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Sassoon: Binary Vision and Repression Trench Experience

Introduction and Thesis statement

Siegfried Sassoon is regarded as the preeminent war poet of the 20th Century. His works offer graphic narratives of the violence and brutality of war. What is ironic is that his background of wealth and privilege was about as far from the destitution of war that it could get. His experience made him realize the wide gap between the conditions of the fighting man and those who caused and managed the war from behind the lines. These two disparities in his life before and after becoming a frontline soldier and the inequities that existed between the frontline fighters and the behind-the-scenes manipulators define and are made evident in Sassoon’s poetry. Originally, his experience in anti-war poetry made him famous; however, he was seriously criticized for it. Unfortunately, art and poetry describe some of the worst things humans can do to one another. Here then is one poet’s view of this odd human pass-time. His poems are attributed to Binary vision, and this matter will be discussed in the paper. On the one hand, he describes the glory and nobility of war (especially in his early poetry), on the other hand, his later poetry is featured with disguise to war, as he had seen enough deaths and people, that became disabled because of war actions.

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Siegfried Loraine Sassoon was born of a wealthy Jewish merchant family on September 8, 1886, in Kent. His father Alfred, a Sephardic Jew of Iranian-Indian origins Jew, was later disinherited for marrying outside the faith. Alfred separated from his wife Teresa when Siegfried was five years old and he died of tuberculosis when Siegfried was nine. It has been speculated that Alfred left to protect his family from being infected by his illness. Both the Sassoon and Thornycroft sides of his family carried significant names in both the business and artistic societies of England at that time. His uncle Reuben Sassoon was said to be a very close personal friend of the Prince of Wales who eventually ascended to the throne of England as Edward VII. His grandfather Sassoon David Sassoon was the son of a Baghdadi merchant David Sassoon who had relocated to Mumbai in response to the anti-Semitism by the Ottomans prevalent in that part of the Middle East at that time. Sassoon David Sassoon was a prominent personality in the Jewish community in both India and later on in London where he had relocated in 1858. The disinheritance of Alfred because of his marriage to a non-Jew is more understandable in the light of the extremely traditional family background of the Sassoons. Alfred’s mother was reported to have snubbed the wedding and begun a ritual of mourning for her “recently deceased son.” Siegfried’s mother Georgiana Theresa was a Catholic and of English farming stock that supposedly stretched back to the 13th Century. She was one of seven children of Thomas and Mary Thornycroft who were both painters and sculptors. Thomas later delved into engineering and his eldest son later established an engineering firm that built warships for the Royal Navy. One of Theresa’s brothers was Sir Hamo Thornycroft, after whom Siegried’s younger brother was named, who had become one of the favorite sculptors of the English establishment and had the commissions for many famous statues around London. He was also a very close personal friend of Edmund Gosse, a poet, writer, critic, and lecturer. She was known to have exhibited talent as an amateur artist. (Allen, 2005)

Theresa was therefore a single parent to Siegfried and his two brothers for most of their growing up years and it was she who exerted considerable influence on him and who nurtured his writing skills. She encouraged him by introducing him to notable literary personages of the time such as Gosse. The absence of a father was said to have a bearing on Siegfried’s conduct and behavior later on in life. He did not enter formal schooling until he was fourteen. The rather affluent circumstances of his family provided well enough for his needs that he never needed to earn his living. He was given his source of income by his family. He, therefore, assumed a laid-back carefree attitude and a perspective of apathy towards his own goals and ambitions. He enrolled first at Marlborough College then entered Clare College Cambridge to acquire a degree initially in Law and later shift to history but left before getting his degree. Since he had his source of income, Sassoon took on the life of a country gentleman and spent his time hunting and playing cricket while continuing to write poetry. By Susan Bruce (2007) His first successful effort was “The Daffodil Murderer” which was originally written as a parody of “The Everlasting Mercy” by John Masefield. The poem impressed Gosse enough for him to endorse it to Edward Marsh, the polymath and literary critic who was then the editor of the Georgian Poetry anthology. Although both Gosse and Marsh were instrumental in giving Sassoon confidence to pursue a literary career, he failed to come up with an equally accomplished follow-up to “The Daffodil Murderer.” He was evidently at a loss about what course he should pursue and whether or not he should continue his attempts at poetry given the mediocre success that his works had merited thus far.

