly through the lonesome dark,
And whistled early with the lark.
In winter trenches, cowed and glum,
With crumps and lice and lack of rum,
He put a bullet through his brain.
No one spoke of him again.
You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you'll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.
Reflective Questions: “Suicide in the Trenches”
- How did the attitude of the soldier change once he experienced life in the trenches?
- What are some of the images that Sassoon uses that print images on your mind?
- What is it that Sassoon suggests is in the thoughts of civilians who cheer on soldiers?
- How is this poem as relevant today as when Sassoon wrote it?