SUICIDE IN THE TRENCHES
I knew a simple soldier boy
Who grinned at life in empty joy,
Slept soundly through the lonesome dark,
And whistled early with the lark.
In winter trenches, cowed and glum,
With crumps and lice and lack of rum,
He put a bullet through his brain.
No one spoke of him again.
You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you’ll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.
By Siegfried Sassoon
Sassoon’s palpable sense of responsibility for and determination to protect (above all others) the men/boys under his command is something that permeates his writing far more than any concept of his own mortality. He places himself effectively outside of harm’s way by painting himself as only an observer of events. He addresses “you”, the reader, and writes about characters and caricatures, but rarely if ever includes himself, letting his bitterness and sorrow speak as his avatar throughout the verses.
He uses simple, rhythmic (often marching) rhyme schemes and clear, unmuddied language – often without complex metaphor or non-war imagery – and does not crowd his message. The result is that while Owen and Rosenberg create dark, bleak, Gothic masterpieces which effectively convey in frontal terms the horrors of war, Sassoon provides an ugly cartoon which seems at first to be a depiction of an innocent scene but reveals itself to be a description of suffering.
Rather like Maus, this supposed softening through simplicity or even childishness (as in WS Lyon’s I Tracked A Dead Man) draws out a further sense of disquiet through the jarring of form and content. This juxtaposition of the upbeat, easily-read, singsong poem and what it contains pushes the content far farther into a mind which has not prepared itself for defence against future disquiet with the usual pointers of tragedy.