Siegfried Sassoon
One of the best known poets of the First World War, Siegfried Sassoon was one of the first to enlist on the outbreak of war. Awarded the Military Cross in 1916 for bringing back a wounded man under enemy fire, and later recommended for the Victoria Cross, Sassoon proved himself to be a brave officer much loved by his men, earning him – according to Robert Graves – the nickname ‘Mad Jack.’ From about 1916 his poems took on a fierce satirical tone, winning him the respect of the literary establishment and only just escaping the censors.

In 1917 he published ‘A Soldier’s Declaration’ writing “I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority, because I believe that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it.” Instead of being court-marshalled as he had hoped, and thereby drawing public attention, the authorities sent him to Craiglockhart Hospital as suffering from shell-shock, where famously he met fellow war poet Wilfred Owen. Sassoon later returned to the war to fight alongside his men.

After the war, until his death in 1967,  Sassoon had a distinguished literary career, though it is his extraordinary achievement as war poet for which history will continue to honour him.

As with the other First World War poets in these pages, I have chosen perhaps lesser well known poems to showcase here. Here is Sassoon’s ‘Great Men’ and  – one of my favourite of all the First World War poems – ‘Everyone Sang.’


Great Men

The great ones of the earth
Approve, with smiles and bland salutes, the rage
And monstrous tyranny they have brought to birth.
The great ones of the earth
Are much concerned about the wars they wage,
And quite aware of what those wars are worth.

You Marshals, gilt and red,
You Ministers and Princes, and Great Men,
Why can’t you keep your mouthings for the dead?
Go round the simple cemeteries; and then
Talk of our noble sacrifice and losses
To the wooden crosses.

Siegfried Sassoon
August, 1918

 

Everyone Sang

Everyone suddenly burst out singing;
And I was filled with such delight
As prisoned birds must find in freedom,
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark-green fields; on – on -and out
Of sight.

Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted;
And beauty came like the setting sun:
My heart was shaken with tears; and horror
Drifted away. . .  O, but Everyone
Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will
Never be done.

Siegfried Sassoon
April, 1919

(Respectful note to estate / publishers, please contact me if there are any copyright / permission issues)

More First World War poets