"But I was dead": Sassoon and Graves on life after death.
But, of course, this was not the end of the story, for shortly after the poem was written, Sassoon received a telegram from publisher Edward Marsh informing him that Graves was in fact alive and remarkably well after being invalided to a London hospital. After an exchange of jubilant and affectionate letters, Graves and Sassoon contrived to spend two weeks' leave together at Graves's cottage in Wales. There they read and critiqued each other's poetry, which now included not only Sassoon's elegy but also Graves's own version of events, "Escape." So close was their relationship that Sassoon published "To His Dead Body" with Graves's suggested revisions (Graves, Goodbye to All That 191) (1) and Graves published "Escape," in his Goliath and David collection, under Sassoon's supervision (see Sassoon's Diaries for Jan 1917).
Those writing about Sassoon and Graves have recognized this as an important period in their lives--John Stuart Roberts claiming that it was "the high point of their friendship as they encouraged each other in their work and planned for the good days they would enjoy together when the war ended" (88)--yet the poems that arose from it have received scant attention. Of interest from many angles--literary, historical, biographical--they are perhaps most intriguing in their eschatology. Sassoon, faced with the death of his friend, wanted to know what had happened to him next. Graves, having experienced something akin to death, was fascinated by the question of how he had escaped it. Though both writers had abandoned formal religious practice, they were profoundly influenced by their upbringing in the Church of England. The poems they wrote about the incident of July 1916 show them using scriptural allusions and traditional Christian eschatological concepts to interpret this encounter with death. Crucially, the poems also show where the Christian tradition fails to meet their needs, prompting Sassoon and Graves to reshape its motifs into their own visions of what lies beyond bodily death. When Graves revisited his death fifteen years later in his "As It Were Poems," he also revisited his eschatology, once again trying to make sense of what had happened to his dead body.
OVER the years, Siegfried Sassoon's popular reputation has become that of a thorough-going anti-Establishment figure, based largely on his "Finished with the War" protest in 1917 and a selection of scathing war poems that vilified everyone from generals to bishops, from Parliament to the press. His biographers have tended to present a fuller picture, balancing the "bitter pacifist" with the "happy warrior" who was decorated for his gallant service (these are Graves's terms: see Goodbye 226). They have rarely, however, found a counterbalance to those tirades against bishops--and, more broadly speaking, the Church. There is no doubting the sincerity of his poems such as "Christ and the Soldier," in which a roadside Calvary is "merely a reminder of the inability of religion to co-operate with the carnage and catastrophe" of war (War Poems 47), or "They" and "Vicarious Christ," in which bishops forfeit the respect of the troops by promoting the killing of "the Huns" in God's name. Based on this evidence, Jean Moorcroft Wilson concludes that "the Christian imagery and concepts in these [war] poems are being used either conventionally or with satiric intent" (194), but "To His Dead Body" is a notable exception. It is, in fact, the counterbalance to such usage, with Sassoon employing Christian imagery in a decidedly unconventional way to heartfelt and wholly unironic effect.
Sassoon wrote his elegy for Graves moved by sorrow and affection but also under the impetus of ignorance and frustration. Sassoon, serving in a different company than Graves, could know neither the specific circumstances of his friend's death nor, more troublingly, whether anything of Graves--his spirit, his soul, his essential qualities--remained. He attempted to answer his own questions in "To His Dead Body."
When roaring gloom surged inward and you cried, Groping for friendly hands, and clutched, and died, Like racing smoke, swift from your lolling head Phantoms of thought and memory thinned and fled. Yet, though my dreams that throng the darkened stair Can bring me no report of how you fare, Safe quit of wars, I speed you on your way Up lonely, glimmering fields to find new day, Slow-rising, saintless, confident and kind-- Dear, red-faced father God who lit your mind. (War Poems 44)
Since Sassoon was not with Graves, he writes about his death in a generic way and even hints at guilt about his own "friendly hands" not being there. He emphasizes the suddenness of death, using "roaring gloom" not just as a euphemism for the shell that wounds Graves but also as the start of a sequence of "roaring"/"racing"/"swift" words. The fact that both men fully expected to die in the war--Graves having written the unambiguously titled "When I'm Killed" only months before--did nothing to mitigate the shock when it came. Rather, the shock was augmented by the realization that death would prevent their talents from fully maturing. Sassoon included lines from Graves's poem "The Shadow of Death" in his diary entry about Graves's supposed death--"Oh my songs never sung, / And my plays to darkness blown!" (Diaries 21 July 1916)--and conveys the same sentiment in his elegy. He heightens the drama with phraseology that mirrors the deuterocanonical Book of Wisdom: "The breath in our nostrils is a puff of smoke ... the spirit melts away like idle air" (2:2-3, Jerusalem Bible).
