Affect and Absence: Irony in Siegfried Sassoon’s War Poetry

On November 5, 2014 by admin

     Avinash Image10731127_10152827309231411_326877935229350441_n

 Avinash Antony & Somak Mukherjee

 On 13th July 1918 Siegfried Sassoon, now a decorated war-hero, was shot in the head near Arras, France. Ironically, it was not the enemy but a British soldier who shot him, thinking him to be a German soldier. This is one of the very many instances of irony that The First World War is replete with. In fact, in his seminal work Great War In Modern Memory, Paul Fussell points out

“… every war is ironic because every war is worse than expected. Every war constitutes an irony of situation because its means are so melodramatically disproportionate to its presumed ends. In the great war, eight million people were destroyed because two persons, the archduke Francis Ferdinand and his consort, had been shot.”[i]

This piece, however, is not an essay on irony; neither is it an essay on the Great War and Modern Memory, the poetry of Siegfried Sassoon, or war poetry in general. To be frank, this essay deals only fleetingly with some of the poems that Sassoon wrote in the years between 1914-1918.What this paper attempts to indicate is how affect is conveyed through absence:  how the use of the ironic mode allows the reader to understand precisely because the poet does not speak.

In the poem “The Dugout”[ii] written in July 1918, Sassoon has the speaker tell a fellow soldier not to sleep because “you are too young to fall asleep forever/and when you sleep you remind me of the dead.” One notes that almost everything remains unsaid in this poem. Except for the title, there is nothing in the poem to indicate where the speaker is, whom he is addressing, and in what conditions they are. Apart from an underground shelter, ‘dugout’ could also mean ‘a canoe’ as well as ‘a marijuana container.’ Divorced from context, it is perfectly legitimate to think that the speaker is either on a boat or in a den of vice. The poem could well be one that indicates the horrors of narcotic consumption. However, when it is put in context, one remembers the conditions the soldiers faced in the trenches. Sassoon describes these conditions in “Dreamers”[iii]

 I see them in foul dugouts

gnawed by rats

and in the ruined trenches lashed with rain.

In the latter poem, Sassoon evokes the soldier’s traumatic experience in a far more straightforward manner. The poem is visceral precisely because it reveals; “The Dugout”, on the other hand, is affective precisely because it refuses to reveal. One is aware of the intensity of the trauma the speaker has suffered only when one questions why a sleeping youth reminds him of the dead. Is the speaker so affected because he has seen so many young men lying in the same manner on the battlefield? Or does the youth’s gesture while he sleeps remind the speaker of a state of innocence that, he recognizes, is long dead? The violence with which the speaker shakes the youth by the shoulder then, indicates how horrified the speaker is by the memory of death. And again, all this is indicated without once telling us whether the speaker is a soldier.


Sassoon’s “Everyone Sang”[iv] also forces us to confront a strange ambiguity. It speaks about the first Armistice at Compiegne, 11th November 1918. Here he says

Everyone suddenly burst out singing:

And I was filled with such delight

As prison birds must find in freedom

Winging wildly across the white

In the second stanza, the poem changes tone remarkably. Although he does say that everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted (which corresponds to the joyful tone of the first stanza), he now compares the beauty of the moment to a setting sun. He then reveals


My heart was shaken with tears and horror

Drifted away …O but everyone

Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing

Will never be done.

One isn’t sure why exactly why the singing will never be done. Is it because the joy that was felt at the end of the war will last forever? Or is it that the dead soldiers now sing as angels in heaven; their songs both wordless and inaccessible to us humans? Is the phrase “wordless songs” a contradiction? Taken by itself, the phrase “the singing will never be done” could also be a more tempered version of Adorno’s claim that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.”[v] Barbaric, as we know, was used to refer to those considered devoid of language. Are the songs wordless, then, because no words can bear the weight of testimony? And can we ever be sure?

Irony, as a rhetorical device as well as a philosophical trope, has been discussed to death. In fact, one can recall at least one death that was caused by an excess of irony: the death of Socrates. Over the years, scholars have identified many different kinds of irony, each defined in different ways. In an attempt to avoid all of these, let us propose a simple working definition of the term. If an utterance, when taken out of context, means something completely different from (and usually the opposite of) what it means when the context is considered, that utterance is ironic. Of course, situations can be ironic too, but even in such cases, there is a duality of meaning and a context that effects the difference. The etymology of the word seems to support this: ‘irony’ comes from the Greek eironeia which meant ‘deceit’ but then came to mean ‘pretended ignorance’ usually used to prove a point. One recalls Swift’s “A Modest Proposal”[vi] where it is the knowledge that cannibalism is considered an insurmountable social taboo that allows us to understand that the text is a satire.