Siegfried was said to have been more inclined towards his mother’s side of the family perhaps as a reaction to the strict Jewish heritage of the Sassoons. While he professed a belief in what he considered were their enthusiasm for hard work and aversion to pompous ostentation of his mother’s side of the family and conformed to their ideal of simple rural life, his lifestyle before the war was more closely connected to the life of his father. Alfred was said to have been the spoiled child of his mother who had ambitions for Alfred to become a great violinist and had even bought him two Stradivarius violins to motivate him and ensure that he had the tools necessary. Her plans for him of course did not come to pass. Alfred, like his son Siegfried, was to do, later on, dropped out of college to indulge his amateur artistic talents, sketched, sculpted, played the violin, played cricket, rode horses, and lived the life of a profligate playboy. He was eight years younger than Theresa’s twenty-nine when they got married (Hemmings, 2007).

War Experience

The threat of war with Germany in 1914 drew out the patriot in Sassoon and he signed up like a trooper with the Sussex Yeomanry in the hope that he would get to keep his horse in this mounted regiment. However two days before the start of hostilities he was injured in a riding accident when his horse tripped on a concealed wire. Sassoon was thrown and his horse fell on him breaking his arm seriously enough to defer his entry into actual battle for a year. He was later commissioned as the second lieutenant in both the first and second battalions of the Royal Welch Fusiliers. Sassoon gained a reputation for tenacious and unwavering courage to the point of recklessness under fire. His aggressiveness in battle was his way of exacting revenge for the death of his younger brother Hamo at Gallipoli in 1915. His ferocious enthusiasm in action earned him the nickname “Mad Jack” among his peers in the regiment. His actions in a raid in the Karl Trench when under heavy fire he managed to bring the dead together with a wounded British corporal to safety were recognized in the Military Cross which he was awarded in 1916. He was also recommended for the Victoria Cross a year later after he had single-handedly captured several German trenches and then was reported to have remained behind enemy lines reading poetry oblivious to the dangers of his position. Unfortunately, the award was denied because of the failure of the campaign. (Quinn, 2001)