Having constructed a reasonable if wholly imaginary version of Graves's death, Sassoon moves in the second stanza to a consideration of its aftermath, beginning with his own reaction and desire to know more. His lament that the "dreams that throng the darkened stair / Can bring me no report of how you fare" is significant, and not just for his pointedly "darkened stair" in contrast to the popular "golden stairs." Sassoon's pre-war love of Alfred Tennyson's work (Roberts 33) is reflected in these lines, which reverse those in Tennyson's great elegy In Memoriam A.H.H. wherein the poet is comforted by dreams of his dead friend Arthur Henry Hallam (see, for example, LXVIII-LXXI). Sassoon's mention of dreams also reflects a verse letter that he had written to Graves in May 1916, when the latter was away on leave. Published as "A Letter Home (to Robert Graves)," the poem includes an entire stanza about a dream Sassoon expects, hopes, or intends to have, beginning:
Robert, when I drowse to-night, Skirting lawns of sleep to chase Shifting dreams in mazy light, Somewhere then I'll see your face [ ... ]. (War Poems 36, 11.13-16)
"A Letter Home" is an intimate piece that they quoted to each other in the years to come, but because "To His Dead Body" was written when Sassoon believed that personal contact with Graves would never again be possible, the medium of dreams assumes greater magnitude. When Sassoon's night dreams fail to produce the desired glimpse of Graves, he produces a daydream or vision of his own.
In his vision, Sassoon counters the melancholy of the first stanza with determined cheerfulness, initially by emphasizing that Graves is now "safe." He had done the same thing in April 1916 after Graves went on leave: "I am missing Robert very much," he wrote to a friend, "there is no one else to fill the gap. But I am equally delighted to think that he's safely out of it all for a bit" (quoted in Wilson 249). By taking the line that death has made Graves safe, Sassoon echoes other wartime writers. Rupert Brooke's "Safety" (1915), quoted by Sassoon in his diaries (26 Jan. 1916, 1 Apr. 1916), is a prime example of this line of thought: "Safe though all safety's lost; safe where men fall; / And if these poor limbs die, safest of all." Sassoon assents to this theory with the curt "I speed you on your way." Interestingly, this is the last of the "speed" words. Sassoon wills the journey to death to be quick but, once he has moved Graves on to the next life, he slows the poem to its resolution.
The ending that Sassoon envisions is the dawn of a "new day" for Graves. This concept had long held a privileged place in Sassoon's poetic oeuvre; among his other titles are "At Daybreak," "Daybreak in a Garden," and "A Song in the Dawn." Though attuned to the dawn's usual connotations of freshness and new beginnings, Sassoon also used it to evoke his nostalgia for past mornings spent foxhunting in his native English countryside. He did this to particularly revealing effect in "Break of Day" (1917), where the scent of an autumn morning on the battlefield leads the soldier-narrator into a reverie:
He sniffs the chilly air; (his dreaming starts), He's riding in a dusty Sussex lane In quiet September; slowly night departs; And he's a living soul, absolved from pain. Beyond the brambled fences where he goes Are glimmering fields with harvest piled in sheaves, [............................................] He gazes on it all, and scarce believes That earth is telling its old peaceful tale [...]. (War Poems 102-103, 11.20-25, 30-31)
These "glimmering fields" clearly represent a safe haven for Sassoon, where all is tranquil, ordered, familiar, and beautiful--everything the battlefields are not--and where the soul who moves among them is living and free from pain. "If I go forth into the field, then behold the slain with the sword!" is a wartime lament in the book of Jeremiah (14:18); in "To His Dead Body," Sassoon turns it upside down and makes it the premise for his vision of paradise. (2)
Having set his scene and moved Graves from battlefields to glimmering fields, Sassoon next considers what Graves's new existence will be like and who else will be there. Already, he has determined that the fields should be "lonely" and this is not unrelated to the new day being "saint-less"; Sassoon is employing multiple layers of references here. "Lonely" refers most obviously to Graves being separated from Sassoon and the rest of his loved ones, but it can also simply mean "alone." Death has been called "the definitive encounter with God" (Stewart 88), and Sassoon accepts that the pain of human separation is a necessary condition preparatory to this intensely personal encounter. He emphasizes this with the striking term "saintless": there is no room for anyone else--no communion of saints, no heavenly hosts, no family and friends--in this union of creator and creature, father and son.
