Siegfried Loraine Sassoon, CBE, MC was an English poet, writer, and soldier. Decorated for bravery on the Western Front, he became one of the leading poets of the First World War.
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Famous Siegfried Sassoon Poems
Tossed on the glittering air they soar and skim,
Whose voices make the emptiness of light
A windy palace. Quavering from the brim
Of dawn, and bold with song at edge of night,
They clutch their leafy pinnacles and sing
Scornful of man, and from his toils aloof
Whose heart’s a haunted woodland whispering;
Whose thoughts return on tempest-baffled wing;
Who hears the cry of God in everything,
And storms the gate of nothingness for proof.
Some Brave, awake in you to-night,
Knocked at your heart: an eagle’s flight
Stirred in the feather on your head.
Your wide-set Indian eyes, alight
Above high cheek-bones smeared with red,
Unveiled cragg’d centuries, and led
You, the snared wraith of bygone things—
Wild ancestries of trackless Kings—
Out of the past … So men have felt
Strange anger move them as they knelt
Praying to gods serenely starred
In heavens where tomahawks are barred.
The Hawthorn Tree
Not much to me is yonder lane
Where I go every day;
But when there’s been a shower of rain
And hedge-birds whistle gay,
I know my lad that’s out in France
With fearsome things to see
Would give his eyes for just one glance
At our white hawthorn tree.
. . . .
Not much to me is yonder lane
Where he so longs to tread:
But when there’s been a shower of rain
I think I’ll never weep again
Until I’ve heard he’s dead.
This is To-day, a child in white and blue
Running to meet me out of Night who stilled
The ghost of Yester-eve; this is fair Morn
The mother of To-morrow. And these clouds
That chase the sunshine over gleaming hills
Are thoughts, delighting in the golden change
And the ceremony of their drifting state.
This is To-day. To-morrow might bring death,—
And Life, the gleeful madrigal of birds,
Be drowned in glimmer of sleep. To-day I know
How sweet it is to spend these eyes, and boast
This bubble of vistaed memory and sense
Blown by my joy aloft the glittering airs
Of heavenly peace. Oh take me to yourselves,
Earth, sky, and spirit! Let me stand within
The circle of your transience, that my voice
May thrill the lonely silences with song.
Because We Are Going
Because we are going from our wonted places
To be task-ridden by one shattering Aim,
And terror hides in all our laughing faces
That had no will to die, no thirst for fame,
Hear our last word. In Hell we seek for Heaven;
The agony of wounds shall make us clean;
And the failures of our sloth shall be forgiven
When Silence holds the songs that might have been,
And what we served remains, superb, unshaken,
England, our June of blossom that shines above
Disastrous War; for whom we have forsaken
Ways that were rich and gleeful and filled with love.
Thus are we heroes; since we might not choose
To live where Honour gave us life to lose.
I watch you, gazing at me from the wall,
And wonder how you’d match your dreams with mine,
If, mastering time’s illusion, I could call
You back to share this quiet candle-shine.
For you were young, three hundred years ago;
And by your looks I guess that you were wise…
Come, whisper soft, and Death will never know
You’ve slipped away from those calm, painted eyes.
Strange is your voice… Poor ninny, dead so long,
And all your pride forgotten like your name.
‘One April morn I heard a blackbird’s song.
And joy was in my heart like leaves aflame.’
And so you died before your songs took wing;
While Andrew Marvell followed in your wake.
‘Love thrilled me into music. I could sing
But for a moment, — but for beauty’s sake.’
Who passes? There’s a star-lit breeze that stirs
The glimmer of white lilies in the gloom.
Who speaks? Death has his silent messengers.
And there was more than silence in this room
While you were gazing at me from the wall
And wondering how you’d match your dreams with mine,
If, mastering time’s illusion, you could call
Me back to share your vanished candle-shine.
