‘Dreamers’ by Siegfried Sassoon is a two stanza poem that is separated into one set of eight lines, or octave, and another set of six lines, or sestet. The poet, Sassoon, has chosen to utilize the basic rhyming pattern of, ababcdcd, within the first stanza and the scheme of efefef, within the second stanza. These simple patterns allow the story of a soldier’s life to take on a haunting, sing-song-like quality.
A reader should also take note of the various moments of contrast Sassoon makes use of in the text. He defines the horrors inherent to the life of a soldier, particularly one fighting during World War I, and then makes sure a reader empathizes with the men suffering. These moments stand out as the speaker moves from describing rat-infested trenches to “firelit” homes. You can read the full poem here.
Summary of Dreamers
The poem begins with the speaker describing how soldiers reside in the land of death and how their profession makes them subject to a more certain destiny. Throughout the first stanza, the speaker describes the horrors of war, the lack of hope for the future, and the dreams which occupy the minds of soldiers. While the guns go off around them they are dreaming of their homes.
In the second stanza, the speaker expands on the points he made in the first set of lines. He is attempting to engage a reader’s emptiness in regard to the suffering of these men by describing the mundane activities they miss. The soldiers long for the things they once took for granted at home, going to work and playing with “balls and bats.”
Analysis of Dreamers
Soldiers are citizens of death’s grey land,
Drawing no dividend from time’s to-morrows.
Soldiers are dreamers; when the guns begin
They think of firelit homes, clean beds and wives.
In the first stanza of this piece, the speaker begins with a very striking opening line. He is preparing the reader for a description of the life of a soldier and the role they play within the world’s conflicts. This first line…
Soldiers are citizens of death’s grey land,
Speaks of the general state of a soldier’s life and their place within the mind of the narrator. They are residents of a part of the world that is normally reserved only for the dead. It is “death’s grey land” where those who have passed on the walk. This description outlines the fact that the speaker sees soldiers as being so close to death in their everyday lives that they reside alongside those who are already deceased.
The place they live in does not provide for them in any way. There is no “dividend” which one could look forward to “tomorrow.” There is no way to better one’s life, physically, financially or emotionally. The world they reside in is additionally described as playing host to “the great hour of destiny.” Soldiers, by nature of their profession, are intimate with “destiny.” One’s life span as a soldier, especially during the periods of World War I and II (through which Sassoon lived), was not long.
Although the soldiers are deep within death and destiny, each man still has his “feuds, and jealousies” they are still connected to the mundane realities of life.
In the second half of this stanza, the speaker further outlines the life of a soldier. They are “sworn to action.” Their profession requires them to act and ideally, win the “fatal climax with their lives.” Those who command them from afar utilize them to win the “flaming” battles which determine the shape of the world.
In the next two lines, the speaker provides another contrast. He adds complexity to the story of a soldier’s life by saying that they are “dreamers” rather than fighters. While they are surrounded by guns they are dreaming of their “firelit” homes and family members.
I see them in foul dug-outs, gnawed by rats,
And in the ruined trenches, lashed with rain,
Bank-holidays, and picture shows, and spats,
And going to the office in the train.
In the second stanza of this piece the speaker, either from afar or within his mind’s eye, sees the soldiers in position. This stanza is used to make sure a reader is fully aware of the terrors, struggles, and harsh realities of a soldier’s life. The speaker paints an image of the soldiers situated in “foul dug-outs.” They are stuck in these pits being “gnawed” on by the rats which infest the enclosure.
These pits, or “trenches,” are “ruined.” There is nothing redeeming about them. The next lines go through some of the features of these places and the features of the men who are stuck there. The trenches are “lashed,” or pounded with rain. There is no way to escape its onslaught.
The men are trapped within the horrors of their environs and those of their minds. They are,
Dreaming of things they did with balls and bats
Their minds are occupied by memories of childhood, or perhaps playing with their own children. While remembering happier times, the men are “mocked” by the longing they cannot shake to “regain” the mundane routine of their lives at home. They miss the “Bank-holidays, and picture shows.” The “spats,” or arguments, they had in the past as well as the commute to the office are seen as enviable at this point.
Through this piece, the poet is hoping to paint a different image of what a soldier is. He wants to illuminate their inner worlds and increase a reader’s empathy for their plight. Sassoon has chosen to add in the details of the soldier’s past lives in an effort to connect with a reader. If one is able to see their own life within that of another suffering, one will have a greater emotional reaction.