In war, death represents a uniform presence, something which soldiers face first hand with frightening reoccurrence. Eager early conscripts envisioned battle as something glorious and patriotic, but within the themes that emerge between the poems of Siegfried Sassoon, Thomas Hardy and Isaac Rosenberg, death becomes anything but glorious. When Sassoon describes the ‘crumpled disgrace’ of slain bodies in I Stood With The Dead, any hint of dignity is removed from the process of dying. As a ‘dis-grace’, the state is shown as un-Godly and low – the men crumpled into a kind of half-existence far removed from neat formations of soldiers standing fast for their country. By opposing the ‘crumpled’ imagery of the dead men with the poem’s narrator, who is standing, the gulf between death and life is emphasised to its fullest extent – men cut from the prime of their lives to tumble down into death.
In this respect, the ‘Fall in!’ command of the narrator bears dual meaning – in the most literal sense it can be taken as an order, but in more figuratively, it draws on imagery of men falling down into the mud; collapsing, broken, into shell holes. The image of bodies crudely arrayed in this way is also present in Rosenberg’s Dead Man’s Dump, the title itself affording the men scant respect, their bodies now mere waste to be disposed of. Here, wagon wheels crunch over the ‘sprawled dead’, reminiscent of Sassoon’s usage of ‘crumpled’ – these men are also ‘crunched’ and compacted, reduced from a high stature to a mess of nothingness pressed into the mud.
Rosenberg then elaborates on the fate that awaits the men after death. Personifying the ground itself, he informs us ‘Earth has waited for them… Now she has them at last!’ – there is an eagerness to the words, a barely contained excitement of a predator claiming its prey. The concept of nature taking hold of dead bodies is continued in I Stood With The Dead where the soldier’s face is ‘sick like the plain’, bodily features merging into the surrounding landscape. Hardy is even more explicit about this process in Drummer Hodge where the soldier’s dead body is recycled into foreign vegetation: ‘His homely Northern breast and brain / Grow to some Southern tree’. Here, the body undergoes a process of transformation, losing its Englishness and melding into an alien landscape. Specifically, it is his breast and brain that are mentioned – the heart and mind – the aspects that bring life to a man; these have now been broken down into the soil. ‘Northern’ is directly opposed against ‘Southern’, all essence of the soldier’s homeland re-grown into something profoundly different. The foreign nature of the process is furthered by the abundance of South African words in the poem; ‘veldt’, ‘karoo’, the soldier’s Wessex home supplanted and outnumbered by the unknown qualities of the land in which he died.
Perhaps most haunting in the representation of death in the poems is the sense of loneliness and isolation that accompanies it. In death, Hardy describes Drummer Hodge’s only companions as the ‘strange stars amid the gloam’, foreign constellations completely unrecognisable to a British soldier. In Hodge’s impromptu grave, there is no human touch or emotion, only the hazy in-between state of the ‘gloam’; the hours between sunset and full dark. Thus, Hodge is consigned to a limbo-like twilight existence under the ground that mirrors Sassoon’s description of a dead man stuck in the mud: ‘the drowning soul was sunk too deep for human tenderness’. In both instances the lifeless bodies are buried, loose souls consigned to a hopeless in-between state without proper burial.
The grim nature of this loneliness is furthered by the sense of elapsing time conveyed by the stanza numbers which serve to break up the flow of the poem and emphasise the gaps in between each stanza. With the perspective of the poem focussed on the body of Hodge in the ground, these numbers become more than the respective stanzas they indicate; they are also respective of the days, weeks, months and years his body lies there. The form of the stanza numbers as Roman numerals gives them the air of something carved into a tombstone, an epitaph for a long dead man. Indeed, beyond the ‘kopje-crest’, this poem is all that marks his passing. As Hardy illustrates, that small part of the soil ‘Will Hodge for ever be’, the body consigned to the ground for eternity. There is an air of stasis, mirrored in Dead Man’s Dump when Hardy describes the dead bodies as ‘suspended – stopped and held.’ Here, even the dash separating the words seems to draw out the sense of time passing.
Death also provides a chance for reflection on the past – Sassoon poses dialogue to an imagined representation of his past self: ‘O lad that I loved’. There is a sense of immense longing, profuse love even, for the young, naive ‘lad’ that the soldier once was. Now sapped of life there is only the melancholia of the tear-like rain on his face. Combining the language of love poetry with death, Sassoon mourns not just the loss of life, but the loss of innocence. The idea of the ‘lad’ corrupted by war is continued by Hardy’s ‘young Hodge’, his age employed as a defining aspect of his character – death is shown to be all the more cruel, cutting short the life of someone so young. In the generic, one-syllable nature of the name ‘Hodge’ too, there is the notion of an everyman soldier, one that is in essence still a boy, and that death is not selective about who it claims.
There is a sense of inevitability about death, particularly in I Stood With The Dead as Sassoon described the soldiers as ‘forsaken’ – the poem can be taken to refer not only to those men who are actually dead but those that are doomed to die in the near future. In the command-like nature of the final line, these soldiers become dead men walking, marching to assured deaths. The march becomes an almost mocking reminder of the danger that accosts the soldiers on a daily basis, seeping into the very life-force of the body: ‘My heart and my head beat a march of dismay’ (this also echoes Hardy’s use of ‘breast and brain’). The word ‘pay’ takes on a curious quality, almost as if the soldiers must pay their due to death; that it is part of the job they cannot avoid. Equally, it crudely monetises the war; trivialising war into just another form of work – albeit one with deadly stakes.
Lack of respect for dead bodies is another enduring theme, Hardy’s poem opens with: ‘They throw in Drummer Hodge, to rest / Uncoffined’, an image mirrored in Rosenberg’s Dead Man’s Dump when bodies are described as ‘flung on the shrieking pyre’. What is presented is a war where respect for the dead is almost non-existent; bodies are chucked around and either burnt or placed in the ground bare – in both cases there is a sense of the dead being consumed, of suffering a second death that condemns their remains to a kind of damnation. Most gruesome is the closing line of Rosenberg’s poem: ‘we heard his very last sound, and our wheels grazed his dead face’, the image of a face – and by association identity – being eliminated, crushed beneath the machinations of war. Indeed, within the poems, violence seems to suffuse every part of war, bodies suffering further blows even when they are already dead. Here, death and war present no dignity for the defenceless bodies of the soldiers, only ongoing desecration.
Repetition plays an important part in both the Sassoon and Rosenberg poems – the image of ‘they left this dead with the older dead’ presented in Dead Man’s Dump replicates the piling of bodies upon each-other with a repetition that seems to almost trip up on itself. The crudeness of ‘this dead’ acts to increase the horror of the scene, eliminating any idea of individuality and replacing it with a faceless, nameless placeholder of a body. Likewise, Sassoon’s ‘I stood with the Dead… They were dead; they were dead’ works to similar effect, with the capitalisation of ‘Dead’ becoming a kind of new ‘name’ for the dead men. With the life torn out of them, ‘they were dead’ becomes the only salient attribute to them – any other traits that made them the men they were when alive is now superfluous, they have become ‘blurred’, ‘plain’, anonymous. Through these assorted stylistic techniques, the poets highlight the dominating power of death and its ability to erase and consume – not just life – but to directly alter the way those still alive view their bodies. Death stands presented as grey, dull, utterly still – the complete antithesis of life. Whether portrayed as an unending form of stasis or a brutal desecration of the body, all three poets strive to highlight how death is not just a grimly final end to life, but a profound, uncaring waste of it too.
Roberts, David, Minds At War (Sussex: Saxon Books, 1996)
Stallworthy, Jon, The Oxford Book of War Poetry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)