An interesting view of irony, and one that seems most apt, is presented in Kierkegaard’s The Concept of Irony.[vii] In positing that irony is absolute negation, Kierkegaard alerts us to the fact that the ironic statement refuses to take a stance. Logically speaking, every negation affirms its own negative: it claims that the opposite is true. Absolute negation, however, refuses to affirm precisely by affirming both the statement and its contrary. As such, it problematizes the idea of veracity and forces the person confronted by it to choose which truth he will accept. Such a choice is forced to be deliberate, and must constantly be made. In a remarkably astute observation, Paul De Man states “An ironic temper can dissolve everything in an infinite chain of solvents. It is not irony but the desire to understand irony that brings such a chain to a stop.” This is why Kierkegaard also refers to irony as a ‘constant beginning.’ The reader/listener begins anew with every choice he makes, and begins differently if he chooses differently. Herein lies the performative aspect of irony.[viii] It must speak, must promise, and must reveal, but in doing so, it must negate everything it says, everything it promises, everything it reveals. And so, in every instance, the ironic utterance speaks in silence: it speaks without speaking, refutes by affirming, and erases through iteration. In dealing with the ‘con-fusion’ of opposites, the ironic points to an understanding that cannot be expressed.

While it would be erroneous to claim that Sassoon’s poems are predominantly ironic, it is undeniable that the way in which he uses it engages the reader in a manner that his other poems do not.

In “Break of Day”[ix] (1918) there are two situations presented. The first one is a dream in which a soldier finds himself riding in a dusty Sussex lane. Carefree and absolved of pain, he notes that the fields are glimmering and “willows shed their watery sounding leaves” and “the earth is telling its old peaceful tale.”

The second situation, the overarching real situation that pervades the narrative, is that the soldier is critically injured, coughing, and lies in a dank and musty dug out, bloodied and exhausted. It is this condition that corresponds to the context of the poem, thus creating its circumstantial irony. The previous situation was a dream and serves to emphasize the discord.

Siegfried Sassoon manuscript - 'The General'

The element of dreams (frequently escapist in nature) is a recurrent theme in Sassoon’s poems. In “Dreamers” (1918) Sassoon states unambiguously

Soldiers are dreamers; When the guns begin

They think of firelit homes, clean beds, and wives.

His poem “Sick Leave”[x] speaks of how he dreams about his fallen friends, “the homeless ones, the noiseless dead” who come to keep him company. When he awakes, he finds himself “in bitter safety” and “unfriended.” At the end of the poem, he thinks

when are you going out to them again?

 Are they still not your brothers, through our blood?

Again, one finds a sharp disjunction between two opposites: the dream and reality; life and death. Sassoon’s insistence on presenting these disparate situations forces the reader to constantly confront both, and to realize which is the dream and which, reality. In a poem addressed to Robert Graves, titled “A Letter Home,”[xi] Sassoon tells him

War’s a joke for me and you

While we know such dreams are true.

Similarly, in “Sick Leave”, he says of the fallen soldiers he has dreamed of: their thoughts are mine. These comments, in light of his use of dreams, make one wonder whether it is the dream that is used ironically, or the reality. This is a question that the reader is forced to confront: in repeatedly distinguishing between dream and reality, the reader is always alerted to the context of the poems.

