William Butler Yeats held a firm distrust for the war poetry, disregarding the form as a kind of passive suffering. It could not and should not enact change, that is not the poet’s job. That’s what W.H. Auden wrote in his Yeats’ memoriam, “Poetry makes nothing happen: it survives.” Asked to write his own war poem Yeats said, thanks but no thanks and wrote this short six-line rebuke to the very idea:
I think it better that in times like these
A poet’s mouth be silent, for in truth
We have no gift to set a statesman right;
He has had enough of meddling who can please
A young girl in the indolence of her youth,
Or an old man upon a winter’s night.
WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS, “BEING ASKED FOR A WAR POEM”
If we ever wonder why the poet is quiet in times of war and political turmoil, the reason may very much be, that it is not their job to be loud. They speak to us in our moments of peaceful surrender when we stop fighting. Historically, when they went to war, the greatest poets died. Wilfred Owen and John McCrae were great poets who died in World War I. Poetry is good for the soul but it does not stop machine guns or widespread pneumonia. The war poet can choose to fight valiantly and with great force and still be pacifists in their art.
Siegfried Sassoon wrote our most enduring anti-war poetry. It goes without saying that it is thus often embraced by the wrong side of the issue. Any work produced about war can eventually be manipulated and spun to produce another effect. The conservatives read Siegfried Sassoon too, taking great pleasure in his insane bravery and valor on the field of battle. He was quite a fighter. The story goes that during a particularly intense battle, he lay on his back in the middle of No Man’s Land, laughing at the sky, as though mocking the gods of war. The very same man who laughed to the sky during battle went back home and did everything in his writerly power (again, Yeats might say there is no utility here, and that may be true) to write a declaration condemning the government for prolonging the war.
The new Terence Davies film follows the period just after the First World War. Rather than creating facsimiles, the film opts for archival footage. It decides that something about that inherent danger — taking a hand-cranked camera into one of history’s hottest conflict zones — would have naturally captured truer results than any modern computer could. It also allows a kind of separation between materials. While Siegfried Sassoon is recovering from the war and protesting against it, the film is not responsible for the reframing of any actionable sequences.
We get a Terence Davies film instead, one that plays slow and stretches out time with a sense of ironic modernism. The pacing of the film is better suited to something like a T.S. Eliot or Ezra Pound poem — the irony being that they did not attend the wars (Eliot for physical reasons, Pound because he was, uh, about to go spread propaganda for the fascists), and replaced Sassoon’s expected position as the helmsmen of modernism — and Yeats continues to be correct about everything. The film is inherently modern, playing with the liminal qualities of spacing and time, reflecting more the work of these other poets. It is Eliot’s “Prufrock,” “life measured out with coffee spoons.” That sort of specificity and fragile delicacy where any little thing could snap the characters and the story. The irony of the approach is that Siegfried Sassoon was such a direct, declarative writer, and would have never framed his life this way — he didn’t in his diaries about his upbringing as a rural country gentleman (Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man, 1928) or as an absurdly brave officer at war (Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, 1930). You will not find much decoration or frivolity in his words after the war. The film fills in some of these gaps for us, rendering Sassoon again as a person, now damaged but still seeking and worthy of love.
What suits Terence Davies is that he gets to make a biopic that is truly Out and Confidently Gay. Benediction gets to do both things. In Davies’ previous poetry biopic, A Quiet Passion (2016), there was only room for his reclamation of his own personal Emily Dickinson. Davies’ own Sassoon reads closer to Davies own realities, that he gets to reflect his own values and queer identity with accurate respectability on the screen. It profiles, mostly, Siegfried Sassoon’s intimate relationship with Stephen Tennant, who the poet described as ‘the most enchanting creature he’d ever met’. The affair, which Sassoon regarded as his “dark secret” has only more recently been detailed, as Tennant’s own diaries were uncovered. In some way, it feels like forging new ground in the conversation about Sassoon and his relationships. It helps us fill in some of the blanks, to explore the “dark secret” that had him “swooning with happiness.”
Benediction is a redemption story but it is also surely a story about passive suffering, wherein its main character is so eaten up with grief, shell shocked and processing his traumas, that it makes for a dark romance weaved with elastic references to time and space. It encounters the artist after the war, making broad declarations against the very thing he was one of the bravest proponents in fighting for. It’s about the reclamation of self and building a new life upon breaking from the detritus of service. Jack Lowden (now typecast) plays a young Sassoon with reserve and intelligence, while Peter Capaldi mirrors the performance with his older version of the poet. In one gorgeous scene, the two younger and elder versions of Sassoon are pulled together, and Davies shows us everything that is on his mind, all of the pain, regret, and trauma of his character as an open wound.
The poet cannot change anything. They have to write anyway. After the war they might help us think about it in a different way. After the war we can recover their poetry and celebrate them. But they will not reach the statesmen, probably. They will not influence the course of political events, most likely. But they might influence a subsequent generation of political thinkers who will do just that. And then, that same very political and stringently anti-war poet may improbably become a Catholic and write simple, less provocative, less important, less read poetry that just tells us about life. And that next phase may not receive any attention at all. Because the audience of the war poetry is also craven for war and are consuming the industrial complex and systems that created it.
The fate of the war poet is that they may be read and upheld by the wrong people for the wrong reasons. But, maybe, they have lived a hell of a life worth examining. Maybe one day this reviewer finds “Suicide in the Trenches” as a young man and becomes stridently anti-war ever since. Maybe it does still matter. Maybe it doesn’t matter and the life lived between the margins can express so much more to us today. Possibly, both outcomes are true. The anti-war poet gets to go and have their romantic affair. After the war the war poet only has themselves to look after. Sometimes life is just lived in passive suffering. The political voice of a generation is still a person and has the same needs as all the other poets and do not have to continue harming themselves for their art. As Kendrick Lamar writes in his new song “Mirror,” “I choose me, I’m sorry.”