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Dreamers by Siegfried Sassoon

“Dreamers” appears in Siegfried Sassoon’s well-known poetry collection Counter-Attack and Other Poems. This sonnet features how the world views soldiers in contrast to the way Sassoon saw them. They are dreamers, filled with heroism, and ready to dedicate their lives for the sake of their motherland. In The poet’s view, the reality is far different from what others think. The life of a soldier is filled with the suffering in filthy trenches, uncertainties, horrific moments, and most important a longing that cannot ever be fulfilled.

  • Read the full text of “Dreamers” here along with the analysis section.
Analysis of Dreamers by Siegfried Sassoon


Summary

Siegfried Sassoon’s sonnet “Dreamers” begins with a description of how jingoistic society thinks about soldiers. For them, soldiers are the citizens of death’s grey land. They did not care about what is there in the future. The soldiers calmly wait for their destinies to unravel. According to the speaker, society thinks of them on such terms that are both unrealistic and unrelatable to the actual events. For instance, soldiers are thought to be dreamers. While, in his view, their longing for the life they left behind cannot be termed as dreaming. Rather he sees their lives as a series of continuous suffering that only death can end.

Meaning

The title of the poem is in stark contrast with the subject matter. Sassoon does not think soldiers are dreamers. He thinks just the opposite. According to him, they are trapped inside the filthy trenches of the battlefield. So, society needs to redefine the way of glorifying their lives with ornamental terms. They have to understand the fact that what seems sparkling from outside due to popular perception is not always the reality. Sassoon realized it himself when he selflessly fought for his country. Like other young soldiers, he also dreamt of their heroic lives. But when he saw the reality, his definition changed. This transition in the way of thinking is the crux of this poem. Besides, it also shows how soldiers long for their families and a simple course of life.

Structure & Form

Sassoon’s “Dreamers” is a sonnet consisting of fourteen lines. The poet employs the form of an Italian sonnet that contains an octave and a sestet. In the octave, the poet describes how he or society thinks of a soldier’s life. While in the sestet, he clarifies the reality of their lives to readers. The rhyme scheme of the overall poem is ABABCDCD EFEFEF. It is also called the alternative rhyme scheme. The poem is also composed of a regular meter that is iambic pentameter. Each line consists of four iambs (unstressed-stressed) and trochee at the beginning. Let’s have a look at the scansion of the first four lines.

Sol-diers/ are ci/-ti-zens/ of death’s/ grey land,

Draw-ing/ no di/-vi-dend/ from time’s/ to-morr(o)ws.   

In the/ great hour/ of des/-ti-ny/ they stand,

Each with/ his feuds,/ and jea/-lou-sies,/ and sorr(o)ws.   


Literary Devices

Sassoon uses the following literary devices in his poem “Dreamers”.

  • Metaphor: Readers can find this device in “death’s grey land”, “dividend from time’s to-morrows”, “the great hour of destiny”, etc. For instance, the first phrase is a metaphorical reference to the battlefield, and the next one hints at hope for the future.
  • Irony: The first instance of irony can be found in the line: “Soldiers are dreamers; when the guns begin”. It also occurs throughout the second stanza.
  • Polysyndeton: It occurs in “Each with his feuds, and jealousies, and sorrows” and “Bank-holidays, and picture shows, and spats,/ And going to the office in the train”. In these lines, “and” is repeated for the sake of emphasizing the terms placed next after it.
  • Hyperbole: The use of hyperbolic expressions such as “In the great hour” and “Some flaming, fatal climax” are used to overstate the reality of a soldier’s life.
  • Repetition: In the octave, Sassoon uses the repetition of the phrase “Soldiers are …” at the beginning of lines 1, 5, and 7. The next stanza contains the repetition of “and” that is used to portray the worst things of being a soldier. It seems the list would never end if Sassoon starts counting out all the flaws.
  • Imagery: Sassoon extensively uses visual imagery to portray the things a soldier craves while he is away from home. Besides, he also makes use of organic imagery to convey the feelings of sadness, longing, and suffering to readers.
  • Enjambment: It occurs throughout the poem. For example, in the octave, every two lines are grouped by using this device. In the sestet, the poet enjambs all the lines.
  • Alliteration: It occurs in “Drawing no dividend”, “Soldiers are sworn”, “flaming, fatal”, “Soldiers are dreamers”, “balls and bats”, etc.


Themes

Sassoon explores the themes of death and uncertainty, life on the battlefield, perception vs reality, horrors of the trenches, and longing for the things past in the sonnet “Dreamers”. Each theme is integral to the overall idea of the poem. It is about the illusion that society nurtures in their nationalistic hearts. They think about their life with an aura of heroism. So did the poet when he was brimming with jingoism in his youth. When he entered into the arena of death from where one can only come out either amputated or dead. He lost several of his close ones and also witnessed the horrors of the trenches. So, he is the right person to explore the contrast between what is and what is not.

Line-by-Line Explanation & Analysis

Lines 1-2

Soldiers are citizens of death’s grey land,

Drawing no dividend from time’s to-morrows.     

