Tell the truth but tell it slant

Success in indirection lies, wrote Emily Dickinson, but I think our age responds more to the explicit than to the implicit, at least in literature. Recently, for example, I read of the discovery and sale of the manuscript of Siegfried Sassoon’s anti-war poem Atrocities, published in 1919, in which Sassoon denounced the atrocities committed on the British side during the First World War. It is, of course, an extremely powerful poem, and must have come as a profound shock to those who had thought the war was justified, morally, by the Belgian atrocities supposedly committed by the Germans.

The poem was inspired by Sassoon overhearing Australian and Canadian troops – then regarded not just as allies but as British – boasting of their exploits:

You told me, in your drunken-boasting mood,
How once you butchered prisoners. That was good!
I’m sure you felt no pity while they stood
Patient and cowed and scared, as prisoners should.
How did you do them in? Come, don’t be shy:
You know I love to hear how Germans die…

In the manuscript of the first draft, the words do them in were replaced by the single word murder, which most critics thought more powerful; his publisher may have insisted on a euphemism to escape the military censorship still in place at the time.

But it may also be that the publisher believed that do them in, being a euphemism, was more powerful than the more direct and literal murder. After all, the meaning is so very similar that even the most boneheaded military censor would have realised it. Do them in was no more flattering to British military honour than murder.

Euphemism in this context is more powerful because it implies guilty knowledge, a knowledge that the speaker has nevertheless decided to ignore. He slavers pleasurably over what he knows to be wrong; he is a brute without the courage of his brutality. To the vice of cruelty he adds those of hypocrisy and dishonesty. If it was at the publisher’s insistence that Sassoon changed murder for do them in, the publisher gave him good advice.

Of course, carefully controlled and consciously used euphemism in a literary context is very different from euphemism used in a political or managerial one, the latter implying a guilty knowledge not refracted artfully by an author. Recently, for example, I heard that the hospital in which I worked was to close. The bureaucrat who announced the closure did not call it such. He called it a new opportunity that had arisen.

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