Another way in which Sassoon uses irony is when he, rather frankly, speaks against the demonization of the enemy in war. As Fussell says about Memoirs of an Infantry Officer:

Here the irony underlines not only the futility of the war, but—surprisingly—the futility of polarizing ones opposition to it. If the target of hatred in the first volume was war itself, the target of a wonder verging on ridicule in the second is George Sherston himself, and especially his habit … of facile antithesis.[xii]

This idea is present even more forcefully in Sassoon’s poem “Reconciliation.”[xiii] In this poem Sassoon, speaking to the British, asks them to remember the loyal and brave German soldiers even as they remember their own heroes. Pointing out that they have been bred and nourished on hatred, Sassoon says “Men fought like brutes and hideous things were done” indicating that the German soldiers were guilty of doing precisely those things that the British war heroes did. In a moment of great sensitivity and wisdom, Sassoon refuses to assign guilt to any soldier: he recognizes that all soldiers are survivors. This reminds us of  Buchenwald survivor David Rousset’s observation: victim and executioner are equally ignoble; the lesson of the camps is brotherhood in abjection.[xiv] Sassoon seems to recognize the same. He reminds the readers that “in that Golgotha perhaps you will find/ the mothers of the men who killed your son.” It is evident that Sassoon had great respect for soldiers as a class of people: a class that transcends boundaries and ideologies. Against this class he views those people who either glorify war or plan it, but don’t actually fight on the frontline. In “Base Details”[xv] he ridicules army officers and says


If I were fierce and bald and short of breadth

I would live with scarlet majors at the base….

And when war is done and youth stone dead

I would toddle safely home and die—in bed.

One notices the common trope of associating the soldier with youth (one remembers the portrayal of warriors in The Iliad), but Sassoon ridicules the soldiers as well when, in “Repression of War Experience,”[xvi] he compares them to moths who “scorched their wings with glory, liquid flame.” He recognizes the pointless irony inherent in patriotic feeling and he also has no illusions about the fact that glory can take one only so far, and what matters in the end is money. In “I Stood with the dead,”[xvii] he has the speaker tell the soldiers, who he recognizes are as good as dead anyway, to “Fall in for your pay.” The irony here lies in the fact although nothing is achieved through war (no glory, no honour, and clearly no sense of national unity), people still engage in it. This point is driven home most succinctly in “Suicide in Trenches.”[xviii] It is ironic enough that one would commit suicide in a trench, a place where life is so threatened and so desperately defended. In the last lines of the poem, he reviles the very people that the soldiers defend. He says


You smug faced crowds with kindling eye

who cheer when soldier lads march by

sneak home and pray you will never know

the hell where youth and laughter go.

War, then, is not worth fighting, even for the very people you wish to defend: therein lies the irony of the exercise.

Every act of reading involves the reader making numerous decisions or judgments. These decisions may not be deliberate – in some cases, perhaps they’re also unconscious – but they do exist. A striking example of a non-deliberate and unconscious judgment is the assumption that a text is meaningful: that there exists a meaning that we then attempt to understand. In the case of irony, the reader is presented with two situations, one of which is justified by the context. Even though the reader does not have to choose between the two, the fact that he has to appreciate both, decide which is which, and recognize their difference, forces him to engage with them. This is precisely why the use of irony in war poetry is so effective. An alternative to using irony, which works through concealment, is the use of revelation. By revelation we mean the use of rhetoric in order to reveal a “reality” to the reader. In the poem, this “reality” is objective and undeniable, even though its nature is different for different poets. For those who glorify war, like Rupert Brooke, the soldier’s death in a foreign country is an honour because it serves to glorify his country. As Brooke claims, if he should die and be buried in a distant land, he is happy that “there’s some corner of a foreign field that is forever England.”[xix] On the other hand, for a poet like Wilfred Owen, the soldier lives in great misery in order to reiterate that old lie: Dulce et Decorum Est. Again, the rhetorical devices used also differ: Brooke prefers a more melodramatic way of revealing the soldier’s condition while Owen prefers a stark, realistic mode. In both cases, the soldier’s plight is unambiguously revealed. The reader is presented with circumstances which he accepts because he recognizes them. In contrast to this, the ironic mode of presentation refuses to reveal. In fact the irony is conveyed through an unspeakability: it is up to the reader to use the context, make the connections, and come to terms with the poem. In this manner the reader engages with a poem, conscious of the decisions that he has to take. Since this decision requires him to concentrate on the context of the poem, it reinforces the context that the poem wishes to illustrate.


