The aim of this essay is to present you with the comparison and contrast of two specific poems. The poems which will be presented in this essay are ‘Dreamers’ written by Siegfried Sassoon and ‘Before Action’ written by Lieutenant William Noel Hodgson.
Both poems are considered to belong to the group of those poems which were written within the socio-historical context, which was created during and after the World War I (28 July 1914 – 11 November 1918). The aim of this essay is to present you with the analysis of the thematic core of each poem, the literary devices of each one of them, their imagery and language use, their rhyme and their meaning. The presentation will be structured in such a way that the comparison of both poems in terms of their differences and potential similarities will be drawn. Reflections will also be drawn on how the same event can be depicted by two artists, writers and/or poets in a totally different way. Last but not least, the difference and ambiguity of the society which bore the double-sided behavior towards that War will be highlighted as well, since both poems represent their era.
Since poetry is considered to reflect the era within which it is born and produced, it is easily understood that both poems of this essay are a mirror upon which the First World War is reflected. Each one of these poems derives from the experiences and feelings which were experienced on behalf of the people who lived the terror and fright of the First World War.
The First World War was the first time in which people all over the world realized what a War means. Apart from the extremely high number of the people who lost their lives in the battlefield, the First World War brought people, governments and countries face to face with the ugliness which fighting and violence bears.
The poverty, the disaster of natural resources and human sources, the worldwide disaster and the darkness of misery which covered the whole humanity, were the terrifying nightmares of those who survived the War. The forthcoming generation seemed to have been extremely influenced by the terror and disaster of the war and showed a kind of devotion to the idea of the harmonic and peaceful co-existence.
Nevertheless, there were those who were in favor of the War and supported its necessity till its ending. Any kind of social and historical event generates lots of heated debate, and usually separates people and societies in two different sides. There are those who are characterized as the fans of something and on the other side there are those who are characterized as the opponents.
This is the image which one reader can get from the reading of both poems. Each one of these poems represents a different aspect of the same historical event, the one of the First World War. One poet appears to have been affected by the First World War in such a way that he believes in his disastrous power and useless existence. On the contrary, the other poet seems to have been greatly influenced by the belief that the War took place in the name of a high ideal and as a result, he appears to support it and build a kind of hymn to it.
Poetry is the mirror of its period and this is what readers get from the reading of these two poems. There are two different aspects under which readers can see the First World War. There are two different visual perspectives which can be used in order to witness the way in which the whole society of the early twentieth century was torn apart in front of that war. There were those who believed that the War took place in the name of high ideals and ethical principles and there were also those who believed that the War was the result of a governmental game.
The poems ‘Dreamers’ by Siegfried Sassoon and ‘Before Action’ by Lieutenant William Noel Hodgson, are these two, totally contradicting and different, visual perspectives.
Siegfried Sassoon builds a lyric poem which talks about the way soldiers feel in the battlefield. The title of the poem prepares the readers that its context is probably romantic and it certainly has something to do with the process of dreaming. Dreaming is a word which signifies a romantic procedure in which people usually think of something they wish and they long but they do not seem able to have. Siegfried is going to talk about some ‘Dreamers’. Who are these ‘Dreamers?’ is the immediate indirect question which crosses the mind of the readers of his poem.
The answer is given by the poet by the first line of the first stanza. ‘Soldiers are citizens of death’s gray land’ (line 1). So, the reader suspects that the soldiers mentioned by the poet are the dreamers he is going to talk about. And the death’s gray land is the battlefield. Sassoon builds the image of the soldiers who find themselves in the battlefield where death prevails.
Most soldiers die. But what Sassoon wishes to emphasize on, is not the death which is awaiting at the corner for soldiers to come. He wishes to emphasize on what is going on in the minds of the soldiers who have found themselves in the battlefield.
