‘The Dug-Out’ by Siegfried Sassoon

Why do you lie with your legs ungainly huddled,
And one arm bent across your sullen, cold,
Exhausted face? It hurts my heart to watch you,
Deep-shadowed from the candle’s guttering gold;
And you wonder why I shake you by the shoulder;
Drowsy, you mumble and sigh and turn your head…
You are too young to fall asleep for ever;
And when you sleep you remind me of the dead.

We are coming close to Remembrance Day and I have been thinking about some war poets. Sassoon is always among the first who comes to mind, and he is rightly one of best-loved poets of the First World War.

This particular poem stands out for me among Sassoon’s verse because it is not full of obvious rage and it doesn’t have the ironic tone of many of Sassoon’s brilliant pieces. The Dug-Out presents us with a simple image, and uses plain, clear language to describe the poet’s internal suffering after his has witnessed so much slaughter, so many young men dying before his eyes in grotesque, futile circumstances.

In the poem, the speaker watches a fellow soldier sleeping in the dug-out, in the trenches. His legs are “ungainly huddled” and his face is “exhausted” and “deep-shadowed”. As ever, Sassoon does not shy away from showing us the reality of his war experience, and the toll it took on the men. The image of the candle’s “guttering gold” is quite fascinating; it seems evocative of the unimaginably precarious existence these men lived in the trenches. The poet shakes his “drowsy” comrade by the shoulder, but he just mumbles and “turn[s] [his] head”. He does not want to wake.

The final two lines of the poem are just heart-breaking: “You are too young to fall asleep forever;/ And when you sleep you remind me of the dead”. Like all the soldiers to fight in the Great War (and, of course, every war before and since) they are too young to die. Sassoon is begging this soldier not to die, but also not to sleep; his experience of warfare has so affected him that now the image of a man sleeping reminds him of death and fills him with dread.

I am not sure whether the soldier addressed in this poem is actually dead or not, and I think Sassoon intends it to be ambiguous. The poem seems dreamlike to me, the way the speaker shakes the man to wake him, but the man, mumbling and sighing, “turn[s] [his] head”. The piece certainly has a haunted feel to it in my view. It feels like a nightmare where the speaker is trying to stop a friend from sleeping because he’s afraid he will die, but he is powerless to prevent it.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh