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War Poems of Siegfried Sassoon

War Poems of Siegfried Sassoon

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by Siegfried Sassoon

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At the dawn of World War I, poet Sassoon exchanged his pastoral pursuits of cricket, fox-hunting, and romantic verse for army life amid the muddy trenches of France. This collection of his epigrammatic and satirical poetry conveys the shocking brutality and pointlessness of the Great War and includes "Counter-Attack," "'They," "The General," and "Base Details."


At the dawn of World War I, poet Sassoon exchanged his pastoral pursuits of cricket, fox-hunting, and romantic verse for army life amid the muddy trenches of France. This collection of his epigrammatic and satirical poetry conveys the shocking brutality and pointlessness of the Great War and includes "Counter-Attack," "'They," "The General," and "Base Details."

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From the Publisher
“In later years, when Siegfried Sassoon had written much else in prose and verse, he was annoyed at always being referred to simply as a war poet, but it was the Great War that turned him into a poet of international fame, and I feel sure that his ghost will forgive me for thus bringing together these magnificently scarifying poems.” —Rupert Hart-Davis, from his Introduction

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War Poems of Siegfried Sassoon

By Siegfried Sassoon

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2004 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-16468-7



    THE anguish of the earth absolves our eyes
    Till beauty shines in all that we can see.
    War is our scourge; yet war has made us wise,
    And, fighting for our freedom, we are free.

    Horror of wounds and anger at the foe,
    And loss of things desired; all these must pass.
    We are the happy legion, for we know
    Time's but a golden wind that shakes the grass.

    There was an hour when we were loth to part
    From life we longed to share no less than others.
    Now, having claimed this heritage of heart,
    What need we more, my comrades and my brothers?


    GIVE me your hand, my brother, search my face;
    Look in these eyes lest I should think of shame.
    For we have made an end of all things base;
    We are returning by the road we came.

    Your lot is with the ghosts of soldiers dead,
    And I am in the field where men must fight.
    But in the gloom I see your laurell'd head
    And through your victory I shall win the light.

    The Dragon and the Undying

    ALL night the flares go up; the Dragon sings
    And beats upon the dark with furious wings;
    And, stung to rage by his own darting fires,
    Reaches with grappling coils from town to town;
    He lusts to break the loveliness of spires,
    And hurls their martyred music toppling down.

    Yet, though the slain are homeless as the breeze,
    Vocal are they, like storm-bewilder'd seas.
    Their faces are the fair, unshrouded night,
    And planets are their eyes, their ageless dreams.
    Tenderly stooping earthward from their height,
    They wander in the dusk with chanting streams;
    And they are dawn-lit trees, with arms up-flung,
    To hail the burning heavens they left unsung.


    SHE triumphs, in the vivid green
    Where sun and quivering foliage meet;
    And in each soldier's heart serene;
    When death stood near them they have seen
    The radiant forests where her feet
    Move on a breeze of silver sheen.

    And they are fortunate, who fight
    For gleaming landscapes swept and shafted
    And crowned by cloud pavilions white;
    Hearing such harmonies as might
    Only from Heaven be downward wafted—
    Voices of victory and delight.

    To Victory


    RETURN to greet me, colours that were my joy,
    Not in the woeful crimson of men slain,
    But shining as a garden; come with the streaming
    Banners of dawn and sundown after rain.

    I want to fill my gaze with blue and silver,
    Radiance through living roses, spires of green
    Rising in young-limbed copse and lovely wood
    Where the hueless wind passes and cries unseen.

    I am not sad; only I long for lustre,—
    Tired of the greys and browns and the leafless ash.
    I would have hours that move like a glitter of dancers
    Far from the angry guns that boom and flash.

    Return, musical, gay with blossom and fleetness,
    Days when my sight shall be clear and my heart rejoice;
    Come from the sea with breadth of approaching brightness,
    When the blithe wind laughs on the hills with uplifted voice.

    When I'm among a Blaze of Lights ...