In lines 3 and 4 of his poem he writes ‘In the great hour of destiny they stand, / Each with his feuds, and jealousies, and sorrows.’ (lines 3-4). What does Sassoon want to tell his readers? He wants to give them the reality of his soldiers who are dreamers. His soldiers share a common fate. They are taking part in this war and this is their great hour of their own destiny. This is the common social belief of Sassoon’s period. People were driven to this war because they were convinced that their participation in the war was something great and of high ethical value. Young people of that time were convinced that they were meant to take part in that war and fight for the honor of their own country, of their nation and of their families and beloved ones. Most soldiers were very young and were drawn to that war because they believed that this was their holy duty. This is what Sassoon wishes to emphasize on, so that readers realize the common psychological state of the leading figures of his poem.
There is not one protagonist in Sassoon’s poem but there are some anonymous soldiers. These soldiers take flesh and blood in the readers’ eyes because their description is given very vividly on behalf of the poet. They are standing alive in front of the poem’s readers. They are there in the battlefield and they are all closely bonded together by their common destiny, which they have decided to serve. But their bond is not only their destiny. Their most significant bond is their psychological situation. The poet states it clearly. They are all carrying in themselves their ‘feuds, and jealousies, and sorrows.’ (line 4).
The jealousies, the feuds and the sorrows are the feelings they experienced before they went to take part in the war. The soldiers are people who led their lives before they went to the war. These lives were like the lives of common mortals. Each individual’s life has its own bad and good moments. So, this is not a surprise. Or, at least it should not be a surprise. These soldiers had experienced their own bad moments in their own lives. But this does not mean that their lives were bad. Because bad and good are the two sides of the double-sided same coin.
Readers read that ‘Soldiers are sworn to action; they must win’ (line 5). So, these soldiers carry their own personal burden from their past before they came to enter this war. But regardless of their burden, they are now sworn to do something very important. They are here to perform their holy duty. They are in the battlefield in order to win. This is a piece of knowledge which the soldiers have. They have not forgotten why they are in the battlefield. But something unexpected happens. Something curious and unpredictable takes place, the moment that the soldiers fire their guns.
In lines 7 and 8 the readers come face to face with the paradox which is taking place in the soldiers’ souls. They have fired their guns and they have begun fighting but they are conquered by their nostalgia for their homes. The poet says ‘Soldiers are dreamers; when the guns begin / They think of firelit homes, clean beds, and wives. (lines 7 and 8). What is that supposed to say to the readers? Sassoon wishes to shed light upon the mysterious, unknown maze of the human soul. These soldiers who have taken place in this war are tortured by their own, personal torture. The torture that the poet is talking about is not the fear of their death. The torture which is the nightmare of the soldiers is their feeling of missing home.
The soldiers appear to have realized and accepted fully their destiny and their holy duty. They seem to have been convinced that they ought to take part in this war and fight with all their strength and soul. But at the same time, the soldiers appear to have come face to face with their soul’s dreams. The soldiers are dreamers because they have been dreaming of their homes. They have been dreaming of what they have left behind them. They have been thinking of their beloved ones, of their surroundings, of the warmness and safety of their homes. These are the reasons why they have decided to fight for but unfortunately they will not probably be given the chance to enjoy them, even if they win. The most possible thing to happen to them in their future is their imminent death. So, their reasons for fighting have automatically turned into far away dreams, lost somewhere in the Dreamland of their dreams.
There seems to be a very strong allegory on which this poem is based. Sassoon focuses on the fact that these soldiers of the First World War are dreamers not only because they think of their lives and what they left behind, but because they are too naïve to believe that they could stand a chance to find everything they left behind after the end of the War.
There is this kind of technique applied by Sassoon in order to convey deep meanings through this allegorical images. The soldiers of his poem are dreamers because they have started realizing that they do not stand a chance to find what they left behind.
