I have always found poetry quite difficult both to read and to write – I am most certainly a writer of prose. But, at this time of year, I can’t help but be swept away by the heartfelt poetry that has been produced in times of war, particularly the First World War. Now that the events of those years have passed out of living memory, the poems written in those trenches are one of the last and most poignant links to what happened during that war.
Siegfried Sassoon survived the war and went on to write many more poems throughout his life about his experiences on the Western Front. He was one of the first to join up and was already in service before war was declared in August 1914. In his poetry he wasn’t afraid to shy away from the horrors of the war. He wrote this poem in dedication to a friend who was shot in the neck in 1917, paralysing his vocal chords and rendering him a permanent “voice cripple.” Sassoon wrote in his diary that he spoke in a strained whisper, but that “memory supplied his old voice.”
A Whispered Tale
I’d heard fool-heroes brag of where they’d been,
With stories of the glories that they’d seen.
But you, good simple soldier, seasoned well
In woods and posts and crater-lines of hell,
Who dodge remembered ‘crumps’ with wry grimace,
Endured experience in your queer, kind face,
Fatigues and vigils haunting nerve-strained eyes,
And both your brothers killed to make you wise;
You had no babbling phrases; what you said
Was like a message from the maimed and dead.
But memory brought the voice I knew, whose note
Was muted when they shot you in the throat;
And still you whisper of the war, and find
Sour jokes for all those horrors left behind.