    WHEN I'm among a blaze of lights,
    With tawdry music and cigars
    And women dawdling through delights,
    And officers at cocktail bars,—
    Sometimes I think of garden nights
    And elm trees nodding at the stars.

    I dream of a small firelit room
    With yellow candles burning straight,
    And glowing pictures in the gloom,
    And kindly books that hold me late.
    Of things like these I love to think
    When I can never be alone:
    Then someone says, "Another drink?"—
    And turns my living heart to stone.


    THROUGH darkness curves a spume of falling flares
    That flood the field with shallow, blanching light.
    The huddled sentry stares
    On gloom at war with white,
    And white receding slow, submerged in gloom.
    Guns into mimic thunder burst and boom,
    And mirthless laughter rakes the whistling night.
    The sentry keeps his watch where no one stirs
    But the brown rats, the nimble scavengers.

    A Mystic as Soldier

    I LIVED my days apart,
    Dreaming fair songs for God,
    By the glory in my heart
    Covered and crowned and shod.

    Now God is in the strife,
    And I must seek Him there,
    Where death outnumbers life,
    And fury smites the air.

    I walk the secret way
    With anger in my brain.
    O music through my clay,
    When will you sound again?

    The Kiss

    TO these I turn, in these I trust;
    Brother Lead and Sister Steel.
    To his blind power I make appeal;
    I guard her beauty clean from rust.

    He spins and burns and loves the air,
    And splits a skull to win my praise;
    But up the nobly marching days
    She glitters naked, cold and fair.

    Sweet Sister, grant your soldier this:
    That in good fury he may feel
    The body where he sets his heel
    Quail from your downward darting kiss.

    The Redeemer

    DARKNESS: the rain sluiced down; the mire was deep;
    It was past twelve on a mid-winter night,
    When peaceful folk in beds lay snug asleep:
    There, with much work to do before the light,
    We lugged our clay-sucked boots as best we might
    Along the trench; sometimes a bullet sang,
    And droning shells burst with a hollow bang;
    We were soaked, chilled and wretched, every one.
    Darkness: the distant wink of a huge gun.

    I turned in the black ditch, loathing the storm;
    A rocket fizzed and burned with blanching flare,
    And lit the face of what had been a form
    Floundering in mirk. He stood before me there;
    I say that he was Christ; stiff in the glare,
    And leaning forward from his burdening task,
    Both arms supporting it; his eyes on mine
    Stared from the woeful head that seemed a mask
    Of mortal pain in Hell's unholy shine.

    No thorny crown, only a woollen cap
    He wore—an English soldier, white and strong,
    Who loved his time like any simple chap,
    Good days of work and sport and homely song;
    Now he has learned that nights are very long,
    And dawn a watching of the windowed sky.
    But to the end, unjudging, he'll endure
    Horror and pain, not uncontent to die
    That Lancaster on Lune may stand secure.

    He faced me, reeling in his weariness,
    Shouldering his load of planks, so hard to bear.
    I say that he was Christ, who wrought to bless
    All groping things with freedom bright as air,
    And with His mercy washed and made them fair.
    Then the flame sank, and all grew black as pitch,
    While we began to struggle along the ditch;
    And someone flung his burden in the muck,
    Mumbling: "O Christ Almighty, now I'm stuck!"

    A Subaltern

    HE turned to me with his kind, sleepy gaze
    And fresh face slowly brightening to the grin
    That sets my memory back to summer days
    With twenty runs to make, and last man in.
    He told me he'd been having a bloody time
    In trenches, crouching for the "crumps" to burst,
    While squeaking rats scampered across the slime
    And the grey palsied weather did its worst.
    But as he stamped and shivered in the rain,
    My stale philosophies had served him well;
    Dreaming about his girl had sent his brain
    Blanker than ever—she'd no place in Hell....
    "Good God!" he laughed, and calmly filled his pipe,
    Wondering "why he always talked such tripe."

    "In the Pink"

    SO Davies wrote: "This leaves me in the pink."
    Then scrawled his name: "Your loving sweetheart, Willie.
    With crosses for a hug. He'd had a drink
    Of rum and tea; and, though the barn was chilly,
    For once his blood ran warm; he had pay to spend.
    Winter was passing; soon the year would mend.