The war is cruel and shows no sympathy. The war is not just a fight in which one has to stand up for his family and independence. This war is the worst slavery of all. This war has enslaved all those soldiers who took part in it and has deprived them of their right and freedom to enjoy life. They have no other option than to find shelter in the healing power of their dreams. They try hard to keep alive in their minds the images and the icons of their past lives before the war broke out. This is what they carry in their minds. They know that it is an illusion f they believe that they have the slightest chance to regain what they had. And they know that because they have started feeling to the fullest the terror and the disastrous power of the war. This war will destroy the whole humanity, so the poet says it clearly in the lines of his second and last stanza
‘I see them in foul dug-outs, gnawed by rats, / And in the ruined trenches, lashed with rain, / Dreaming of things they did with balls and bats, / And mocked by hopeless longing to regain / Bank holidays, and picture shows, and spats / And going to the office in the train’. (lines 9-14).
All the ordinary things and moments of one’s everyday life has turned into a faraway dream which has no chance of becoming true. Unfortunately, this is what these soldiers experience. The things to which they paid no attention and they had no chance of becoming important in their lives, have suddenly become valuable. These things and habits of one’s everyday life which are usually criticized badly by people, have automatically become valuable dreams.
People tend to complain about the misery of their everyday lives which is mainly caused by the routine and the repetition of their customary, obligatory, everyday duties. They live their lives hoping for something extreme to happen which may give them some excitement. People seem to have been living their lives without really living them. This is another basic idea of the ‘Dreamers’ and its thematic core. But when something worse happens, then people suddenly see the light of the apocalypses. They realize that what they had been complaining about was as nice and valuable as a dream.
This poem reminds readers of what is usually said but rarely applied in the mentality of people. Most of the times people cannot value what they have. Only if people lose something they have, they stand a chance of realizing its real value. This is what has happened to these dreamers of Sassoon’s poem.
Sassoon’s language and imagery are equally powerful to the thematic core of his poem. All his literary devices serve the main message of his theme. Siegfried Sassoon uses alliteration which makes the sound of his words and verses very intense and gives them their own unique, powerful voice. In the first line he applies alliteration with the use of the letter ‘s’ in the word ‘soldiers’ and the use of the letter ‘c’ in the word ‘citizens’. Similarly in the second line, there is the alliteration of the letter ‘d’ and the letter ‘t’ in the words ‘drawing’ and ‘dividend’ and ‘time’s tomorrows’. The use of alliteration covers all the poem along with the use of metaphor and personification as well.
There is strong irony all over the poem as well, which serves the allegorical meaning of the poem. The poet shows what happens to the soldiers. The soldiers who appear in the first stanza to be serving their goal and holy duty with high devotion, are another kind of soldiers in the second stanza. They are seeing things for what they really are. And things are not what they appeared to be. The soldiers realize that the ideal is what they miss because their holy duty is not so holy after all. The cost of human lives and all the disastrous effects of the war make them wander on what the real holy duty is really about. The irony is used very cleverly on behalf of the poet who resembles the transportation to the office by train to a dream. How dreamful could commuting to work be? However, this is what the poet states. This is a dream. And this is why this war proves out to be one of the worst mistakes in the human history.
Sassoon himself had served in the First World War. His own experiences as an English soldier who fought in the battlefield of France are said to have been the inspiration for this poem. Sassoon fought under very heavy and brutal circumstances and he finally managed to survive a heavy fire and save his own life. But he certainly witnessed the death of lots of his comrades. He was awarded a medal because of his heroic action to save one of his wounded comrades during one of the fights in which he had taken part.
Nevertheless, it is obvious that his poetry is written on his behalf in such a way that the terror and ugliness of the war is shown to people. He appears to be treating the war and the commitment of all those who were carried into it, a bit ironically. He appears to express this very vividly in this poem, the ‘Dreamers’. Since he shows how everything ordinary, simple and meaningful turned into a dream in the battlefield, he manages to show that the brutality of this war is so intense.
Sassoon shows that even the simplest things are automatically turned into the best dreams ever, which can be the reasons why one ought to keep on living and fight on an everyday basis, in the name of the completion of his personal goals.
