Friday, 16 May 2008

[23] How Best To Remember? The Great War, Siegfried Sassoon and Social Memory

This is an essay I wrote a few months ago, as a formative essay for a module titled 'Memory, Space and Place in Literature and Film'. It got a good mark, and I'm using it as an exam answer (albeit a bit tweaked). I was going to put it up here at the time, but never got round to it. For some reason, I don't have the bibliography on this document, but I do on my print copy. If anyone is that bothered, I can add it later on. I'm sorry if the formatting is dodgy, Blogger just doesn't seem to respond to my edits.


How best to remember? The Great War, Siegfried Sassoon and Social Memory

Margaret Atwood’s novel Cat’s Eye, which is mainly concerned with the act of remembering, contains a scene in which the principal character, Elaine, recalls a childhood experience of Remembrance Day:

‘At eleven o’ clock we stand beside our desks in the dustmotes of the weak November sunshine for the three minutes of silence… I keep my eyes closed, trying to feel pious and sorry for the dead soldiers, who died for us, whose faces I can’t imagine’

(Atwood, 1990, 107)

There is an inherent insufficiency in this institutional form of remembrance. Elaine and her school friends are taken out of their regular school day, and expected to ‘remember’ a historical period in which they had no active participation. This abstraction and forced remembrance reflects a mode of social memory discussed by the sociologist Maurice Halbwachs in his work On Collective Memory. This collective memory is created through the association between individuals, groups and institutions within a given society. This is especially seen in the case of historical memory, which the person at hand ‘does not remember directly’; this sense of the past is almost solely created by artefacts and commemoration, such as the Remembrance Day ceremonies, physical monuments, and art (Coser, 1992, 24). This essay will attempt to engage with the creation and perpetuation of the social memory of the First World War, reflected in the war poetry of Siegfried Sassoon, and will question whether the traditional, external forms of social memory are adequate.

Siegfried Sassoon’s war poetry is distinct from his contemporaries in approach and style. Whereas others such as Brooke, Sorley and Owen would write in an easily discernable highly poetic form, Sassoon’s more famous poems featured a straight-forward, satirical technique. This has led to Sassoon’s poetry being characterised as ‘realistic, anti-war, anti-heroic… direct, angry’ (Caesar, 1993, 61) and ‘hard, clear, sharply defined, rather than suggestive’ (Bergonzi, 1981, 192). However, it is worth noting that, after the war had ended, the tone of Sassoon’s poetry changed. Indeed, anthology editors such as Stephen mark their ‘shock’ of finding a ‘softer, more elegiac’ mode of expression in Sassoon’s post-Armistice work (1988, 300). Stephen also highlights an anxiety in this elegiac tone, where the satirical verve of Sassoon’s earlier poems, such as ‘The General’ or ‘They’, is replaced by a need for effective and consistent remembrance of the horrors of the Great War. The chapter in his anthology, Never Such Innocence, which collates post-war writing, is called ‘Will they remember? After’ (1988, 297). This is interesting, especially in Sassoon’s case, as the focus moves away from the expression of the realities of trench experience for either personal ‘working through’ or socio-political statement, and moves towards the construction of retrospective social memory.

In these post-war poems, Sassoon presents an argument against the abstraction, distance and mollifying effect that are granted by time and memory. Indeed, these issues are personal, but Sassoon uses strategies to give these concerns macrocosmic relevance. This is particularly seen in his poems of 1928, although his 1920 poem, called ‘Aftermath’, contains elements of his previous confrontational style:

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

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.

Do you remember the rats; and the stench

Of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench—

Do you ever stop and ask, ‘Is it all going to happen again?’

Have you forgotten yet?...

Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you’ll never forget.

(Sassoon, 1988, 311-2)

In this short extract there are many facets of ‘memory’ on display. There is, like in other Sassoon poems, the tension between personal experience and the wider society’s conscience. However, this notion of forgetting replaces the satirical commentary with an anxiety that, as time moves on, the experience and loss of the Great War would not be remembered and would be rendered irrelevant or intangible. Sassoon attempts to regain a connection with the experience through references to ‘the rats… the stench… corpses rotting in front of the front-like trench’. He also proposes that the act of remembering the war as a political event, as well as the atrocities committed, is the burden of the surviving population. The line ‘Do you ever stop and ask, “Is it all going to happen again?’” is strangely prophetic, and suggests that there is a lesson to be learned from the Great War. The trauma of the First World War should not be suppressed and forgotten; a process of remembering and working through would be beneficial to society as a whole.

However, Sassoon also writes poems that attack the more traditional forms of remembrance and commemoration that were in use for the Great War. In the 1928 poem ‘On Passing the New Menin Gate’, Sassoon’s target is the monument, opened in 1927 in Flanders, dedicated to the British and Commonwealth soldiers who died during the war:

Who will remember, passing through this Gate,

The unheroic Dead who fed the guns?

Who shall absolve the foulness of their fate,—

Those doomed, conscripted, unvictorious ones?

Paid, with a pile of peace-complacent stone,

The armies who endured that sullen swamp.

Here was the world’s worst wound. And here with pride

‘Their name liveth for ever,’ the Gateway claims.

Was ever an immolation so belied

As these intolerably nameless names?

Well might the Dead who struggled in the slime

Rise and deride this sepulchre of crime.

