Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Siegfried Sassoon - The Hero

'Jack fell as he'd have wished,' the mother said,
And folded up the letter that she'd read.
'The Colonel writes so nicely.' Something broke
In the tired voice that quivered to a choke.
She half looked up. 'We mothers are so proud
Of our dead soldiers.' Then her face was bowed.

Quietly the Brother Officer went out.
He'd told the poor old dear some gallant lies
That she would nourish all her days, no doubt
For while he coughed and mumbled, her weak eyes
Had shone with gentle triumph, brimmed with joy,
Because he'd been so brave, her glorious boy.

He thought how 'Jack', cold-footed, useless swine,
Had panicked down the trench that night the mine
Went up at Wicked Corner; how he'd tried
To get sent home, and how, at last, he died,
Blown to small bits. And no one seemed to care
Except that lonely woman with white hair.

What is a hero? Is it someone who rushes into something without thinking, always brave, always bold, or is it someone who fights despite being terrified?

What is the poem about?
A mother receives news that her son has died, and reads the letter written to her from the Colonel. She is happy that her son died a hero. We are then told that “Jack” was not the courageous man she has been told he was; he panicked and tried to get himself sent home sick. The poem highlights how little the civilians know of the war and how so many lies are told. It also shows the reality of what the men live through, and how little they are appreciated.

3 stanzas of regular length and rhythm. Stanzas 1 and 3 are both composed of rhyming couplets which usually suggest an end to something – perhaps highlighting the end of “Jack”’s life? This structure also helps to tie the two stanzas together: the opening where Jack is a hero and the mother is proud because of the lies told about her son, and the third stanza where the reality of Jack’s cowardice is shown.

Like “Lamentations”, the dead soldier and his mother are quite symbolic of dead soldiers and mothers in general; he is called “Jack”, a very common English name (think “Jack the Lad”), and the mother is referred to only as “the Mother”, capitalised to show her generic (generalised) role in the poem. The poem opens with a conversation to draw the reader in. The mother is shown to be appreciative and drawing comfort from the Colonel’s letter: “The Colonel writes so nicely”. We feel sorry for the mother throughout the poem through the way Sassoon describes her: she has a “tired voice”, she has “weak eyes”, she is a “lonely woman with white hair”. She draws a lot of comfort from what she is told about her “glorious boy”, perhaps suggesting that these sort of lies that are told to those at home have a purpose; they will help to “nourish all her days” now she has lost her son.
“We mothers are so proud/Of our dead soldiers” – again, the mothers are grouped together. The use of “our” suggests a possession of the men now that the country has no more use for them, and the whole statement hints that perhaps the mothers are the only ones who are really proud, which is supported by the final sad lines: “And no one seemed to care/Except that lonely woman with white hair” – these are made extra sad because of the alliteration (woman, white) which slows the whole line down.
The reality of Jack’s cowardice is brought home through the harsh descriptions of him: “cold-footed, useless swine”. “Wicked Corner” gives the poem a specific and realistic element. His death is very violent (in comparison with “Lamentations”) as he is “Blown to small bits” – do you think his mother was told this??

The name of “the Brother Officer” could be seen as ironic as he is not very brotherly towards Jack, describing his mother as “the poor old dear” which is quite patronising.

Who is the real hero?
Is it Jack, who fought despite being terrified?
Is it the Brother Officer who clearly thinks himself much braver and more powerful than Jack, telling “gallant lies”?
Is it the Mother, whose eyes shine with “gentle triumph” and is managing to keep going despite the loss of her son?

In summary
      A mother being told the news that her son has died in the war
      An ironic or ambiguous title?
      Poet builds sympathy for the mother and son, whilst criticising the way soldiers like “Jack” were regarded and treated.

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