‘Suicide in the Trenches‘ was published in 1918 in Sassoon’s collection, ‘ Counter-Attack and Other Poems’. It explores the soul-destroying psychological effects of the War through the tale of a ‘simple soldier boy’ who took his own life. Typical to the poetry of Sassoon, the crowds that cheered these naïve young soldiers on to War are directly addressed and openly criticized.
Explore Suicide in the Trenches
‘Suicide in the Trenches‘ begins in the English countryside with a young boy determined to fill his life with adventure to overcome the ’empty joy’ he felt. Prior to the war, the young boy led a life of simplicity until life in the trenches stripped him of his youth, mind, and life. The horror and loneliness of the trenches ultimately resulted in the young boy’s suicide. The speaker of the poem points an accusatory finger at the jingoist crowd who encouraged young men to join the war and holds them accountable for this tragic loss of life.
You can read the full poem here.
I knew a simple soldier boy
Who grinned at life in empty joy,
The speaker immediately creates a sense of foreboding, initially created by the title itself, through the use of the past-tense verb ‘knew’. This insinuates that the ‘simple soldier boy’ that the speaker was familiar with, is the victim of the tragic suicide. The ordinariness of the soldier himself is emphasized through the sibilance of the first line and through the adjective ‘simple’. Sassoon intended the soldier to be representative of all men that joined the war. His lack of identity is furthered through the pronoun ‘boy’. Not only does this have connotations of innocence, but emphasizes how soon the soldier was forgotten and how insignificant his death.
The protagonist is described as grinning with ‘joy’. Before enlisting as a soldier, his life was full of happiness enabling him to ‘sleep soundly’. This child-like innocence and blissful ignorance is amplified through the use of rhyming couplets, mimicking the aural quality of a nursery rhyme. The irony implicit within this fact is revealed to the reader later in the poem as it completely juxtaposes the hellish imagery yet to be experienced.
Slept soundly through the lonesome dark,
And whistled early with the lark.
The young boy’s pre-war naivety is developed in these lines, with the sibilance of ‘slept soundly’. This represents the smooth and effortless nights he had that were not filled with the sound of bombs, gunfire, shells etc. Aural imagery is developed in the reference to the ‘whistling’ of the lark – a beautiful sound associated with nature that completely juxtaposes the overwhelming and deafening sounds of war he is yet to face. A ‘lark’ is a traditional symbol of the English countryside. It acts as a further satirical swipe at the patriotic propaganda that persuaded so many ‘simple soldier boys’ to join the army.
The entire stanza is a complete sentence that could further represent the joyfulness and ease of the young boy’s life prior to the war. An end-stop line marks the end of the stanza, creating a finality to his happiness in his pre-war life.
In winter trenches, cowed and glum,
With crumps and lice and lack of rum,
A dramatic shift brings the reader to the hellish trenches of World War I in stanza two. Death immediately permeates the stanza through the connotations of ‘winter’ and its destructive nature. Sassoon uses the ‘trenches’ as a metonym for life on the battlefield, with its awful conditions emphasized through the syndetic list: ‘with crumps and lice and lack of rum’. The grievances of trench life seem endless through the use of polysyndeton. The boy’s fractured psychological state is accentuated through the adjectives ‘cowed’ and ‘glum’, which completely juxtaposes his earlier ‘joy’. ‘Cowed’ means to be intimidated into defeat and it is clear that this is what has happened to the soldier, both physically and mentally.
He put a bullet through his brain.
No one spoke of him again.
Sassoon bluntly approaches the taboo topic of suicide in order to shock the reader and ‘smug-faced crowds’ into understanding the harsh realities and psychological effects of war. Plosive alliteration is used through the repetition of ‘b’ and ‘p’ which creates a violent tone and echoes the sound of a bullet. The finality of his actions is further emphasized through the end-stopped line.
In line 8, the iambic tetrameter is broken through the opening stressed syllable ‘No’. This draws the reader’s attention to the lack of empathy and attention the soldier received following his tragic end. The soldier is representative of many men and boys who suffered great psychological trauma and death as a result of the war. Their deaths are unremarkable amidst the thousands of lives lost. Again, an end-stop line is utilized to reflect the finality of the boy’s existence, both in physicality and memory.
You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Apostrophe is immediately employed in line 9 as the speaker addresses the reader. The use of the second-person pronoun places responsibility on the ‘smug-faced crowds’ who were complicit in the young boy’s suicide. During WW1, nationalistic propaganda encouraged young men to sign up to a romanticized vision of War that completely juxtaposed the hellish reality. The sibilance in this line creates a hissing accusatory tone that clearly depicts the speaker’s anger at the naivety of the public and the part they played in enlistment.
A metaphor is employed as he refers to the crowd’s ‘kindling eye’. Kindling refers to the starting of a fire. The speaker is accusing the public of lighting the flames of destruction that ultimately destroyed the lives of so many young men. Their innocence is further enforced through the colloquial ‘lads’ which aligns a familiarity with the soldiers, making their demise seem all the more tragic.