(Sassoon, 2000, 2057-8)

The same anxiety is present in this poem: the retrospection of history would create a cultural memory that was unmindful of the atrocities of the Great War. However, this poem is directed at a physical monument to those who died in the war, and is a more direct critique of the forms of social memory. Whereas ‘Aftermath’ was concerned with the act of remembrance, ‘On Passing the New Menin Gate’ attacks a particular form of remembrance, namely that of constructing monuments. Sassoon focuses on the ‘peace-complacent stone’ and ‘these intolerably nameless names’; the abstraction and investment of the trauma into a concrete monument is a disservice to the events being commemorated. Indeed, the long list of names, seemingly remembered by mere citation, is utterly depersonalised, and, as a result, the experience and violence may be easily forgotten.

Austere architecture and the sheer volume of names are certainly effective, but in the process, there is an empathy that is lost. Furthermore, the social aspects of the First World War, which Sassoon particularly addresses in his poetry (such as the relationship between those in power and the conscripted soldiers), are also glossed over. Such a structure also encourages a passive relationship to the war, similarly to the forced mourning of Remembrance Day, as the social ‘guilt’ resides within the monument, which is situated far from the habitual travels of most UK residents, in Ypres. Indeed, this study of the historical use of monuments is close to that of David Lowenthal in his The Past is a Foreign Country, where memorials are described as ‘[celebrating] the past in a different guise’, as the focus on the futility of war and its human cost only gained prominence in institutional circles after the war (1985, 321). Equally, Lowenthal highlights how the ‘form and features’ of these monuments ‘may in no way resemble what they are expressly built to recall’; indeed, the gate does not inherently reflect the actual experiences of trench warfare (op. cit.). Sassoon attempts to redress the disparity between his own experience and the depersonalised memorial through juxtaposing the ‘peace-complacent stone’ with the ‘armies who endured that sullen swamp… the Dead who struggled in the slime’. In a way, these strategies recall his satirical approach, and the anxieties present in ‘Aftermath’ are also on display here. However, whereas the earlier poem exhibited a worry that in peace-time, there was no suitable form of commemoration for the war dead, the criticism of the Menin Gate is based on its irrelevance to the experience that Sassoon expects the post-war world to remember.

This representation of the insufficiency of depersonalised, passive remembrance may reveal Sassoon’s endorsement of a poetic, artistic connection to the past. Indeed, critics and historians agree that the historical, social memory of the First World War is informed by the expression of the War Poets. Even in Cat’s Eye, amongst the forced mourning, Elaine acknowledges her own knowledge of the war being from ‘a poem’ (1990, 107). It is possible that poetry, or creative art in particular, can provide a more empathetic link to the experience of the events. Indeed, when critics and anthologists describe the power and appeal of the War Poets, they focus on the manifestation of truth and reality within the expression. Caesar states that their poetry ‘commands our respect and homage’ (1993, 2), and that Sassoon ‘render[s] the actualities of trench experience’ in his ‘documentary-style’ work (1993, 81). The influence of this collection of poetry is highlighted by Stephen, who reveals that the popular memory of the Great War is informed by the poets’ output, creating a ‘folk-myth’ (1988, 12). These critics also focus on how the poetry, primarily written for personal expression or contemporary social concerns, act as effective bridge for ‘communicating to later generations the reality, horror and futility of war’ (Caesar, 1993, 1) and ‘recreating the feel and atmosphere of the First World War for those who fought in it, and thus for those who did not’ (Stephen, 1988, 12).

Therefore, it is possible to suggest that poetry, in this specific circumstance, is a far more suitable form of large-scale remembrance that the abstraction and reification of the Menin Gate, or the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Art, and poetry in particular, has a singular quality that more objective or clinical modes of documentation lack. In poetic terms, this is achieved through linguistic strategies which make the content immediate and effective. However, psychoanalytical writers have presented poetry as being unique in its connection with the unconscious, and therefore tapping into a feeling of ‘psychological truth’. The writer Adam Phillips refers to poetry having a ‘convincing, truthful… eloquence’, and suggests that ‘the poetic is closer to the source’ of perceptions of reality (2000, 19-20). Indeed, the aforementioned critics focus on this aspect as key to the War Poets: Stephen even justifies the inclusion of ‘second-division’ writers by stating that they have a certain ‘heart and feel’ which render the trench experience well.

However, even though poetry adds a more immediate, informative and empathetic dimension to remembrance, this is not to say that the ‘truth’ at its heart is strictly factual. Stephen focuses on this, revealing that the ‘folk-myth’ created by the subsequent canonisation of the War Poets has blurred certain details, namely that the majority of the casualties sustained on the Western Front was from shell-fire, not from going ‘over the top’, and equally, the demonising of Field Marshall Haig and other generals conflicts with the significant body of work defending his leadership. Despite these factual inaccuracies, Stephen maintains that it ‘hardly matter[s]’ (1988, 298); the process of remembering such trauma symbolises ‘what in our national guilt we feel we ought to think about the First World War’, and provides a suitably ‘convenient image’ to shape the nation’s mourning (1988, 10). This suggests that even though poetry lacks the strict external factual accuracy of more depersonalised forms of memorial, it does have a certain empathy and immediacy which can be more effective and informative.


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