Many of the war poems of Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967) take aim at authority figures, older and more powerful men such as generals and majors who hold the fates of the younger generation in their hands. ‘They’, one of Sassoon’s most famous poems, focuses on religious authority, embodied in the poem by the Bishop. You can read Sassoon’s ‘They’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis below.
In the first stanza of ‘They’, Sassoon quotes a Bishop telling the people of England that when their brave soldiers return from war, they will be different because they’ve fought a just war against the Anti-Christ, and against Death himself.
In the second stanza, the boys returning from war reply: yes, we are different from the boys who left for war, because we’ve been maimed and blinded in the fighting and some of us will never walk or see again. You’d be hard-pushed to find a man who’d been to war who hadn’t been changed for the worse. But all the Bishop can say in response is a variation of the non-explanation: ‘God moves in mysterious ways.’
‘They’ comprises two stanzas of six lines each, rhymed ababcc. The second stanza mirrors the first, but also subverts it: the sermon preached by the Bishop in the first stanza is overturned by the responses of the returning soldiers in the second. This is why Sassoon calls his poem ‘They’: for the Bishop, ‘they’ are the young men who went off to fight, a nameless mass, a generation of men lumped together and used by the Bishop for his rhetorical sermonising.
Although the poem is titled ‘They’, however, Sassoon is writing not as one of the distant commentators and jingoists urging young men to go and fight and then making their deaths into a noble sacrifice, but as one of ‘them’. Note how the poem begins, not with the detached arms-length musing of ‘they’ or ‘them’, but with ‘us’: ‘The Bishop tells us…’ This emphasis on us, and on Sassoon’s giving a voice to the young men who’ve fought, resonates in the second stanza: ‘We’re none of us the same’.
When Tennyson wrote ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’, over sixty years earlier, such values were tenable: war may be a terrible blunder but the nobility and heroism of those fighting is what should be highlighted and remembered. Even Rupert Brooke, from the beginning of the war, could celebrate death in the trenches as a patriotic sacrifice. With Sassoon and his fellow WWI poet Wilfred Owen, the mood had changed: now all that war highlights is the senseless deaths of so many young men. And such religiously inflected justifications as those given by the Bishop in Sassoon’s poem no longer ring true. The reality of the war is not divine goodness or nobility, but lost limbs, blind eyes, blasted lungs.
The form of ‘They’ reinforces the bitter irony of the Bishop’s position, which is not shared by Sassoon and his generation, many of whom enlisted after being sold such lies – that they were fighting for king and country, and even for God. The alternating rhymes give way to the forceful conclusion of the rhyming couplets at the end of each stanza, which build that final exclamatory response from the Bishop. There is sardonic anger dripping from those words, the almost audible shrug in appealing to a higher power in the face of such destruction and injury.
‘They’, like many of Siegfried Sassoon’s poems, does not require detailed textual analysis for us to grasp its meaning: it’s direct and packs quite the satirical punch. But how Sassoon effortlessly builds up to the payoff of the final line is masterly, and shows how well he, like his friend Wilfred Owen, understood the technicalities of verse and how they could use them to respond to the terrifying and wasteful phenomenon of industrial warfare.