Siegfried Sassoon: The General

June 23, 2022

Good-morning; good-morning!’ the General said
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ’em dead,
And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
He’s a cheery old card,’ grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.
……
But he did for them both by his plan of attack.

 

If Wilfred Owen is ‘in your face’ through his use of graphic detail in many of his war poems, Siegfried Sassoon is often brutally out to shock by saying a different kind of unspeakable thing. We see it here in a very short but vicious poem which goes straight to the heart of an issue that historians still argue about today: the competence or incompetence of the high command, those who ran the war and took the decisions that led to the deaths of millions of ordinary men on all sides.

There’s no specific form to identify, and the rhyme scheme is very simple; the hiatus between lines 6 and 7 is deliberate, and the final point is amplified by the third occurrence of the ‘-ack’ rhyme.

The metre is inescapably jaunty, jolly even, nursery rhyme-like, as becomes evident when you read the poem aloud, and the jolliness is designed to clash with the power and seriousness of the underlying message. It helps to visualise the scene: the general walking through a long line of soldiers at attention, with a repeated lively ‘Good-morning!’ every few yards. Sincerity? No.

The language is informal, casual, the language of squaddies among themselves, with slang thrown in. The third line is delivered in an almost throwaway manner, and the fourth line continues this feeling; the scene is personalised in the fifth and sixth lines when it’s narrowed down to two soldiers, being talked about by the anonymous speaker of the poem; their names are commonplace, Harry and Jack. They grunt to each other, they slog up the line with their kit.

And then the shock of their deaths – they were cheerful and alive last week, remember – is delivered in the same offhand way: he did for them both. The incompetence referred to in the fourth line has its results in a plan of attack. Interesting to notice that incompetent is the only complex word in the entire poem.

Effect? Well, I find it shocking in the manner in which Sassoon delivers such a simple tale, and one which must have been repeated countless times. And I also try and imagine the effect of such verse at the time of the Great War, when many people would have found the idea of speaking about death so casually extremely shocking, and the idea that the generals and other senior officers didn’t really have much of a clue what they were doing was also very shocking. We all have a tendency (perhaps not so much nowadays) to trust that those in power and control, above us, know what they’re doing…

2 Responses to “Siegfried Sassoon: The General”

  1. robfysh Says:

    I love the honesty of
    his poetry. It strikes me as sadder than I can say, that it takes such an obscene setting to bring it to notice.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. penwithlit Says:

    Reblogged this on penwithlit and commented:
    ……sadly makes me think of the gathering turbulence in Ukraine!

    Liked by 1 person


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