A reading of a classic war poem
‘Everyone Sang’ is one of Siegfried Sassoon’s most popular and widely anthologised poems. The poem was published in 1919, the year following the end of the First World War, and the jubilant singing that features in the poem has been interpreted as a reference to the Armistice. You can read ‘Everyone Sang’ here.
A few words of summary first, then. ‘Everyone Sang’ is divided into two stanzas, each of five lines. The stanzas rhyme abcbb. The speaker of the poem hears everyone around suddenly burst into song, and the sound of singing fills him with delight. There’s a suggestion that this delight is related to a feeling of relief and, indeed, release: he likens it to the feeling a bird that had been caged must feel when it is freed and allowed to fly away.
This is in the first stanza. In the second stanza, the images become more cryptic and difficult to analyse, even though they seem at first to be straightforward. The sound of everyone singing is linked to beauty, which itself is likened to a sunset; but what does saying ‘And beauty came’ mean? And what should we make of the fact that just as everyone’s voice is ‘lifted’, we are presented with an image of something falling – the setting sun? And we can understand the speaker being shaken with tears (wracking sobs of joy, for instance) or his heart being shaken, but his heart being shaken ‘with tears’ curiously conflates the heart and eyes into a single image, to convey the totality of joy that has overcome him. It is as if the speaker is so overwhelmed that he cannot express his delight in straightforward, conventional language. Similarly, note here how the song being sung by ‘everyone’ is ‘wordless’, like birdsong. (Birdsong, of course, is the title of a famous novel about the First World War, and we might see the sound of singing birds as nature’s reminder that the world goes on as ever, despite the sacrifices being made by thousands of men in the trenches.) The links between singing, birds, and flight/freedom are all woven into a ten-line expression of happiness by Sassoon.
Indeed, the poem is called ‘Everyone Sang’ and there is something almost songlike about its use of sounds: not only the rhythm and rhyme of the poem, but the internal rhymes (‘singing’ is echoed by ‘Winging’ at the start of the fourth line of the first stanza, while ‘lifted’ is echoed by ‘Drifted’ at the same point in the second stanza). Note the alliteration on the letter W in the fourth line of that first stanza, suggesting the wide-open expanse of landscape that is now the freed bird’s domain. Similarly, the final lines of the poem, ‘never be done’, offer a strange echo to the first word of the poem, ‘Everyone’ (and note how ‘never be done’ is rhymed with ‘Everyone’ in the poem’s final two lines).
But Sassoon probably didn’t have the Armistice in mind when he wrote ‘Everyone Sang’, but rather soldiers singing in the trenches. The poem, then, is not about joy that the war is over but rather a temporary and spontaneous desire to sing as a way of keeping one’s spirits up during a time of death, warfare, and uncertainty.
Whether it was intended to be interpreted as such or not, ‘Everyone Sang’ struck a chord with readers after the end of the First World War, because it seemed to capture the mood of exhilarating release felt by everyone following the Armistice. Well, nearly everyone. One notable detractor was Robert Graves, also a survivor of the trenches, who opined, ‘“everyone” does not include me.’ But perhaps Graves mistook Sassoon’s intention; and ‘Everyone Sang’ remains one of Sassoon’s most popular poems.