Discussing the representation of death in Siegfried Sassoon – I Stood with the Dead, Thomas Hardy – Drummer Hodge, Isaac Rosenberg – Dead Man’s Dump

 

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.

 

Bibliography

Roberts, David, Minds At War (Sussex: Saxon Books, 1996)

Stallworthy, Jon, The Oxford Book of War Poetry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)

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Mr Alfred is a victim but he is far from being an innocent one. Discussing Mr Alfred MA in light of this judgement.

When first introduced to Mr Alfred within George Friel’s novel, we are told that ‘he wanted to love his fellowmen’, someone with emotions and sympathies towards others. But as a central character, Mr Alfred is arguably a far from sympathetic individual himself  – victim, he undoubtedly is, but throughout Friel’s narrative of a bruised, broken Glasgow, he emerges more and more as a man of frequent shortcomings. Is Mr Alfred merely a good man placed in bad circumstances, powerless to resist greater forces at work in the city he has come to hate, or is there a far darker side to him?

Right from the start, Mr Alfred is set apart from his surroundings: ‘frequenting a common pub with common customers and a common barmaid when he had nothing in common with them’. He is positioned as the outsider, someone unable to successfully integrate into the social aspects of the word. He may indeed want to love his fellowmen, but he does not possess either the means or impetus to turn these vague ambitions into a palpable reality. Just like his failed poetry, Alfred’s love remains a half-formed, closeted thing that stays resolutely trapped within him. The implications of this are two-fold; Alfred becomes a victim not only of his own shyness ‘he had been a wallflower since puberty’, but of his inability to escape it. The former seems deserving of sympathy, but as the extent of Alfred’s drinking binges is unveiled, we realise that he does little to try and escape from the self-destructive rut he has placed himself within.

Mr Alfred’s predisposition to pursue dangerous courses of action is further explored when he smacks Gerald in class. Disobeying school rules on the proper methods of corporal punishment, we are exposed to his thoughts in the immediate aftermath of the incident: ‘He smacked Gerry across the nape. He knew at once he shouldn’t have done it’. The troubling nature of the situation is that though Alfred is shown to express remorse, he swiftly ends up hitting Gerald again as well as branding him ‘you cheeky little rat’. The image portrayed is once again of Alfred stuck on a repetitive course of action, falling prey to the same mistakes again and again – while we might feel sympathetic for him on one occasion, his repeat offences do little to excuse him. This is echoes later in the novel where Alfred tells himself that he will not kiss Rose, but ultimately ends up doing so.

Of course, it can be argued that these continued transgressions are due to temptations. Gerald is by no means a model student and Rose never reports Alfred’s behaviour to another member of staff, admitting her reluctance to do anything to her friend Senga: ‘but what can I do? I’d hate to hurt him’ The irony is that in Rose’s sympathy for Alfred and unwillingness to ‘hurt’ him, she causes more harm than good, allowing his behaviour to escalate by continuing to play into his weekly meetings with her.

These themes of outside influences tempting Alfred into committing questionable deeds are extrapolated outward to Glasgow as a flawed society which turns its inhabitants ‘bad’. Violence is built into the fabric of the city, just as Alfred’s beating of Gerald occurs near the start of the novel, Gerald exacts a kind of revenge towards the end when he and his friends mug Alfred. With violence portrayed as an almost every-day aspect of modern urban living, can Alfred be excused for punishing Gerald? Alfred’s ‘smack’ pales in comparison to the brutal chisel stabbing committed as part of the endemic gang warfare. Friel describes the aftermath of the fight in the language of cheap, light entertainment: ‘They knew when it was the end of a programme. No point waiting for the commercials’. Here, violence becomes almost trivial, a mere after-school distraction; and it is this context that Alfred’s smacking of Gerald becomes a lesser of many evils. With so many other aspects of Alfred’s generation eroded away before his eyes, hitting Gerald in class is the last vestige of the old values he can envisage to attempt to instil respect for elders. In this sense, there is a desperation to Alfred’s actions that while not wholly painting him in an innocent light, allows the reader to place themselves within his mindset.

