‘The General’ is one of the most famous poems written by Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967). After Wilfred Owen, Sassoon was probably the most celebrated – and perhaps the most gifted – English poet to write about his experiences in the First World War. But where Owen writes about ‘the pity of war’, Sassoon gives us another emotion: anger. You can read Sassoon’s ‘The General’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis below.
The General: summary
A general greets his troops as they arrive in Belgium and northern France ready to fight. That was a week ago; already, most of the soldiers are dead, and those men who survive are cursing the general and his fellow officers for their incompetence. One of the soldiers, Harry, says to another, Jack, that the general is surprisingly cheery given that he is marching his men into the fray. The poem ends with Sassoon telling us that both Harry and Jack were killed at Arras (a city in northern France) as a direct result of the general’s battle plans.
The General: analysis
Once again, we see Siegfried Sassoon using traditional rhyme and metre, and simple, direct language, but with a minimum of alteration for maximum technical effect. Here, ‘The General’ comprises just two stanzas, the second of which is a single line, calculated for maximum force as the deaths of Harry and Jack comes to us in that stark, simple statement that the general ‘did for them both’. That last line stands out all the more, like the undefended soldiers being senselessly sent to the slaughter thanks to the general’s misguided plan of attack, as a result of being isolated in this way.
Then there’s the metre: Sassoon avoids the iambic metre prevalent in much English poetry, and in many of his poems, in favour of the rarer anapaestic metre which conveys a jaunty, upbeat, sprightly mood (essentially, an anapaest is two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed one, as in the line ‘When we met him last week on our way to the line’). Because there are four anapaests in each line, ‘The General’ is written in anapaestic tetrameter. (For another famous example of an English poem written in this metre, see Browning’s ‘How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix’ – coincidentally, about riders hurrying from one French town to another to report a military victory. And, we might add, the first ever poem to be recorded on the phonograph, at least in part, in 1889.)
This anapaestic metre, along with the jovial ‘Good morning’ with which Sassoon opens the poem (the general’s words, of course), convey the general’s misplaced sense of optimism about the war and his responsibilities. Anyone who has seen Blackadder Goes Forth will know that such generals – like Melchett in that series – were everywhere on the Western Front. Or, at any rate, 35 miles behind it, giving out the orders.
The reference to Arras concerns the battle of April and May 1917 in which many British soldiers lost their lives, including the poet Edward Thomas. This specific reference to a battle in the First World War, in a poem otherwise very general (no pun intended) about the details of war, adds an extra poignancy and anger to the lines, since it highlights the gulf between the general’s own assessment of the war and its actual human cost.