Prelude: The Troops
Dim, gradual thinning of the shapeless gloom
Shudders to drizzling daybreak that reveals
Disconsolate men who stamp their sodden boots
And turn dulled, sunken faces to the sky
Haggard and hopeless. They, who have beaten down
The stale despair of night, must now renew
Their desolation in the truce of dawn,
Murdering the livid hours that grope for peace.
Yet these, who cling to life with stubborn hands,
Can grin through storms of death and find a gap
In the clawed, cruel tangles of his defence.
They march from safety, and the bird-sung joy
Of grass-green thickets, to the land where all
Is ruin, and nothing blossoms but the sky
That hastens over them where they endure
Sad, smoking, flat horizons, reeking woods,
And foundered trench-lines volleying doom for doom.
O my brave brown companions, when your souls
Flock silently away, and the eyeless dead
Shame the wild beast of battle on the ridge,
Death will stand grieving in that field of war
Since your unvanquished hardihood is spent.
And through some mooned Valhalla there will pass
Battalions and battalions, scarred from hell;
The unreturning army that was youth;
The legions who have suffered and are dust.
When life was a cobweb of stars for Beauty who came
In the whisper of leaves or a bird’s lone cry in the glen,
On dawn-lit hills and horizons girdled with flame
I sought for the triumph that troubles the faces of men.
With death in the terrible flickering gloom of the fight
I was cruel and fierce with despair; I was naked and bound;
was stricken: and Beauty returned through the shambles of night;
In the faces of men she returned; and their triumph I found.
Observe these blue solemnities of sky
Offering for the academes of after-ages
A mythologic welkin freaked with white!
Listen : one tiny tinkling rivulet
Accentuates the super-sultry stillness
That drones on ripening landscapes which imply
Serene Parnassus plagued with amorous goats.
Far down the vale Apollo has pursued
The noon-bedazzled nymph whose hunted heart
Holds but the trampling panic whence it fled,
And now the heavens are piled with darkening trouble
And counter-march of clouds that troop intent
Fire-crested into conflict.
At the wood’s edge in bronze and olive gloom:
Sickness assails the sun whose blazing disc
Dwindles : the Eden of those auburn slopes
Lours in the tarnished copper of eclipse.
Yet virgin in her god-impelled approach
To Graeco-Roman ravishment, she waits
While the unsated python slides to crush
Her lust-eluding fleetness. Envious Jove
Rumbles Olympus. All the classic world
Leans breathless toward the legend she creates.
From thunderous vapour smites the immortal beam . . .
Then, crowned with fangs of foliage, flames the god.
‘ Apollo ! ‘ … Up the autumn valley echoes
A hollow shout from nowhere. Daphne’s limbs
Lapse into laureldom : green-shadowed flesh
Writhes aborescent; glamour obscures her gaze
With blind and bossed distortion. She escapes.
Come in this hour to set my spirit free
When earth is no more mine though night goes out,
And stretching forth these arms I cannot be
Lord of winged sunrise and dim Arcady:
When fieldward boys far off with clack and shout
From orchards scare the birds in sudden rout,
Come, ere my heart grows cold and full of doubt,
In the still summer dawns that waken me.
When the first lark goes up to look for day
And morning glimmers out of dreams, come then
Out of the songless valleys, over grey
Wide misty lands to bring me on my way:
For I am lone, a dweller among men
Hungered for what my heart shall never say.
Christ And The Soldier
The straggled soldier halted — stared at Him — Then clumsily dumped down upon his knees, Gasping
‘O blessed crucifix, I’m beat !’
And Christ, still sentried by the seraphim, Near the front-line, between two splintered trees, Spoke him:
‘My son, behold these hands and feet.’
The soldier eyed him upward, limb by limb, Paused at the Face, then muttered,
‘Wounds like these Would shift a bloke to Blighty just a treat !’
Christ, gazing downward, grieving and ungrim, Whispered,
‘I made for you the mysteries, Beyond all battles moves the Paraclete.’
