This poem is by Siegfried Sassoon is from the collection Men Who March Away, edited by I.M. Parsons some fifty years after World War I. I have in my possession a biography of Sassoon which is climbing close to the top of my to-read pile, so watch for more about that fascinating War Poet. Meanwhile, here is one of his poems and a little background. In his introduction to the collection, Parsons writes about The Kiss:
“The Sassoon poem is particularly interesting, not only for its technical accomplishment and for the terrifying image in the final line, but because in spirit it is so completely alien to the author’s whole attitude to war. For that reason, Mr. Sassoon was understandably reluctant to let me reprint it, fearing that it might be taken as meant seriously –as a ‘fire-eating’ poem.”
Sassoon himself said, “I originally wrote it as a sort of exercise … After being disgusted by the babarities of the famous bayonet-fighting lecture. To this day I don’t know what made me write it, for I never felt I could have stuck a bayonet into anyone, even in self defense. The difficulty is that it doesn’t show any sign of satire.”
To these I turn, in these I trust–
Brother Lead and Sister Steel,
To his blind power I make appeal,
I guard her beauty, clean from rust.
He spins and burns and loves the air,
And splits a skull to win my praise;
But up the nobly marching days
She glimmers naked, cold and fair.
Sweet Sister, grant your soldier this:
That in good fury he may feel
The body where he set his heel
Quail from your downward, darting kiss.
Dreams are but a temporary refuge
For they evaporate upon waking
Like the steam from a teacup
When you walk outside
In the middle of January
Fortunately you can always
Make more tea…
Isaac Rosenberg was one of six children born to Russian Jewish immigrants in London in November of 1890. He is known as an English poet, a Jewish poet, a war poet and a poet-painter. His career was cut short by The Great War and his body of work is thus thin. Many scholars believe the work he left behind was flawed but showed great promise had he been able to continue. Rosenberg fought in the war and was killed on April 1, 1918 in the Battle of Arras. His final poems written during his time in the fields of France have shown the potential for greatness which he was never able to fully realize.
“The tragedy of war gave [his] affinities full expression in his later poems, and as war became the universe of his poetry, the power of his Jewish roots and the classical themes became the sources of his moral vision as well as his poetic achievement.” – Thomas Staley, Dictionary of Literary Biography. Here is his poem: Break of Day In the Trenches:
Break Of Day In the Trenches
The darkness crumbles away–
It is the same old druid Time as ever.
Only a live thing leaps my hand–
A queer sardonic rat–
As I pull the parapet’s poppy
To stick behind my ear.
Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew
Your cosmopolitan sympathies.
Now you have touched this English hand
You will do the same to a German–
Soon, no doubt, if it be your pleasure
To cross the sleeping green between.
It seems you inwardly grin as you pass
Strong eyes, fine limbs, haughty athletes
Less chanced than you for life,
Bonds to the whims of murder,
Sprawled in the bowels of the earth,
The torn fields of France.
What do you see in our eyes
At the shrieking iron and flame
Hurled through still heavens?
What quaver– what heart aghast?
Poppies whose roots are in man’s veins
Drop, and we are ever dropping;
But mine in my ear is safe,
Just a little white with dust.
Header image: Self portrait 1915, Isaac Rosenberg