Siegried Sassoon

“The Rear Guard” By Siegfried Sassoon

Groping along the tunnel, step by step,
He winked his prying torch with patching glare
From side to side, and sniffed the unwholesome air.

Tins, boxes, bottles, shapes too vague to know,
A mirror smashed, the mattress from a bed;
And he, exploring fifty feet below
The rosy gloom of battle overhead.
Tripping, he grapped the wall; saw someone lie
Humped at his feet, half-hidden by a rug,
And stooped to give the sleeper’s arm a tug.
“I’m looking for headquarters.” No reply.
“God blast your neck!” (For days he’d had no sleep.)
“Get up and guide me through this stinking place.”
Savage, he kicked a soft, unanswering heap,
And flashed his beam across the livid face
Terribly glaring up, whose eyes yet wore
Agony dying hard ten days before;
And fists of fingers clutched a blackening wound.
Alone he staggered on until he found
Dawn’s ghost that filtered down a shafted stair
To the dazed, muttering creatures underground
Who hear the boom of shells in muffled sound.
At last, with sweat of horror in his hair,
He climbed through darkness to the twilight air,
Unloading hell behind him step by step.

Siegfried Sassoon wrote that Britain’s military roles were acts of conquest rather than defense and liberation.  His poem rear-guard is one that any soldier can relate to in its general form. The soldier is disconnected and not referenced to as anything more than a pawn.  While war-hero propaganda was used to influence many to join the war efforts, Sassoon and others wrote of war’s true horror and outcomes.  Heros were rare – death and tragedy were abundant.

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W. B. Yeats

“Sailing to Byzantium” By W. B. Yeats

That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees
– Those dying generations – at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

This is by far one of my favorites from William Butler Yeats.  Lines like “gather me into the artifice of eternity” allude to his desire to remain immortal as the generations pass and the old become “a tattered coat on a stick.”  It is this need to live on that moves Yeats and so many others to write upon the layers of generational literature in which we reside.

Landscape: W.H. Auden and Brueghel

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

By W.H. Auden

I remember sitting in my British Literature class, senior year, and seeing this painting by Brueghel.  I saw the landscape first, then the ploughman and his horse, and finally the ship sailing away.  We had first read W. H. Auden’s poem and I was searching for the relationship with Icarus.  He had flown too close to the sun and melted his wings falling tragically to the earth. 

My heart went out for his ambition and his outcome. 

I scanned the skies, but could not find him.  I followed his trek downwards, and there they were.  His legs kicked out with a splash.

“To summarize this poem and this painting” our professor said.  “Life goes on.”

It was a truth that many modernist scholars agreed to.  Writer Robert Frost agreed in saying: “In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned in life:  It goes on.”  This was a truth that really humbled me and my ambitions as a graduating senior.  Life might not always go my way, and when it doesn’t, the world may not bend with my sorrows or grief.  Other people have lives, plans and their own tragedies to deal with as well. 

This is something that really hit me in studying the disconnection with modern literature.  Many writers grieved within their own isolation.  All that they had was a pen and paper to express how they felt.  Not everyone read it and went “WOW” as I did when first reading The Alchemist.  This dealt with the darker side of the human condition.  I found myself wanting to learn more.

This is my introduction into the modern side of literature.  Stay tuned for more.