Sneak home and pray you’ll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.
The final lines of ‘Suicide in the Trenches‘ are a biting criticism from Sassoon about the propaganda that caused so many young men to enlist. Imperatives are employed by the speaker as he orders the ‘smug-faced crowds’ to ‘pray’ that they will never experience the horrors of War as he has. ‘Youth’ and ‘laughter’ are personified and act as a metaphor for the soldiers. War strips men of their youth and joy and the Western front is the place they go to die.
The damaging psychological effects of the war are explored in ‘Suicide in the Trenches.’ As a result of violent warfare, many soldiers suffered from debilitating nervous conditions such as shell-shock. This poem explores the conditions that drove soldiers to this fragile state of mind and the shocking consequences of it: suicide. The harsh reality of the mental strains of warfare are stated bluntly in order to emphasize its commonality.
Nationalism and patriotism are critiqued in ‘Suicide in the Trenches‘ as the speaker directly addresses the bureaucrats and jingoists that encouraged young men to enlist in the war through propaganda. Sassoon felt an allied sympathy for the naïve young soldiers. They joined the war under the false premise of its romanticized image. Sassoon blames those in power who sent innocent men to their deaths.
Loss of innocence is also explored in the poem as the speaker narrates the tale of a ‘grinning’ boy who ‘slept soundly’ and ‘whistled with the lark’. These joyous images of nature, youth, and happiness completely juxtapose the following stanzas where the hellish reality of war ‘kills youth and laughter’.
Structure & Form
‘Suicide in the Trenches is written in three quatrains of iambic tetrameter. The metrical regularity of the poem is designed to mimic the sound of marching. It also creates a sense of endlessness and despair, aligned with the protagonist’s state of mind.
In line 8, metrical variation is created by a catalexis intended to emphasize the ordinariness of the young boy’s suicide as ‘No one spoke of him again’. There is no time to mourn the loss of a single life and his sacrifice is clearly forgotten.
‘Suicide in the Trenches‘ employs an AABB rhyme scheme, with rhyming couplets used consistently throughout. The prosodic effect this creates mimics the aural quality of a nursery rhyme. This creates an ironic and haunting tone as a child-like verse is employed to narrate a tragic and shocking suicide. Furthermore, emphasis is placed on the youth and innocence of the soldier himself.
Throughout ‘Suicide in the Trenches,’ Sassoon makes use of several literary devices. This includes but is not limited to:
- End-stopped lines are used consistently throughout the poem in order to create a shocking and abrupt sense of finality. In the first stanza it is used to mark the end of the young boy’s happiness pre-war; in the second stanza it is used to graphologically represent a bullet hole, following the suicidal firing of the gun.
- Polysyndeton is used in the text to emphasise the endless grievances of the trenches that are ‘cowed and glum/With crumps and lice and lack of rum’. A tone of monotony and despair is created by the ongoing syndetic list.
- Juxtaposition is employed throughout the poem in a comparison of the young boy’s happy pre-war life to the hellish trenches that stripped him of his youth and mentality.
- Plosive alliteration is used throughout the poem as the air stopped sounds mimic gunfire and create a phonemic chaos representative of the war.
Siegfried Sassoon wanted to give an accurate and authentic depiction of the horrors and brutality of war and openly satirize the jingoists who advocated such a terrible event.
The speaker in the poem was an acquaintance of the young soldier who committed suicide. The fact that the poem is told from his perspective and not the soldier himself creates a sense of distance and isolation – he is forgotten. We can also assume that the speaker was a soldier himself from his anger towards the ‘smug-faced crowds’.
Sassoon was a soldier himself in WW1, wounded by a sniper in 1917, and sent home to recover. It was at this time that he wrote his ‘declaration against the war’, calling it an act of ‘evil’ and criticizing the higher powers that condoned it.
The poem begins in the tranquility of the English countryside, where the young soldier was happy and ‘slept soundly’. The reader is then abruptly transported to the depravity of the trenches and the horrors that drove the young soldier to suicide.
Readers who enjoyed reading ‘Suicide in the Trenches‘ should consider reading some other Siegfried Sassoon poems such as:
- ‘Attack‘ – A confrontational poem about the horrors of trench warfare on the frontline during a military attack in WW1.
- ‘The Death Bed‘ – A poem about the suffering and eventual peaceful death of a mortally wounded solider.
- ‘Does it Matter?‘ – A moving anti-war poem that describes the physical and mental injuries that soldiers receive in war.
Some other related poems that could be of interest include:
- ‘Disabled‘ by Wilfred Owen – A harrowing poem that was written by a WW1 veteran, Wilfred Owen describing the haunting loneliness of life as an injured post-war soldier.
- ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade‘ by Alfred Lord Tennyson