“What is this war? It is mud, trenches, blood, rats, lice, bombs, pain, barbed wire, decaying flesh, gas, death, rain, cats, tears, bullets, fear and a loss of faith in all that we once believed in”
Poetry has long romanticized the battlefield, depicting war as a noble pursuit. There are epic poems like “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey”. Written by Homer, he celebrated heroes and their valiant deeds, however these deeds overshadowed the pain and suffering endured by soldiers. In the last 100 years the world was treated to the genius of war poets such as Wilfred Owen and Rupert Brooke. They wrote about the horrors of World War 1 and in turn provided a stark contrast. Many war poets of the modern era are delving into the psychological trauma that led some soldiers to contemplate suicide. This was taboo to speak of or to write about, at one time. I dare say that poets such as Sassoon and those of his generation brought that subject more to the fore, than any other poets. From ancient battles to modern conflicts, the experiences of soldiers have been immortalized in verse, capturing the essence of sacrifice, heroism, and the psychological toll of war. However, hidden within the verses lies a darker reality: the haunting specter of suicide.
There are subtle allusions and metaphors to be found within the verses of war poets, if it isn’t overtly addressed. I do find much of modern poetry to be too clumsy or cliched to be taken seriously, even if the subject matter is dark. I feel as if I am being hammered over the head to come to the same conclusion as the poet, rather than being allowed to discover the point being made. Poetic expressions, often veiled in symbolism, hint at the profound psychological distress experienced by soldiers. In these poems the landscapes are foggy, and there is much imagery of lost souls, and helpless men. The poets write of grappling with the haunting memories of war. Perhaps these ideas of self-harm bring them to feelings of self-harm, and are foreshadowing of a tragic event yet to happen.
If we are to discuss suicide then we must discuss the role of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD, resulting from the exposure to life-threatening situations and traumatic events, can haunt soldiers long after they leave the battlefield. The condition can manifest in a myriad of ways, including depression, anxiety, and a heightened risk of suicide. It is within this mental landscape that poets have attempted to give voice to the experiences of soldiers battling their own inner demons.
The works of renowned British poet and soldier Siegfried Sassoon, a World War I veteran, convey the disillusionment and despair that followed the war’s end. Sassoon’s poem “Suicide in the Trenches” captures the sense of hopelessness and despair experienced by soldiers forced to endure the unimaginable. These poetic expressions serve as a testament to the profound impact of war on the human psyche. Published in 1918, the poem reflects Sassoon’s anti-war sentiment and offers a scathing critique of the brutal realities faced by soldiers on the front lines. This was the first poem in high school that I ever committed to memory; it struck me hard.
His poem presents the harsh reality of war. The opening lines introduce the reader to a carefree and simple man. We get a sense of his innocence. The second stanza introduces the protagonist, a young soldier who experiences the gruesome realities of war. The poem’s title, “Suicide in the Trenches,” suggests that the soldier’s fate is predetermined, and the only escape from the unbearable conditions is death. This conveys a sense of hopelessness and the futility of the soldier’s existence.
I knew a simple soldier boy
Who grinned at life in empty joy,
Slept soundly through the lonesome dark,
And whistled early with the lark.
In winter trenches, cowed and glum,
With crumps and lice and lack of rum,
He put a bullet through his brain.
No one spoke of him again.
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.
Unable to bear the weight of his experiences, he takes his own life. The line “He put a bullet through his brain” is a stark and brutal statement, emphasizing the desperation and despair that led him to such an extreme act. The soldier’s suicide is a damning indictment of the war and the immense toll it takes on the human psyche. Overall, “Suicide in the Trenches” is a powerful anti-war poem that captures the disillusionment and emotional devastation experienced by soldiers during World War I. Sassoon’s vivid imagery, contrasting themes, and haunting portrayal of a young life lost reflect the harsh realities of war and serve as a poignant reminder of its devastating impact on individuals. I can read his poem over and over again. The last two lines leave me dumbfounded. “Sneak home and pray you’ll never know the hell where youth and laughter go.”
One poet that we shouldn’t miss is Alan Seeger. Seeger was one of the first Americans in the early part of the last century to chase a war. I first discovered his poem in a book on World War I and then was reminded of it after seeing the Lost Battalion, starring the Hollywood actor Ricky Schroeder, with some of my close friends. A decent movie. World War I was a war where so many poets, philosophers, writers, educators and learned-men perished. It was also a war where bi-planes, submarines and tanks were used for the first time. For any young man it was a time of wonder but a time of horror. Television was yet to be created. Many homes existed without electricity and most read literature by candle-light. This was a time of dreaming for many young men. By the thousands they caught a fever for battle and ran off to war but instead discovered terror to takes it’s place.
