A blog by the staff of the Thomas Ford Memorial Library
This year’s BIG READ is Adriana Trigiani’s The Shoemaker’s Wife, a historical novel set against the backdrop of the American immigrant experience of the early twentieth century. For the next few months we’ll have displays at the front of the library with suggested reading on the novel’s various themes or settings, including the WWI display there now. Here’s one classic WWI title you don’t have to leave home to pick-up, it’s available free from Project Gutenberg.
Of all the poetry that came out of the first world war Siegfried Sassoon’s has always seemed the most authentic to me. It strikes just the right note. It looks towards modernism, but isn’t quite there yet. It has a slim, fragile vein of romanticism running through it, barely enough to save the reader from being overwhelmed by all the grit and melancholy. It also puts Sassoon’s personal convictions front and center, even when those convictions conflict, waver or shift. Altogether, Sassoon’s poetry comes across as a realistic, believable response to violence that should have been unreal and beyond belief.
Here are two stanzas from “Prelude: The Troops,” the first poem in this collection:
Yet these, who cling to life with stubborn hands,
Can grin through storms of death and find a gap
In the clawed, cruel tangles of his defence.
They march from safety, and the bird-sung joy
Of grass-green thickets, to the land where all
Is ruin, and nothing blossoms but the sky
That hastens over them where they endure
Sad, smoking, flat horizons, reeking woods,
And foundered trench-lines volleying doom for doom.
O my brave brown companions, when your souls
Flock silently away, and the eyeless dead,
Shame the wild beast of battle on the ridge,
Death will stand grieving in that field of war
Since your unvanquished hardihood is spent.
And through some mooned Valhalla there will pass
Battalions and battalions, scarred from hell;
The unreturning army that was youth;
The legions who have suffered and are dust.
It’s all there. The “unvanquished” and their “Valhalla,” but also “the eyeless dead” in their “smoking… reeking woods.” It somehow manages to balance the sickening waste and the triumphant posing of the war. Not every poem in this collection is so layered and thoughtful. Many are simple snapshots of the war: a dying soldier rants and raves in his hospital bed in “Died of Wounds,” a mother clings to the lies she’s told about her son’s noble death in “The Hero,” a conscience stricken cad brags about his war crimes in “Atrocities.” These all come together to make a coherent whole that’s as revealing and moving as any of the war’s great novels.
After reading the poems, I was not surprised to learn that Sassoon had been both a hot headed young volunteer, and later one of the war’s most outspoken critics. In 1917, after a short convalescent leave, Sassoon risked court martial by refusing to return to the front, and sent his “Declaration Against the War,” to the press: “I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops, and I can no longer be a party to prolong these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust… I believe that I may help to destroy the callous complacency with which the majority of those at home regard the contrivance of agonies which they do not, and which they have not sufficient imagination to realize.” His poetry goes a long way in firing the imagination of those who were never there at the front, but it’s only enough to make his point even more apparent—the horrors of that war truly were beyond our mind’s reckoning.
Available for Kindle, Nook, iPad or just about any other eReader from Project Gutenberg.
Review by Matthew