    He couldn't sleep that night. Stiff in the dark
    He groaned and thought of Sundays at the farm,
    When he'd go out as cheerful as a lark
    In his best suit to wander arm-in-arm
    With brown-eyed Gwen, and whisper in her ear
    The simple, silly things she liked to hear.

    And then he thought: to-morrow night we trudge
    Up to the trenches, and my boots are rotten.
    Five miles of stodgy clay and freezing sludge,
    And everything but wretchedness forgotten.
    To-night he's in the pink; but soon he'll die.
    And still the war goes on; he don't know why.

    A Working Party

    THREE hours ago he blundered up the trench,
    Sliding and poising, groping with his boots;
    Sometimes he tripped and lurched against the walls
    With hands that pawed the sodden bags of chalk.
    He couldn't see the man who walked in front;
    Only he heard the drum and rattle of feet
    Stepping along the trench-boards,—often splashing
    Wretchedly where the sludge was ankle-deep.

    Voices would grunt, "Keep to your right,—make way!"
    When squeezing past the men from the front-line:
    White faces peered, puffing a point of red;
    Candles and braziers glinted through the chinks
    And curtain-flaps of dug-outs; then the gloom
    Swallowed his sense of sight; he stooped and swore
    Because a sagging wire had caught his neck.

    A flare went up; the shining whiteness spread
    And flickered upward, showing nimble rats,
    And mounds of glimmering sand-bags, bleached with rain;
    Then the slow, silver moment died in dark.
    The wind came posting by with chilly gusts
    And buffeting at corners, piping thin
    And dreary through the crannies; rifle-shots
    Would split and crack and sing along the night,
    And shells came calmly through the drizzling air
    To burst with hollow bang below the hill.

    Three hours ago he stumbled up the trench;
    Now he will never walk that road again:
    He must be carried back, a jolting lump
    Beyond all need of tenderness and care;
    A nine-stone corpse with nothing more to do.

    He was a young man with a meagre wife
    And two pale children in a Midland town;
    He showed the photograph to all his mates;
    And they considered him a decent chap
    Who did his work and hadn't much to say,
    And always laughed at other people's jokes
    Because he hadn't any of his own.

    That night, when he was busy at his job
    Of piling bags along the parapet,
    He thought how slow time went, stamping his feet,
    And blowing on his fingers, pinched with cold.
    He thought of getting back by half-past twelve,
    And tot of rum to send him warm to sleep
    In draughty dug-out frowsty with the fumes
    Of coke, and full of snoring, weary men.

    He pushed another bag along the top,
    Craning his body outward; then a flare
    Gave one white glimpse of No Man's Land and wire;
    And as he dropped his head the instant split
    His startled life with lead, and all went out.

    A Whispered Tale

    [TO J.D.]

    I'D heard fool-heroes brag of where they'd been,
    With stories of the glories that they'd seen,
    Till there was nothing left for shame to screen.

    But you, good, simple soldier, seasoned well
    In woods and posts and crater-lines of hell,
    Who dodge remembered "crumps" with wry grimace,—
    Cold hours of torment in your queer, kind face,
    Smashed bodies in your strained, unhappy eyes,
    And both your brothers killed to make you wise;
    You had no empty babble; what you said
    Was like a whisper from the maimed and dead.
    But Memory brought the voice I knew, whose note
    Was smothered when they shot you in the throat;
    And still you whisper of the war, and find
    Sour jokes for all those horrors left behind.


    THE House is crammed: tier beyond tier they grin
    And cackle at the Show, while prancing ranks
    Of harlots shrill the chorus, drunk with din;
    "We're sure the Kaiser loves the dear old Tanks!"

    I'd like to see a Tank come down the stalls,
    Lurching to ragtime tunes, or "Home, sweet Home,"—
    And there'd be no more jokes in Music-halls
    To mock the riddled corpses round Bapaume.