Siegfried Sassoon’s sonnet “Dreamers” presents what others think of soldiers (including him when he was in his youth) in the octave. So, the first eight lines are not a representation of reality. But an illusion that fuelled the young minds during the World War era. However, Sassoon fuses the realistic elements within these illusory ideas revolving around a soldier’s life.

There is another important feature to note about the structure of lines of the octave. Every two lines are grouped into a single line hinting at a singular idea. The same pattern is followed in the first four lines.

In the first line, Sassoon metaphorically compares the battlefield to “death’s grey land”. It can also be a reference to the bleak, colorless land of death that draws out every drop of colors from a soldier’s heart. Besides, the field of war is also a symbol of death as at any moment some of the fighting parties must die.

The soldiers are unable to draw any “dividend” from the time of their lives they invest in a war. There are no “to-morrows” that bring up a hopeful picture of the hard work they give to their nation.

It is interesting to note the word “dividend” here. Everyone invests in any sort of instrument in order to secure their future and gain a regular channel of income from their investments. But what is the yield of their investment of lives, time, and feelings? Are there any? The answer is right in front of you in the line: “Drawing no dividend from time’s to-morrows.”

Lines 3-4

In the great hour of destiny they stand,

Each with his feuds, and jealousies, and sorrows.

Why does the poet use the term “great” before “hour” and what does the “hour of destiny” stand for? Readers don’t have to worry. We have got you covered. In the case of soldiers, are they really protected against the momentary mishap? It is a question to introspect on and we leave it to readers.

Sassoon comes up with his own version of the answer. He directly says, no, they are not protected. They are clueless about their future. The term “great hour” is a reference to the moment of death. It is indeed a great or deciding moment in any person’s life. Soldiers stand like pawns in front of oblivion, with a baggage of uncertainty tied to their aching backs and the heavyweight of separation from their loved ones chained with their hearts.

All have their feuds, jealousies, and sorrows. At the end of the day, soldiers are humans. But what is most inhumane is the traumatic events on the battlefield. These outnumber personal events and make them forgetful about who they are.

Lines 5-6

Soldiers are sworn to action; they must win   

Some flaming, fatal climax with their lives.

Now come the lines of “Dreamers” that explore how nationalism fuels the sentiment of war. Everyone believes that soldiers are sworn to their motherland to act for the country and its people day and night. They have so much at stake that creates an unimaginable amount of pressure on their minds.

Those who were in power directed soldiers how to fight, how to reach, and how to never surrender until death. For them, soldiers had to win some sort of “flaming” and “fatal climax” with their lives.

In the case of “flaming”, it is a symbol of heroic tasks. It can be comparable to the feat of Sassoon at the Western Front where he single-handedly blew up German soldiers, bringing glory to the nation during the First World War. While the term “fatal climax” can be decoded easily. It is a reference to death. The adjective “fatal” paints a haunting image of mortally wounded soldiers.

Lines 7-8

Soldiers are dreamers; when the guns begin

They think of firelit homes, clean beds and wives.

Then comes the most important line of the poem: “Soldiers are dreamers …” According to Sassoon, soldiers do dream. But look at the moment when they dream or rather hallucinate about the things past: “when the guns begin”. It means when the death toll of their lives rings in the form of gunfire, they dream of the things they already have. Is it not ironic? Generally, we dream of the things that we don’t have or rather wish to happen with us. The soldiers dream for the things they already had when they were spending their time with their families.

In the last line of the octave, Sassoon depicts a few images in order to bring home the comfort of normal life different from that of soldiers. Sometimes we get fed up with the course of our lives. Then we wish to upgrade our lifestyle. But the soldiers only long for the simple lifestyle of the past, including sitting with the family beside the fireplace, sleeping on clean, comforting beds, and wives to fill their hearts with love. These scenes are in stark contrast with the happenings around the field of war that Sassoon details in the sestet.

Lines 9-10

I see them in foul dug-outs, gnawed by rats,

And in the ruined trenches, lashed with rain,   

In the sestet of the sonnet “Dreamers”, the poet makes readers familiar with the things that actually happen during a war, especially in the Great War. The poet was himself a military person who fought bravely during the First World War. He can relate the events more appropriately than anyone else who has not ever been to a war of a great scale.

He saw how soldiers’ wounded bodies suffered in the “foul dug-outs” used for hiding during a battle. The soldiers got gnawed by wild rats while they hid there. They suffered the lashing of heavy rain in the “ruined trenches”. It is important to note that the imagery of “foul dug-outs” and “ruined trenches” keep recurring in Sassoon’s war poetry.

Lines 11-14

Dreaming of things they did with balls and bats,

And mocked by hopeless longing to regain   

Bank-holidays, and picture shows, and spats,

And going to the office in the train.

While their bodies were tortured by natural events of a battlefield, their minds kept reminding them of past memories. One of the memories that the poet especially mentions in the poem is related to cricket. In general, youths of Sassoon’s time often played cricket as their hobby or professional pursuit. Sassoon himself played cricket throughout his life.