Sassoon thus constructs a paradise inhabited by God but not a heaven inhabited by saints, and in doing so makes it distinctly different from the end envisioned by mainstream Christianity. It is vital to note that Sassoon is not acting out of ignorance of the scriptures or of Christian doctrine. Theresa Sassoon had raised her son in the Anglican faith and created a home with a decidedly religious atmosphere. Roberts points out that, as early as 1897, when Sassoon was eleven, his poetry was "suffused ... by religious allusions and imagery. Theresa's commitment to the Anglican tradition ... gave Siegfried a rich vocabulary rooted in religion" (19); Max Egremont notes her continuing religious influence in Sassoon's poems of 1906 (34). The effects of his upbringing are very much present in "To His Dead Body" but they are already being altered by Sassoon's wartime experiences. That, however, only partially accounts for his finding its eschatology so unsatisfactory.
The first difficulty is that, despite a great deal of popular imagery associated with heaven, the Bible is in fact uncommunicative as to what it might be like, the most detailed descriptions being couched in the highly symbolic language of the book of Revelation. Sassoon's need to concretize what has happened to his friend moves him to embellish the biblical paradise with his own personal imagery. But Sassoon also has a pressing need to create a saintless non-heaven as a way of distancing himself and Graves from a Church that not only seemed unhelpful and ineffective but that also actively supported the war and the killing of Germans. As will be seen, Graves, too, was moving away from the Anglican faith of his childhood, and neither man was interested in the kind of heaven that would reward those who piously detested the "godless" Hun. Graves had opened his "When I'm Killed" with the lines:
When I'm killed, don't think of me Buried there in Cambrin Wood, Nor as in Zion think of me With the Intolerable Good. (Complete Poems 37, 11.1-4)
(In justice, he could not accept the other half of the Christian schema either: "And there's one thing that I know well, / I'm damned if I'll be damned to Hell!" [11.5-6].) Thus the paradise that Sassoon imagines for Graves is and must be different from the heaven of a religion that both men increasingly associated with warmongering. In "To His Dead Body," Sassoon quietly but eloquently sets himself in opposition to the Anglican Church by dispensing with the term "heaven" and with the "Intolerable Good" who populate it.
Sassoon concludes his vision with a string of adjectives--"Slow-rising, saintless, confident and kind"--that ostensibly refer to the "father God" of the last line but that also describe the "new day." By portraying God as "slow-rising," "red-faced," and a giver of light, Sassoon equates him with the sun, the dawn. This is not only one of his most cherished personal images but also a strongly biblical one and the surest revelation of Sassoon's early immersion in the scriptures. His lines clearly evoke the Benedictus canticle, wherein the coming Messiah, Jesus, is referred to as "the dayspring from on high" (Luke 1:78) and his God is from the Old Testament blessing, "The Lord make his face shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee" (Num 6:25). Sassoon's new day and its God are directly related to the new Jerusalem and the God of Revelation (21:23): "And the city had no need of the sun, neither of the moon, to shine in it: for the glory of God did lighten it, and the Lamb is the light thereof."
Even here, though, where Sassoon is almost appropriating the Bible's new heaven as his own, he makes a crucial omission in the sequence of events that distinguishes his vision from that of St. John the Divine. In Revelation, the new Jerusalem is seen and enjoyed only by those who have undergone the last judgment and not been thrown into the lake of fire; in "To His Dead Body," there is no judgment at all--Graves goes straight from his earthly life to the glimmering fields of a paradise lit by God's glory. In place of a stern judge scouring the Book of Life for Graves's name, Sassoon conjures a "kind" and "dear" father to welcome Graves. The concept of the "father God" is key--not just a nice God in a pretty landscape, but a God intimately connected to and lovingly concerned for his creation. This goes straight to the heart of Jesus' teaching about who God is: "Our Father in heaven" (Matt 6:9). It is obviously the pleasant side of things--one naturally prefers
the loving father to the wrathful judge--but it is no less scriptural for that.
