“The Hero,” by the English poet Sigfried Sassoon (1886-1967), is one of the many notable lyrics Sassoon wrote in response to World War I. Sassoon himself was a war hero, known for his unusual bravery, but eventually he turned against the conflict which he came to consider as pointless and badly managed. This poem reflects his disillusionment with the war.
Like much of Sassoon’s poetry, this work is written in a simple, clear, straightforward style. As the opening line suggests, the poem uses the kind of language actually spoken by “real” human beings. It employs no lofty rhetoric or exotic phrasing; neither of those would be appropriate to its subject matter. Instead, the tone is colloquial and familiar. The mother refers to her son as “Jack,” using his nickname rather than his probable formal name (“John”).
The first three lines of the poem use a very regular “iambic” meter, in which odd syllables are unaccented and even syllables are stressed. Iambic meter is so often used in English poetry because it is thought to be closest to the actual rhythms of normal, everyday speech. It is an appropriate rhythm, then, for Sassoon to have chosen for this poem.
The fact that the word “Mother” is capitalized (1) is significant in several ways. In the first place, the word is used as an honorific title, a term reflecting the speaker’s respect for this particular woman. In addition, this mother is in some ways an archetypal “Mother”—less an individual than the representative of all the many millions of mothers who lost sons in this especially bloody and horrific war. Her reaction is probably similar to the reactions of many mothers who heard the unwelcome news of their sons’ deaths. Women of her time and place had been brought up to be patriotic and to respect authority, and so it would have been very unlikely that such mothers would have protested against the war or doubted the truthfulness of official reports. This mother accepts her son’s death with stoic pride and even admires how nicely “The Colonel” writes (3).
Part of the purpose of Sassoon’s own poem, however, is to produce writing far different from the platitudinous, dishonest writing of the colonel, with its white lies and comforting equivocations. The colonel does not want to upset this particular mother by telling her the painful truth about how her son died, but Sassoon himself wants to make sure that his own readers understand that World War I is not a glorious affair. He also wants them to know that often they are being lied to by military authorities and government officials.
Having established a regular iambic beat in the first three lines, Sassoon is now able to depart from that metrical pattern in ways that will...
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'Hero' by Siegfried Sassoon - Literature of the First World War
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'.