Sick Leave: A Poem Analysis

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Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967) was a British soldier who served in World War I. He wrote the poem "Sick Leave" in 1918 while in a hospital and away from the front lines. Unlike many of his fellow soldiers, Sassoon survived the war and went on to write many more poems.

Context

World War I was a bloody wake-up call for the Western world. As newly developed industrial means of destruction such as tanks, machine guns and missiles were used for the first time, troops were slaughtered in unprecedented numbers. The result was a widespread malaise and vertigo as previously unquestioned societal norms fell by the wayside. Poets such as Sassoon, Wilfred Owen and John McCrae captured the horror of war in works that have become classics of anti-war literature. In "Sick Leave," Sassoon, who was an officer, expresses his feelings of responsibility to his men whom he has left fighting on the front after he is evacuated to a hospital.

Honor

One of the societal concepts that took a beating during World War I was the idea of honor in battle. When this war began, many naive soldiers went to war with ideas of 19th century conflicts in their heads, and were shocked and appalled at the limitless carnage that they witnessed. The tone of Sassoon's poem expresses a world-weary, damaged sense of honor as he reflects on his absence from the fighting. A basic premise of traditional ideas of honor is that a soldier should not ask others to do things that he would not do himself, and Sassoon experiences guilt that he has been spared while his men continue to fight and die.

Poetic Structure

Sassoon uses the formal structure of poetry to emphasize his presence in a controlled environment and his distance from his men who continue to endure the chaos of the trenches. He contrasts his own situation, "lulled and warm," with the soldiers who are "in the mud" experiencing "slashing rain." By describing their experiences from a distance and in a formal way, Sassoon emphasizes both their suffering and his own enforced detachment from it.

Political Context

Sassoon had taken issue with the way that the war was being run, and felt that it was being unnecessarily prolonged for political reasons. He had written and circulated a letter of protest and was apparently taken out of combat because the people who he was criticizing wanted to characterize him as suffering from "shell shock." By institutionalizing Sassoon and questioning the soundness of his mind, they were able to sidestep the validity of his criticisms.

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