One of the most damning portrayal’s of Alfred is towards the end of the novel when his doctor reels off a list of supposed conditions he is suffering from: ‘The man’s got pedophobia, homichlophobia, dromophobia, xenophobia…’ Here, Alfed is reduced to part of an overly medicated society, dissected into a series of labels. A victim of every condition listed here, his character is drowned beneath an unbearable weight of modern diagnosis from an outside observer. As the doctor sums up: ‘He’s in a very bad way’ – and in this, there is an almost all encompassing judgement from the novel on how we should view Alfred.

Analysing the specifics of Mr Alfred’s relationship with Rose, it is important to consider if there is an inherently sexual aspect to his dealings with her. Could it be that his love for Rose is far more a longing for human interaction (beyond the scant contact he garners from Stella and Granny Lyons), a way of saving him from his intense loneliness? However, Friel tells us ‘A boy could never have interested him. His love was a heterosexual love. Therefore a normal love.’ – here the implications seem to be explicitly damning. Alfred’s desire stems from the fact Rose is female – any sense of a similar relationship with a boy are incomprehensible. Whereas a more patriarchal relationship with Rose might have been forgivable, the fact the evidence Friel presents us of Alfred’s logic is so suffused with sexual tension, we find it hard to express sympathy for him in these circumstances.

From the beginning of the novel to the end there is an inexorable sense that Alfred’s life is building towards a catastrophe. The initial positioning as Gerald and his mother as meddling antagonists remains constant throughout Alfred’s growing relationship with Rose, with Senga as the bridging connection between the two plot threads. In hindsight, Alfred seems almost damned from the start, Friel’s writing carefully manoeuvring him into a position where his downfall can begin. The novel even deals with organised catalysts of change within itself: the ‘Parents Association for the Improvement of Scottish Education’ (POISE). It is through systems such as this that power is shifted from traditional figures like Alfred into the hands of Gerald’s mother – as Alfred’s colleague points out ‘It’s old models like you POISE is out to improve on’, placing Alfred as something outdated, actively being sought out for termination. Now, it is not just unruly youths Alfred is battling against, but wider machinations that encompass society as a whole – and it is against these processes that he has no hope to achieve any kind of victory against.

This theme reaches its climax in the book’s closing chapters as Tod explains to Alfred ‘But you can’t fight me. I’m not invading you. I’m already inside’ In this statement, Alfred becomes utterly powerless; with –Tod – the Devil – meddling with human affairs, it can be argued that any sin present in Alfred’s behaviour is merely a manifestation of the devil’s will, not Alfred’s own thoughts or actions, and thus he is absolved of responsibility. Equally though, Tod could also merely be a personified representative of the ‘evil’ already present in Alfred’s personality, and as such, is more a kind of temptation, a leading out of what has always existed within him; casting him as a far more unsavoury character.

In Tod’s explicit command to ‘go thou and do likewise’, Alfred is ordered to sink into the same levels of depravity which he previously scorned, marring the walls of the city with graffiti. And while Alfred’s mental state here is clearly out of the ordinary, his situation can be taken as a metaphor for the fractured, disintegrated Glasgow surrounding him. Here, it is not just Alfred who is the victim, but Glasgow itself. And like Alfred, it is far from being an innocent victim. As both culprit and casualty, Alfred and Glasgow enter into a cycle of depravity which, like his pub binges, can only lead to further pain. And if, indeed, there is any sympathy for these central characters – man and city – it is more for the horror of their condition than any positive traits they might exhibit.

 

Bibliography

Friel, George, Mr Alfred M.A. (Edinburgh: Canongate Books Ltd, 1987

Kelly, Stuart, The List (2005) [http://www.list.co.uk/article/2790-george-friel-mr-alfred-ma-1972/]

Wallace, Gavin, The Scottish Novel Since The Seventies (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1993)