The soldier chucked his rifle in the dust, And slipped his pack, and wiped his neck, and said —
‘O Christ Almighty, stop this bleeding fight !’
Above that hill the sky was stained like rust With smoke. In sullen daybreak flaring red The guns were thundering bombardment’s blight. The soldier cried,
‘I was born full of lust, With hunger, thirst, and wishfulness to wed. Who cares today if I done wrong or right?’
Christ asked all pitying,
‘Can you put no trust In my known word that shrives each faithful head ? Am I not resurrection, life and light ?’
Machine-guns rattled from below the hill; High bullets flicked and whistled through the leaves; And smoke came drifting from exploding shells.
‘Believe; and I can cleanse your ill. I have not died in vain between two thieves; Nor made a fruitless gift of miracles.’
The soldier answered,
‘Heal me if you will, Maybe there’s comfort when a soul believes In mercy, and we need it in these hells. But be you for both sides ? I’m paid to kill And if I shoot a man his mother grieves. Does that come into what your teaching tells ?’
A bird lit on the Christ and twittered gay; Then a breeze passed and shook the ripening corn. A Red Cross waggon bumped along the track. Forsaken Jesus dreamed in the desolate day — Uplifted Jesus, Prince of Peace forsworn — An observation post for the attack.
‘Lord Jesus, ain’t you got no more to say ?’
Bowed hung that head below the crown of thorns. The soldier shifted, and picked up his pack, And slung his gun, and stumbled on his way.
‘O God,’ he groaned,’why ever was I born ?’
… The battle boomed, and no reply came back.
The Road is thronged with women; soldiers pass
And halt, but never see them; yet they’re here—
A patient crowd along the sodden grass,
Silent, worn out with waiting, sick with fear.
The Road goes crawling up a long hillside,
All ruts and stones and sludge, and the emptied dregs
Of battle thrown in heaps; here where they died
Are stretched big-bellied horses with stiff legs,
And dead men, bloody-fingered from the fight,
Stare up at cavern’d darkness winking white.
You in the bomb-scorched kilt, poor sprawling Jock,
You tottered here and fell, and stumbled on,
Half-dazed for want of sleep: no dream would mock
Your reeling brain with comforts lost and gone.
You did not feel her arms about your knees,
Her blind caress, her lips upon your head:
Too tired for thoughts of home and love and ease,
The Road would serve you well enough for bed.
Derision from the dead
Mocks armamental madness.
Redeem (each Ruler said)
Mankind. Men died to do it.
And some with glorying gladness
Bore arms for earth and bled:
But most went glumly through it
Dumbly doomed to rue it.
The darkness of their dying
Grows one with War recorded;
Whose swindled ghosts are crying
From shell-holes in the past,
Our deeds with lies were lauded,
Our bones with wrongs rewarded.
Dream voices these—denying
Dud laurels to the last.
In An Underground Dressing Station
Quietly they set their burden down: he tried
To grin; moaned; moved his head from side to side.
He gripped the stretcher; stiffened; glared; and screamed,
‘O put my leg down, doctor, do!’ (He’d got
A bullet in his ankle; and he’d been shot
Horribly through the guts.) The surgeon seemed
So kind and gentle, saying, above that crying,
keep still, my lad.’ But he was dying.
I watched old squatting Chimpanzee: he traced
His painful patterns in the dirt: I saw
Red-haired Ourang-utang, whimsical-faced,
Chewing a sportsman’s meditative straw:
I’d met them years ago, and half-forgotten
They’d come to grief (but how, I’d never heard,
Poor beggars!); still, it seemed so rude and rotten
To stand and gape at them with never a word.
I ventured ‘Ages since we met,’ and tried
My candid smile of friendship; no success.
One scratched his hairy thigh, while t’other sighed
And glanced away. I saw they liked me less
Than when, on Epsom Downs, in cloudless weather,
We backed The Tetrarch and got drunk together.