By ending his poem with the "father God who lit your mind," Sassoon brilliantly reinforces the generative and creative connection between God and Graves. The conclusion that it was God who "lit" Graves's mind-constructed his intellect, spurred his imagination, endowed him with talent--is the ultimate endorsement of Graves's intellectual achievements. Of course, it also caps a wholly positive explanation of what has happened to Graves after death, where all is gentle and bright, and even loneliness just sets the scene for a warm encounter between father and son. Sassoon, despite his grief, ultimately takes the biblical line that there is a good, even beautiful life beyond death, while maintaining the originality of his personal vision and not following any one religious tradition. "Confident" might be the most perplexing term in this whole poem if it did not so clearly reflect Sassoon's own determination that his vision somehow will be made real for Graves.
There is so much of Sassoon--memories of his youth, pet images and concepts, reflections of other poems--in "To His Dead Body" that it is not unreasonable to ask whose paradise this poem really conveys, Graves's or Sassoon's. Because so many of Sassoon's images, sentiments, and turns of phrase were held in common with Graves, the truth is that his vision of the next life springs from their personal relationship: from their shared religious background, their devotion to poetry, their experience of war. Sassoon's literary remains reveal that he considered recycling the last few lines of this poem into an "Elegy for Marcus Goodall," a friend who actually did die on the Somme in July 1916, but the fact that he left them in "To His Dead Body" and did not publish his elegy for Goodall (see Diaries 28 July 1916) confirms that they were specific to his friendship with Graves and could not with integrity be employed for anyone else.
While the dead Robert Graves was being elegized, the living Robert Graves was undergoing an ordeal that, had Sassoon known of it, would have caused him at least as much grief as Graves's reported death had. The wounded Graves had been stretchered to a nearby dressing-station where, recovery having been pronounced impossible, he was effectively left to die. He lay unconscious for more than twenty-four hours before medical staff noticed his breathing and arranged further care elsewhere. Driven along a shell-cratered road, the intermittently conscious Graves suffered agonies at every bump. In Goodbye to All That, his comment on the journey is, "I remember screaming" (182). After languishing in a field hospital in the stifling summer heat for two days, he was sent on another torturous journey, this time by rail, to a hospital in Rouen, where at last his wounds were properly treated and Graves was made more comfortable.
He was then ferried to London and it was only there, ensconced in a private room at Queen Alexandra's Hospital in Highgate, that he discovered he had been reported dead. Continuing his extraordinary recovery, Graves was in high spirits and disposed to find his alleged death fascinating rather than outrageous or macabre. The fact that his death had been officially published on 24 July--his twenty-first birthday--led him to the fanciful idea that now he could never grow up. And, in a letter to Edward Marsh, Graves wrote a playful sketch of his brush with death as a flight from the underworld of the ancient Greeks. He saw something of value in this jest and went on to craft it into the poem "Escape," which he sent to Sassoon in August before their meeting in Wales. A whole study could be made of the details he changes between the prose letter and the published poem, but the central conceit remains and it is pointedly non-Christian.
One of the first letters to reach Graves in his London hospital bed addressed him as "My dear, dear Lazurus" (sic, Letters 58), Lazarus being an obvious Christian parallel for someone who had died and come back to life. Graves, however, deliberately chose not to refer to him or any of the other biblical characters who were raised from the dead, such as the son of the Shunamite woman (2 Kings 4: 8-37), whose story he did tell in My Head! My Head! in 1925. Patrick Quinn thinks that Graves turned to the eschatology of the ancient Greeks because his rejection of the Christian faith leaves him with "only" the Greek and Roman myths (48-49), but that is to misunderstand the difference between assenting to a formal religious structure and valuing elements of a religious tradition. Like Sassoon, Graves had not rejected the Bible and other elements of Christianity outright but drew from them according to his needs and his own interpretations.
