Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1133
“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.
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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 be especially noticeable. Thus, in line 3 the first two syllables are unaccented, so that especially striking accents are placed on the next two words: “tired voice.” Similarly, it is possible to read the three syllables preceding the final syllable of this line as unaccented, so that the key word—“choke”—also receives especially strong emphasis. The mother first expresses pride in her son’s death, then begins to feel a pain so deep that she must “choke” it off, and then finally expresses stoic acceptance. At the end of the first stanza, she speaks not only for herself but also for all “mothers” (5). Now her face is “bowed”—either in prayer, or in pain, or for both reasons at once.
In the second stanza, the focus momentarily shifts from the mother to the “Brother Officer” (7) who has delivered the news of the son’s death. He leaves “Quietly” (a word that receives unusual metrical emphasis). He does so partly (we initially assume) because delivering such news is so difficult, but perhaps he leaves quietly also partly because his conscience is troubled. He knows that he has just lied to her. Yet, to make matters even more complex, his lie will be a source of genuine comfort to her. And then, to complicate things even further, we know that lies like this one helped prolong the war, because the civilians who might have pressured the government to end the conflict had no idea just how much and how brutally the soldiers were actually suffering. The lies that comforted individual mothers (such as the one in this poem) helped lead, ironically, to the deaths of more sons and the grief of many other mothers. Sassoon’s poem seems designed to help break this vicious cycle. The brother officer had “coughed and mumbled” (10) while passing on the comforting lies, perhaps partly because of discomfort with his dishonesty. In any case, Sassoon’s poem communicates much more clearly—if harshly—and without equivocation.
In stanza three we discover another reason that the brother officer may have mumbled when informing the mother of her son’s supposedly heroic death. The officer seems to have felt genuine contempt for “Jack,” who, far from being a hero, seems to have been a coward. Apparently the present officer and Jack served closely together, so that the officer knew Jack quite well. Ironically, Jack had tried “To get sent home” from the battlefront (16), but, when he was finally killed, there was almost nothing left of him and therefore almost nothing to bury. Presumably he became part of the landscape he sought to flee. Thus, rather than the poem being a celebration of a dead soldier’s heroism, it is in fact a sardonic revelation of his cowardice. His mother, the “lonely woman with white hair” mentioned in the poem’s final line (18), seems all the more lonely because she apparently has no one with whom she can share her pain: no husband is mentioned, nor any siblings of the dead man’s, and the fact that her hair is “white” suggests that she is well past the age when we she might have more children.
The poem ends by asserting that “no one”—with the single exception of the mother—seemed to care” about the death of the allegedly heroic soldier. Yet the very existence of this poem implies that the poet himself cares about the soldier’s death and the countless other deaths that occurred during the war. The brother officer may feel contempt for the dead man, but the poem implies a more complex, more sympathetic response—one that involves not only obvious compassion for the mother but perhaps also some sympathy for her son as well. Few readers of the poem, after all, can afford to feel smug in judging the dead man. Few of us can know for certain how we ourselves might have reacted if we were placed in his circumstances. Compared to most of us, he was a “hero” after all.