Commentary on Aftermath by Sassoon
“Aftermath” gives insight into the post-war British culture that places a lot of importance on subduing agonizing memories and reveals how that culture, by expecting an individual to forget, intensifies the leftover desolation that proceeds from the war. The poem sends a very thought-provoking message that conveys to its readers that for society in order to regenerate after such a catastrophe, one needs not to submit to the urge to repress agonizing memories, but to remember and accept the sufferings he has undergone instead.
“Aftermath” is a reflection upon the war after it has ended, critically discussing the post-war society and that society’s progression of moving forward from the tragedy of war. The motif that consistently reoccurs throughout the poem evaluates the key issue that is evident in its title – the “aftermath” of war. Sassoon’s exposition recounts how although young men are “reprieved” from war and have made their ways back into society, they still are confronted by the “haunted gap” of their minds; his recount therefore suggests that returning soldiers are unable to properly move forward with life, because they still have not yet learned to accept and live with the terror of the past. This elaborates on Sassoon’s exploration of how the repressive post-war society, instead of nurturing and offering social support to these soldiers, have actually prevented them from remembering and coming to terms with the past. Sassoon’s evaluation is greatly enriched by his use of imagery. Very pleasant images such as the “clouds,” and the “lit heaven of life” are being layered alternately between disturbing images such as the “dying eyes,” the “lolling heads” and the “doomed and haggard faces.” It is noticeable that there are not nearly as many pleasant images, and that the number of disturbing images is dominant and overpowering throughout the poem. This once again hints at the underlying disturbances that will continually haunt the soldiers who are supposedly enjoying life. It intensifies Sassoon’s powerful remark: soldiers have been “reprieved” and have been given the precious gift of life, but they are still being subconsciously haunted by the memories of the “slain of the War”; however hard they try to move forward and however much they cherish life, men returning from war would forever be troubled by the memories of the massacre and butchery they have caused.
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The poem is written in the second-person perspective, addressing the “you,” which most probably represents the society Sassoon is trying to appeal to. This renders Sassoon’s message even more critical because it directly speaks to the reader, which not only immediately appeals to their interest and gains their attention, but also makes it more solemn and despondent: “Have you forgotten yet?” What’s more, by incorporating such an interesting perspective, Sassoon also shares his emotions – whether longing or plaintive, contemplative or mournful – with his reader, inviting them to undergo the dismal and “[haunting]” experience of the war’s “aftermath” with him and the rest of the post-war society. The poem’s perspective enables the reader to relive an extremely paradoxical era and relate to the soldiers who were not nurtured or supported by the civilian community but were instead forced into suppressing their own memories. This makes the poem very powerful and moving because it arouses the reader’s sympathy and compassion meanwhile prompting them to be critical of the society that’s so uncaring and so callously unmindful of those who have sacrificed their youth and liveliness to protect it.
Furthermore, Sassoon has developed various voices throughout the poem, as if to look into the “aftermath” of war from different perspectives in an exhaustive, complete and in-depth evaluation of society. At the beginning, the voice is distinguishably identical to the voice of “society” for it refers to the post-war days as “the world’s events.” Society at the time puts a lot of importance on the progression from war. Therefore the reference to “the world’s events” sounds distinctively like society speaking because it reflects society’s overstated emphasis on the process of moving on. However, soon after, Sassoon has also taken upon what sounds like the voice of a soldier who has returned from the war, reflecting on the despair and horror of war – the “stench of corpses rotting,” the “hopeless rain,” the “doomed and haggard faces” of soldiers. This voice explores how alienated and disoriented a soldier would feel being re-integrated back into society right after the war and very powerfully expresses the resentment towards the oblivious and ignorant civilian community who do not try to be understanding of the difficulties a soldier must overcome. Moreover, the two antithetical poetic voices (of the soldiers and of society) create a dramatic divergence that resembles the conflicts between two social groups at the time: one group wants to remember while the other wants to forget. It’s criticizing British culture by justifying that what society idealizes or assumes is good is not necessarily good in actuality for an individual.
On top of that, the form of the poem also contributes a lot to the message Sassoon is trying to get across as it greatly reflects his sentiments and viewpoints. There is hardly any uniformity in the structure of the stanzas except for the fact that the longer ones are non-italic while the shorter ones are written in italics. Apart from that, there is an irregular pattern in the length of the stanzas and in the number of stresses on each line. The lack of structure reiterates the absence of security and steadiness, which is also a furtive indication implying that the re-entry into civility after war is very tenuous and not at all as stable as some would like to think. This correlates back to Sassoon’s very sophisticated choice of words – “rumbled.” Using a word with connation alluding to unbalance in describing the reconstruction of a post-war society suggests that that society is only pretending to be regaining equilibrium. It is indicating that in actual that so-called regained ‘equilibrium’ is very tenuously layered atop underlying social instability and problems – which are in this case the haunting memories that men are indoctrinated into suppressing. However hard people try to forget, especially when they try to forget without learning how to accept the past first, the dismal past would still be the protruding factor that continually comes back and disturbs their state of mind.
The rhyme scheme also has achieved to build up the essence of the poem. The poem has an inconsistent rhyme scheme, which reflects the flimsiness in the reshaping of society. There would very often be a lack of rhyme, for instance, the traditional rhyme “flow” and “go” in line 5 is followed by a non-rhyme “spare.” These frequent non-rhymes go against the entire rhyme scheme that’s established in the rest of the stanza, rendering itself even more significantly discordant. This affects the harmony of the poem, making the poem sound extremely jarring and discordant. This is a very notable thing because its lack of harmoniousness demonstrates the disorder and chaos that would be likely to frequently emerge from what’s perceived to be an orderly society. It indicates that the normalcy apparently gained is only pretended, as though it’s a disguise to conceal the unrevealed and suppressed disarray.
What’s more, there are numerous literary techniques that have been very appropriately employed to intensify the profundity of the poem’s meaning. The cleverly incorporated onomatopoeia particularly enhances the poem’s depth. The mute “t” sound in the rhymes “yet” and “forget”, “Mametz” and “parapets” consistently recurs, creating a very powerful effect where the onomatopoeic mute interrupts the breath and creates harsh and strident sound effects. This relates to the exposition of a conflicting and incongruous society that’s previously been established, boosting Sassoon’s critical evaluation of the antithetical and inconsistent culture at the time. It further reflects upon the paradoxical era when questioning whether the war was right is considered an offense to the dead. At the same time, it is reinforcing Sassoon’s appeal “Do you every stop and ask, ‘Is it all going to happen again?’” This is an earnest request calling for people to contemplate on the sufferings they have caused instead of choosing the ‘easy’ way out where they can just forget. This intensifies Sassoon’s revolutionary stance against such convention – what Sassoon is trying to convey completely goes against society’s expectations and against traditional values, which have placed a lot of importance on indoctrinating people into believing the war has been right. Once again, Sassoon is rejecting the idea of forgetting. Once again, he is declaring that need to remember and to accept.
“Aftermath” is a powerful and thought-provoking appeal to the post-war society not to submit to the repressive government at the time. Sassoon is an iconic figure who is, on behalf of the community of soldiers who have returned from war, standing up against the uncaring government who are relentlessly indoctrinating its subjects into neglecting the memories of war and overlooking the mistake the whole society has made. The poem graphically gives insights into a divergent and segregated society where one social group wants one thing and another group wants another, where the culture is not embracing the community of returning soldiers although claiming to be integrating them back into society.