"I'm sorry I must leave, but I must do what is asked of me by my God, my Country, and my Corps.. and so, the war blog begins, again." ~B

13 May 2011

Vigils by Siegfried Sassoon

I've spent quite a bit of time studying the poets of the first World War.  Most classes study the poets who were subsequently killed in the war and therefore left rather limited bodies of work behind.  These poets certainly left behind very valuable and insightful works on the nature of war and human experience of war but they cannot answer a question that I find intriguing: What happens after the war?  How does the war impact you for the rest of your life?  How do you carry on, especially in the case of the WWI poets, when so many of your friends and comrades did not come home?

These questions led me to the work of Siegfried Sassoon and a collection of poems published in 1936 entitled Vigils.  Sassoon enlisted at the relatively advanced age of 28.  I'm sure that the maturity he gained in the preceding years impacted his wartime experience.  As a soldier he was known for his courage, often leading nighttime raids.  He was decorated for his gallantry in battle.  He was wounded.  He had a complicated relationship with the war in which he served.  He saw its destruction and created controversy when he spoke out with the notion that his nation's leaders were unnecessarily prolonging the war by their actions.

What makes his story different from other Great War poets is that he survived the war.

Of all the men who were lost to the war, this one lived.  He lived until 1967.

I think of all the life he lived after his 4 years at war and how they must have colored the way he saw the world.  We often hear of how WWII veterans lived after the war but we don't seem to collectively remember that those veterans of the first world war did the same. 

Vigils  is a glimpse into that life. For example, a line from "December Stillness," 
December stillness, crossed by twilight roads, Teach me to travel far and bear my loads...
They were not true, those dreams, those story books of youth;
I left them all at home; went out to find the truth; 
Slammed the green garden gate on my young years, and started
Along the road to search for freedom, empty-hearted.

But dreams have secret strength; the will not die so soon:
They haunt the quiet house through idle afternoon; 
And under childhood skies their summer thoughts await
The rediscovering soul returning tired and late.

For, having grown world wise through harshly unlearned illusion, 
The Traveller into time arrives at this conclusion,-
That life, encountered and unmasked in variant shapes,
Dissolves in dust and cloud, and thwartingly escapes.
But in remembered eyes of youth my dreams remain.
They were my firstling friends.  I have returned again. (p.7)

It becomes clear that the past stays with him.  He wrestles with it.  He mocks it.  He embraces it.  But he never forgets it.  As he shows in Ex-Service and We Shall Not All Sleep, it is always with him, always in his head.
Break silence.  You have listened overlong to muttering mind-wrought voices.  Call for lights.
Prove these persistent haunting presences wrong Who mock and stultify your days and nights.

Dawn comes, and re-creates the sleepless room; 
And eyesight asks what arguing plagues exist. 
But in that garret of uneasy gloom
Which is your brain, the presences persist (17).

I love how he recalls John McCrae's famous poem and all of its connotations in this one.  He plays with the imagery of sleep and life and deathAgain, not all of them "sleep."  Some of them find the dead revisit them in their sleep.  The vet and the fallen are both restless.

 Unvouched are visions.  But sleep-forsaken faith 
Can win unworlded miracles and rejoice,
Welcoming, at haggard ends of the night, ---what wraith---
What angel---what beloved and banished voice?

I am also drawn to Revisitation.

What voice revisits me this night?  What face
to my heart's room returns?
From that perpetual silence where the grace
Of human sainthood burns
Hates he once more to harmonize and heal?
I know not.  Only I feel 
His influence undiminished.
And his life's work, in me and many, unfinished.
Who hasn't lost someone and continued to feel their influence after they are gone.  Who hasn't wanted to live a life worthy of the loss sustained?  Who hasn't wanted to complete something that someone who is gone started?

Sassoon's collection Vigils doesn't provide an explicit answer for how he lived his life after the trauma and the loss of the Great War.  But he does give us clues as to what it was like to be a survivor.  He lets us in a little, lifts the veil, and let's us see how the war in his head grew, evolved, struggled, and ultimately healed. 

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