    At Carnoy

    DOWN in the hollow there's the whole Brigade
    Camped in four groups: through twilight falling slow
    I hear a sound of mouth-organs, ill-played,
    And murmur of voices, gruff, confused, and low.
    Crouched among thistle-tufts I've watched the glow
    Of a blurred orange sunset flare and fade;
    And I'm content. To-morrow we must go
    To take some cursèd Wood ... O world God made!

    July 3rd, 1916.

    To His Dead Body

    WHEN roaring gloom surged inward and you cried,
    Groping for friendly hands, and clutched, and died,
    Like racing smoke, swift from your lolling head
    Phantoms of thoughts and memory thinned and fled.

    Yet, though my dreams that throng the darkened stair
    Can bring me no report of how you fare,
    Safe quit of wars, I speed you on your way
    Up lonely, glimmering fields to find new day,
    Slow-rising, saintless, confident and kind—
    Dear, red-faced father God who lit your mind.

    Two Hundred Years After

    TRUDGING by Corbie Ridge one winter's night,
    (Unless old, hearsay memories tricked his sight),
    Along the pallid edge of the quiet sky
    He watched a nosing lorry grinding on,
    And straggling files of men; when these were gone,
    A double limber and six mules went by,
    Hauling the rations up through ruts and mud
    To trench-lines digged two hundred years ago.
    Then darkness hid them with a rainy scud,
    And soon he saw the village lights below.

    But when he'd told his tale, an old man said
    That he'd seen soldiers pass along that hill;
    "Poor, silent things, they were the English dead
    "Who came to fight in France and got their fill."


    THE Bishop tells us: "When the boys come back
    "They will not be the same; for they'll have fought
    "In a just cause: they lead the last attack
    "On Anti-Christ; their comrade's blood has bought
    "New right to breed an honourable race.
    "They have challenged Death and dared him face to face."

    "We're none of us the same!" the boys reply.
    "For George lost both his legs; and Bill's stone blind;
    "Poor Jim's shot through the lungs and like to die;
    "And Bert's gone syphilitic: you'll not find
    "A chap who's served that hasn't found some change."
    And the Bishop said: "The ways of God are strange!"

    Stand-to: Good Friday Morning

    I'D been on duty from two till four.
    I went and stared at the dug-out door.
    Down in the frowst I heard them snore.
    "Stand to!" Somebody grunted and swore.
    Dawn was misty; the skies were still;
    Larks were singing, discordant, shrill;
    They seemed happy; but I felt ill.
    Deep in water I splashed my way
    Up the trench to our bogged front line.
    Rain had fallen the whole damned night.
    O Jesus, send me a wound to-day,
    And I'll believe in Your bread and wine,
    And get my bloody old sins washed white!

    The One-Legged Man

    PROPPED on a stick he viewed the August weald;
    Squat orchard trees and oasts with painted cowls;
    A homely, tangled hedge, a corn-stooked field,
    With sound of barking dogs and farmyard fowls.

    And he'd come home again to find it more
    Desirable than ever it was before.
    How right it seemed that he should reach the span
    Of comfortable years allowed to man!
    Splendid to eat and sleep and choose a wife,
    Safe with his wound, a citizen of life.
    He hobbled blithely through the garden gate,
    And thought: "Thank God they had to amputate!"


Excerpted from War Poems of Siegfried Sassoon by Siegfried Sassoon. Copyright © 2004 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

The celebrated British poet, editor, critic, novelist, and diarist Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967) enlisted for military service on the first day of World War I; his friends in the service included Robert Graves and Wilfred Owen. Sassoon's war poems were originally published in The Old Huntsman (1917) and Counter-Attack (1918). After the war, he went on to write several other books of poetry and criticism, as well as six volumes of prose autobiography.

Rupert Hart-Davis was the editor of the original collected letters of Oscar Wilde, published in 1962.

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The War Poems of Siegfried Sassoon 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Emily_K More than 1 year ago
This poet has a great sense of humour about a terrible way in the world. His poems are not really poems yet they make sense. It's a good read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago