Siegfried Sassoon

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Analyze the poem "They" by Siegfried Sassoon.

An analysis of the poem "They" by Siegfried Sassoon might focus on the historical context of the poem and on the poet's personal experience in warfare. The voice of the soldier in this poem is ironically dismissed in favor of the romanticized notions of war and duty.

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After spending some time serving in World War I and even being awarded a medal for his valor, Siegfried Sassoon wrote a letter to the war department which vehemently proclaimed his protests regarding the war. Sassoon was a poet before the war started, so after his experience, he used poetry as a platform for delivering his anti-war sentiments, which are conveyed in this poem.

This poem is an examination of the true costs of war. While wars are often presented to the public as a means of maintaining honor and the soldiers are frequently lauded for their great and death-defying abilities, the reality is that there are great costs to these young men who are fortunate enough to return home from war efforts.

The title points to a third-person "They," yet the perspective of the narrator is first person, referenced as "us" in the very first line. From the opening, then, the narrator draws a line between "us" and "they" and between fantasy and reality. "They" send the young soldiers to battle, claiming that the boys will be changed because of war but will emerge stronger. After all, they will have fought and won battles against evil and have conquered Death personified.

In the second stanza, the perspective of the soldiers is made clear. There is far less honor in these reflections of war; instead, the narrator focuses on the losses they have personally endured:

For George lost both his legs; and Bill's stone blind;
Poor Jim's shot through the lungs and like to die.

This voice of experience, protesting the glories of war, is drowned out by a casual dismissal. In the final line, the Bishop simply replies that "The ways of God are strange," neither addressing the losses the soldiers have endured nor offering any real sense of compassion. Thus, the injuries are seen as irrelevant within the context of war, the goals of the war making all else justifiable. It thus seems that the fantasies of war must persist even against the evidence of personal suffering of the soldiers called to fight these battles.

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This is one of Sassoon's most cynical poems. Sassoon opposed the war so violently that he threw his Military Cross into the Mersey in protest and was sent to a convalescent hospital after a military court decided that he was out of his mind with neurasthenia, or "shell-shock." Sassoon's conviction that the war was an unjust one often manifested itself in anger against civilians, whom he felt could not understand—and often did not seem to want to understand—what was really happening on the Front. The title of this poem, "They," is an expression of this distinction Sassoon draws between soldiers and those at home: them and us.

The words of the Bishop in this poem, then, are a parody of what Sassoon and other returning soldiers had heard from the pulpit. The regular, almost childlike rhythm of the poem is reflective of the idea that this is, for the clergymen of Great Britain, purely patter. They do not really know what they are talking about, but bombastic, cliched phrases such as "just cause," "honourable race," and the concept of having "challenged Death" are utilized regularly to encourage patriotism at home. To the Bishop, and all others who are unfamiliar with the real state of affairs, the enemy is "Anti-Christ."

The soldiers, however, know better. The enemy are only men like them, and there is nothing honorable about this war. In forthright, robust terms, the soldiers list what transformations they have actually undergone as a result of their endeavors; they have lost their limbs, gone "stone blind," and even become "syphilitic." (This line in particular stirred criticism at the time of publication; it was considered an affront to the war effort to refer to soldiers' use of prostitutes.) The soldiers put their case very clearly to the Bishop, but he does not want to hear it -- instead, he simply says, in the same euphemistic tone, "the ways of God are strange!"

The poem is an expression of frustration on behalf of soldiers who have suffered in what Sassoon considered a greatly unjust war, and whose supposed spiritual leaders at home not only refuse to acknowledge their reality, but also continue to promulgate lies about the "honor" of war.

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This poem is a rather sardonic and cynical take on war; some might argue it is a realistic, rather than idealistic viewpoint of war.  In fact, it contrasts the more idealistic, brave, glory parts of war with the harsh, violent, horrific realities of its impact on men.

It starts with a bishop trying to give comfort to men who go to war--he states optimistically that war will "change" all men who fight in it, and then lists all of the positive ways it will change them.  He states that they will have "challenged Death," "fought in a just cause," and "lead the last attack on Anti-Christ."  All of these things are things that the men should be proud of, that will change them for the better for the rest of their lives.  The Bishop represents that attitude that war is a glorious thing, that war shows how brave and noble one is, and that war is the thing that keeps the entire world safe.  And, while true on some levels, in the next stanza, Sassoon contrasts that war-glory with the realities that exist.

Men who have gone to war agree with the Bishop that war does change men, but certainly not for the better.  They list all of their war wounds:  amputation, blindness, syphillis, shot lungs, etc.  The front these wounds as definite evidence that the Bishop is right that change occurs, but not in the way he was stating.  The bishop's rather inadequate and pale response to this awful reality is an ambiguous and dismissive one.  He merely states, "The ways of God are strange!"  This answer, which feels more like a cop-out than a real explanation, shows that even the Bishop, a man of god, is left without answers in the face of the brutal realities of war.  When faced with the true horrors of war, all of the brave, idealistic glory feelings die, leaving behind only the violence, despair and death.

I hope that those thoughts helped a bit; good luck!

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