Friday, 17 January 2014

'Hero' by Siegfried Sassoon - Literature of the First World War

This is the second post in the "series" of Literature of the First World War, in which I am discussing a piece of literature or art, inspired by or created during the First World War up until the 28th of June, the anniversary of the assassination on Archduke Franz Ferdinand, for many marking the beginning of the First World War. Last week, I discussed Wilfred Owen's 'Dulce et Decorum Est' and this week it is his friend's turn.


Siegfried Sassoon, born in 1886, was in service on the first day of the First World War. Although his initial poetry revealed a lot of Romantic influences, the experiences in the trenches got to him and, similarly to Owen, introduced a new sense of realism into his poetry. Sassoon himself was marked for rather reckless yet heroic actions, such as capturing a German trench in the Hindeburg-line singlehanded. But rather than report this victory, he sat down and read poetry before returning to his own camp. These kind of actions garnered him respect among his fellow soldiers, but betrayed an almost suicidal intent on advancement. With this in mind, I want to discuss his poem 'Hero'.

In the poem 'Hero', Sassoon shows the reader a mother receiving the news of her son's death from one of his comrades. The very first sentence, 'Jack fell as he'd have wished' reveals a delusion on not only the mother's side but also on society's. No one wishes to die violently, especially not in a war, and believing that they do makes parents send their children off blindly. By capitalizing 'Mother', Sassoon makes her not only the soldier's mother but also makes her a personification of Britain and its soldiers her children. Therefore it is Britain that says this sentence and deludes itself about its children. By folding up the letter sent to her, she resigns herself to the lie she has been fed, saying 'the Colonel writes so nicely'. By wrapping up a horrible truth in nice words, the Colonel manages to lull the mother into a false sense of comfort. However, the mother has a 'tired voice', as if everything up to that point has only been a long struggle, the inevitable end of which almost brings a kind of relief to her for which she feels guilty. Her voice becomes a 'choke; because in accepting the version of her son's death she has received, she prevents herself from speaking out.

'She half looked up. "We mothers are so proudOf our dead soldiers." Then her face was bowed.' 
As the above two lines show, the poem is written in rhyming couplets which is very effective in bringing across moral lessons quickly. The mother's statement about her feelings leads to her 'bowed' head, to her taking a submissive pose as if she has been defeated. The archetypal picture of a mother defending her children is here undermined and leads to her subsuming herself with all the other mothers. Not only do the soldiers become faceless pawns in a game.  This style also possibly mimics the loud headlines on newspapers, shouting propaganda at the reader, trying to convince them of a justification of the War. Sassoon was a big critic of the way propaganda was falsely influencing the people, and the rest of the poem serves to underline the falseness behind official communication.

The 'Brother Officer' that delivered the news is made part of the grieving family and the Mother's loss is also his. Again, the country is presented as a big family, which means that each loss is a personal one. The mother is a 'poor old dear' to him to which he can tell 'gallant lies'. This means that the "home front" as it was called, was completely removed from the realities of War, unaware of the real problems with which the soldiers were battling. When he describes that he 'coughed and mumbled', Sassoon seems to try to tell the reader that the soldier wasn't comfortable or secure in the lie, yet the mother's eyes 'had shone with gentle triumph'. She did not need to hear the lie because she had already been feeding it to herself. Not only, therefore, is the Mother deceived, she is willfully doing it to herself. She takes pleasure and 'joy' in the way 'her glorious boy' had gone, as if some of his bravery reflects back onto her. However, another interpretation could be that the alliteration of the repeated 'b' in these last two lines shows the hardly restrained sorrow on the mother's side. The eyes are brimming with tears and she is blubbering rather than shining.

The third stanza is written from the soldier's point of view, thinking of 'Jack'. By putting the name between quotation marks, Sassoon de-personifies him and makes him a stocktype for all soldiers. On the other hand, he himself was known as 'Mad Jack' for his reckless actions and the description of 'cold-footed, useless swine' may therefore reflect on himself as well. All of them were terrified and unaware of what they were supposed to do, which led to the 'panicked' running and neglecting the 'mine' that had 'blown [him] to small bits'. The supposed message he has given to the Mother, is clearly different from the stark reality which is given to the reader in these lines. Not only did Jack try to injure himself in order to be 'sent home', he had died alone and miserable rather than a hero's death, admired by all. 'no one seemed to care' for the boys dying every single day. As a final rhyming couplet, this is extremely strong.

'And no one seemed  to care,Except that lonely woman with white hair.'
It is very similar to the propaganda shouts, calling for men to stand up to defend their mothers, sisters and wives. The reality that is never explained is the mourning for these women, who are left behind alone, since all the men are off to war, and ageing with sorrow. Sassoon is considered one of the great War Poets because of the reality of the War he reveals in his poetry. Similarly to Owen, a close friend of his, he reveals the disconnect between the truth in the trenches and the truth at home. His poem leaves it perfectly in the middle where the blame could possibly lie. Both the soldier and the Colonel are lying, but so are the newspapers, both slowly making it impossible for the other to reveal the truth.

Next to 'Hero', 'Sherston's Progress' is another famous work by Sassoon, the final work in a semi-autobiographical trilogy about his experiences. 

Next week, Erich Maria Remarque's 'All Quiet on the Western Front'.

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