Siegfried Sassoon was one of the first British poets to break the classical mode. When he returned to England after falling ill with a gastric fever he was stunned by distinction between the perception at home and the actuality of war. Outraged at this discrepancy, he returned to the trenches and started writing poetry about his experiences. His poems broke with the traditional theme of war being clean and honorable. Rather than glorifying war and sacrifice for one's country, he brought the dirty, raw experience of mechanized war into his poetry. This poem, Aftermath, was written after the war in 1920. While the imagery is stark and realistic, the poem retains classical elements, including rhyme, and the invocation of the pastoral theme at the end of the poem. Sassoon's retention of these elements is particularly interesting in this poem, as he is asking for the horrors of war to not be forgotten
By Siegfried Sassoon (1919)
1 Have you forgotten yet?...
For the world's events have rumbled on since those gagged days,
Like traffic checked while at the crossing of city-ways:
And the haunted gap in your mind has filled with thoughts that flow
5 Like clouds in the lit heaven of life; and you're a man reprieved to go,
Taking your peaceful share of Time, with joy to spare.
But the past is just the same-and War's a bloody game...
Have you forgotten yet?...
10 Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you'll never forget.
Do you remember the dark months you held the sector at Mametz-
The nights you watched and wired and dug and piled sandbags on parapets?
Do you remember the rats; and the stench
15 Of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench-
And dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with a hopeless rain?
Do you ever stop and ask, Is it all going to happen again?'
Do you remember that hour of din before the attack-
20 And the anger, the blind compassion that seized and shook you then
As you peered at the doomed and haggard faces of your men?
Do you remember the stretcher-cases lurching back
With dying eyes and lolling heads-those ashen-grey
Masks of the lads who once were keen and kind and gay?
Have you forgotten yet?...
27 Look up, and swear by the green of the spring that you'll never forget.
Note the repetition of "Have you forgotten yet?" in lines 1, 9, and 26. The stanzas that contain these lines are directed at the reader, and reference civilian life. That sets the reader in the post war civilian role. The question itself is rhetorical; he hopes that you wont forget, but knows that you will. The stanzas in the middle describe his war experience, which was radically different from what the civilian populace would have lived through. This juxtaposition highlights again the differing experiences of the First World War, and the disconnect that existed at the time. There were no embedded reporters, and all the news was second-hand and government censored.
Lines 12-24 are very characteristic of Sassoon; the vivid description of the trench warfare and the raw emotion are very distinct. Note that within the same stanza he maintains a consistent rhyme scheme, something that was lost in more modern poetry. The rhyme offsets his dark narrative, and recalls some of the feel of classical poetry. The pastoral reference in the last line is in a similar vein. It references the traditional pastoral theme, but is a radically different context. Here it is not simply a pretty landscape, but the light at the end of the war, a relief and contrast to the mud and slime of trench warfare. Taken together, these contribute to a feeling of lost pre-war innocence. As a whole, Sassoon is cautioning the reader not to lapse into the old ways of thinking; not to forget the horror and losses of the fist world war.
Sadly, line 17 would prove to be all too prophetic, as the Second World War broke out in 1939.
Note: The works of Sassoon are in the public domain in the United States, and its author is noted, thus its reprinting here should not constitute plagiarism.