In the early 20 th century, many poets began to undertake a broad literary movement which was a reaction against the Romanticism of the 19 th century, the purpose of which was to depict more realistic situations, rather than the more sentimental aspects of the poems that preceded them. The effects of World War I, which lasted from 1914 to 1918, had a great effect on this "modernist" movement. In Siegfried Sassoon's "A Working Party," we can begin to see this modern realism through the use of hard, dry, precise description, traditionally unpoetic language, and the juxtaposition of the personal and universal war experience, as an expression of the poet's views of the harshness and horror of a world war. In contrast to Romanticism, which was often characterized by the use of vague language, Sassoon makes use of exact, descriptive verbs in the first stanza, which describes the unnamed soldier walking through the trench. However, Sassoon never uses a word as vague as "walking"; he employs verbs such as "blundered,"sliding,"poising,"groping,"tripped," and "lurched." By using these exact words, Sassoon is able to make a statement on the individual level about the difficulty of life in the trenches of the war. By using "blundered," the poet is suggesting a difficult journey, one where perhaps he was having trouble getting footing or keeping his balance.
This is further suggested with the use of "groping with his boots." The word "groping" connotes the soldier having no sense of direction in his actions. He does not know where he is going, as if he is completely unaware of what is in front of him; symbolically, this represents the ignorance that the individual soldier has about the future of war, and consequently, his own future. By showing us a soldier who is tripping and lurching along the walls of a damp trench, Sassoon is showing us one aspect of the harshness of the war experience on the personal level. In addition to his use of exact verbs, Sassoon also employs deliberately unpoetic language as a means of de-romanticizing the war experience. This is seen in the phrase, "Often splashing/Wretchedly where the sludge was ankle-deep." This is clearly not a poetic-sounding line by the standards of nineteenth century poetry; a Romantic poet would not have seen the word "sludge" as worthy of being used in a poem. It simply is not a pleasant image, and the image of a soldier, another idea that was often Romanticized prior to the twentieth century, trod ding through disgusting sludge is not a pleasant image either.
Here, Sassoon is reversing his readers' general conceptions of war. Many people before this era thought of war as being grandiose, courageous, and honorable. Sassoon, by using these harsh-sounding words and images, is making a statement that war is not something that deserves to be glorified. Romanticism tended to see nature as being a source of inspiration and beauty; Sassoon, in contrast, sees a dismal nature as being just another aspect of the harsh war experience. The poet writes, "Then the gloom/Swallowed his sense of sight." The entire environment that surrounds the soldier is one of gloom, and that is all that he can see. Here, Sassoon is pointing out the universality of the soldier's dismay; no matter where he looks, he is enveloped in this sense of darkness that permeates the entire landscape of the war.
Later on in stanza two, "The wind came posting by with chilly gusts." So the wind is not seen as a harbinger of divine revelation or as anything to be Romanticized, but rather it is harsh and indifferent, a contrast to the soft, gentle breezes that were typical of a Romantic poem. The larger context of a harsh nature is related to another of Sassoon's techniques of showing the horror of war: the juxtaposition of the personal experience of war with a sense of the larger terror. The poem mainly describes a nameless, universal soldier who gets killed by a flare. However, throughout the poem, there is a sense of something larger, outside the realm of the personal experience. The soldier is aware of candles and braziers, of distant rifle shots in the middle of the night, of shells bursting below the hill, and especially of flares going up into the sky. So, spliced in with the images of the personal, physical hardship of the war are depictions of the war as a living environment.
Just as the landscape itself is brutal, the human situation that completely surrounds the trenches is cruel as well. If the soldier were to wander anywhere but the trenches, he would be in grave danger; indeed, just by staying in the trenches, he is also in danger, as his ultimate fate shows. This extreme lack of security is seen as horrific by a modern world that thrives on personal security. This is accomplished by this technique of having an ever-present bitter war as the context for this universal soldier's personal experience. Along these lines, another way that Sassoon shows the horror of the war is by having the poem's main character remain nameless. By doing this, he is showing us two things: one, that the horrible war experience could happen to anyone, as the soldier in the poem is universal; and two, that these tragic events happen to regular, everyday people.
His wife is described as "meagre" and his children are seen as "pale," and he lives in a "Midland town." From this we can see that there is nothing extraordinary about this soldier; he is simply a honest man (a "decent chap") who doesn't come from a glamorous background, just someone who is trying to tough out the war and make it back to his family. Indeed, he always kept his family in mind, as he "showed the photograph to all his mates," indicating that he holds some sort of traditional values of family. He is a very simple-minded man, too, "who did his work and hadn't much to say, /And always laughed at other people's jokes/Because he hadn't any of his own." This soldier is Sassoon's vehicle for showing the tragedy of war; no matter how obedient and decent the soldier was, he still would have been an innocent victim of the cruel war environment. The suggestion of a disunity between the na " ive but well-meaning actions of the soldier and his ultimate fate of death is displayed in the lack of a rhyme scheme in the poem. The absence of a unifying rhyme scheme suggests a lack of order, coherence, or logic to the reality of war. This is also a modern element to the poem; a modernist approach to poetry often uses dislocation, in this case, changing form to create new rhythms, as a technique of suggesting the disorder of modern life.
In this poem, Sassoon writes in unrhymed stanzas (which themselves have no pattern as to their individual length) which suggests the disorder and absurdity of the war. This is also in contrast to Romantic and pre-war Georgian poetry, where rhyme schemes and conformity to traditional styles and rhythms were held in esteem. Sassoon changes the form and, in doing so, makes a strong statement about the foolishness of the modern war experience. The modernist movement in poetry is especially important because it reflects the twentieth century's increased skepticism about the past and past ideas.
The war poets, Sassoon included, succeeded in changing our conceptions of war as a romantic, noble ideal and showing us the hard-nosed reality of an absurd war. By reading Sassoon's "A Working Party" today, we can experience vicariously the brutally realistic scenes and anti-war message the poet gives us, and apply this paradigm to our contemporary ideas of war.