So playing this game is one of the sweet memories that the English soldiers or other soldiers across the world can relate to. But there is a catch. As they dream, their minds mock at their “hopeless longing” to regain the things that they cherished. It is actually a way of saying that they mocked their own foolishness to join a war for a noble cause. In the actual field of action, they only suffered or died.

In the last two lines of the sonnet, Sassoon lists some things that the soldiers long to regain. These include banking holidays, picture shows of the early 20th century, an altercation over unimportant issues unlike the war, and routinely going to their work by train. There was a rhythm in their normal life that was both soothing and painful to remember while fighting for their lives in the war.

Somehow the longing increases their pain and dims their spirit to fight for a cause the dividend of which is predictably suffering and the bonus is nothing other than death.

Tone

The tone of “Dreamers” is sad, nostalgic, hopeless, and sympathetic. Sassoon’s way of describing the soldiers’ suffering reflects his sadness and hopelessness with their lives. He was also a soldier and knew what it took to bring courage in order to fight in a war. There was no hope regarding the future. Only the gloomy thoughts of death keep hovering over their heads. Besides, the poet also explores how they miss their previous life when they led their lives like normal persons. Then one soldier had an undisturbed state of mind. There was nothing new yet there was a satisfaction to return to one’s family after each day’s work. Being a soldier, there is no looking back.

Historical Context

The sonnet “Dreamers” appears in Siegfried Sassoon’s most important poetic work of his career Counter-Attack and Other Poems. It was published in 1918. This collection contains some of his best-known poems including “Counter-Attack”, “How to Die”, “Does It Matter?”, “Song-Books of the War”, etc. In 1917, Sassoon wrote an influential letter to his commanding officer titled Finished with the War: A Soldier’s Declaration. In this open declaration, he protests against the continuation of the First World War. So, the sonnet “Dreamers”, written around 1918, reflects how disillusioned and agitated Sassoon was after seeing the shocking effects of the World War on humankind, especially soldiers.

Questions and Answers

What is the poem “Dreamers” about?

Siegfried Sassoon’s poem “Dreamers” is about the suffering of the soldiers on the battlefield. The poet depicts how hopeless their condition is and explores their longing for their family, friends, and normal lives.

What is the poetic form used in the poem “Dreamers”?

“Dreamers” is written in the form of an Italian sonnet. It consists of an octave and a sestet. The rhyme scheme is ABABCDCD EFEFEF. It is composed of iambic pentameter.

What contrasts are made in “Dreamers”?

In the first stanza of the sonnet, Sassoon describes how others think about the life of soldiers in favorable terms. While in the next stanza, he contrasts these glorifying images with the suffering on the battlefield. He vividly depicts the filthy environment of the trenches and describes how soldiers actually think.

Who is the speaker in “Dreamers” by Siegfried Sassoon?

The speaker of this poem is none other than the poet Siegfried Sassoon himself. At the beginning of the second stanza, he clearly says what he thinks about the life of soldiers by using the pronoun “I”.

What does the word “dividend” mean in the context of the sentence in the poem “Dreamers”?

The term “dividend” is applied in the line “Drawing no dividend from time’s to-morrows” metaphorically. Here, the poet compares hope to the “dividend” that a person receives from an investment.

How does the poem “Dreamers” reflect the speaker’s cultural experience?

In the poem, the speaker explores the lives of English soldiers during the First World War. He implicitly shares his personal experiences as a soldier. Besides, he also draws a picture of normal life by presenting images related to English culture including playing cricket, sitting by the fireplace, going to the office by train, etc.

In what ways are “the soldier” and “dreamers” alike?

Soldiers are “dreamers” as they long for the thing they don’t have. It is mental peace, the comfort of regular life, and security. Generally, we dream of the things we don’t possess. While the soldiers dream about the things they already had.

What message is developed in the poem “Dreamers”?

Through this poem, Sassoon communicates the actual experience of soldiers who fought during World War. He presents a truthful picture of their lives in order to make readers face the reality other than the illusion of glory, heroism, and greatness of soldiers in a war.

What do the soldiers dream of when the guns begin?

When the guns begin firing blind bullets, the soldiers start thinking about their homely life that was both comforting and secure.

What is the meaning of “Soldiers are citizens of death’s grey land”?

This line describes how youths already became citizens of “death’s grey land” when they decided to join the war. For further details, refer to the analysis of lines 1-2.

What does the line “In the great hour of destiny they stand” mean?

This line refers to an ongoing battle where soldiers are clueless about what is going to happen to them. For further explanation, refer to the analysis of lines 3-4.

What is the theme of the poem “Dreamers” by Siegfried Sassoon?

Sassoon’s “Dreamers” taps on the themes of war, suffering on the battlefield, uncertainty and death, and hopelessness. To know how the themes are portrayed in this piece refer to the Themes section.

What is the tone of “Dreamers”?

The tone of this poem is pessimistic, ironic, straightforward, and sad. To understand why the poet uses such a tone in this sonnet, read the Tone section.


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