The second poem, ‘Before Action’, written by Lieutenant William Noel Hodgson is a poem which approaches the issue of the First World War under a totally different perspective.
Lieutenant Hodgson is said to have joined and served his duty in the First World War like Siegfried Sassoon. He has not shared the same fate with Sassoon thought in terms of his life duration. He was killed in a battle in June 1916. He served with the 9th Battalion in the Region of Devonshire and he was killed in the Battle of the Somme. The Battle took place on 1st July 1916, and the poem ‘Before Action’ is considered according to the literary critics to have been written two days before that battle took place. Therefore, the pome ‘Before Action’ is acknowledged to have been the last poem of Hodgson and written on 29th June.
The poem is the psychological portrait of a soldier. The soldier here is one whereas in Sassoon’s poem readers meet lots of soldiers. In addition, here the soldier is the poet himself. So, the soldier is a known figure which can more easily cause feelings of intimacy to the readers in contrast to the anonymity of the soldiers of Sassoon’s poem.
In addition, Hodgson’s poem is considered to be something like a prayer. It is the prayer of a soldier, the poet himself, towards God. This prayer according to the tile ‘Before Action’ is taking place just a few minutes or hours before the battle begins. The first stanza finishes with the bottom line of the soldier’s prayer ‘By all the days that I have lived / Make me a soldier, Lord’. (lines 7-8).
So, Hodgson addresses his Lord and hopes for something to happen. He wants to become a Soldier. But the intriguing question arises. Isn’t he a soldier? Since he is there, in the battlefield and he is preparing to take part in a battle which is about to begin in any minute, why is he praying to be made a soldier by God? This is the intriguing question which is serving the main goal of the poet.
The thematic core of the poem is the lust of the soldier to serve his duty the best way he can. There seems to be a certain lyric atmosphere covering the whole poem and this atmosphere has nothing in common with the atmosphere of Sassoon’s poem, ‘Dreamers’.
The soldier seems eager to serve his duty. He appears to have been admiring the beauty of nature and the poet uses a very powerful, full of lyricism language to describe the natural surroundings in which he has found himself. Readers feel as if they are there and they are looking in their own eyes at the vivid colors of the valleys, at the strength and respect which is generated by the surrounding hills and at the whole natural beauty which seems to have flooded the poet’s soul.
The poet is not looking at anything bad or ugly. He looks at this beauty which is surrounding him and he is thinking that this is how his life has been up to now. All the days he has lived seem to have been lived within the borders of an overwhelming beauty. This beauty of nature calms readers and provides them with a sense of calmness and safety. In contrast to ‘Dreamers’, readers of ‘Before Action’ are not conquered by any ugly image or anxiety.
The poem becomes even more interesting in its second stanza. ‘By all the man’s hopes and fears / and all the wonders poets sing, / The laughter of unclouded years, / And every sad and lovely thing;/ By the romantic ages stored/ With high endeavour that was his, / By all his mad catastrophes /Make me a man, O Lord’. (second stanza, lines 9-16).
The poet goes on expressing his admiration towards life’s mystery and beauty. He addresses his Lord once more and now he asks him to be given the gift of being a Man. But isn’t the poet a man? Yes, he is but he wants to make sure that he will keep on being a man, now that the real action of the battle is about to take place.
The last stanza is the ultimate hymn to the splendor and the glory of this war in which the poet has decided to take part. The poet seems to be aware of the fate which is awaiting for him in his imminent future. This is a great similarity between the poem of Sassoon ‘Dreamers’ and the poem of Hodgson ‘Before Action’. Both protagonists of both poems seem to be consciously aware of what is awaiting for them in the corner. They have taken part in a deadly war so the most possible thing to happen to them is their death.
