This week we have a guest post from SSF life member Jack Sturiano:
“Also I believe it may help to destroy the callous complacency with which the majority of those at home regard the continuances of agonies which they do not share and which they have not enough imagination to realize”….
To any member of the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship the above paragraph is easily recognizable. In the movie based on the book Regeneration by Pat Barker, Rivers says to Siegfried “You must have been in agony”, referring to the incident when he threw his Military Cross ribbon into the Mersey . Siegfried replies: “Agony is lying in no man’s land with your legs shot off.”
It’s all so confusing almost a hundred years later and with all the remembrances and commemorations; how’s a body to feel with all the opinions that have already been filling the papers and press? As a veteran of a later conflict (Vietnam), I recently made the suggestion rather boorishly that the only true feeling should be anger. I admit to being strongly influenced, even provoked, by stirring passages of battle scenes read aloud and the biographical life of a favoured author’s post-war agony - and that third glass which is always fatal at lunch to clarity, lucidity and courtesy.
I’d like to make the case, sober and unprovoked, that I still feel the only attitude is anger. Siegfried is angry when he writes of the ”callous complacency and lack of imagination” of those at home whose attitude continues the agonies. I’m sure if he said that to someone in a pub whose son had died, he would risk a black eye, but he said it to a nation of mothers and fathers with dead sons, husbands and brothers. The declaration is still almost universally read, but no one sees or feels the anger.
His comments about the Menin Gate as a” sepulchre of crime” do not give pause to our Fellowship, who lay a wreath anyway “at that pile of peace-complacent stone”. What would Siegfried have said? He said it in the poem, and very clearly I think. Rivers could have said ”You must have been in agony when you wrote that”, but he’d been dead some years. Siegfried might have replied: “Agony is seeing the Menin Gate.” Whatever he saw drove him away after twenty minutes (by his own account) and made him angry enough to write his angriest war poem since 1917 that night, in his Brussels hotel room.
The poem written in anger turns again to a nation of mothers and fathers and says what they all refuse to tell themselves and may not want to believe, those whose imaginations……
What are we to make of “Fight to the Finish”?
“The boys came back./Bands played and flags were flying./And Yellow-Pressmen thronged the sunlight street/To cheer the soldiers who’d refrained from dying.”
“Snapping their bayonets on to charge the mob,/Grim Fusiliers broke ranks with the glint of steel./At last the boys had found a cushy job.”
He wants to do what??? Read it again. He is really angry.
“I’d like to see a tank come down the stalls/Lurching to ragtime tunes, or ‘Home, Sweet Home’/And there’d be no more jokes in music halls/To mock the riddled corpses round Baupame."
I’ll stop here because you all know his poetry as well as I do. You gentle folk of the Fellowship, whether you chose to focus on the anger or some other aspect, you can’t get away from the anger in his poetry. It informs every poem in some way. I made the point as well last year that Siegfried - if you read what he says literally - he’s telling you what emotions he felt, so maybe anger is how we should feel about the war as he saw it. I certainly feel it. It’s what attracted and still attracts me to his work.
I would also argue that no one has any lack of imagination anymore about World War I. We all know how bad it was, as well as World War II. If you think I’m picking on you fine English folk, well, no one I see in the USA acts any different. Even among my vet friends, you don’t see the anger much as I feel it and always have. Siegfried never seemed angry in person or in reciting his poems that I’ve listened to, although the way he says “They snipe like hell. Oh Dickie don’t go out… And then he says “In the morning when I awoke he was dead / Pause/ Some slight wound lay upon the bed.” That’s as angry as it gets.
If you’re looking for good British anger at war, go to Youtube. Search for Richard Burton in a movie called The Medusa Touch, then click on the courtroom scene. It will take your breath away at the truth of everything he says about war, angrily.
Siegfried and I, as I said, shared a lot of war experiences but fifty years apart. He earned this name for something we didn’t share, but I’ll take the liberty of signing this as