Week 7 – The Skyscraper of War, Part 1

I’m going to divide this up into sections. No one wants to sit through all of WWI in one go. This first half’s all one war poem. Have fun.


I was given most of a poem with some options at points between two words. I had to pick whichever word I’d use. Here it is, with the subjective words in bold.

The Rear-Guard

Groping along the tunnel, step by step,

He flashed his prying torch with patching glare

From side to side, and sniffed the unwholesome air.

Tins, boxes, bottles, shapes too vague to know,

A mirror smashed, the mattress from a bed;

And he, exploring fifty feet below

The rosy gloom of battle overhead.

Tripping, he grabbed the wall; saw someone lie

Slumped at his feet, half-hidden by a rug,

And stooped to give the sleeper’s arm a tug.

“I’m looking for headquarters.” No reply.

“God blast your neck!” (For days he’d had no sleep.)

“Get up and guide me through this stinking place.”

Savage, he kicked a soft, shapeless heap,

And flashed his beam across the livid face

Terribly staring up, whose eyes yet wore

Pain dying hard ten days before;

And fists of fingers clutched a blackening wound.

Alone he staggered on until he found

Dawn’s ghost that filtered down a shafted stair

To the dazed, muttering creatures underground

Who hear the boom of shells in muffled sound.

At last, with sweat of horror in his hair,

He climbed through darkness to the twilight air,

Unloading hell behind him step by step.

Now I have to read the ‘real’ one, and the questioning begins:

Why did you choose the words you did?

I chose based on whatever held the atmosphere best in my mind. ‘Winked’ to me just didn’t sound like a thing that happened in a warzone. I don’t think at any point during a battle has anybody used the word ‘wink’ for anything. Just sayin’…

Why do you think Sassoon chose the words he did?

Mostly to fit inside a strict 10-11 syllable line structure it seems. Maybe I should have read it in iambic pentameter? This is in contrast to the rhyming structure, which lacks any consistency at all – swapping from abab to abba seamlessly. Can’t tell if it’s modernist or just plain weird…

What is the impact of the words?

The words themselves are good. They give off an atmosphere that, whilst fluid and changing, carries an overall feel of distress and despair. It makes us feel as if we are part of a feat of endurance – walking down this tunnel to the other side, all these horrible things happening all around. We have to reach the end. In a way I guess this helps keep the reader hooked, though whether this was the actual objective is not something I’d put money on.

At first everything is quiet. It’s dark and threatening and confusing, but quiet. We never know where we’re going or why we’re here. ‘Uncle Sam says DO AS YOU’RE TOLD’ – (I almost wish that was a real slogan. The social commentary potential…) Moving right along. It starts quiet, but the arrival of the sleeper and the description of his appearance adds urgency. Suddenly the tunnel is filled with huddled wrecks, and we hear shells exploding up ahead. When we read something we are in a vacuum. As we read, the vacuum fills. The scene is described. We have a world in our heads.

We have a world, but no explanation for it. It’s in the war, but the narrator could be on either side. They’re going somewhere. We empathize with the narrator, so we too feel like we’re walking down this tunnel. We have no idea why. Horrible things are happening all around us. Why are we here? What’s happening?

The impact of the words is an image of some horrible experiences. And the kicker I guess is that it all happened.

Where is the rear-guard? What is going on above him?

He’s in a tunnel, with a war going on over his head. He can hear shells exploding outside. When I think ‘rear guard’ I assume it’s someone who guards the rear. Maybe the soldier in charge of watching the way they came from. Last in line, everyone else far ahead, trying to get to headquarters and safety.

What is it like in the tunnel? Pick out some of the words or phrases which help describe the tunnel.

Most of the scene setting is done in the first stanza. The use of ‘his prying torch’ tells us that the tunnel is dark. We smell the ‘unwholesome air.’ Our surroundings are a clutter of objects, ‘shapes too vague to know.’ It’s dark, a confusion of shrapnel left behind in some abandoned outpost at the back of the tunnel. We are in a war. Apart from this knowledge we are displaced. No country, no surroundings, no purpose. These things do not matter to the rear guard. He is a soldier. He goes where he’s told. We walk through hell and we do not know why.

The rear-guard meets a sleeper in the tunnel. What does he look like? What has happened to him?

“It is preferable not to travel with a dead man.”

I don’t know who said that; I just stole it off the movie Dead Man. I figure that’s where they got the name. Either way it’s a cool quote.  Basically just there to assist a tangent on the sentence ‘the sleeper is dead.’

The sleeping man is in a lot of ways the embodiment of the horrors of war. The tunnel is unpleasant. The sleeping man is horrifying. The soldier trips over his prone body, kicks him, yells at him – only to point his torch downward and see ‘the sleeper’ clutching at his own rotting wounds. He died here. The soldier is not safe. He thought he’d found someone to guide him home. Instead he has found this. He is alone.

“It is preferable not to travel with a dead man.”

At the end of the poem the rear guard leaves the tunnel. What is the tunnel compared with in the last line? What point is the poet making here?

‘Unloading hell behind him step by step.” I feel like I should be looking for something less obvious than a ‘war is hell’ message – but really back in the day that was probably avant-garde enough. We’re examining poetry’s part in the big tidal shift of public opinion over the war.  That’s this week’s thing. This poem, if released to a mass media brought up on war stories and patriotism – a nation built on the valuing of one’s life below that of the rock you spent it on – the effect would be devastating.

Siegfried Sassoon was born into this. He went to war driven by patriotism. This story actually happened – if not to him then to somebody else. A lot of somebodies.

Everyone sailed off thinking what a great big adventure it would be. How glorious and wonderful it was. Then they came back and warned the rest of us.

‘War is hell.’


One thought on “Week 7 – The Skyscraper of War, Part 1

  1. Yes. War was certainly hell and it was a kind patriotic hysteria that drove young naive men off to fight. There was an exaggerated sense of duty in the community in general…think of the way that conscientious objecters and those who were just plain scared of participating in the war with the blood & the mud & the mustard gas were shamed, vilified by even their nearest & dearest.
    It was a bad time!

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