(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 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 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 of horror in his hair,
He climbed through darkness to the twilight air,
Unloading hell behind him step by step.
By Siegfried Sassoon
In ‘The Rear-Guard’, how does the poet present his ideas about the soldier’s journey?
In ‘The Rear-Guard’, the poet presents his ideas about the soldier’s journey by using a complex rhyme scheme, foreshadowing, comparison and oxymoron.
Firstly, the poet thinks that the soldier’s journey is unpredictable. He uses a complex and random rhyme scheme to signify the unpredictability of the soldier’s journey. This is shown by the rhyme scheme of the first stanza, which is in an “A, B, B” structure, the rhyme scheme of the second stanza, which structure is “A, B, A, B” and the rhyme scheme of the third stanza which is “A, B, B, A, C, D”. There is no pattern in the rhyme schemes. The first line might rhyme with the second, but the third and fourth are totally different without any relationship with the first two lines. The random rhyme scheme implies that the soldier’s journey is unpredictable.
Secondly, the poet uses the number of lines in each stanza to show the tense of the soldier’s journey. This is shown by the pattern created by the number of lines in each stanza: 3, 4, 6, 5, 4, 3, from the beginning to the end. The increment of the number of lines in each stanza shows the building of tension, foreshadowing the horrible scene in the stanza with the most lines, which is the climax. Similarly, the decrement of the number of lines suggests the diminishing of tension, and foreshadows that the soldier will walk out from the tunnel. The number of lines in each stanza implies the build of tension of the soldier’s journey from the outset of the poem to the end.
Thirdly, another idea of the poet about the soldier’s journey is cruel. He compares by describing the scenes before and after the man being found dead, to show the cruelty of the soldier’s journey. This is shown by the difference in language. Before finding the man dead, the guard kicked the “soft, unanswering heap” savagely and flashed his beam onto the man’s face as he thought that the man was resting. However, the man wasn’t resting, and was “terribly glaring up, whose eyes yet wore” and “clutched a blackening wound”. Many details of the dead body of the man were described, showing a horrible scene. The comparison between what the guard thought of the man and how the man really was effectively shows the cruelty of the soldier’s journey.
Fourthly, the poet illustrates that the soldier’s journey is dangerous but pleasant to the soldier with the use of oxymoron. In the second stanza, the poet describes the darkness of battle as “the rosy gloom”. Oxymoron is used here when the words “rosy” and “gloom”, are used at the same time. Rosy is usually defined as easy and pleasant, while gloom represents a state of depression or despondency. This illustrates the soldier’s inner thinking that although he knew that things in front of him is gloom, he could still find it easy to accept and find pleasure from it. The use of oxymoron illustrates that the soldier’s journey is dangerous but pleasant to the soldier.
As a conclusion, the poet shows that the soldier’s journey is unpredictable, tense, cruel but pleasant to the soldier by using a complex rhyme scheme, foreshadowing, comparison and oxymoron.