The distinction between revelatory war poetry and ironic war poetry is that between recognition and understanding. In the case of the former, affect is conveyed due to retention and recalling. Certain views (either for or against war) are presented in unfamiliar and affective ways, and the part of the pleasure of the reader lies in recognizing those views despite the different ways in which they are presented. In fact, this is how Fussel views war poetry. This is not to say that the portrayal in such poems is not subtle or nuanced but rather that, since these poems reveal a “reality”, this “reality” is constantly recognized. The affect, and the poet’s opinion of war, is revealed due to this recognition. On the other hand, irony, in refusing to speak unambiguously, forces the reader to decide what the “reality” of the situation is. And in deciding this, the reader arrives at an understanding of the “reality”, an understanding that is not part of the text of the poem itself. In being able to consistently deny its stance, the ironic poem forces the reader to take one, and makes him realize this. The reader must take responsibility for the meaning he assigns to the poem. The best example of this, in our opinion, is Sassoon’s “To Any Dead Officer.”[xx] The irony in this poem is not only palpable, it is suffocating. For starters, the title claims that the poem is addressed to any dead officer: who the officer was or even what his nationality is seems irrelevant. Further, the poem later indicates that the speaker does not even know whether the officer is dead. All that the speaker knows for sure is that the officer was wounded and left in the trench. The poem has a conversational tone and the speaker reveals that he does not know where (in heaven or in hell) the officer is. Ironically, and this is indicated by the use of the phrase “are you there?” the speaker isn’t even sure whether the officer is listening. In contrast to most people of whom poems are written, this officer was neither particularly noble nor recognizably courageous. In fact he was “All out to try and save [his] skin.” The reader is left wondering why is it that the poet chooses this person to speak about. But it is the end of the poem that is truly shocking. The speaker says


I’m blind with tears,

Staring into the dark. Cheero!

I wish they’d killed you in a decent show.

It is here that interpretation becomes particularly difficult for a reader. What does the poet mean by using “cheero!” just after indicating that the speaker is crying in the dark? And is there any decent way of killing soldiers? The more the reader tries to come to terms with the contrast between the breezy conversational surface of the poem and its dark, violent undertones, the more he understands how a soldier lives his life on the front. This understanding cannot be revealed: it must be instigated.

Because revelatory war poetry relies heavily on repetition and recall, it stands a good chance of becoming clichéd. In seeking to show, it must guard itself from desensitizing the reader. An interesting poem to consider here is Sasoon’s “Aftermath.”[xxi] It begins with the question “Have you forgotten yet?” which implies that the horrors of the war are best forgotten. But no sooner does he say this that, in the next stanza, he goes on to implore us not to forget “the nights you watched and wired and dug and piled sandbags on parapets.” And though it begins ironically, the poem continues in a revelatory manner, with a starkness similar to Owen, when it claims


For the world’s events have rumbled on since those gagged days

Like traffic checked awhile at the crossing of city ways

War, here, is being compared to a routine and humdrum event: a traffic signal. It shows how the world has moved on, almost apathetically, since the Great War. The statement, alas, is true despite the immense destruction and loss of lives that resulted. This, then, is an example of Sasoon’s revelatory war poetry, and a rare one at that because it begins as an ironic poem. And the poem is affective precisely because of its starkness.

Revelatory war poetry is very similar to war photography. Susan Sontag points out

“photographs of an atrocity may give rise to opposing responses. A call for peace. A cry for revenge. Or simply the bemused awareness, continually restocked by photographic information, that terrible things happen.”[xxii]


In her book Regarding the Pain of Others Sontag indicates how photographs of human destruction (usually photos of wars and their aftermath) tend to create the illusion of a universal understanding of pain. Like revelatory war poetry, they pretend to portray an objective “reality.” This leads to the false perception of a consensus: a consensus created through iterant recognition. Consequently, such portrayals are rendered ineffective through overexposure. Sontag destroys this pretention by reminding us that photographs ‘always had, necessarily, a point of view.’ This point of view is the context of the photograph; it refers not only to the perspective of the photographer but also the conditions under which the photographs have been taken. It is the context that makes the photograph unique. Ironic war poetry attempts to be unique in a different way. By forcing the reader to confront a context, this kind of poetry creates not a universal understanding but an individual appreciation of pain. Such an appreciation is appropriate because pain itself is inherently non-generic. Consequently the assumption of a universal consensus is not only erroneous but also dangerous because it allows for the justification of retaliatory atrocities. As Sontag wisely points out “No ‘we’ should be taken for granted when the subject is looking at other people’s pain.”[xxiii]

We would like to conclude by looking at the status of soldier/survivor as a witness.

