An Honorable Satire: Siegfried Sassoon’s “The Hero”
For thousands of years, war poets often ignored the irony of battle in which such insignificant events lead to such magnified consequences. Instead, many poets focused their poems on the typical theme of honor. By World War I however, the Allies and Central powers introduced new tactics and machinery that transformed war in such a way that made it impossible for old ideals to apply to modern warfare. According to Paul Fussell, author of The Great War and Modern Memory, “Every war is ironic because every war is worse than expected....because its means are so melodramatically disproportionate to its presumed ends…But the Great War was more ironic than any before or since” (7-8). But Europeans did not readily accept the disillusionment the war created. Siegfried Sassoon’s “The Hero” dramatizes society’s attempt to maintain an ideal about war and honor inapplicable to modern warfare. In the poem, an officer delivers news to a soldier’s mother about her son’s death using romantic old-war rhetoric. Sassoon delays the reader’s realization that the soldier exhibited cowardice, not honor, by continually abridging the reader’s hope (Fussell, 35). Sassoon’s poem embodies the irony of World War I on a small and large scale. Various instances of irony demonstrate the mother’s and society’s inability to reconcile old, romantic beliefs of war with new and horrifying realities.
Both “The Hero” and the war to which it relates exhibit recurring instances of dashed hope. Sassoon participated in the attack of the Somme, “perhaps the most egregious ironic action of the whole war” (Fussell 7). He witnessed the irony of the war first-hand and translated this sense of irony to his poem “The Hero.” The poem dramatizes how realities of modern warfare contradicted society’s expectations of what war should be. Both the war and the poem begin with innocence and hope: perhaps the hero in the poem is alive and perhaps the war will end quickly. Then, the reader hopes the son at least died honorably as Europeans hoped they would at least have some victories. Once again hope is dashed: the son died a cowardly death while the war became one of attrition with a high death toll without major victories. Both the poem and the war are exhausting due to multiple instances of dashed hope.
Sassoon titles his poem “The Hero,” so the reader assumes the poem will praise a soldier’s courage. But the title deceives the reader and serves to accentuate the mismatch between old ideals of war and the new realities of brutal war methods. A heroic death no longer exists since traditional battle no longer exists. Fussell argues that “to call these things battles is to imply an understandable continuity with earlier British history and to imply that the war makes sense in a traditional way” (9). Modern warfare is not traditional in the sense of lower-mortality, organized battles. War now results in impersonal deaths caused by chemicals, bombings, tanks, and machine guns, making it difficult to die valiantly or proudly because death became more chaotic and unpredictable.
The diction in the first stanza imitates older war poems that focus on honor, misleading the reader. The mother’s diction in this stanza is characteristic of old-war rhetoric and alludes to themes such as honor and pride about a soldier’s death:
Of our dead soldiers.’ Then her face was bowed. (176)
Amid the “raised” language (21) that Fussell explains is characteristic of romanticized war poetry such as “fell” and “proud”, many inconsistencies occur in this stanza. The mother comments on the colonel’s nice writing almost immediately. Readers wonder why the mother focuses on something as insignificant as the colonel’s writing when she should focus on her son’s death. By emphasizing the inappropriate comment on the colonel’s writing, Sassoon demonstrates how World War I made romantic diction in poetry appear inappropriate. Sassoon accentuates “dead soldiers” by dividing the mother’s sentence between two lines. By emphasizing that the soldiers are dead, the poem suggests that mothers are only proud of their soldiers when they die. Sassoon overstates this pride mothers have for their dead sons when, later in the poem, the mother is so proud of her son that she “brimmed with joy” (176). Such seemingly incongruous diction Sassoon dramatizes society’s obsession with the honor of dying for one’s country.
At the end of the first stanza, the reader pities the mother but takes comfort in knowing she is proud of her son. The reader then discovers an unexpected turn that defines the purpose of the poem. As the “Brother Officer”(176) leaves, the speaker reveals the “gallant lies” the officer told the mother. Instead of thinking the soldier died an honorable death, the reader experiences the final instance of dashed hope by learning the son died as a “cold-footed, useless swine”. Sassoon misleads the reader into believing the soldier died in a more romantic sense characteristic of older wars. He did not die heroically, but rather could not cope with the horrors of trench warfare and, after many failed attempts to return home, finally died in a panic.