Again like Sassoon, Graves had been strongly influenced by a religious upbringing, with earnest German Lutherans on his mother's side and a string of Anglican clerics on his father's, Graves's grandfather having been Bishop of Limerick. As he relates in his autobiography, he began to question his faith while studying at Charterhouse and subsequently only attended church when coerced by his parents (Goodbye 165). But as Graves left behind the religion of home and school, he began a new level of engagement with Christianity. As his other works amply demonstrate, both the Old and New Testaments continued to provide important vocabularies, images, metaphors and stories for him--Martin Seymour-Smith calls it a "lifelong fascination with the Bible" (119). Graves's novel King Jesus (1946) and translation of The Song of Songs (1973) are obvious later examples, but even by July 1916 his writings include "In the Wilderness"--a poem referring both to Jesus' temptation in the desert and the story of the scapegoat from Leviticus--as well as casual mentions of Psalm 23 (in "Big Words"), Noah's ark (in "Alcaics Addressed to My Study Fauna"), and even the obscure story of Jephthah's daughter from Judges (Letters 29). This makes it all the more interesting that "Escape" should be so blatantly pagan.
Though not one of Graves's best poems, with its jumble of details and some clunky lines, it captures his whimsical charm, which Sassoon so enjoyed (see, for example, Diaries 14 July 1916), and energetically conveys his relief at having eluded death and his bliss at life renewed. In the epigraph and first lines, Graves insists on the premise that is crucial to his lifelong handling of this event: he did not survive it but died and returned to life.
(August 6th, 1916.--Officer previously reported died of wounds, now reported wounded. Graves, Captain R., Royal Welch Fusiliers.) ... But I was dead, an hour or more. I woke when I'd already passed the door That Cerberus guards, half-way along the road To Lethe, as an old Greek signpost showed. Above me, on my stretcher swinging by, I saw new stars in the subterrene sky [ ... ]. (Complete Poems 27-28, 11.1-6)
Graves thus focuses on his time in the world of the dead and, after swiftly setting the scene, jumps into a key moment of action. As he goes past Proserpine on his stretcher, she sees that he is still awake and rouses him before the Lethean "vapours of forgetfulness" can take hold--the point of no return. Once roused, he runs flat out for the door, declaring, "'Life! life! I can't be dead! I won't be dead! / Damned if I'll die for anyone!' I said.... " (11.17-18). This is not only an attack on every poem that glorified dying for king and country but also a refusal to accept that comforting notion that death makes one "safe."
Graves's race for life quickly becomes a chase in which he is pursued by the inhabitants of the underworld--everyone from "demons" to "heroes"--fight to the exit, only to find it blocked by the three-headed dog, Cerberus. The tension builds as Graves casts about for a way to get past the giant animal and at last remembers "some morphia that I bought on leave" (1.26), which he hides in an "army biscuit smeared with ration jam" (1.28). Graves waits as Cerberus eats the drugged biscuit:
He crunches, swallows, stiffens, seems to grapple With the all-powerful poppy ... then a snore, A crash; the beast blocks up the corridor With monstrous hairy carcase, red and dun--Too late! for I've sped through. O Life! O Sun! (11.30-35)
The last-minute escape, against all odds, perfectly evokes Graves's actual circumstances, but the element of surprise is tempered by the powerful earnestness of the last line, a reminder that this is more than a cartoonish romp. Though almost hidden by the poem's rollicking style, the details of Graves's actual suffering have been there all along: the stretcher on which he enters the underworld is the one on which he left the battlefield; he is "breathless" (1.14) before he even begins his run because a shell fragment has pierced his lung; morphia is portrayed as a godsend because he was left screaming in pain. The prose forerunner of "Escape" ended with Graves tiptoeing past a sleeping Cerberus (Letters 59), but he revises it completely to capture the narrowness of his escape and his elation at having returned from the dead. "Too late! for I've sped through" is a shout of triumph, mocking death and celebrating his own renewed vigor.
