Siegfried. Now there's a name you don't hear everyday. And certainly not in England. Nevertheless, little Siegfried Sassoon grew up in the southeastern English county of Kent with an English mother with a penchant for German opera (hence her son's name). After an uneventful childhood, Sassoon attended Cambridge for a while, but left without taking a degree (just like the famous Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge). After milling around and playing a lot of cricket (seriously), Sassoon decided to join the army shortly before the outbreak of World War I in August, 1914. Bad, bad timing.
After his younger brother died during the Gallipoli Campaign of World War I, and after he had spent considerable time on the Western Front, Sassoon grew disenchanted with the war and soon abandoned the patriotism that had brought him to sign up in the first place. The idealistic and naïve character of his early poems gave way to a prickly cynicism, as he became all too familiar with the cruelties of modern warfare.
At one point, Sassoon got so fed up that he wrote a public letter of protest to the British government that was read aloud in the House of Commons; in addition to criticizing the war effort itself, Sassoon also expressed anger at the public's careless, go-with-the-flow attitude when it came to a war they really knew nothing about. If that sounds like a risky move, well, it was. Sassoon narrowly escaped a court-martial for speaking his mind.
What's all that got to do with the poem at hand? Well, sometime in 1917, when he was feeling particularly sassy, Sassoon penned one of his best-known pieces, "Does it Matter?", a scathing poem that both describes common war injuries (blindness, the loss of limbs, madness) and also mocks those who act like one can still have a normal life after suffering from them.
Like many of his other poems, "Does it Matter?" contains a clear and powerful anti-war message; instead of talking about the ways in which soldiers are heroes, Sassoon describes broken men whose lives have been basically ruined by war.
In 1918 Sassoon published the poem in a collection appropriately titled Counter-Attack and Other Poems; the first poem in the volume illustrates the major theme of the volume as a whole, and of "Does it Matter?" in particular: "The unreturning army that was youth; / The legions who have suffered and are dust" (from "Prelude: the Troops"). Soldiers either lost their "youth" (their innocence, their childhood aspirations; that's what he means by "unreturning") or their lives ("dust"). The soldier in "Does it Matter?" has lost a lot, and his youth—a time when he had legs and sight and dreams—is definitely gone forever.
Can you imagine what your life would be like if you lost your legs, or if you suddenly went blind? If you were planning on being a pilot, or a professional baseball player, well, you can toss that dream out the window. A lot of people would probably feel pretty bad for you and would thus be extra nice, but that really wouldn't change anything. If you're friends decided to go play golf, you would probably have to stay home, or stick to the cart.
Awful, right? Now imagine that you lost your legs fighting in a war, not a war in which you were attempting to root out evil, but a war that only happened because everybody got involved who had no compelling reason to get involved. Or at least, that's how you see it.
That war was World War I, and the tragic situation we've just described befell millions (that's right, millions) of young men between 1914 and 1918. While "Does it Matter?" doesn't talk about being a pilot (airplanes were still pretty new when Sassoon was writing) or a professional ball player, it talks about things like hunting and breakfast (and about how a blind person with no legs can't really do the things they used to do).
The soldier in the poem must sit home while others go out hunting; he waits while they eat (we're pretty sure a guy with no legs could still eat, but the point is that he is isolated from his fellow men and from normal life activities). He sits on a terrace and looks toward the light, but he can't really appreciate it the way he did before he lost his sight. The pain—both literal and psychological—of having one's legs, sight, and dreams destroyed makes life really crappy; the soldier in the poem can't really do anything except sit there and drink (and despair, probably).
While it is possible to lead an extremely fulfilling life, even without eyesight and legs, there's no place in the poem for such an optimistic outlook. For one thing, Siegfried Sassoon wasn't really a bright-side-of-the-road kind of guy. But more importantly, he was interested in the ways in which war radically changes people's lives, and not for the better. Losing one's legs as a result of some rare illness is one thing, but fighting in a seemingly pointless conflict is a whole different ballgame. It is almost as if the poem is trying to say, "this didn't have to happen, which makes it all the more tragic." Touché, Sassoon. Touché.
World War I Poetry
World War I is known for its poetry, and this site's your one-stop shop for the works of Wilfred Owen, Robert Graves, and ol' Siegfried, of course.
Sassoon's page at the First World War Poetry Digital Archive
Take the shortcut to Sassoonville.
BBC Gets Down to Business
It's not much, but this brief bio should give you a good idea of what kind of man Siegfried was.
The Poetry Foundation
For a more in-depth, academic spin on things, check out what the Poetry Foundation has to say on our guy.
Bartleby's Online Collection
If you're in the mood for Sassooning, Bartleby.com has the goods to keep you going.
Siegfried Sassoon and Poets of the Great War
Here's a short clip from the film Voices in Wartime that talks about Sassoon and other war poets. Plus, around the 2:08 mark, there's an abridged version of "Does it Matter?".
Pull down the shutters and fire up the projector for this slideshow all about Siegfried.
A Child Reads the Poem
It's a bit eerie hearing a kiddo reciting the lines. But maybe that's the point.
Actor Malachy McCourt reads the poem in his awesome Irish brogue.
A Young Siegfried Sassoon
Check out that dapper three-piece suit.
Sassoon in Uniform
For the full effect, of course.
Old Siegfried Sassoon
Sassoon, much later in life. He was one of the lucky poets who managed to survive the war.
Craiglockhart War Hospital
Here's a shot of the (creepy) hospital where Sassoon wrote a lot of his poetry and where he met Wilfred Owen.
What, no epitaph?
Sassoon in Poet's Corner
Sassoon gets a shout-out in Westminster Abbey, along with other World War I poets.
Sassoon's Letter of Protest
Here's letter Sassoon wrote protesting the war that almost got him in serious trouble.
Awesome handwriting, no? We wish our cursive were that neat.
Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory
Check out this important, moving, and popular book that explores World War I from the perspective of a number of famous writers who lived through it (including Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, and Isaac Rosenberg).
Pat Barker, Regeneration
This novel's about a soldier during World War I, and it's loosely based on Sassoon's protest letter and hospital stay.