Poetry News

Siegfried Sassoon War Journals Made Public for First Time, Lyrics on Palestine All Too Familiar

By Harriet Staff


Nina Martyris writes about First World War poet Siegfried Sassoon for Los Angeles Review of Books, recalling the "half-Jewish poet’s Palestinian interlude and searing war poetry." "He could easily be talking about the vicious war raging across Israel and Gaza’s rocket-strewn hills today," writes Martyris. More from this thoughtful (and informative) piece:

To read Sassoon on war is to read about Israel and Gaza today. After he left Palestine, he wrote a tightly crafted sonnet called “Ancient History” on the fratricidal nature of war, told through the allegory of Cain and Abel. Ironically, that same story of brotherly murder provided the name of Israel’s Operation Brother’s Keeper, launched to search the West Bank for the three Israeli teenagers whose abduction and murder sparked the ongoing clash. In Sassoon’s scorching parable, Adam stands in for the cynical old politicians who watch their young kill one another. Described as “a brown old vulture in the rain,” Adam ponders over the character of his two sons. He admires Cain, who is “Hungry and fierce with deeds of huge desire,” and despises Abel, “soft and fair — / A lover with disaster in his face.” Adam even justifies Cain’s murdering his own brother because even murder is more tolerable than weakness: “Afraid to fight; was murder more disgrace?” In the end, murder only begets murder, and the vulture finds both his “lovely sons were dead.” What makes this poem a moral grenade is its self-awareness. Sassoon knew that there were bits of Cain and Abel tussling inside him. At the start of the war, he had been a soldier filled with bloodlust, and made quite a reputation for himself for his revenge killings of Germans. But he had also sickened of the slaughter and campaigned for it to stop. In Sassoon’s case, Abel finally won, but the current war, with its far more ancient and complex metabolism, is inevitably stamped with the mark of Cain.

The Gaza war has been fought as much with rocket fire and rhetoric as with cameras that have smote the world’s conscience with streams of pictures of Palestinian families half-buried under rubble. During the First World War, press coverage of the front was strictly monitored, and only photographs of dead Germans were allowed to be published in the British newspapers. In the absence of cameras there were war poems. Radicalized by the Somme, Sassoon wrote “Counter-Attack,” his most graphic war poem, one that Winston Churchill is supposed to have memorized. It painted so vivid a picture of the trenches that it was as if the Somme had taken selfies:

The place was rotten with dead; green clumsy legs
High-booted, sprawled and grovelled along the saps
And trunks, face downward, in the sucking mud,
Wallowed like trodden sand-bags loosely filled;
And naked sodden buttocks, mats of hair,
Bulged, clotted heads slept in the plastering slime.
And then the rain began, — the jolly old rain!

Read the full essay, "Siegfried Sassoon and Palestine," at Los Angeles Review of Books. Might we also recommend the blog, "Fuck Yeah Sassoon" for those inclined to read more.

Also in Sassoon news, as we mentioned a few weeks ago: The poet's WWI journals have been digitized by Cambridge University Library and are being made public for the first time. NPR quotes the library: "At the heart of this series are the war diaries, a fascinating resource for the study of the literature of the First World War which enables a fresh analysis of Sassoon's experience of the catastrophic war which influenced him profoundly." Sassoon kept a diary for most of his life, and the journals contain his thinking on friendship with Wilfred Owen, the death of Robert Graves, concern over action in the Somme Valley, and more, for instance (from entry 26 June 1916-12 Aug. 1916):

Diagrams and maps:

[2r]. plan of trench lines and cemetery
[22r]. cross section of a valley and trenches with a small copse showing Sassoon's solo raid


[7v]. Thomas Hardy, 'The Dynasts'
[44r]. 'from a monument in Barford Church'


[38v-42r]. prose passage entitled 'Notes for a Satire'
[2v]. locations and dates of time spent at or near the Western Front
[15v]. lists of members of his section and their fates
[109v-113v]. notes from a military briefing meeting re consolidation of position, objectives and 'Scheme of Battle'
[115r]. acquaintances' contact details
[115r]. list of monies spent

Originally Published: August 20th, 2014