A story is told about a young soldier in a trench with his Sergeant. Mortars rained down death. Giant starshells burst into the night sky. The two huddle in one another’s arms as the young soldier says, “Sergeant, I just s— my pants!” The Sergeant replies back in fear, “So did I. So did I! Welcome to the war!” Whether true or not we still turn up our noses up at the French but we can’t deny the conviction Seeger had to live life and find death on his terms and on his terms alone.
Alan Seeger was an American poet who is best known for his service in the French Foreign Legion during World War I. Born on June 22, 1888, in New York City, Seeger came from an artistic and intellectual family. He grew up surrounded by literature and developed a passion for poetry from an early age. Seeger was the brother of Elizabeth Seeger, a children’s author and educator, and Charles Seeger, a noted American pacifist and musicologist; he was also the uncle of folk musicians, Pete Seeger, Peggy Seeger, and Mike Seeger.
In 1912, Seeger moved to Paris, France, seeking inspiration and a bohemian lifestyle. When World War I broke out in 1914, he enlisted in the French Foreign Legion, driven by a sense of adventure and a desire to defend the ideals of liberty and justice. Seeger was particularly drawn to the Legion’s reputation for toughness and its history of attracting individuals from diverse backgrounds. Seeger’s experiences as a soldier in the Legion deeply influenced his poetry. He wrote vividly about the camaraderie among soldiers, the hardships of war, and the sacrifices made on the front lines. His poems captured the essence of the war and reflected his own personal journey.
“I Have a Rendezvous with Death,” is one of Seeger’s most famous poems. He wrote this while serving in the trenches. The poem expresses a deep sense of fatalism and an acceptance of the inevitability of death. Seeger’s words convey a powerful message about the willingness to sacrifice oneself for a greater cause. On July 4, 1916, during the Battle of the Somme, he was mortally wounded by a shell blast while leading his platoon. He died from his injuries on the same day, at the age of 28. Seeger’s premonitions became a reality. His legacy lives on through his poetry, which continues to be celebrated for its evocative imagery and poignant themes. His writings capture the spirit of sacrifice, heroism, and the profound impact of war on the human condition. He was committed to his beliefs and his willingness to fight for what he considered to be noble and just.
I have a rendezvous with Death
At some disputed barricade,
When Spring comes back with rustling shade
And apple-blossoms fill the air—
I have a rendezvous with Death
When Spring brings back blue days and fair.
It may be he shall take my hand
And lead me into his dark land
And close my eyes and quench my breath—
It may be I shall pass him still.
I have a rendezvous with Death
On some scarred slope of battered hill,
When Spring comes round again this year
And the first meadow-flowers appear.
God knows ’twere better to be deep
Pillowed in silk and scented down,
Where Love throbs out in blissful sleep,
Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath,
Where hushed awakenings are dear …
But I’ve a rendezvous with Death
At midnight in some flaming town,
When Spring trips north again this year,
And I to my pledged word am true,
I shall not fail that rendezvous.
Sassoon and Seeger had differing views, but were both able to write evocatively about their experiences. Did Seeger want death? Was he in some strange way, as a fatalist, telling the universe that he wanted to die? Modern war poets, such as Brian Turner and Yusef Komunyakaa, have shed light on the emotional struggles faced by soldiers, including thoughts of suicide. Their works provide a more introspective and honest representation of the psychological toll that warfare takes on those involved. By breaking the silence, these poets have opened a dialogue about the realities of combat-related mental health issues.
The fusion of poetry and military history offers a unique perspective on the multifaceted nature of war. While suicide may not have been explicitly addressed in many military poems, the subtle undertones and symbolism reveal the emotional anguish experienced by soldiers. By exploring the psychological toll of war through poetry, we gain insight into the hidden struggles faced by those who have served. It is crucial that we continue to encourage open discussions about mental health within military contexts, breaking the stigma and providing support to those in need. By acknowledging and understanding the impact of war on the human psyche, we can work towards fostering a more compassionate society that values the well-being of those who have sacrificed so much in the service of their countries.