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On Passing the New Menin Gate -- Siegfried Sassoon

Guest poem sent in by GB (Ireland)
(Poem #1644) On Passing the New Menin Gate
 Who will remember, passing through this Gate,
 The unheroic Dead who fed the guns?
 Who shall absolve the foulness of their fate, -
 Those doomed, conscripted, unvictorious ones?
 Crudely renewed, the Salient holds its own.
 Paid are its dim defenders by this pomp;
 Paid, with a pile of peace-complacent stone,
 The armies who endured that sullen swamp.

 Here was the world's worst wound. And here with pride
 'Their name liveth for evermore' the Gateway claims.
 Was ever an immolation so belied
 As these intolerably nameless names?
 Well might the Dead who struggled in the slime
 Rise and deride this sepulchre of crime.
-- Siegfried Sassoon
For poetry that brings home the vicious inhumanity of modern mass warfare,
it is hard to surpass Siegfried Sassson, and for me the best of his poetry
is On Passing New Menin Gate. Ironically, Sassoon himself volunteered
himself for service in the British Army in World War One, where his almost
suicidal courage (to some extent a reaction to the death of his younger
brother earlier in the War in the Gallipoli campaign) earned him a Military
Cross (the ribbon of which he later threw in the River Mersey) and would
have earned him another, but for the fact that the battle in which he had
fought had been lost and the award of a medal was deemed impolitic. At some
point, the slaughter became too much for Sassoon. He then showed that his
courage was not confined to the battlefield. Whilst on convalescent leave,
he wrote a Declaration of "wilful defiance" against the continuation of the
war, for which, but for the intervention of his friend Robert Graves, he
would have been court-martialled. Instead he was hospitalised for ‘shell
shock’ (with the poet Wilfred Owen, who became a great friend).  Eventually,
he resumed his military career, fought as bravely as ever, and was
recuperating from injuries sustained when the war ended. He lived quietly
through World War II and died in 1967.

I first came across this poem in school, where its shocking honesty gave it
an impact in the classroom that no other poem had. Not for Sassoon the
euphemisms and clichés that honour the dead of the war but simultaneously
disguise their fate. The fallen are ‘unheroic’. (Other poetry of Sassoon’s
looks at the motives which brought them to the war.) They are
‘unvictorious’. The fate inflicted on them by the society which sent them to
die in a ‘swamp’ is ‘foul’. They have been ‘fed to the guns’ by their
political masters (or by society or by all of us). Contrary to this monument
tells us, their name liveth not for evermore – they are no more than the
nameless victims of a criminal immolation, who, if they could live again,
would see what had been done to them and deride society’s payment in the
form of this monument  - a pile of stone. I can only imagine the impact that
this poem, which I believe was first published in 1936, must have produced
in the inter-war period to its readers, many or most of whom would have lost
friends or relatives in the war.

Compare this with Wilfred Owen's similarly impressive Dulce Et Decorum Est
(Poem #32 on Minstrels). Contrast it  with John McCrae’s In Flanders
Field (Poem #11 on Minstrels) which the dead ask for the living to ‘take
up our quarrel with the foe’, and which I must admit, perhaps because of my
awareness of the awful scale of the deaths in World War One, I have never
liked. For me, it seems far less impressively aware of terrible political
realities than this poem, but perhaps as a testament to individual
motivation for what (in spite of Sassoon’s valid perspective) in many cases
was heroic self-sacrifice, it is also worthy of attention. Another good poem
on Minstrels (with a good discussion attached) is Hayden Carruth’s On Being
Asked to Write a Poem Against the War in Vietnam (Poem #1214 on
Minstrels). Yeats was appropriately modest (or perhaps politically wise)
when asked to write a war poem (See Poem #1040) – but poetry like
Sassoon’s, Carruth’s , Owen’s, Kettle’s, Ledwidge’s  and perhaps even
McCrae’s show us that poets do have contributions of great value to give us
on this topic.



There are some good sites on Sassoon. The best biography is at His obituary in the Times is also
worth reading.

Another biography is found at [broken link]
And a few of his poems are to be found at

PS: There are a number of other good Sassoon poems on Minstrels.

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