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

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Poetry, for Veterans Day: “The Redeemer” by Siegfried Sassoon

Today in the United States, November 11th, is Veterans Day, a day to honor the men and women who served in the armed forces.  Most American holidays are subject to being shifted to the nearest Monday of the week to create a three day weekend, but as you can see with Veteran’s Day coming on a Wednesday this year, this holiday is not subject to being manipulated.  The reason is that Veterans Day was originally Armistice Day, the day to commemorate the ending of hostilities of World War I.  It was so agreed that all hostilities of the First World War would end “on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” 1918.  And so remembrance of  Armistice Day was fixed, and when the day ultimately transitioned shortly after World War II to a general day to honor all veterans the day was fixed by the historical ending of WWI, though for seven years in the 1970’s it was brought over to October.  But that didn’t last, so strong was the phrase, “the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.”

In honor of all those veterans, especially those that actually saw action, I want to offer this poem written by a British soldier of the First World War, Siegfried Sassoon.  There were quite a few poets and writers who served in WWI, and many of them were killed in action.  However, Sassoon lived to a ripe old age.  He continued to write poetry, but I can’t say I’ve read any of his work that did not come out of that war.  He is known as a WWI poet.  Here is “The Redeemer,” written in 1915.

The Redeemer
by Sigfried Sassoon

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!'

I’m not going to analyze every line or stanza, but I’ll give you some observations.  As you can read the situation is that in the trenches the narrator encounters Christ in the guise of a soldier.  Sassoon sets it up on a rain drenched day bringing a baptism to the troops, and ends the poem with Christ in His passion carrying a “load of planks” to what is a struggle to a metaphoric crucifixion.  The key lines I think are 30 through 33, which may be intentional since those are the years of Christ’s ministry:

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.

The muck and mire of trench warfare will be washed clean in a baptismal grace, albeit if one is graced with death.

What’s particularly interesting to me is the structure of the stanza.  Each stanza has nine lines with first five lines having a rhyme scheme of ABABB but the ending quatrain has two versions, either CCDD (first and last stanzas) or CDCD (middle two stanzas).  A nine line stanza would typically allude to a Spenserian stanza but the Spenserian rhyme scheme is fixed to ABABBCBCC which has a more musical interlocking sound than Sassoon’s rhyme scheme.  Also the ninth of the Spenserian stanza is not iambic pentameter as the other eight, but ends with an alexandrine line, meaning it has two extra syllables.  Sassoon’s meter is strictly iambic pentameter through all nine lines, no variation. 

One can say that Sassoon’s skill here was probably less than Edmund Spencer’s, Spencer being  one of the greatest English poets of all time, and the greatest of his day.  Spencer’s stanza is more elaborate and much more musical.  But Sassoon’s here aesthetically fits his poem perfectly.  The less interlocking rhyme scheme and the plodding rhythm create a treading monotony, a reflection of the repetitive, soldiering work going on in the poem.

It’s always great to listen to the poem out loud.  Here’s a good rendition.


  1. Thanks for posting this Manny. I hadn't heard of this poem before and really enjoyed hearing it read aloud. We owe so much to our to those who have fought for our freedoms.

    1. I'm just catching up with everything. You're welcome. We do owe much.