A Poetic Example of PTSD

Siegfried Sassoon I tend to think of as the PTSD poet. He was a World War I veteran. Before the War, he used to write, well, really quite happy poems. Just before he was sent to the front, he wrote “The Old Huntsman”, which was a long meandering poem where he imagines himself old, reflecting on a life with foreign marvels and peace and meadows and fox hunting.

And then there was the War.

You could say he changed his mind, but that would be an understatement.

One of the best poems he ever wrote, I think, was aptly titled, “Repression of War Experience.” It is one of the best examples of procession from

  • a seemingly harmless trigger,

  • through to the inability to focus thoughts elsewhere because vivid PTSD memories are now intruding upon conscious thought,

  • alongside with attempts at rationalization and denial and dealing—for sufferers rarely give in without a fight, and I would actually posit that they never do—

  • and the spiral that leads inevitably to what I call a form of waking nightmare. ((I talk about waking nightmares and different “levels” of PTSD reaction in this post at Tor.com.))

I’m going to sound like a literature teacher, but make note of his use of breaks for timing, both flowing times together and setting them apart.

Here’s the poem, dated 1918 and well in the public domain of the US.

Repression of War Experience

NOW light the candles; one; two; there’s a moth;
What silly beggars they are to blunder in
And scorch their wings with glory, liquid flame—
No, no, not that,—it’s bad to think of war,
When thoughts you’ve gagged all day come back to scare you;
And it’s been proved that soldiers don’t go mad
Unless they lose control of ugly thoughts
That drive them out to jabber among the trees.

Now light your pipe; look, what a steady hand.
Draw a deep breath; stop thinking; count fifteen,
And you’re as right as rain…
                                        Why won’t it rain?…
I wish there’d be a thunder-storm to-night,
With bucketsful of water to sluice the dark,
And make the roses hang their dripping heads.
Books; what a jolly company they are,
Standing so quiet and patient on their shelves,
Dressed in dim brown, and black, and white, and green,
And every kind of colour. Which will you read?
Come on; O do read something; they’re so wise.
I tell you all the wisdom of the world
Is waiting for you on those shelves; and yet
You sit and gnaw your nails, and let your pipe out,
And listen to the silence: on the ceiling
There’s one big, dizzy moth that bumps and flutters;
And in the breathless air outside the house
The garden waits for something that delays.
There must be crowds of ghosts among the trees,—
Not people killed in battle,—they’re in France,—
But horrible shapes in shrouds—old men who died
Slow, natural deaths,—old men with ugly souls,
Who wore their bodies out with nasty sins.
. . . .

You’re quiet and peaceful, summering safe at home;
You’d never think there was a bloody war on!…
O yes, you would … why, you can hear the guns.
Hark! Thud, thud, thud,—quite soft … they never cease—
Those whispering guns—O Christ, I want to go out
And screech at them to stop—I’m going crazy;
I’m going stark, staring mad because of the guns.

You can find his works over at Bartleby.com.

You’ll find that “Memory”, in Picture-Show, is at least one of the bookends to “The Old Huntsman”. He does begin to find peace there. Even chronic PTSD can lay down its arms, eventually.

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2 thoughts on “A Poetic Example of PTSD

  1. Wow. I’m going to have to go back and reread his stuff. Somehow, it didn’t quite speak to me the same way before. (Thank you, by the way, for these posts.)

  2. Hello Kat!

    You’re welcome.

    For Siegfried, I think it helps to know the context. It’s been a while since PTSD/shell shock was introduced en masse.

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