One hundred years ago, the British poet Siegfried Sassoon published “The Redeemer”, written during the First World War. The poem is starkly relevant today.
“The Redeemer” has four stanzas. The first contrasts homely England with deathly France, hinting at the Christmas Nativity (“past twelve on a mid-winter night”) and lines from Shakespeare’s Henry V:
“And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here”
The second and third stanzas bring the figure of Christ into focus, but it is a fleeting vision that turns out to be an English soldier. He is an ordinary working man bewildered by a war whose purpose he fails to grasp but for which he is “not uncontent to die”. The last stanza scorns the notion of Christ the peacemaker being embroiled in the horrors and tawdriness of war.
Sassoon’s first collection of poems, Counter-Attack and Other Poems appeared in 1918 and it included “The Redeemer”. Public reaction was fierce. Supporters of the “war to end all wars” complained that he was unpatriotic. Pacifist friends complained about the violence and graphic detail. Nevertheless, the public bought the book because the best poems captured the torment of trench warfare and voiced the weariness of soldiers for a war that had seemed as pointless as it was endless.
Writing of Sassoon’s poems in The Spectator (17 October 1981), the writer and poet P. J. Kavanagh said that “today they ring as true as they ever did; it is difficult to see how they could be better.” And on 11 November 1985, Sassoon was among sixteen Great War poets commemorated on a memorial stone laid in London’s Westminster Abbey. The stone was inscribed with lines written by Sassoon’s friend and fellow poet Wilfred Owen: “My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity.”
With Christmas 2015 close at hand, it’s worth reading “The Redeemer” and reflecting on why, one hundred years later, so little has changed. The horrendous conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, and Syria are unrelenting, unforgivable, and morally disgraceful. There can be no genuine celebration of Christmas while hope is garbed in blood.
“Darkness: the rain sluiced down; the mire was deep;
It was past twelve on a mid-winter night,
When peaceful folk in beds lay snug asleep;
There, with much work to do before the light,
We lugged our clay-sucked boots as best we might
Along the trench; sometimes a bullet sang,
And droning shells burst with a hollow bang;
We were soaked, chilled and wretched, every one;
Darkness; the distant wink of a huge gun.
I turned in the black ditch, loathing the storm;
A rocket fizzed and burned with blanching flare,
And lit the face of what had been a form
Floundering in mirk. He stood before me there;
I say that He was Christ; stiff in the glare,
And leaning forward from His burdening task,
Both arms supporting it; His eyes on mine
Stared from the woeful head that seemed a mask
Of mortal pain in Hell’s unholy shine.
No thorny crown, only a woollen cap
He wore — an English soldier, white and strong,
Who loved his time like any simple chap,
Good days of work and sport and homely song;
Now he has learned that nights are very long,
And dawn a watching of the windowed sky.
But to the end, unjudging, he’ll endure
Horror and pain, not uncontent to die
That Lancaster on Lune may stand secure.
He faced me, reeling in his weariness,
Shouldering his load of planks, so hard to bear.
I say that He was Christ, who wrought to bless
All groping things with freedom bright as air,
And with His mercy washed and made them fair.
Then the flame sank, and all grew black as pitch,
While we began to struggle along the ditch;
And someone flung his burden in the muck,
Mumbling: ‘O Christ Almighty, now I’m stuck!’”