As David Itzkowitz stated (2005) Sassoon made two very significant friendships while he was with the Fusiliers in the Western Front. One was with fellow officer Robert Graves, several years Siegfried’s junior but who had already gained a reputation as a poet who wrote about the war. It was Graves who helped rescue Sassoon from court-martial when Siegfried wrote and made public his anti-war “A Soldier’s Declaration” by suggesting that Sassoon should be excused for his rashness as he was suffering from shell shock. He also became close to another young officer named David Cuthbert Thomas whose death in 1916 he mourned for many years. Both Graves and later Wilfred Owen inspired Sassoon to take on a more honest and authentic view of the reality of war. It was this plus the deaths of his brother Hamo and his good friend David Thomas that redirected him to a more pacifist attitude. His experience with the Fusiliers also defined his outlook towards war and the change in his literary perspective which became evident in his poems from before and then after the war. But it was while he was confined for a shoulder injury which he sustained in the Second Battle of Scarpe that Sassoon was introduced to such prominent anti-war advocates as Bertrand Russell and John Middleton Murry. At the end of his recovery, Sassoon refused to return to the Front and instead sent a letter protesting the war with his “A Soldier’s Declaration.” In this, he condemned politicians for the errors being committed against his fellow soldiers and the sufferings that they were unnecessarily having to go through because of them. He also assailed what he considered as the attitude of smug self-satisfaction of the authorities towards the war and those fighting for their country. The letter found its way to the media and it was even read by an MP sympathetic to the pacifist cause. (Itzkowitz, 2007) His courage under fire witnessed by so many and which earned him the Military Cross with one bar disproved any suggestion that his condemnation of war could be attributed to cowardice. Sassoon certainly expected to be court-martialed or at the very least censured for proclaiming views contrary to the government position. However, his military record mitigated whatever fault may have been attributed to his candor. Robert Graves also intervened on his behalf and he was deemed as suffering from shell shock when he made his declaration. He was thus merely sent to the hospital at Craiglockhart for treatment. Some said that he was declared insane and unfit for combat to keep him from contaminating frontline soldiers with his pacifism. It was at Craiglockhart that he met Wilfred Owen, a fellow traveler in the field of war poetry. He close friends the very talented poet whom Sassoon took it upon himself to mentor but who also helped him gain a different perspective on his life and his environment. It was also here with mutual encouragement from Owen that Sassoon started writing many of his poems about war perhaps to purge himself of the experience. It was only after treatment and probable guilt at leaving his men to risk their lives at the front while he remained safe in a hospital that he relented and was allowed to return to his unit. Owen’s earlier return to battle also contributed to his decision to go back to war despite his protestations against it and the people at home whom he condemned of prolonging it unnecessarily for their profit. Sassoon returned to his unit then in Palestine where he was wounded a third time. He was hit in the head by friendly fire when he took off his helmet during a raid on enemy lines. This effectively ended Sassoon’s war experience (Hemmings, 2007).

Sassoon’s early war poetry offers the reader a feeling of war as a noble venture. First, the war was accepted with some measure of euphoria, as people believed in bright ideals, which they fought for. The later war poetry assaults the entire origin of war and those who benefit from it. After the war, he also issued fictional autobiographies in which he narrates his life before, during, and after the Great War (The First World War). It should be mentioned, that the war experience had significantly reflected on his poetry: it became more imaginary, and more impregnated with dramatic feelings

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Now light the candles; one; two; there’s a moth;
What silly beggars they are to blunder in
And scorch their wings with glory, liquid flame‑
No, no, not that,–it’s bad to think of war,
When thoughts you’ve gagged all day come back to scare you;
And it’s been proved that soldiers don’t go mad
Unless they lose control of ugly thoughts
That drives them out to jabber among the trees.

The Binary Vision in Sassoon’s Poems

Sassoon enlisted in the Sussex Yeomanry as of the privileged class who looked upon the war as just another adventure. While he was motivated by patriotism, he was probably confident that it would not be very difficult and he would even be able to continue riding his beloved horses. This flippant attitude towards the war was common among the scions of the privileged class who enlisted on a lark. Like most young men who have no experience of the realities of war, Sassoon’s cheery optimism was soon brought down to earth at the first Battle of Somme where the ugliness of death and the painful screams of the dying turned his heretofore happy world upside down and he was rudely awakened from blissful ignorance by the ceaseless booming explosions of shellfire directed which seemed to be directed straight at him. For a person who lived a completely sheltered existence the filth, wretchedness, and despair of the trenches were a drastic reversal of personal experience. Sassoon was shocked into a complete transformation of the thrust, themes, and images that he needed to convey through his poems. His trauma at the war experience was diagnosed as neuroses which writing about them in poetry was a form of catharsis. (Campbell, 2001) It was very different from the gentle security and stress-free tranquility that defined his existence before he enlisted in the Sussex Yeomanry. After some time Sassoon continued to work, his way out of what he went through by writing about them. Some eight years after the Armistice Sassoon began work on a series of volumes that recollected his experience before and after the war. As Greg Harris argues (1998) this semi-biographical work wherein he uses George Sherston as his alter-ego was written in three volumes in the form of memoirs first of a fox-hunting man who he was before the war, of an infantry office and his life afterward. These were later compiled into one volume as the “Memoirs of George Sherston.” The success of these initial efforts led Sassoon to work on an actual autobiography which he also wrote in trilogy form: “The Old Century and Seven More Years,” followed by “The Weald of Youth,” then “Siegfried’s Journey” which was similar in title to the “Sherston’s Progress” which was volume 3 of the earlier trilogy. In the works that took more than twenty years to complete, Sassoon sought to bring out repressed memories primarily of the war and confront them by writing about them. His conflicted perspective of war was made evident through the contrasting images that he painted first of the directionless self-indulgent lifestyle that he followed before the war which he described in the first volume of the Sherston memoirs and greater detail in the first two volumes of his memoirs and compared them to his remembrance of a war which he wrote about in the second volume of the Sherston memoirs and the third of his own. While he lived for eighty years, Sassoon was obsessively preoccupied with and his work focused only on the first thirty-four, that is the period from his birth until a couple of years after the First World War. These years determined the direction of the rest of his life, which he spent coming to terms with and mainly purging himself of the horrors that he had had to confront in the war.

