Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 963
“The General,” by the English poet Sigfried Sassoon (1886-1967), is one of many of this poet’s works prompted by World War I. Sassoon was a war hero who eventually became an outspoken opponent of the war. He used many of his poems to express his disgust with that wasteful conflict itself and with the men who were running the war effort. “The General” is clearly one such poem.
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As the poem opens, a British general is saying “Good-morning” (1) to troops who pass him on the way to the front. This phrase is ironic for various reasons. First, the greeting is so conventional as to be merely formulaic; it is often simply a thing to say, not an expression of genuine emotion. Furthermore, mornings were especially bad times for troops fighting the kind of trench warfare common in World War I. It was often in the mornings that troops were sent “over the top” of the trenches to try to attack enemy positions, which were often not very far away. Frequently these attacks involved mass slaughter: essentially defenseless men ran straight into walls of blistering machine-gunfire. The general, of course, is trying to be as cheerful and encouraging as possible, not wanting to dampen morale, but everyone involved in the battles of World War I knew that mornings were rarely ever truly “good.”
The fact that the speaker (by using the word “we”) includes himself among the soldiers is significant. Obviously he is better educated than they are, but he feels great sympathy for them, partly because common soldiers during this war were almost literally cannon fodder. Whereas the general greets the men with perfunctory exclamations, the speaker of the poem actually walks with them to “the line” (2) and presumably fights alongside them (as Sassoon himself did). The general, of course, will stay behind, formulating battle plans (which were rarely very successful on either side in World War I) and perhaps greeting other, later men on their way to the front.
Line 3 is successful partly because of the order in which events are described. The crucial fact—death—is delayed until the end of the line. The syntax (or sentence structure) would have been much less effective if the speaker had mentioned the deaths before mentioning the smiling. In line 3 as it is currently constructed, the reference to death comes as a bit of a surprise (although it really should not). Also effective is the use of the colloquial “’em” (rather than “them”), which implies that the speaker either is a common soldier himself or that he has come to share their ways of speaking. He identifies himself with them again in line 4 by using the phrase “we’re,” a phrase far less stiff and informal than “we are” would have been.
Note that at this point it is the general’s staff, rather than the general himself, whom the soldiers blame as “incompetent swine” (4). So far, the general seems exempted from explicit criticism, and the typical English common soldiers, symbolized by “Harry” and “Jack” (not “Harold” and “John” ) show respect and even affection for their top commander, who, of course, is probably also their elder. Yet even during war (we are reminded), Britain was a nation in which differences of class were very important. Harry and Jack are common soldiers, but they are almost surely also members of the lowest economic class. Sassoon himself came from an extremely wealthy and privileged family, and so his poem, which reflects class divisions, can also be read as a subtle protest against them. Certainly the general, who is almost surely a member of the upper class himself, does not seem especially admirable in this poem. It is not until the very last line of the text, a line that is deliberately set off from the rest of the lyric, that the speaker’s full contempt for the general becomes apparent.
Only at the very end of the poem is the general’s complicity in the death of the men who admire him made clear. Indeed, the poem’s final words—“plan of attack” (7)—seem especially ironic. The general plans attacks but doesn’t participate in them. He sends others to their deaths without really risking much himself. He is not a front-line soldier (as Sassoon definitely was), and so to him the deaths of a few thousand—or hundred thousand—men in an ill-conceived “attack” is not much of a personal concern. He will soon be complacently saying “Good-morning” to the next group of young, common, lower-class soldiers he sends into battle.
One interesting aspect of this poem is its use of an “anapestic” meter. Most of the poems in English that use metrical patterns tend to emphasize “iambic” meter. An “iamb” consists of two syllables in which the second syllable is accented, as in “rebel.” In this poem, however, Sassoon emphasizes “anapests,” or metrical feet consisting of three syllables in which the third syllable is accented, as in “But he did for them both by his plan of attack” (7). Whether Sassoon was wise to choose this meter is open to debate. This kind of meter runs the risk of giving the poem a “sing-songy” rhythm that may conflict with the text’s serious implications. Certainly if the poem were much longer and continued to use that rhythm, the work might even risk seeming somewhat trivial. Fortunately, however, Sassoon keeps the text brief, and in fact much of its effectiveness lies in its brevity. The poem is quite literally epigrammatic: it makes its point quickly and then abruptly stops. There is no moralizing, no long-winded sermonizing. The poem is over almost as soon as it begins, as if to remind us how quickly plans were made—and lives were lost—in the so-called “Great War.”