Writing as absolution:
Siegfried Sassoon and ‘The Poet as Hero’

Reflecting on attitudes towards death in war (2)

You’ve heard me, scornful, harsh, and discontented, 
   Mocking and loathing War: you’ve asked me why
Of my old, silly sweetness I’ve repented— 
   My ecstasies changed to an ugly cry. 

You are aware that once I sought the Grail, 
   Riding in armour bright, serene and strong; 
And it was told that through my infant wail 
   There rose immortal semblances of song. 

But now I’ve said good-bye to Galahad, 
   And am no more the knight of dreams and show: 
For lust and senseless hatred make me glad, 
   And my killed friends are with me where I go. 
Wound for red wound I burn to smite their wrongs; 
And there is absolution in my songs.

Siegfried Sassoon’s ‘The Poet as Hero’ was first published in 1916 in Cambridge Magazine, and in it, he acknowledges his evolving attitudes toward war. In a conversational tone, he speaks to us, his readers, acknowledging that he has written statements and poems that echo Wilfred Owen’s ‘harsh and discontented’ anti-war poems, and owns that this mood, itself, was in response to his initial ‘old, silly sweetness’ – a rejection of his acceptance of that ‘old Lie’ Owen excoriates in Dulce et Decorum Est. In the second stanza, or quatrain, Sassoon articulates what this ‘old Lie’ meant to him: an evocation of King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table, seeking the Holy Grail, an object of mystical and spiritual significance. But this, he notes, is past: ‘once I sought the Grail’, ‘And it was told.’ Sassoon uses the past tense and the legend of Arthur to create a sense of distance from this idea that nobility and military action can be twinned. 

‘The Poet as Hero’ is structured as a sonnet – two quatrains and one sestet – and it is fitting that a poem that is about Sassoon’s changing attitude toward war, and the response of a war survivor, is expressed in a poetic structure characterised by its volta or ‘turn,’ a structural and thematic point at which the poem shifts. For Sassoon this volta comes after the two quatrains, as he begins his sestet: ‘But now I’ve said good-bye to Galahad.’ There is no capacity for innocence and virtue in war, Sassoon says, citing Galahad (known for being the most virtuous of Arthur’s knights, the only one to succeed in finding the Grail). Contemporary warfare, Sassoon claims, corrupt a person so that ‘lust and senseless hatred make me glad’ – antithetical values to the notions of elevated patriotic fervour.

His status as a survivor of war motivates Sassoon: the memory of his absent friends is ever immanent in his life. ‘Wound for red wound I burn to smite their wrongs’, he declares. There is no good death in war; Sassoon’s friends were ‘wronged’ and the poet ‘burn[s] to smite’ this injustice. Embracing the metaphor of the pen as a weapon, Sassoon justifies his war poetry to show that it is his very ‘ugly song’ that brings justice to his friends’ untimely war deaths, which are presented as murders. His ‘killed friends’ require ‘absolution’: cleansing, healing, a process of being made whole: and it is only by uncovering the cruelties and injustice of war, Sassoon suggests, that the memories of the killed may be washed and untainted; that their lives and deaths may be funnelled toward something that, if not ‘good’, is at least wholesome, absolved.


Posted: 22nd July 2019

Categories: Reflections