Giorgio Agamben begins his Remnants of Auschwitz by analyzing the status of the survivor as a witness. Here, he says

In Latin there are two words for ‘witness.’ The first word, Testis, from which our word ‘testimony’ derives, etymologically signifies the person who, in a trial or a lawsuit between two rival parties, is in the position of a third party. The second word, superstes, designates a person who has lived through something, who has experienced an event from the beginning to end and can therefore bear witness to it.[xxiv]


We notice that there are two polar opposites: the first, a person who (by definition) is not biased by any experience of the event, and the second, one who has experienced the event in its entirety. The act of bearing witness, Agamben points out, is non-juridical and therefore excludes, in this context, the impartial third person. However, the one who experiences can bear witness only if their experience is complete and authentic. This is where the problem lies. The survivors of Auschwitz, by virtue of being survivors, were automatically exempt from the complete experience. Those who had the complete experience, on the other hand, do not possess the ability to speak. We are alerted to the irony of the fact that the speakers can bear witness only inauthentically and the silent can be represented, again, only inauthentically. We recognize this irony again in war poetry. The poets who write bear witness largely to events that they cannot have experienced in their entirety. The ones who have experienced cannot speak. For instance, when Sassoon ironically asserts that it does not matter if a soldier loses his legs because people are always kind to war veterans, we are aware of the fact that he himself had all his limbs intact. So the question is, how does the war poet escape judgment on the inauthenticity of his experience? With respect to testimony, Agamben says

“testimony is the disjunction between two impossibilities of bearing witness; it means that language, in order to bear witness, must give way to a non-language in order to show the impossibility of bearing witness.”[xxv]

The use of irony in war poetry might be a way to circumvent the problem of inauthentic experience. Precisely because the ironic utterance refuses to commit to a stance, the question of judging the authenticity of the stance does not arise. The speechlessness of the ironic poet does not indicate a lack of signification; on the contrary, the disjunction between the two situations (and their relative difference) signifies something that neither situation can. This disjunction between the literal and the contextual, between the semiotic and the semantic, opens the space for the non-language through which irony instigates. The ironic utterance of the war poet is in the realm of ethics but not of law. It prevents judgment precisely by evading responsibility. Consequently, the ironic war poem does not assign guilt. It does not reveal who is right or wrong or where the error lies. It does not even seek to alleviate pain or help us come to terms with it. It merely, and with great quietness, gestures to a better life.



[i] Paul Fussell, Great War in Modern Memory (New York: Oxford University Press,1975), 8.

[ii] Siegfried Sassoon, “The Dugout,” The War Poems of Siegfried Sassoon (London: William Heinneman, 1920)35.

[iii] . Ibid. 13

[iv] Ibid. 95

[v] Theodore Adorno, “Culture Critique and Society,” Prisms: Essays in Cultural Criticism and Society, Translated by Shierry Weber Nicholsen and Samuel Weber (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1983) 34.

[vi] Jonathan Swift “A Modest Proposal.” Wikisource. Stable url :

Accessed: 4th November 2014

[vii] Soren Kierkegaard, The Concept of Irony with Continual Reference to Socrates/Notes of Schelling’s Berlin Lectures, Edited and Translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992).

[viii] As De Man says, “Irony also very clearly has a performative function. Irony consoles and it promises and it excuses. It allows us to perform all kinds of performative linguistic functions which seem to fall out of the tropological field.” Paul De Man, “Concept of Irony,” Aesthetic Ideology (London: University of Minnesota Press, 1996) 165.

[ix] Sassoon, op cit. 18

[x] Ibid. 72

[xi] Ibid. 83

[xii] Fussell, op cit. 96

[xiii] Sassoon, op cit. 87

[xiv] David Rousset, quoted in Giorgio Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (New York: Zone Books, 1999) 17.

[xv] Sassoon, op cit. 48

[xvi] Ibid. 75

[xvii] Ibid. 38

[xviii] Ibid. 39

[xix] Rupert Brooke, “The Soldier” 1914 & other Poems (London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1915) 15.

[xx] Sassoon, op cit. 69

[xxi] Ibid. 91

[xxii] Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2003) 13

[xxiii] Ibid. 8

[xxiv] Agamben, op cit. 17

[xxv] Ibid. 39


Avinash Antony is an independent researcher.

Somak Mukherjee is PhD Scholar, Jadavpur University, Kolkata.


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