Sassoon’s binary vision of war was projected through his poetry. Banishment is very different from the parody of The Daffodil Murderer. There is no evidence of the lightheartedness that was so apparent in his pre-war writings. In this war poem, Sassoon seems to speak in guilt for his life and before those who fought and died and at not being with them. He considers that he does not belong with those he marched off to battle with as he feels both shame for himself and compassion for the fallen. He cries against those who sent these men off to war to be “riven by grappling guns” or torn apart by cannon fire. Sassoon writes that he is forced by his feelings of compassion and empathy for those he has fought with to join them and fight with them again. It is only when he rejoined them in the hell that is the war that he will be a gain reprieve from his banishment and “stand forgiven.” In this poem, Sassoon carries on the theme that he elaborated on in his open letter on “A Soldier’s Declaration” where he laments the brutality of war and protests against the disregard for the well-being of these men by the authorities who send them off to die which became a constant theme in most of his war poems. The war poems stand in sharp contrast to Sassoon’s other works. Compare the childlike innocence and naïve imagery of poems like “Butterflies” and “Morning Glory” with the graphic gore of “The Dragon and the Undying.” There is a shockingly clear transformation between the themes and the pictures conveyed by the before and after works of Sassoon and it is apparent that the first two were written by a completely different person from the third. There is a startling disconnect between the tank as a dragon that destroys and kills and the butterfly that flits over the flowers or even the tortured eyes of the dead written about in “Banishment.” We might also compare the uncomplicated trusting purity of “A Child’s Prayer” with the patent cynicism and biting sarcasm of “Does It Matter?.” In this poem, Sassoon makes a jaded criticism of the mismanagement of war by armchair generals and experts behind the line for which the front-line soldiers suffer and lose their sight, their legs, and their lives while we can picture the child in the safety and security of his bedroom. (Atkin, 2002) His sarcasm can also be appreciated in “The Kiss” where he pictures bullets and shells as objects of affection. His tributes to nature and its beauty turn into odes to war as in “Autumn” where the dead are scattered like the leaves of the season. We can compare the romantic and idyllic images of early morning in “Daybreak in a Garden” and “At Daybreak” with the less silent and more threatening picture drawn of the same time of day in “Attack:’. Consider the lines of the war poem: “At Dawn … Tanks creep and topple forward to the wire, The barrage roars, and lifts. Then clumsily bowed Men jostle and climb and meet the bristling fire.” Then consider the lines of “Daybreak in a Garden: “I heard the farm cocks crowing, loud, and faint, and thin, …When cloudy shoals were chinked and gilt with fires of day. White-misted was the weald; the lawns were silver-grey; … And the wind upon its way whispered the boughs of May, And touched the nodding peony-flowers to bid them waken.” The lines of the first talk about violence in the morning while the lines of the second describe very harmless everyday sounds and pictures also in the morning. War has caused Sassoon to reconsider even a supposedly safe and innocuous time of day as a setting for the brutality of war. He looks at the morning differently before and after. While dawn should have brought him remembrances of the morning fog, the rooster crowing, and the wind rustling the flowers, it now reminds him of soldiers heavily burdened with arms scrambling over the top of trenches to run across no man’s land to attack and kill the enemy. Finally, we can compare the innocent joy of “Morning Glory” and the subtle and almost imperceptible lament about death in the battlefields of France creeping up to the end of “A Hawthorne Tree.”( Melnyk, 2007)

