How does a human soul cope with the horror of war? Is there room for hope? And what of the Spirit of Death, ever present in times of war and peace? Can Death itself be changed?…
Siegfried Sassoon: After the nightmare horror of the Somme, a firing squad would be nothing to fear. And yet, it seems, a firing squad is too good for me. So, evidently, is a good old-fashioned court martial. Instead, they declare me sick in the head, sending me to this God-forsaken corner until I regain my senses. I’m declared to be as insane as these poor sods who have lost their minds in some bomb-blasted hellhole in France.
Wilfred Owen, visibly shaken: I fear that mine is lost in one of those hellholes… At least it was… For a while… I think I’ve found it again now… Or perhaps I’m just picking up the pieces… The fragments… All that’s left of what once was me… Or what I thought was me… The rest of it is in the shell hole where I left it… Or where it was ripped from me… I was unconscious for a long time, you know… God knows how long… A trench mortar hit us… When I regained consciousness, I was lying next to the severed remains of a good friend… My best friend… A fellow officer… They picked up the pieces of his body and threw them together into a hole… The pieces of my severed self are still scattered…somewhere there where we lay together.
This exchange between the two greatest War Poets is part of my new play, or more correctly my new verse drama, which opens at the Sheen Center in New York City on June 9 and will run for a total of sixteen performances until June 24.[*] I wrote it to commemorate several significant anniversaries which fall in 2017. First, it is the centenary of the entry of the United States into World War One; second, July 2017 marks the centenary of the publication of Siegfried Sassoon’s “Soldier’s Declaration,” his publicly expressed dissent at the barbarous conduct of the War; third, later this year, is the centenary of the meeting of Sassoon with his fellow war poet, Wilfred Owen, at Craiglockhart War Hospital in Scotland; fourth, it is the sixtieth anniversary of Sassoon’s reception into the Catholic Church in September 1957; and finally, it is the fiftieth anniversary of Sassoon’s death in September 1967.
Mindful of this correlation of significant anniversaries, I wrote Death Comes for the War Poets to highlight the horror of War in general, and World War One in particular. The “animal horror of the Somme,” as J.R.R. Tolkien described the deadliest battle in that most deadly of wars, claimed the lives of more than a million combatants. “Somme,” wrote a German officer, Friedrich Steinbrecher, “the whole history of the world cannot contain a more ghastly word.”
Death Comes for the War Poets is, however, more than a mere dramatization of the horrors of war, as experienced by the two greatest war poets, Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. Although it sees the war through their eyes, it sees it also through the eyes of the Spirit of Death, the third character in the three-person drama. It moves, therefore, from the physical to the metaphysical level, asking fundamental questions about the human experience of suffering in general and war in particular. How does a human soul cope with the horror of war? Is there room for hope? And what of the Spirit of Death, ever present in times of war and peace? Can Death itself be changed? These questions are at the suffering heart of the drama which seeks to grapple with the problem of suffering and the enigma that the presence of death presents. It confronts the deepest questions about life and death which we, as human beings, cannot avoid contemplating. Ultimately, I hope that Death Comes for the War Poets does not simply ask these most important and painful of questions, but offers answers.
Apart from my own words, and those of Owen and Sassoon, I wove the rich tapestry of the drama from the poetry of some of the finest Christian voices of the modern era: Thomas Gray, Gerard Manley Hopkins, T.S. Eliot, G.K. Chesterton, Rupert Brooke and Edith Sitwell, with distant echoes of Dante, Shakespeare, and Robert Burns. I was inspired to do so through a desire to celebrate the life and work of Sassoon, indubitably one of the greatest literary converts of the twentieth century. Death Comes for the War Poets tells the story of Sassoon’s journey from pre-war naivete, via the horrors of trench warfare, to his final acceptance and embrace of Christ and His Church. It shows how the Church allowed this great writer to make sense of his own life and to make sense of life itself—and indeed of death itself, the latter of which only makes sense in the light of Christ. It is, therefore, the story of two conversions; the conversion of the poet but also the conversion of Death.
Although it’s a new work of art, albeit a tapestry woven richly with the work of others, it is also old in the sense that it is part of a rich tradition. Throughout the history of Christian civilization, the greatest works of art and literature have presented a memento mori to the people of Christendom. This reminder of death points to the Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell. Death Comes for the War Poets follows this noble tradition by having the figure of Death as one of the characters who interacts with the two soldier-poets. Those seeing this drama performed, or reading it, will see the face of Death through the eyes of these poets and will come to understand the reality of death and the beauty of life in a new evangelized light. They will be dragged into the trenches with the suffering troops, will see the ugliness of death, and will emerge into the light of the Life that defeats death and makes sense of it. They will in some way experience the healing experience of conversion as the drama unfolds from the shadow of death into the full light of Christ. This, at least, was my hope in writing it.
Joseph Pearce’s new book, Death Comes for the War Poets, is available from St. Augustine’s Press. Books by Joseph Pearce may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.
[*] Tickets and show times may be found here.