by Siegfried Sassoon
Everyone suddenly burst out singing;
And I was filled with such delight
As prisoned birds must find in freedom,
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark-green fields; on – on- and out of sight
Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted;
And beauty came like the setting sun;
My heart was shaken with tears; and horror
Drifted away . . . O, but Everyone
Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done. *
English poet Siegfried Sassoon wrote “Everyone Sang” in 1918 to celebrate Armistice Day. Sassoon initially went to war with patriotic fervor and dreams of glory. He was quickly disillusioned by the carnage. As the war ended, as “horror/Drifted away,” the fields he had seen covered in body parts and blood were replaced in his mind’s eye by fields alive with green grass and trees in full bloom. Hence the joy.
I taped his poem inside a guest bedroom window in a house that the female half of my family–7 sisters, 3 sisters-in-law, 1 mother, and 4 out of a multitude of nieces–had rented for a weekend in Annapolis. We gathered three months after my father died. Nothing profound happened: we cooked for each other, ate, drank, danced, shopped, and mostly laughed, our family jokes inscrutable and probably unfunny to outsiders; in short, it was a weekend full of joy.
The house we rented had a grand piano that looked out on the Chesapeake Bay. After dinner one night, as a surprise present for my mother, my sister the amateur jazz pianist accompanied us singing “Stars Fell on Alabama,” a beautiful old song that my mother and father liked long ago. When we finished singing and returned to the table, we noticed my mother, a strong Irish lady who rarely cries, teary-eyed and flush with emotion.
I like to think that as we sang, images of my father dying in a nursing home bed fell away and were replaced by images of him at his most handsome, his most romantic. Exactly what memories the song pulled up for her we’ll never know. But youth was surely alive in that precious space of the heart that relives times past; there she and my father can dance together forever, unseen by us. I’ve listened to several versions of that song—Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald both sing it—but none will be as magical as ours that night.
Thinking of the sweetness, the tenderness of that moment reminds me of one of my favorite dreams. In the dream I’m outside a white clapboard house at night looking in. Every light from the 3-story house is on, and warm light reaches out to me as I stand in the darkened yard. I can see clearly inside each window, and each window is a tableau of women talking, some intently one-on-one, some in groups, some laughing, some holding each other, some with heads in each other’s laps, as children do with their mothers. It was a vision of joy such as Sassoon had, and like his it went on and on and on, until I woke up.
I grew up surrounded by women, always finding comfort in their presence. How strange that a poem written by a man about a war of men fighting men should pull me back towards those women.
*I’m having difficulty with line breaks in WordPress. Can’t get the stanzas to separate.