In Greek Myths (1955), Graves emphasized that Hades, the king of the underworld, "willingly allows none of his subjects to escape" (42)--making the ending of "Escape" all the more remarkable and lending Graves a greater air of heroism. Personal achievement, however, is not the whole story. An illustration from the first edition of Good-bye to All That (facing 309) goes to the heart of the matter: the transport tag attached to "Captain R V R Graves" at the hospital in Rouen is stamped "HELPLESS." This was Graves's true condition and it means that when he comes to write about his experience, he cannot honestly take all the credit and must acknowledge being helped. Because he cannot account for how he escaped from Hades, how he returned to life after being left for dead, he brings in Proserpine, the queen of the underworld, who could "be both gracious and merciful" (Greek Myths 42):
Oh, may Heaven bless Dear Lady Proserpine, who saw me wake And, stooping over me, for Henna's sake Cleared my poor buzzing head and sent me back Breathless, with leaping heart along the track. (ll.10-14)
Graves thus employs Greek mythology to excellent effect in narrating his return from the dead: the implicit triumph over Hades and explicit triumph over Cerberus evoke his own dynamism and sense of exultation, while the gratuitous intervention of Proserpine acknowledges a benevolent force outside himself and an element of mystery in the mechanics of his escape.
Graves would have been hard-pressed to construct the same narrative out of the elements of Christian eschatology, not least because the God of the Bible cannot be equated with Hades. Jesus makes the titular distinction when he testifies that "God is not the God of the dead, but of the living" (Matt 22:32), but the crucial difference lies in what each god wants for his subjects. The scriptures' account of salvation history culminates in God sending his Son, Jesus, to save humankind from eternal death--precisely because "I have no pleasure in the death of him that dieth" (Ezek 18:32). "The Lord killeth, and maketh alive; He bringeth down to the grave, and bringeth up" (1 Sam 2:6); unlike Hades, God willingly allows his subjects to escape death and to enjoy eternal life, if they believe that Jesus' own death and resurrection has made this possible. Throughout the scriptures, God is referred to as being "gracious" and "merciful," like Proserpine, but this alone cannot earn him a place in Graves's story. Graves's understanding of his experience is best expressed through the multiple and varied powers of Hades, Proserpine, and Cerberus and the setting of the underworld; he does not see it in terms of a single omnipotent God or godlike figure--yet.
This means that the final line--"O Life! O Sun!"--though it is strikingly similar to the conclusion of Sassoon's poem, actually conveys something very different. The difference is not just that Sassoon's sun heralds the dawn of life after death while Graves's heralds a return to earthly life; the imagery is equally effective in both situations. The real difference between the endings of "To His Dead Body" and "Escape" is that where Sassoon was prepared to accept--with significant emendations--the Christian prospect of a life after death with God as its vivifying agent, Graves merely leaves any Christian associations as unrealized possibilities. He was at least as familiar as Sassoon with the Bible's many verses linking God with the sun and light, and could not have been ignorant of Jesus' claims to be "the Life" (John 11:25, 14:6), but his Christian formation cannot persuade him to invoke the scriptures when it is Greek mythology that best expresses his present understanding of what he has undergone.
It did not take Graves long to discover that the events of July 1916 had made a greater impact on him than his good recovery initially suggested. Lung trouble was the most urgent problem but not the only one. His memory was noticeably disturbed, as he himself admitted (Graves, Letters 62). The agonizing train journey in which Graves was evacuated resulted in rail travel making him ill for years to come (Graves, Letters 244). Shell shock was equally tenacious, so that the turbulent life he led in the 1920s can be--and has been--traced back to the war. Yet, in 1931, after he had largely recovered his physical health and exorcised many of his demons in Goodbye to All That (1929), the conviction that he had once died and come back to life still lingered. It surfaced again in his "As It Were Poems."
These prose poems are short ruminations on how Graves envisages himself in relation to popular legends, where he sees himself, for example, as being Friar Tuck to Robin Hood and Ajax in the story of Troy. After a short recitation of who he was not "in the legend of Jesus and his companions," Graves concludes: "I was Lazarus sickening again in old age long after the Crucifixion, and knowing that this time I could not cheat death" (Complete Poems 334). It is immediately obvious that this poem is radically different from "Escape," its prose form and brevity (three sentences in total) being only the first of many distinctions. The energy and excitement of the early poem give way to a sober, straightforward reappraisal of his position. Time has shifted Graves's perspective from the immediate thrill of having escaped death to the acceptance of its having to be faced again. Given his readiness to reassess the July 1916 incident from the distance of fifteen years, it may seem curious that he still chooses to do so through metaphor but, as before, the bare facts of the matter simply cannot do justice to the mystery of what he experienced. As the poet's nephew Richard Perceval Graves nicely summarizes, "Robert, believing correctly that fact is not always quite the same as truth, was always more concerned to present the emotional truth of a situation than the precise facts of what occurred" (330-331). The choice of metaphor in the "As It Were Poems" reveals just how significantly Graves's understanding of the incident has changed, as he abandons the eschatological imagery of the Greek underworld in "Escape" for that of the Christian tradition.