Sassoon also uses misleading diction to criticize the unrealistic and unethical ideals of old-war views. He shows that although war poets often romanticized war with themes of honor and prestige, war never lacked immorality. The phrase “Brother Officer” suggests that the messenger symbolizes old-war ideals since the word “Officer” relates to power and authority. By capitalizing the word “Brother,” Sassoon emphasizes a feeling of comradeship. But the officer, it turns out, is nothing close to a comrade to the dead soldier. Rather, he dehumanizes the cowardly soldier calling him a swine. The officer recounts how the terrified soldier was “Blown to small bits. And no one seemed to care/ Except that lonely woman with white hair”(176). The officer represents old-war ideals because of his sense of superiority and intolerance of weakness. When the officer criticizes the dead soldier, Sassoon shows that beneath the sheath of valor lies disrespect and disgust at the weakness of others. The poem demonstrates the impossibility of a modern soldier to live up to the outdated standards he must conform to in order to gain respect and position. For the officer, like much of society, the old rules of war still apply regardless of vast changes in warfare.
The “gallant lies” the officer tells the mother also reveal the officer’s immorality. The irony indicates how even something immoral, such as a lie, suddenly becomes gallant when masked by old-war rhetoric. Sassoon uses this paradox to suggest that those old ideals did not have the honor and prestige they were thought to have had. The darker, less romantic ideals of modern warfare no longer carry lofty sentiments yet they are more fitting and significantly more applicable than ideals of previous wars since they acknowledge war’s great irony.
The poem’s dramatic irony accentuates the generational gap between those who still believed in the honor of war and those who experienced modern trench warfare firsthand. The reader knows the true cause of the son’s death while the mother remains ignorant. In thinking that her son died an honorable death, the mother “brimmed with joy,/ Because he’d been so brave, her glorious boy”. If the mother knew the truth about her son’s death, she would not understand why her son acted the way he did. Her concept of her son and war does not coincide with reality and she would not have the ability to integrate the truth with her previous assumptions. She represents the previous generation who heard of glorious war stories yet never experienced war in its modern state. Both the mother and society underestimated the severity of war. Her generation’s innocence about the true nature of war augmented the abridged hope of World War I because of such unexpected and protracted atrocities. Fussell says “one reason the Great War was more ironic than any other is that its beginning was more innocent” (18). Their innocence developed from lack of experience in war and allowed them to foster unrealistic hope. The mother naively hoped her son died honorably while society hoped for a quick and glorious war. Innocence is essentially dramatic irony because it makes its victims completely ignorant of reality. The mother takes comfort in her son’s death because her naïve notion that no greater honor exists than dying for one’s country.
Sassoon relates society’s expectations of World War I to the poem. Neither Europeans nor the mother in the poem could comprehend the loss of old war values. The mother expects her son to die honorably because, like Europeans, she comes from a “static world, where the values appeared stable and where the meanings of abstractions seemed permanent and reliable. Everyone knew what Glory was, and what Honor meant” (Fussell 21). The officer who delivers the message of her son’s death nurtures her misconceptions because she cannot comprehend the irony of the war. But one wonders whether the officer should have told the mother the true nature of her son’s death. Perhaps the mother should know the truth so that she can become more aware of reality. However, the mother is so certain of her son’s bravery and war’s prestige that she would not be able to assimilate the truth with her own misconceptions. The mother’s ignorance represents society’s inability to accept the reality of war and therefore there is little reason to try to reform society’s outlooks toward war.
The novelty of this poem rests in Sassoon’s adaptation of the common war poetry story of delivering news of a soldier’s death to his mourning family. He reinvents the poem to represent the abridged hope representative of World War I that no longer allows for traditional honor. “The Hero” exhibits characters who fail to comprehend a soldier’s inability to die honorably since they cannot reconcile the ideals they were socialized with throughout their lives with the current state of war. The poem represents a historical shift in Europe that changed the way people had perceived war for thousands of years. The generation of old-war idealists could not come to terms with reality, so instead, the role assumed by the following generation allowed modern war to become more easily recognized as painfully ironic.