Siegfried Sassoon had a Jewish father, and an Anglican mother, and was a convert to Roman Catholicism. This rather enigmatic poem was written just after the end of World War II, in which he served with the Royal Welch Fusiliers. Some have therefore understood it as describing an outburst of joy in response to the end of that war, hence the “delight … in freedom“, as well as in “horror drifted away.” Others, however, suggest the trenches, when those who had, for such a long time, been trapped there like “prisoned birds” were overjoyed to discover their ‘confinement’ was now over. Either, or even both, sources may lie behind the poem, but they may also become the starting point for something more …..
The 1st part of the poem, in which a group of people “suddenly burst our singing“, suggests a spontaneous rather than an anticipated or arranged happening. But whatever the reason for it, the focus quickly shifts from “everyone” to “I” – the poet himself. He feels an intensity of “delight” at being suddenly released into a “freedom” which is clearly not of a common-or-garden kind. The comparison which comes to his mind is that of a long-caged bird, suddenly set free and, in response, “winging wildly” across a previously unexplored territory of “orchards and .. fields.” But even that is not enough. This is a flight which will go “on – on – and out of sight.“
The beginning of the 2nd part, reminds us of the starting point, with its return to “everyone’s voice“. An even greater sense of exaltation, however, is at once suggested by the word “lifted“. In these new heights, “beauty came like the setting sun” – which seems a little strange. “Beauty” could be regarded as a counterpart to the ugliness of war, and the conclusion of hostilities could be regarded as a ‘sunset’, although a beautiful sunset is perhaps more often thought of as ‘the perfect end to a perfect day’, rather than as the end of an appalling catastrophe.
If there is mileage in thinking of this as a ‘religious’ poem, it might be this – that what we have here is the ‘sunset’ of ordinary, everyday experience heralding the ‘sunrise’ of a transcendental experience – an experience so beautiful that the “heart” is “shaken with tears” of joy. The “horror” too often encountered in our day-to-day reality has “drifted away”.
This experience is inter and supra-personal. Just as the focus shifted earlier from “everyone” to “I“, so now the shift is from “I” to “Everyone“, with a capital letter! – almost a kind of ‘collective Self’. Conventional boundaries and different categories no longer matter – “Everyone was a bird“. Though the singers seem many, the “song” they are singing is one. It goes to ‘places’ no words can describe, and so is said to be “wordless“. For a precious moment, we’ve left behind our normal, everyday reality and are experiencing a timeless moment, an ‘eternal now’ in which “the singing will never be done“.
I have the idea that such an experience of the ‘transcendent’, even if not as intense as in the poem, is of greater fundamental worth than any particular religious ‘belief’ or persuasion. If “Everyone” were to discover themselves similarly “singing” the one timeless “song“, there might then be an end to too many centuries of disagreement and dogmatism, of distrust and deadly division. What a difference there would be if that “horror drifted away“.