But there is a major contrast between the two poems. The soldiers in the poem of Sassoon, ‘Dreamers’, do not seem to enjoy their forthcoming death. The reason is not their fear of it. The real reason is the fact that they have managed to finally see the brutality of the war for what it really is. So, they have realized that this war does not worth their death. There seems to be a deep realization on behalf of the soldiers of the first poem, ‘Dreamers’. They have realized a global, modern and worldwide acknowledged belief. They have realized that there is no war worth anyone’s death. A human life is too valuable to be sacrificed in the name of anyone’s interest as developed within the outbreak of a war.
This is something similar to nowadays’ ideal as far as life on earth is concerned. No people should be threatened in any way so as to result in using war and its cruelty as a method in order to manage and gain what they wish or even what they are entitled to. People ought to have realized that in a war, there are always defeats and no real victories. This is what Sassoon seems to wish to focus on.
On the other hand, Hodgson seems to have been faithful to the ideals of older generations who thought that bravery was the ultimate value in one’s life. Hodgson represents the belief which signified bravery as the heroic death in the battlefield in the name of the country’s protection, in the name of the protection and independence of one’s nation, one’s religion and one’s beloved persons.
But this is not what wars have finally turned out to be about. And this is what Sassoon highlights in a very effective way since he manages to show the inversion of the same persons within his two stanzas. It only took them two stanzas in order to manage and see the brutality of the war and its disastrous power. Whereas, in ‘Before Action’ the soldier keeps on in three stanzas hymning the beauty of life and nature, and the beauty of a heroic death in the battlefield.
In contrast to the soldiers of ‘Dreamers’, in ‘Before Action’, this soldier does not appear to have the slightest problem with his death. He prays to God to help him be a Man and fight even better, reaching perfection in the battlefield. Why is this? Because the beauty of nature is seen as the perfect place to end his life. The soldier in ‘Before Action’ does not appear to think anything more beautiful than dying in the name of his duty. He wants to die and he thinks that this is the ultimate beauty he could ever live.
So, in contrast to the soldiers of ‘Dreamers’ who appear to have witnessed the ugliness of the War while fighting in it, this soldier in ‘Before action’ appears to have seen nothing else but the beauty of his holy goal and duty. The War seems beautiful to his eyes. This is not because he likes death. But this is because he loves to die for a holy cause. And the reason for his fighting in the First World War is the ultimate value in one’s life. The soldier of ‘Before Action’ represents those soldiers who remained ‘buried’ in the false belief that if the cause is an ethical value, then the war is acceptable and necessary.
In contrast to the soldiers of the first poem who seem to hold a more humanitarian attitude and mentality since they have realized that no cause could ever make a war beautiful, the soldier of ‘Before Action’ appears to have been so highly influenced by all the things he had been told, in order to be persuaded to take part in this world, that he fails to see the disastrous effects of the war.
The soldier of the poem by Hodgson ends his prayer by asking God to help him die in the battlefield. ‘Must say good-bye to all of this; -/ By all delights that I shall miss,/ Help me to die, O Lord.’ (lines 22-24).
It is clear that the feeling of the duty is more than just planted within the soul of Hodgson’s soldier. He is convinced that he ought to say goodbye to the beauty of the nature around him. As much as he loves watching the mystery of nature and its beauty, he also loves dying in the name of his holy ideal, his being brave in the battlefield.
The soldier of Hodgson wants to sacrifice himself. He has found the reason why one ought to sacrifice his life. Although life is considered to be the ultimate gift which human beings are provided with, there seems to be an even greater gift which appears to be possible to be given by God as well.
This is the gift that the soldier of ‘Before Action’ is asking for. He wishes to be given the gift to die while performing his heroism. The poet appears to be making his farewell to everything alive around him. It could be argued that the poet has realized that he is about to die. He appears to have suspected of his forthcoming death and this is why he seems so obsessed with saying goodbye to nature and life on earth.
Hodgson uses a number of various poetic devices like Sassoon, in order to make his message clear. All the poetic appliances which are applied on his behalf serve his goal more than efficiently and they manage to give to this poem a unique voice.
