‘Dreamers’ is a poem by the British poet of the First World War, Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967). Written while Sassoon was convalescing at Craiglockhart Hospital, ‘Dreamers’ is a poem which contrasts the realities of war with the soldiers’ longing for home and domestic comfort and security. You can read ‘Dreamers’ here before proceeding to our analysis of the poem below.
‘Dreamers’: the very title tells us how Sassoon is depicting soldiers in this poem. Yet it does not tell us the whole story. Rather than rejecting the idea of war as a noble and heroic calling, Sassoon actually endorses such an idea: the soldiers are standing in ‘the great hour of destiny’ and determined to win some ‘flaming, fatal climax with their lives’.
‘Dreamers’ begins with Sassoon describing soldiers as inhabitants of the ‘grey land’ of death. Immediately, we are in No Man’s Land, in the trenches of the First World War. This is the land of death because these men know they could die any moment: today might be the day they are shot down by machine guns, or blown to pieces by a shell. The concept of ‘tomorrow’ makes no sense to such men, since there is no
point in thinking about the future when you might be dead by tomorrow. Sassoon uses a financial metaphor to describe this: the soldiers can draw ‘no dividend’, i.e. no share of the profits.
Sassoon continues by describing the soldiers as rooted to the present moment: that ‘great hour of destiny’. Their fates are in the hands of destiny. These soldiers have their own private quarrels or ‘feuds’, their jealousies, their sorrows; but immediately, these are forgotten in the next line, as Sassoon reminds us that these men have been made to commit themselves to action, rather than feeling. Not only must they give their lives in the cause of the war, if necessary, but they must go out, as we like to say, in a ‘blaze of glory’.
And yet note the immediate contrast again in the next line, as we shuttle back from ‘action’ to ‘feeling’ or thought: ‘Soldiers are dreamers’. Even when the guns begin to fire and their lives hang in the balance, these soldiers – ordinary men, sons, fathers, brothers, husbands – think not in narrow military terms but of home comforts, their wives in their clean beds (rather than the lice-ridden pallets they sleep on in the trenches), and the warmth of their ‘firelit homes’ rather than the cold, damp world of the Western Front.
In the final six lines of ‘Dreamers’, Sassoon contrasts these ‘firelit homes’ (dreamed of, but far away) with the grim reality of the soldiers’ lives at war: instead of these firelit homes they inhabit ‘foul dug-outs’, instead of their wives they have ‘rats’ for company, and instead of their ‘clean beds’ they sleep in those ‘ruined trenches’. The rest of the poem conjures a stock-image of pre-war English life: cricket matches, Bank Holiday weekends, going to the cinema of ‘picture shows’, and even commuting to work – at least that is a safe and ordinary existence.
Note: ‘spats’ probably refers to petty and trivial arguments, especially with a loved one, such as a wife. ‘Dreamers’ is often given short shrift by literary critics of Sassoon’s poetry, but what lifts this sonnet above the ordinary is his shift from more idealised, positive, ‘dreamy’ home comforts towards less pleasant ones – travelling to work and arguing with a spouse – to show that even these would be far preferable to the nightmare horror of life in the trenches.
‘Dreamers’ may not offer anything strikingly new in Sassoon’s oeuvre in terms of its themes and sentiments, but its form is worth stopping to analyse. The poem is a curious hybrid of the English or Shakespearean sonnet with the Italian or Petrarchan sonnet: it begins with three quatrains rhymed abab cdcd efef, but instead of ending with a final rhyming couplet, as in the traditional English sonnet, ‘Dreamers’ concludes with the same ef rhymes, so it can be divided up into two quatrains (abab cdcd) and a sestet, or six-line unit (efefef).
So, we might label ‘Dreamers’ a Petrarchan sonnet – but a peculiarly English one. It has more rhymes than the conventional Petrarchan sonnet, but the lack of concluding couplet, and triple repetition of the e and f rhymes, subvert our expectations: where we expect a neat, striking conclusion (a rhyming couplet), instead we get the peculiarly bathetic effect of falling away, as the third repetition of the ef rhymes mirrors the fading power of the soldiers’ dreams.
Image: via Wikimedia Commons.