The war has imposed a different perspective on him and it is an image that he spends the next forty years of his life trying to rid himself of through his poems and his six-volume biographical work. The war has ingrained in him an almost fixated preoccupation with the various dichotomies in his life experiences before and after the war. Aside from the notable divergences between the two halves of his life, the restful and tranquil pleasures of the life of a country gentleman, and the daily tragedies that he had to confront as a frontline fighting man. Sassoon was seen to be more focused on the contrasting conditions between the soldiers dying at the front and the officers supposedly running the war from and the businesspersons profiting from it safely in the rear. His pacifist efforts were focused on the stark difference between the wretched conditions of those dying in the battle and those celebrating safe and secure well behind the lines. Despite his grossly advantaged background, he identified with the common soldier with whom he had fought and whom he had witnessed dying while the higher-ranking officers who did not die or endured the filth and squalor of the trenches complacently blundered continuously and caused even more casualties. This was the more pronounced binary vision that Sassoon aggressively sought to proclaim and solicit reaction and response to in the poems that he compiled in “Counter Attack” such as “Battalion Relief” and “Banishment.” This was also evident in his “Repression of the War Experience” and “Everyone Sang” which dissents against the righteousness of war and suggests that the war and the “singing will never be done.” His grief at the uselessness of death in war and the futility of trying to save a dying comrade in “Died of Wounds” which was written for his close friend David Thomas moved him to first expend his energies in almost reckless courage and later on to actively and aggressively criticize the war and the conduct of the war. Sassoon’s body of work has been hailed as the quintessential examples of war poetry and antiwar declarations that stand out well beyond the period of the Great War that it was mostly about to its relevance during the Vietnam War. His poetry remains stark reminders of the folly of war and its senseless insanity. The credibility of his perspective is validated by the binary nature of his life experience as a profligate dilettante and as a soldier.

Works Cited

  1. Allen, Brooke. “Rediscovering Sassoon.” New Criterion. 2005: 15
  2. Atkin, Jonathan. A War of Individuals: Bloomsbury Attitudes to the Great War. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 2002.
  3. Bruce, Susan. “Sherston’s Imaginary Friend: Siegfried Sassoon’s Autobiographical Prose and the Idea of Photography.” Biography 30.2 (2007): 173
  4. Campbell Patrick Thoughts that You’ve Gagged All Day’: Siegfried Sassoon, W.H.R. Rivers and the Repression of War Experience The Literature of the Great War Reconsidered, 2001
  5. Harris, Greg. “Compulsory Masculinity, Britain, and the Great War: the Literary-Historical Work of Pat Barker.” Critique 39.4 (1998): 290-305.
  6. Hemmings, Robert. “Landscape as Palimpsest: Wordsworthian Topography in the War Writings of Blunden and Sassoon.” Papers on Language & Literature 43.3 (2007): 264
  7. Itzkowitz, David C. “Sassoon: The Worlds of Philip and Sybil.” The Historian 67.2 (2005): 371
  8. Melnyk, Veronica. “”But I Was Dead”: Sassoon and Graves on Life after Death.” Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature 60.1 (2007): 17
  9. Quinn, Patrick, J Siegfried Sassoon: the Legacy of the Great War. The Great War and Modern Memory, The Literature of the Great War Reconsidered, 2001

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