THE BLOG
11/13/2011 09:25 pm ET Updated Jan 13, 2012

Newly Unearthed Poems Shed Light on a Great Soldier-Poet

A biographer has discovered seven unpublished poems by the great World War I poet Siegfried Sassoon. Dr. Jean Moorcroft Wilson found the poems in some of Sassoon's war diaries kept at Cambridge University. Their discovery complicates our understanding of a man best known for being one of a handful of writers who captured the brutal truth of World War I at a time when literature tended to glorify war.

Shortly after arriving at the Western Front, Sassoon wrote one of his most famous poems, "The Redeemer," which captures his realization that the war wouldn't be the glorious and divinely inspired endeavor he thought it would be. The poem finishes with a bitterly ironic moment -- when a man whom Sassoon envisions as Jesus Christ, holding up the burdens of the world, reveals himself to be a soldier. The man flings down his burden and mumbles, "O Christ almighty, now I'm stuck." As with much of Sassoon's poetry, "The Redeemer" seems to make clear that to soldiers like Sassoon who must fight it, war is not divine; it's actually muddy and brutal and can seem inescapable.

But Moorcroft's discovery reveals that Sassoon's view of the war was more complex. While Sassoon did write a flurry of angry, disillusioned poems like "The Redeemer" after his arrival in the trenches in 1915, he hadn't yet completely given up on the glory of the British cause and his part in it. That's clear in this excerpt from one of the newly discovered poems, written in 1916:

You and the winds ride out together
Your company the world's great weather
The clouds your plume, the glittering sky
A host of swords in harmony
With the whole loveliness of light
flung forth to lead you through the fight.

The poem reads like much of the war-glorifying poetry that was popular at the time. Moorcroft was so taken aback by its discovery that she plans to edit her biography of Sassoon. She told the BBC:

It surprised me because we always had this idea that Sassoon, when he went out to France, would have changed instantly from his heroic ideal of war into an anger that burst over into his poetry. But when I found this diary -- after angry war poems -- I found there were poems full of the glory of war and the idea that war is an heroic venture.

Sassoon was one of the lucky ones, surviving the war despite multiple wounds and acts of bravery that earned him a Military Cross. The Canadian John McCrae, whose poem "In Flanders Fields" inspired the practice of wearing poppies as a symbol of honor and remembrance, died of pneumonia while serving in January of 1918. Wilfred Owen, a friend of Sassoon's and another of England's best-known soldier-poets, was killed in battle that same year. The well-regarded World War I poets Isaac Rosenberg, Edward Thomas, Julian Grenfell, and Charles Sorley were also killed in action.

Sassoon died in 1968 at the age of 80. He wrote almost exclusively about his World War I experiences until his old age. His friend Dennis Silk intimated to The Poetry Archive that, late in life, Sassoon was still having nightmares about the trenches. You can listen to Sassoon read his poetry, and hear Silk remember him, here.