Readers feel like they have Hodgson in front of them today. It is as if readers feel that they have a young man standing in front of them, conquered by his passion to be a perfect soldier. They read this poem and they feel that they are listening to the monologue of that young soldier who lost his life at the age of 23.
The Rhyme of the poem is one of the literary devices applied by Hodgson. ‘By all the glories of the day/And the cool evening’s benison,/By that last sunset touch that lay / Upon the hills where day was done,/’ (lines 1,2,3,4) Hodgson writes in the beginning of his poem and this is how he keeps on writing it.
The use of metaphor and personification is also very vivid. Hodgson uses the common metaphor of the sunset signifying not only the end of a day but also the end of one’s life. This metaphor may be quite known but this does not mean that it is not successfully integrated and used in the poem ‘Before Action’.
The ‘unclouded years’ of this man’s life up to now has provided him with lots of laughter as well. Years are personified and are presented to be laughing like happy, careless people are used to doing. So, the life which the soldier has had up to now, has always been a happy life, filled with laughters, no matter the problems.
Special attention ought to be paid to the tone of this poem. There is not one stable tone all over the poem. Although the poet makes it clear that there is no better thing than his own death in the glorious battlefield, there is always the benefit of a doubt. So, the poet seems thrilled and happy but he also seems to be conquered by this sweet sorrow which comes and enters one’s life when he says goodbye to something he loves.
There has been lots of speculation whether the poet was determined and certain that his death was the best thing to happen to him or not. The way the rhetorical indirect question addressed to God in his last verse of his last stanza, shows that something else may also be going on.
The poet could ask for his death in the name of his bravery. But there is another reason why the poet wishes to die. It may be the sympathy towards all his comrades who keep on losing their lives. So, the poet asks the Lord to help him die, so that he has an alternative in order to find the best way to deal with the loss of his friends.
As a result, the tone of the poem seems happy, lyrical, enthusiastic and romantic whereas there are some moments when the readers may feel that the tone of the poem changes once more into something sadder.
Repetition is also vivid and it is used all over the poem. The beginning of each stanza follows the same motive so that the word ‘by’ puts emphasis on the belief of the soldier and on the strength of his prayer towards God.
Last but not least, the imagery used by Hodgson is equally powerful and a detailed picture of the soldier’s psychological situation is given.
It is clear that both poems share their similarities in terms of their lyricism and poetic devices as well as their passion in putting across their message. But these two poems are totally contradictory in terms of their message and their meaning.
Sassoon appears to have been disgusted by the ugliness of the war and writes this poem so as to inform people on what really went on in the First World War. The soldiers themselves who took part in the war realized that they should never have taken part in that war. On the contrary, Hodgson seems to be the romantic, idealistic person who keeps on believing in the value of a fight. He is convinced that that war was his holy duty and there was no moment that he felt the slightest regret for his fighting in that war.
Hodgson, Noel, William, ‘Before Action’, 29th June, 1916, retrieved from http://www.greatwar.co.uk/poems/william-noel-hodgson-before-action.htm
Medomsley Jack, ‘William Noel Hodgson, The Gentle Poet’, Mel Publications; 1st edition, 1989
Nawale, Ed., Mitra, A.Z. and John A. ‘Comrades-in-Arms: A Very Brief Study of Sassoon and Owen as Twentieth-Century English War Poets. Twentieth-century British Literature: Reconstructing Literary Sensibility.’. New Delhi: Gnosis, 2013 (pp.61–78)
Sassoon Siegfried (1886–1967) ‘Dreamers’ retrieved from http: // www. Poetryfoundation. org /poem/171922
Walter, George ‘The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry’, Penguin Classics, Revised Edition, May 2007
Wilson, Moorcroft Jean ‘Siegfried Sassoon: The Making of a War Poet’, Duckworth 2004
Wilson, Moorcroft Jean, ‘Siegfried Sassoon: The Journey from the Trenches: a biography (1918-1967)’, London, Routledge, 2003