Re-Reading Siegfried Sassoon: Everybody Sang, by Petra Kuppers

‘Everybody Sang’ is Sassoon’s most famous poem, and according to some critics, supposedly written in celebration of Armistice Day, 1919, just before he found out that his friend Wilfred Owen had died in the last week of fighting. Sassoon had been treated for shell shock and war neurosis in one of the UK’s most experimental war trauma facilities, the psychiatric unit at Craiglockhart, and had sustained physical wounds during his time at the Western Front. In his autobiography, Siegfried’s Journey, Sassoon gives an account of the writing of this poem:

"One evening in the middle of April I had an experience which seems worth describing for those who are interested in methods of poetic production. It was a sultry spring night. I was feeling dull-minded and depressed, for no assignable reason. After sitting lethargically in the ground-floor room [at Weirleigh, his mother's home] for about three hours after dinner, I came to the conclusion that there was nothing for it but to take my useless brain to bed. On my way from the arm-chair to the door I stood by the writing-table. A few words floated into my head as though from nowhere. In those days I was always on the look-out for a lyric - I wish I could say the same for my present self - so I picked up a pencil and wrote the words on a sheet of note-paper. Without sitting down, I added a second line. It was if I were remembering rather than thinking. In this mindless manner I wrote down my poem in a few minutes. When it was finished I read it through, with no sense of elation, merely wondering how I had come to be writing a poem when feeling so stupid." (140)

Later on, Sassoon talked about the poem as ‘an expression of release’. Even later, he also likened ‘the singing that will never be done’ to the coming of the Socialist Revolution. So, to many people, this is a poem of peace rather than war. But when I follow its song, I hear a remembering rather than a look into a future, ‘with no sense of elation,’ yet I read a poem still alive and powerful to many today.

      Siegfried Sassoon
      Everybody Sang

      Everyone suddenly burst out singing;
      And I was filled with such delight
      As prisoned birds must find in freedom
      Winging wildly across the white
      Orchard and dark-green fields; on; on; and out of sight.

      Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted,
      And beauty came like the setting sun.
      My heart was shaken with tears; and horror
      Drifted away … O but every one
      Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing
      will never be done.

In the field of everyone, an ‘I’’s space is precarious: filling, lapped, or shaken with liquids, with tears. Expansion and limitation are the gate poles between which a poem weaves like a song, criss-crossing lands and times. Forces pull outwards, leaving bodies and words as birds, these ancient symbols of souls, set themselves into the wind.

Sassoon is a war-poet, and these bordering liquids in this landscape of song’s joy appear red to me. I hear a body brimming, just waiting to be pierced, to burst in pain, to ebb into a tide, blood shed in wars, seeping into the muddy earth of Belgian fields. Reading the poem on a soggy autumn day, on an evening where the news speaks once again of wars on foreign fields, this redness stains white orchards. Those orchards: what grows here? I hear the feather touch of April’s apple blossoms and their veined delicacy, and I hear the heavy grainy smoothness of bleaching bone yards, wide fields seeded with soldiers’ bodies, marked with white wooden crosses that sprout no leaves. The redness merges for me with the sound echo of wine-dark seas, the Odyssey’s image of a forlorn ocean that tosses men in a different immensity.

‘The singing will never be done:’
I hear the keening voices of Greek professional mourners, women paid to swaddle the dead in cloth, and sway in the rhythm of their own voices. Clad in black, these woman sit by the side of the Orthodox chapel on Rhodes, dusty sandals on cobblestones, and walking by, I feel as if in a different world, my own woman’s body so different from their tightly bound forms, me so much the tourist, so expansive, so marked out in my colorful clothes. The sound of my passing feet grows hesitant, diminished, against their sound, this note of impersonal grief, filling that public square, on; on; beyond meaning: that singing is foreign.


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