Having long since distanced himself from the Church of England, Graves is now able to appropriate a Bible story without feeling himself to be identified with or constrained by Anglican beliefs and culture. Long after it was first suggested, he aligns himself with Lazarus, who was called out of his tomb by Jesus on the fourth day after his death (John 11:1-44). Graves is moved to do this by an important development in how he views his experience: whereas he previously congratulated himself on having escaped from death, Graves now sees himself as having cheated death, an altogether less heroic affair. Where he was at first disposed to share some credit with Proserpine and hail the vague entities of Life and Sun, he now intimates that his miraculous escape might not have been his own doing at all, for Lazarus did not raise himself from the dead but was raised by Jesus' intervention. By depicting himself as Lazarus, Graves indirectly acknowledges a Jesus-like figure in his story, moving from the divided powers of the tyrannical Hades and the benevolent Proserpine in "Escape" to just one person who holds the power of life and death. Jesus himself announces, "I am the first and the last: I am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death" (Rev 1:17-18).
Graves's use of metaphor strikingly expresses his new assessment of the death he experienced but it does not equate with a statement of belief. Graves does not name Jesus as his benefactor in this poem as Sassoon was able to name God in his poem. He does, however, bring to the fore his "helplessness" on 20 July 1916 and his reliance on someone who possessed more power than he did to return him to his earthly life. But Graves now also puts forward the fact that this is not--and cannot--be the end of the story. If he was initially just thrilled and relieved to have come back from the dead, then he is belatedly struck by the fact that there will be no second miracle. There is no self-pity in this realization, just a puzzled acceptance of the inevitable. Because Graves has returned to this life, not eternal life, and because Jesus, regardless of what happened to him after the crucifixion, has left men to face bodily death again, the poem raises more questions. Even while hinting at an answer as to who helped Graves to escape death, it implicitly asks why he was granted that first escape if he is just going to have to endure it all over again. The poem also asks why one might die and return to this earthly life when the Christian tradition explicitly promises a resurrection into eternal life. In fact, while many people would casually use the word resurrection to describe dying and returning to life, Graves, with typical precision, does not. He wakes from death, escapes death, cheats death, but he is not resurrected--its specialized reference to an eternal life beyond this one is not for him. Rejecting that term allows Graves to be precise about what he experienced in 1916; he can acknowledge a greater power involved in saving him from one death while bleakly predicting that that power cannot or will not save him from a final death. Using an unmistakably Christian reference, Graves casts doubt upon Jesus' ultimate power--and even God's ultimate desire--to save.
Graves's introduction of Lazarus into his story has an important precedent in In Memoriam A.H.H. Here, Tennyson is fairly certain that there is a life after this one and wants to believe that Hallam is better off in it. He admits, however, that he does not actually know what lies beyond death--and he is disappointed, even angry, that the man who might have revealed this secret information did not:
Behold a man raised up by Christ! The rest remaineth unreveal'd; He told it not; or something seal'd The lips of that Evangelist. (XXXI, 11.13-16)
This is the final parallel between Lazarus and Graves: both have died but neither has revealed what it is to die. Lazarus, if he spoke at all, left no record of his four days in the tomb and Graves, swift to put pen to paper, can speak only through adapted metaphors. Did Graves see something that made him regret not being able to cheat death again, or did he see nothing--not having reached the waters of Lethe--and still have to face the un known? What made him confidently declare in later years that "Jesus was absolutely uncompromising and I do admire him, though his eschatology was plum crazy" (Letters 341)?
