In Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, Sassoon gives a memorable description of a Highland Major who lectures on ‘The Spirit of the Bayonet’ with ‘homicidal eloquence’, assisted by a Sergeant, a ‘tall sinewy machine’ who had been ‘trained to such a pitch of frightfulness that at a moment’s warning he could divest himself of all semblance of humanity.’ The Sergeant not only becomes less than human; he is implicitly linked with the enemy, since ‘frightfulness’ was the usual wartime translation of ‘Schrecklichkeit’, a term used by the Germans to describe their policy of forceful intimidation of civilians in Belgium, Poland and elsewhere.
These two become a symbol of all that is wrong with the British war effort, their excess an obvious contrast with the decency of the officers and men that are actually doing the fighting. And if they are as bad as Germans, and want to make their listeners as bad as Germans, then there is a moral equivalency between the two sides, a good reason for wanting to stop the War.
One of the Highland Major’s catch-phrases is ‘The bullet and the bayonet are brother and sister,’ a sentence that inspired ‘The Kiss’, a poem Sassoon wrote in 1916, perhaps at about the time he heard the lecture:’
To these I turn, in these I trust
Brother Lead and Sister Steel.
To his blind power I make appeal,
I guard her beauty clean from rust.
He spins and burns and loves the air,
And splits a skull to win my praise;
But up the nobly marching days
She glitters naked, cold and fair.
Sweet Sister, grant your soldier this:
That in good fury he may feel
The body where he sets his heel
Quail from your downward darting kiss.
Robert Graves claimed that the poem should be taken at face value as a celebration of violence, and Adrian Caesar sees it as the expression of a sadistic sexuality. Sassoon towards the end of his life wrote ‘I am sick of telling people that The Kiss was intended as a satire on bayonet-fighting, which I loathed,’ but the poem does seem to be evidence against him. His journal April 25, 1916 describes the Major’s talk: ‘For close on an hour he talked, and all who listened caught fire from his enthusiasm.’ ‘All’ surely includes Sassoon. Was the poem a sort of thought-experiment, trying out the Major’s attitude on paper, to see what happens? The antitheses of the first two stanzas seem measured, determined but not excessive. It’s only towards the end that things become too much – ‘the body where he sets his heel’ – in horror descriptions from the Front, walking on the dead was a frequent trope indicating the lack of respect for human life. ‘Quail from your downward darting kiss.’ the bayonet has become a femme fatale, maybe even a vampire whose kiss is to be feared and flinched from. The poem has made a journey from the start, which tries out the Major’s idea, to an ending that quails from it. Ata ny rate there is an ambiguity in the poem that has led Graves and others into one reading, despite the author’s protestations.
By the time he wrote Infantry Officer, Sassoon was determined to leave no room for such ambiguity. In that book the Highland Major is unremittingly awful, and George Sherston is allowed none of the confusion of feelings that were inside Sassoon in 1916, and produced the poem.