"Love follows knowledge."
"Beauty above all beauty!"
– St. Catherine of Siena

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Poetry: “On Passing the New Menin Gate” by Siegfried Sassoon

And so “at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918” an armistice went into effect bringing the cessation of hostilities to what would become known as The Great War.  It is from that event that our Veterans Day is commemorated. Today is the 99th anniversary of that armistice.

I have now completed the collection of World War I poems titled Some Desperate Glory: The First World War The Poets Knew by Max Egremont, which I have been posting on for almost two years now.  Each post on my blog highlighted a poem from one of the war years.  You can access these posts here:

As I explained in that last post, I tried to highlight a different poet for each year, but Wilfred Owen’s poetry was so superior in the last two years of the war I just had to highlight him twice.  So why am I highlighting another poem from the book?  Well, the book doesn’t stop with the end of the war (1918) but continues with one more chapter on the post war, titled, “Aftermath.”  The poets who were not killed in the war went on to write poetry on the war for their remaining years.  So intense is the war experience that one can only say the soul is forever traumatized. 

Of the eleven poets whose work are collected in the book, five survived the war.  It only occurred to me recently that Egremont’s book is a book on British poets of the First World War.  All eleven are British, and frankly I can’t think of any poets from any of the other countries that fought, even the United States, though it is incredulous to think there weren’t any poets other than British.  I’m not even sure if the eleven poets constitute all the British poets who served.  I can’t recall if Egremont ever gives his criteria for the selection.  I should also provide the list of poets Egremont selects.  Each deserves that honor. 

The six who were killed in action:

The five who survived the war:

Of the poets who survived, Siegfried Sassoon arguably went on to have the most impact as an ex-war poet.  Graves may have had a more celebrated literary career, but even he acknowledge his work after the war focused on other themes.  I’m selecting Sassoon’s “On Passing the New Menin Gate” as the highlighted poem of the war’s aftermath.

Before getting to the poem, two issues concerning Sassoon’s post war years should be considered.  First is his personal life which culminated with his conversion to Roman Catholicism and second is his refrain from and renouncing of modernist poetic form.  Egremont describes the split in the aesthetic divergence as rooted between the war poets and the younger literary generation.

A gap opened between those who’d fought and those who didn’t.  Before 1914, Britain and the new art of continental Europe had been getting closer; now, for many, the Continent meant death, obliteration and, even in peace, rumours of chaos.  Some—mostly non-combatants like [T.S.] Eliot, James Joyce, and [Ezra] Pound—still looked to modernism, to abstract art, to writing without clear narrative, whereas Sassoon and Blunden, even the more adventurous Graves, stuck to tradition, often yearning for an imagined, calm past.  They had tried to tell the war’s reality, Wilfred Owen writing that ‘every word, every figure of speech must be a matter of experience’ and ‘I don’t want to write anything to which a soldier would say No compris’.  Owen had known nothing of Eliot and Pound.  (p. 241)

Sassoon felt a particular loss from Owen’s death.  He went on to opine that if Owen “had lived, they could together have made an alternative to modernism, to Eliot’s fragmented world” (p. 256).  This decision to split with the modernist forms isolated the war poets, especially Sassoon, characterizing them as outdated. 

The second issue of Sassoon post war years was his tumultuous life.  “Propelled by his fame…Sassoon began a decade of guilt-ridden socializing and sex, briefly at Oxford before becoming editor of the Daily Herald and, billed as a hero poet…on a lecture tour of the United States” (p. 240).  The sex was filled with a series of homosexual affairs, which filled the whole decade following the war.  In 1931 he married, had a child, who he loved deeply, while he kept his homosexuality indiscreet.  He wrote throughout his life, poetry, satires, novels with mixed results.  Toward the end of his life he had a conversion experience to Roman Catholicism, which affected him greatly. 

In 1927, Siegfried Sassoon went back to Flanders.  He drove across the battlefields with Glen Byam Shaw, the young actor whom he loved, weeping at the memories.  He wrote ‘On Passing the New Menin Gate’ about the pompous memorial designed by the imperial architect Sir Reginald Bloomfield for Ypres and inscribed with the names of the dead.

Sassoon had tried politics and lecture tours; he discovered sex, fooling himself that he could reform his decadent lovers, all the time feeling a bit lost.  Thomas Hardy became an idol and Edmund Blunden an essential friend; to see the two together at Max Gate, Hardy’s home at Dorset, allowed Sassoon to imagine a world that might respond to his increasingly traditionalist style.  When, in 1924, Blunden went to teach in Japan, Sassoon missed him badly; and nostalgia became more intense as he became less inspired by the present.  ‘On Passing the New Menin Gate’ evoked the bitterness and anger of the war.  (p. 250).

Later, through the turmoil of the Second World War, Egremont tells us Sassoon “longed for a more purposeful and ordered life, for spiritual rest.  In 1957, [he] converted to Roman Catholicism, welcoming its clear answers and its discipline” (p. 256).  He would live for another ten years and apparently his new found faith was the only thing that could put his war-torn, dislocated soul at rest.

As mentioned in the quote above, New Menin Gate was a war memorial at Ypres, Belgium dedicated to the British and Commonwealth dead who’s grave went unidentified.  Apparently Sassoon was not pleased with it.  Here is the poem he wrote. 

On Passing the New Menin Gate
By Siegfried Sassoon

Who will remember, passing through this Gate,
the unheroic dead who fed the guns?
Who shall absolve the foulness of their fate,-
Those doomed, conscripted, unvictorious ones?

    Crudely renewed, the Salient holds its own.
    Paid are its dim defenders by this pomp;
    Paid, with a pile of peace-complacent stone,
    The armies who endured that sullen swamp.

Here was the world's worst wound. And here with pride
'Their name liveth for ever', the Gateway claims.
Was ever an immolation so belied
as these intolerably nameless names?
Well might the Dead who struggled in the slime
Rise and deride this sepulchre of crime.

There’s not much to analyze, a rather straightforward poem.  In the first stanza, the speaker is passing this new memorial at Ypres, questioning whether this self-conscious monument actually addresses those who it’s supposed to memorialize.  The second stanza shifts the focus to those who are supposed to be memorialized, and the third ridicules the monument for not displaying the reality of war’s struggle and death.  “Here was the world's worst wound” is truly a great and memorable line.  You can hear the entire poem read here.

With the conclusion of these war poets, I want to announce that in 2018 I will be continuing with Sassoon by reading a play by Joseph Pierce on Owen and Sassoon, Pierce using the two poet’s own words to form the drama.  I will also be going through T. S. Eliot’s post WWI poem, “The Wasteland,” and so we can compare the modernist and the traditionalist’s styles.  Stay tuned for that.

Finally, for Veteran’s Day, say a prayer for those that fought in wars.  As you can see with Sassoon, the experience of war is not pleasant and life-long traumatizing. 

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting.You can understand the old soldier's feelings, but what if there had been no memorial?
    Interesting too to think of the possibilities of a stronger alternative to modernism. I always wish a conversion to Catholicism was more a conversion to Christ.