Siegfried Sassoon was a well-known war poet. In his poem ‘The Rear Guard,’ he explores ideas about isolation and the bleakness of war. While it is not his most famous work, it is typical of his style, which bore such influence on other poets at the time. Throughout, readers are exposed to harrowing images and an incredibly dark atmosphere that effectively conveys the rear guard’s experience.
This poem was written in 1918 in the midst of the First World War. Sassoon, who was a soldier himself, was able to build on and use his experiences to create this moving piece of verse.
The Rear Guard Siegfried Sassoon (Hindenburg Line, April 1917) Groping along the tunnel, step by step, He winked his prying torch with patching glare From side to side, and sniffed the unwholesome air. Tins, boxes, bottles, shapes and 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 Humped 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, unanswering heap, And flashed his beam across the livid face Terribly glaring up, whose eyes yet wore Agony dying hard of 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 and horror in his hair, He climbed through darkness to the twilight air, Unloading hell behind him step by step. Origin: Counter-attack, and Other Poems (1918)
‘The Rear Guard’ talks about a soldier’s journey. It follows him as he seeks out help, encounters a corpse, and is continually faced with darkness.
In the first lines of ‘The Rear Guard,’ the speaker begins by noting how a soldier, the rear guard, is moving through the darkness. He’s having to use his senses to find his way. It’s a dark and “unwholesome” place. There are brown and useless things all around him. Including a mirror and a mattress from a bed. In the third stanza, the guard trips over and discovers a corpse. He mistakes it for a living person briefly before noting that the man has been dead for at least ten days. The soldier finally makes it into the light at the end of the poem. He steps out of one kind of hell and into another.
The meaning of ‘The Rear Guard’ is that the horrors of war are very real. They are encountered by this one soldier and expressed through Sassoon’s narrative verse. Sassoon was a soldier himself, so he was able to tap into his personal experiences to help inspire poems like this one. Readers should walk away with a new understanding of what it’s like to be right in the middle of a truly horrifying situation as the main character in ‘The Rear Guard’ is.
Throughout this piece, the poet engages with themes of war and death. Specifically, the poet explores the effect that war has on soldiers. Despite its horror and the death that they’re constantly surrounded with, the soldiers keep going. They encounter death and continue to progress forward. The poet uses incredibly effective images throughout the stanzas to depict what one man sees and experiences.
Structure and Form
The poem is separated not 4 stanzas of varying length. It is not a traditional structure. The stanzas are 3,4,11, and 7 lines, respectively. End rhymes are used throughout the piece (A,B,BC,A,C,A D,E,E,D,F,G,F,G,H,H,I J,B,J,J,B,B,A) Throughout the rhyme scheme, a lot of the end sounds from the first stanza are repeated in the last. This suggests a cycle.
Throughout ‘The Rear Guard,’ the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Alliteration: can be seen when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of words. For example, “prying” and “patching” in line two of the first stanza.
- Imagery: occurs when the poet uses particularly effective descriptions. For example: “Groping along the tunnel, step by step, / He winked his prying torch with patching glare.”
- Caesura: can be seen when the poet inserts a pause into the middle of a line. For example, “From side to side, and sniffed the unwholesome air” and “A mirror smashed, the mattress from a bed.”
- Accumulation: in the second stanza, the poet brings together numerous images, listing them one after another, until readers should be able to envision a broad scene.
Groping along the tunnel, step by step,
He winked his prying torch with patching glare
From side to side, and sniffed the unwholesome air.
In the first stanza, the poet uses some very interesting techniques. For example, the use of the verb ”groping” connotes an unwanted action. The vision it creates is somebody crawling through the tunnel, but because of the word choice, it has an invasive feel. The use of “unwholesome air” is also quite creative. It is jarring and helps create a feeling of uncertainty like anything could potentially happen.
Tins, boxes, bottles, shapes and too vague to know;
A mirror smashed, the mattress from a bed;
And he, exploring fifty feet below
The rosy gloom of battle overhead.
This stanza explores the setting. It is chaotic. Readers can immediately tell from the line, “mirror smashed.” The main character has come across some living quarters, as is suggested by the mattress. But, it appears that the area has been under fire. This stanza almost acts as setting the scene for the one that follows it. The listing of objects and context is also quite effective here.
Tripping, he grabbed the wall; saw someone lie
Humped 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, unanswering heap,
And flashed his beam across the livid face
Terribly glaring up, whose eyes yet wore
Agony dying hard of ten days before;
And fists of fingers clutched a blackening wound.
There is a pervasive sadness throughout this stanza. It starts off with a glimmer of hope as the soldier encounters another person. It speaks volumes that he presumes that the person might be alive despite being in a room with broken mirrors and lying underneath a rug. When the person doesn’t reply, the soldier gets angry. The speaker of the poem seemingly realizes that this is not a normal response and almost justifies their actions with what is written within the bracket.
The use of “savage” in the seventh line is interesting. In fact, that whole line is interesting. The adjective is probably used to describe the actions of the soldier. While the previous line makes excuses for him, this line does not hold back on how it describes his behavior. The body is described as a “soft, unanswering heap,” which seems to dehumanize the person.
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 and horror in his hair,
He climbed through darkness to the twilight air,
Unloading hell behind him step by step.
In the final stanza, the soldier breaks free of the tunnels. However, it becomes clear that this is not really an escape as they are surrounded by similar levels of horror. In fact, he is described as having “horror in his hair,” which probably describes a mixture of blood, debris, and grime. He is described as unloading hell behind him, which suggests he fires backward but could also suggest he is running away from the horrors he has just witnessed.
The tone is intense and descriptive. The main subject is feeling a great deal of fear, mixed with exhaustion and terror. But, the speaker acknowledges these things clearly and with effective language. The fear doesn’t seep into their depiction of the scene.
The meaning is that the horror of war is very real. It is personal as well as incredibly broad in its scope. Readers hear one person’s story, but it is used to represent endless other stories of loss and fear.
The mood is dark and depressed. Readers should walk away from this poem feeling moved by the soldier’s plight and perhaps better understanding what the war was like.
The speaker is someone who has an intimate understanding of the main character’s situation. They’re an omniscient narrator, meaning that they know what the character is thinking and feeling at all times.
About Siegfried Sassoon
Siegfried Sassoon was born on 8th September 1886, in Matfield, Kent, England. Sassoon was infamously disinterested in war from the outset. His true love, at the time, was cricket. Shortly after his younger brother was killed in Gallipoli, Sassoon was sent to France. He received the name ‘Mad Jack’ from the soldiers that he led – inspired mostly by his suicidal, insane exploits during the war. Unlike his close friend and fellow war poet, Wilfred Owen, Sassoon survived to the age of 81 before succumbing to cancer. He was famed for his war poetry which acted as a form of protest.
Readers who enjoyed ‘The Rear Guard’ should also consider reading some other Siegfried Sassoon poems. For example:
- ‘Dreamers‘ – speaks on the inner lives of soldiers fighting in the trenches of World War I.
- ‘To Any Dead Officer‘ -concerns the gratuitous waste of life perpetuated and pushed forward by British authorities in their bid to fight a war that had been grossly overstated in terms of danger.
- ‘The Death Bed‘ – tells of the suffering and eventual peaceful death of a soldier mortally wounded in World War I.