“Suicide in the Trenches” by Siegfried Sassoon: Combat Gnosticism
Siegfried Sassoon’s Poetry
Through his poems, Siegfried Sassoon demonstrates a sharp distinction in the reaction to war. In this way, his poetry is separated into two parts: before and after the war. Under the significant effect of his own military experiences, Sassoon’s perspective on the war underwent a profound shift from a patriotic posture to an anti-war speech (Atasoy 2). In this context, the essay will analyze Sassoon’s trench warfare poetry, specifically “Suicide in the Trenches.”
Essentially, Siegfried Sassoon was one of the World War I poets. Atasoy emphasizes that Sassoon composed poetry conveying both the patriotic and anti-nationalistic sentiments of the time in the aftermath of his actual combat experience (2). Samons states that Siegfried Sassoon offered some of the most remarkable instances of literature’s sympathetic connectedness and healing qualities in British World War I poetry between 1914 and 1918 (237). Shifts in style and word choice in Sassoon’s poetry frequently reflect a corresponding movement in mood or thinking, which remarks on the poet’s psychological state. Even now, Sassoon’s tactile sensitivity and outraged tone may be off-putting to readers, particularly when paired with graphic wartime imagery (Samons 241). Emotionally and mentally, Sassoon’s war poetry demonstrates no victory over the devastating traumas of trench war. Sassoon’s poetry is frequently targeted, and his most overt criticisms are generally directed at non-soldiers, uninformed citizens, and military leaders (Samons 241). The anti-war poems are aggressive, filthy, and ethically complex, depicting death, suicide, betrayal, and suffering.
In order to understand Sassoon’s poetry, it is crucial to know his bibliography. According to Atasoy, Siegfried Loraine Sassoon, the son of Alfred Ezra Sassoon and Theresa Georgiana Thornycroft Sassoon, was born in Kent in 1886 (3). From 1900 to 1902, Siegfried Sassoon began attending the New Beacon School before enrolling at Marlborough College. He grew fascinated with poetry and started to write, Sassoon enrolled at Clare College, Cambridge, in 1906 but did not complete his studies (Gale Contextual Encyclopedia of World Literature). After leaving Cambridge, he returned to Weirleigh, where anthologist Edward Marsh persuaded him to travel to London, where he met Rupert Brooke (Atasoy 3). Essentially, Rubert Brooke impacted Sassoon’s desire to write and publish his poetry.
Sassoon’s war poetry has significant meaning because he wrote about his war experience. On August 2, 1914, Sassoon enrolled in the Sussex Yeomanry Regiment and was appointed a lieutenant in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers in 1915 (Atasoy 3). At the time, he had just lost his younger brother Hamo in the Battle of Gallipoli. Sassoon received the Military Cross and was dubbed “Mad Jack” by his troops after rescuing injured colleagues in April 1916 (Atasoy 3). After single-handedly capturing a German trench position, Sassoon was nominated for another medal of honor (Gale Contextual Encyclopedia of World Literature). During the Battle of the Somme, he became ill and had to be evacuated to England (Atasoy 3). Consequently, the poet returned to the battlefield in 1917; he was shot during the battle of Arras and was transported to a London hospital (Atasoy 3). Afterward, he joined the antiwar movement and started a public protest.
Sassoon’s Tone in “Suicide in the Trenches”
Sassoon’s approach can be brutal and unforgiving, but it can be patronizing and instructional. “Suicide in the Trenches,” one of his most openly propagandistic lines, is possibly the most precise illustration of the harshness of his voice and the suddenness with which it can assault (Samons 242). The poem begins innocently enough, with the narrator recalling a simple soldier boy he once encountered. Nonetheless, the second verse takes a grim turn when the reader learns that the simple soldier boy “put a bullet in his brain. / No one spoke of him again” (Sassoon, lines 7-8). As if the information was not shocking enough, Sassoon goes a step further in his stanza with the sentences:
You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you’ll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go (Sassoon, lines 9-12).
At this point in the poem, there are several transitions. First, Sassoon’s straightforward method alters the poem’s mood from compassionate to confrontational, and the civilian reader is instantly targeted (Samons 242). Second, this shift in tone draws a distinct line between military and civilians—the latter may even be an adversary of the former (Samons 242). Thus, the reader can notice that Sassoon’s sentiments are constrained. Finally, Samons argues that rather than allowing the story to speak for itself, Sassoon becomes a propagandist in the final four lines (242). As a result, the reader is not given many opportunities to understand the poem or draw inferences, and any possibility for communication between poet and audience is destroyed.
Combat Gnosticism and the Meaning of “Suicide in the Trenches”
Essentially, what it legitimizes as war literature is only the result of the fighting experience. Campbell emphasizes that combat expertise is required to create a literary composition that appropriately deals with battle (204). Combat Gnosticism is a concept that presents military experience as a type of gnosis, a pearl of hidden wisdom known only to the initiated minority (Campbell 204). Thus, only those who have actively participated in warfare have access to specific situations that are generative of, and maybe even fundamental of, worldly knowledge. Additionally, mere military rank does not imply initiation but only combatant status (Campbell 204). The consequences of such a framework are rather obvious: the canonization of war authors who have battlefield experience and depict it in their writing.
Siegfried Sassoon rose to prominence as the genre’s exemplar. The writer’s opinion toward war is directly connected to his own experience (Campbell 204). Furthermore, Sassoon used his military expertise to preach pacifism through poetry. Campbell claims that Sassoon’s mature trench verses are frequently viewed as poems of ethical protest (211). Sassoon is opposed to war because of the human cost, both in terms of soldiers’ lives sacrificed and the cynical and intentional ignorance of staff officers and the public (Campbell 211). Siegfried Sassoon composed poetry that prioritizes firsthand combat experience to educate ignorant civilian people about horrific truths that they would rather avoid (Campbell 209). For instance, he describes in “Suicide in the Trenches” what can happen to a soldier after seeing the face of war. Omar suggests that poems like “Suicide in the Trenches” depict such scenarios; soldiers used to commit suicide in order to escape their own dissatisfied life amidst constant shelling and the loss of comrades’ lives (30). Indeed, such suicide acts probably caused the war poets to express their rage at the horrible deeds of war.
Siegfried Sassoon is one of the brightest examples of Combat Gnosticism. The main idea behind “Suicide in the Trenches” is to show the horrors of war, particularly how murder and cruelty can break the psyche of a soldier and even force him to commit suicide. Although the poem is harsh and aggressive, it makes the reader think about the realities of war and the value of human life. Moreover, it depicts the author’s protest against the war to awake the civilians.
Atasoy, Emrah. “Transformation of Siegfried Sassoon’s War Poetry: Discourse Shapes Perspective.” Kesit Akademi Dergisi, vol 7, no. 26, 2021, pp. 1-8.
Campbell, James. “Combat Gnosticism: The Ideology of First World War Poetry Criticism.” New Literary History, vol. 30, no. 1, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999, pp. 203-15.
Gale Contextual Encyclopedia of World Literature. “Sassoon, Siegfried.” Encyclopedia.com, Web.
Omar, Aram Wasman. “The View of War in the Poetry of the 1st World War.” 8th International Visible Conference on Educational Studies & Applied Linguistics, 2017, pp. 24-34.
Samons, Loren. “Pity and Indignation: The Processing of Trauma in the War Poetry of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon.” CLA Journal, vol 8, 2020, pp. 237-249.
Sassoon, Siegfried. “Suicide in the Trenches.” All Poetry.