Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Attack - Siegfried Sassoon

At dawn the ridge emerges massed and dun
In the wild purple of glow'ring sun,
Smouldering through spouts of drifting smoke that shroud
The menacing scarred slope; and, one by one,
Tanks creep and topple forward to the wire.
The barrage roars and lifts. Then, clumsily bowed
With bombs and guns and shovels and battle-gear,
Men jostle and climb to, meet the bristling fire.
Lines of grey, muttering faces, masked with fear,
They leave their trenches, going over the top,
While time ticks blank and busy on their wrists,
And hope, with furtive eyes and grappling fists,
Flounders in mud. O Jesus, make it stop!

Given my harsh assessment of yesterday's Alan Seeger World War 1 poem I thought it appropriate to post some poetry from the Great War which I find much more worthwhile.  I've posted Sassoon's work before, but this one deals explicitly with the war, and the horror of what the order to attack really meant.

The imagery of the first few lines sets up the battle well.  A hilltop, scarred with war, surrounded by smoke, presumably from shelling, while the sun rises over the ridge.  Tanks are trying to breach wire barriers, toppling over, the barrage becoming ever more intense.  The world is exploding with the rise of the sun, and it's captivating and terrible.

Trench warfare was one of the ugliest things in the history of war.  When men sortied out over the top, it was often to be slaughtered, and inside the trench, when the gas bombs dropped, they became choking, horrifying places.  None of the imagery in this poem is heroic.  It is all clumsy and pitiful, and rightly so.  The men here are "bowed" by the weight of their weaponry, they "jostle" to get in position, they have "grey, muttering faces, masked with fear."  And for what purpose do they jostle and climb?  They do it to "meet the bristling fire."  To die.

This is not a pleasant or honorable rendezvous with death as Seeger liked to imagine.  This is a world in which "hope, with furtive eyes and grappling fists, flounders in mud."  Even hope cannot sustain.  It is grappling and losing, spattered in mud, unable to go one.  Time ticks away on the wristwatches of the soldiers, assuredly an image of mortality, of limited time.  The agonized exclamation of the final line best sums up the attitude of the world, and of ever soldier, by 1918, when this poem was published.  "O Jesus, make it stop!"  Not a prayer for victory, but just an end.  That's the nature of war in Sassoon's poetry, and it's infinitely more worthwhile than Seeger's hollow ideas about death.

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