Analysis of Suicide in the Trenches by Siegfried Sasoon

 

Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967), is one of the most famous war poets that emerged from the devastation of the First World War. Sassoon was himself a soldier who belonged to the upper ranks of the military. Despite his rank, Sassoon’s sympathies were with the common soldier who had to contend with the horrors of trench war fare. Sassoon was very critical of the military hierarchy, politicians and even the civilians who remained safe in power and comfort far away from the battlefields and sent young men off to die in battles that seemed futile and pointless.

The immediate background of the given poem is World War 1 which took place between the years 1914- 1918. This conflict was unprecedented in many ways given its nature and scope. This war witnessed new developments such as mechanized warfare and trench warfare. The scale of human carnage was also unprecedented. ‘Suicide in the Trenches’ is one of the poems in which Sassoon conveys his response to the devastating conditions created by World War - I.

Siegfried Sassoon in his poem “Suicide in the trenches” is actually criticizing the loneliness, health conditions, patriotism and also the lack of resources that the soldiers faced while they are in the trenches.

 

Overview

Title: implies a soldier kills himself in a trench, a ditch dug to cover up soldiers in the war-front. A soldier killing himself is an irony to the brave image casted upon him. Therefore, the poem seems to be a criticism on the warfare as well as the soldiers are not heroes before the modern warfare which fought using highly advanced weapons.  

Form: a combination of a ballad and an elegy (it is about a tragic death of a soldier and seemingly the poet is lamenting over the death of the soldier)

Rhyme scheme: rhyming couplets, steady just like a nursery rhyme

Tone: critical, negative

Theme: Horrors experienced by the soldiers at the warfare, how youthful lives are devastated in the cause of a war.

Narration: first person (in a form of a monologue, just like relating a story)

Main technique: imagery

 

Deep end analysis

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.

 

satire: grinned at life in empty joy (it seems; the joy of a soldier is not a genuine one but a deceiving of himself)

alliteration: simple soldier/ slept soundly

oxymoron: empty joy (a meaning less one)

onomatopoeia: whistle

visual imagery: slept soundly through the lonesome dark

symbol: lark (happiness)

 

First stanza reveals what is expected from the life of a soldier- A simple carefree happy life with some adventures. The life of the young soldier is introduced as ‘simple’ and as happy as a ‘lark.’ However, in the very stanza the poet introduced the happiness of the soldier is not a genuine one and he has to endure ‘lonesome’ darkness as well as get up early with the birds.

 

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.

 

visual imagery: winter trenches

auditory imagery: crumps (sounds of shells)

euphemism: put a bullet through his brain (suicide)

assonance: no one spoke (the expected glory is gone!)

symbol: winter (winter is related with death and hardships)

 

Second stanza creates a sharp contrast with the first stanza of the poem; the grim reality of war and the hard life of a soldier in a trench. The soldier does not enjoy a happy, heroic life in a trench but leads an intimidated and melancholic life without even having proper sanitary facilities nor food. The word ‘crumps’ suggests the deafening sounds of shells and bullets revealing the real nature of modern warfare. The soldier killing himself might be the culmination of his agonized life showing the devastating experience a soldier which forced him even up to giving up his own life. That death is not a glorified one as drawn in the mind of people in the society. This stanza is a revelation of the reality of warfare where soldiers do not get a life of a hero but a victim. Sasoon is further critical about the heads of the military leadership and government who do not provide the soldiers with proper facilities. The final line sums up the reaction of the society: when a soldier dies, nobody speaks of him.

 

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.

 

 

visual imagery: smug faced /kindling eye (admiration of the society)

 

Finally, the last stanza ends with an appeal to "smug-faced crowds," who cheer when soldiers walk by. The speaker tells them that they should pray they will never know for themselves "the hell where youth and laughter go." This is perhaps one of Sassoon's most powerful lines and really emphasizes the psychological damage warfare can cause. Poet further accuses the society for persuading the young to join army not knowing the physical and psychological hardships endured by the soldiers at the battle field. According to him, they should also be responsible for the war in the world which steals happiness and youthful lives from the world.

Sasoon’s poem shares similar characteristics of Wilfred Owen’s poem ‘Dulce et Decorum est’ which too reveal how soldiers become a victim in modern warfare. The reason might be that both of them faced the reality of warfare and had a close personal relationship with each other.

What is your view of the soldiership and modern warfare? What are the more points to be added to the posts or what contradict your views? Please do share them with us in the comment section. Share the post if you find this useful to your students or friends.

 

Sources: Resource book, NIE, Short summary of ‘suicide in the trenches’ by Kirthi Daga and gradesaver.com

 

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