Robert Graves's death on the Somme remains enigmatic despite these two poems and, as Seymour-Smith writes, Graves remained "obsessed ... with the themes of 'miraculous deliverance'" (134). His many references to this incident and related topics--among which the poems "A Letter from Wales" and "Descent into Hell" stand out--certainly suggest that he kept it under active consideration. Indeed, Graves never shrinks from the task of trying to make sense of what happened to him. Nor does he refuse to re-engage with the Christian tradition after he had ceased to be a practicing believer and after he had initially discarded it as unsuited to the circumstance. Instead, his ongoing attempt to reach the truth moves him to acknowledge the activity of some sort of higher power and the appropriateness of scriptural imagery. His treatment of this event ultimately leads him to do as Sassoon did: to employ Christian references in a way that is unconventional but wholly unironic.
THE poems "To His Dead Body," "Escape," and the "As It Were Poems are intrinsically related to one another by the chain of events that began on 20 July 1916 in Bazentin-le-Petit, but the bond is greater and deeper than that. These poems reveal two of the most prominent writers to emerge from the Great War attempting to come to terms with and find their voices on that most profound subject, death. Death at first-hand drives Sassoon and Graves to reach back into their literary and religious heritage to create personalized eschatologies. For Sassoon, it is a feat that involves transfiguring his pretty misty-morning poetry and salvaging the best parts of an Anglicanism that now seemed tainted. For Graves, it means transforming academic concepts drawn from pagan and Christian myths into expressions of the mystery he has faced. All unwittingly, they echo Jesus' words: "every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old" (Matt 13:52).
Sassoon, often characterized as unintellectual, crafts a clever and slyly challenging vision of what awaits the dead. Graves, the intellectual adventurer, produces a visceral account of his fight for life and the joy of his success, then of the bleak comprehension that he must one day fight and lose. Both poets are openly grappling with the belief fundamental to Christian eschatology that death is not an end but the beginning of something new. Sassoon and Graves refuse to settle for formulaic or dogmatic explanations but instead use tradition as a starting point for formulating answers of their own. Having experienced death in some way for themselves, they need to construe their own eschatology from that experience and cannot allow anyone else to do it for them. When they were no longer together at the Front, Graves wrote "Two Fusiliers" to remind Sassoon that the circumstances keeping them apart were as nothing compared to what had already brought them together:
Show me the two so closely bound As we, by the wet bond of blood, By friendship blossoming from mud, By Death: we faced him, and we found Beauty in Death, In dead men, breath. (Complete Poems 31, 11.13-18)
Egremont, Max. Siegfried Sassoon, A Biography. London: Picador, 2005.
Graves, Richard Perceval. The Assault Heroic 1895-1926. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1986.
Graves, Robert. The Complete Poems. 1 vol. London: Penguin, 2003.
--. Good-bye to All That. New York: Jonathan Cape & Harrison Smith, 1930.
--. Goodbye to All That. Rev. ed. 1957. London: Penguin, 2000.
--. Greek Myths. Ed. John Buchanan-Brown. Abr. ed. London: Penguin, 1985.
--. In Broken Images: Selected Letters of Robert Graves (1914-1946). Ed. Paul O'Prey. London: Hutchinson, 1982.
Quinn, Patrick J. The Great War and the Missing Muse: The Early Writings of Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon. Selinsgrove: Susquehanna UP, 1994.
Roberts, John Stuart. Siegfried Sassoon. London: Metro, 2005.
Sassoon, Siegfried. Diaries 1915-1918. Ed Rupert Hart-Davis. London: Faber, 1983.
--. The War Poems. Ed Rupert Hart-Davis. London: Faber, 1983.
Seymour-Smith, Martin. Robert Graves: His Life and Work. 1982. London: Abacus, 1983.
Stewart, Columba. Prayer and Community: The Benedictine Tradition. London: Darton, Longman, Todd, 1998.
Tennyson, Alfred. In Memoriam A.H.H. Selected Poems. Ed. Aidan Day. London: Penguin, 1991. 130-224.
Wilson, Jean Moorcroft. Siegfried Sassoon: The Making of a War Poet, 1886-1918. London: Duckworth, 1998.
(1) I refer to the 1957 revision of Goodbye to All That except where otherwise stated.
(2) I quote the King James Version of the Bible wherever possible, as it was the one that Graves and Sassoon would have been familiar with during this period.
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|Title Annotation:||Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves|
|Publication:||Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2007|
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