Friday, November 7, 2014

You Make Us Shells


Next to Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon is perhaps the most recognized poet of the First World War.  Because I’ve blogged about women's poetry of the war, I wanted to examine Sassoon’s sonnet about women:


Glory of Women

You love us when we're heroes, home on leave,
Or wounded in a mentionable place.
You worship decorations; you believe
That chivalry redeems the war's disgrace.
You make us shells. You listen with delight,
By tales of dirt and danger fondly thrilled.
You crown our distant ardours while we fight,
And mourn our laurelled memories when we're killed.
You can't believe that British troops “retire”
When hell's last horror breaks them, and they run,
Trampling the terrible corpses—blind with blood.
O German mother dreaming by the fire,
While you are knitting socks to send your son
His face is trodden deeper in the mud.

I have a love-hate relationship with this poem.  Critics often describe it as misogynist, and I dislike the way it claims to know how all women think and feel, not just British sisters, mums, and sweethearts, but even German mothers.  There's a lot of anger in the poem, anger directed at women who in these lines are a faceless, undifferentiated mob possessed by fierce, naïve, and oddly erotic patriotism. 

A few months before composing “Glory of Women,” Sassoon wrote in his diary that soldiers returning home to wives and sweethearts should “ask their women why it thrills them to know that they, the dauntless warriors, have shed the blood of Germans.  Do not the women gloat secretly over the wounds of their lovers?  Is there anything inwardly noble in savage sex instincts?” 

Both Sassoon’s poem and journal seem to create a straw (wo)man, a caricature.  Who are these women who gloat over wounds?  And how many women, by 1917, believed that chivalry redeemed the war's disgrace?  At best, we can say that Sassoon seems not to have understood women; in a 1916 diary entry, he wrote that they were “outside my philosophy."  

The words of actual women writing during the war tell a different story,* describing the grief and horror they felt in learning of wounds that maimed and disfigured those they loved.  Vera Brittain’s poem “To My Brother,” says “Your battle-wounds are scars upon my heart”; and in “Pluck,” Eva Dobell writes,” “Crippled for life at seventeen,/His great eyes seem to question why;/With both legs smashed it might have been/Better in that grim trench to die/Than drag maimed years out helplessly.” 

Nothing in these poems suggests “delight” or “fondly thrilled” admiration of heroes’ wounds.  

And yet “Glory of Women” has one of my favorite lines in WWI poetry:  “You make us shells.”  The terse four-word sentence is packed with explosive meaning:  women worked in munitions factories assembling the artillery weapons that exploded men’s bodies and ripped apart flesh with horrific shrapnel wounds.  Shells and mortars, rather than bullets or gas, were responsible for the majority of casualties during the war (some sources estimate nearly 60%), and women were the ones who made the weapons.  As well, women’s attempts to support, love, and encourage their soldiers were often wholly inadequate in bridging the immense gap of experience between those who had been at the Front and those who had not. 

The poem also skillfully challenges traditional and dualistic thinking about the war.  Staring at the reality of modern industrial warfare, it mocks the values of chivalry, propriety, and modesty (“mentionable place”).  Its language complicates and blurs the lines between conventional opposites-- heroism and cowardice (the contrast between “decorations” and “disgrace”), glory and horror (to “retire” and to “run”), and British virtue and German evil (the rapid shift of the last three lines turns from attacking British women to disparaging the hopes and efforts of a German mother). 

Yet in the end, despite its challenge to traditional dualistic thinking, the poem falls into the same trap it so harshly criticizes, as it finds only a new enemy to stereotype and demonize:  women. 

*Sassoon isn’t the only one to challenge the cruelty of women’s ardent patriotism:  many women themselves criticized those who had joined The Order of the White Feather.  In her poem “The Jingo Woman,” Helen Hamilton describes her loathing for the “Dealer in white feathers,/Insulter, self-appointed,” saying “Oh! Exasperating woman,/I’d like to wring your neck,/I really would!/You make all women seem such duffers!”



4 comments:

  1. He really sounds like he doesn't like women.

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    1. At the local Remembrance Day exhibition in Topsham, I read a story that provides some context for Sassoon's comments and poem. Here's the exhibit's story: "Born in Clyst St. George, Edward John (Ned) Parsons....enlisted in the Devonshire Regiment 7th Division and served in France and Italy....During the war, whilst on leave from France, he dressed in civvy clothes to take the train to Exeter to meet some army pals for a drink and evening out. On arrival at Exeter, he politely held the carriage door open for two young ladies who had travelled in the same carriage. As they got out, one of them placed a white feather in his jacket breast pocket. He was apparently so taken aback that he was struck completely dumb while the two ladies walked proudly on their way."

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  2. Indeed what an effective double-entendre: 'you make us shells'. Meaning, one, you (women, back home) are manufacturing shells for us who are here at the front. And, two, you turn us into shells, perhaps by pressurizing us to go to War.

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    1. Yes --the double-entendre also reminds me of TS Eliot's use a few years later (1925) of the phrase "hollow men."

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