Sassoon and slanginess

An article in the Guardian alerts us to an interesting new exhibition at the Imperial War Museum. It tells the story of a century of anti-war protest, and one of the exhibits is a manuscript copy of ‘The General’ by Siegfried Sassoon.

The poem was first written in April 1917 (when Sassoon was in hospital after the Battle of Arras) and this copy is dated 1919, after the war.
As the Guardian points out, this manuscript differs from the usual version of the poem. The last line usually reads:

But he did for them both by his plan of attack.

This later version substitutes ‘murdered’ for ‘did for’. As the Guardian says, this makes the poem sound angrier. I’d argue, though, that it weakens the poem.
‘He did for them both’ is the kind of slangy euphemism that you find in soldiers’ language during the war. It means that in the line you hear a soldier talking. Replace the phrase by ‘murdered’ and you hear a protestor talking.
More than that, ‘did for them’ is surely making the charge that the General kills them insouciantly, without meaning to – that their deaths were the collateral damage of his plan, mere unintended consequences of a botched and insufficiently careful job. ‘Murdered’ implies deliberation – and is an easier charge to refute.
(I’d also suggest that the poem loses something in this version when it leaves out the line of stars usually inserted before the last line. That silent line is the one where everything happens – the things that are unspeakable.)
I’ve written before about Sassoon’s effective use of the phrase ‘do them in’ in the poem ‘Atrocities’.  I think Sassoon is at his best when his language is nearest to the language of soldiers, and where it incorporates characteristic euphemisms and slang. For example, in the last line of ‘To Any Dead Officer’:

I wish they’d killed you in a decent show.

That ‘decent show’ is a slang phrase, appropriate in a poem where officer is speaking to officer. More than that, though, its obviously euphemistic nature asks us to think what it’s hiding. ‘Decent’ is a word that slang has yanked from its root meaning to vaguely mean ‘good’, but in this poem it can’t help but bring that basic meaning back, and tell us that the ‘show’ the officer died in was utterly indecent.
And that is how Sassoon turns slang into poetry.

I’ve been thinking about  Sassoon recently, because this July Marion and I will be taking our summer holiday on the Somme. The tour is Siegfried Sassoon on the Western Front and is organised by Battle Honours Tours in association with the Siegfried Sassoon fellowship.

We’ll be going to all the places in France where Sassoon fought. I’m looking forward to it.


  1. Tom Deveson
    Posted March 21, 2017 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for this. I’m sure you are right about the last line.

    I’ve known the poem for more than fifty years, and read the version here with a mixture of surprise and disappointment.

    The reasons you give are subtle and spot-on.

    I also am reminded of Eliot’s Sweeney:

    ‘…DORIS: That’s not life, that’s not life
    Why I’d just as soon be dead.
    SWEENEY: That’s what life is. Just is
    DORIS: What is?
    What’s that life is?
    SWEENEY: Life is death.
    I knew a man once did a girl in —…’

    • Posted March 21, 2017 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for that, Tom, and especially for reminding me of Eliot’s ‘do a man in’. I’ve looked in that wonder of modern scholarship, the Ricks-McCue edition of Eliot, to see what they say about the line. They cite the OED, which gives ‘do in’ as a slang term dating from 1905. they don’t mention Sassoon’s ‘Atrocities’ as a poetic precedent, though Eliot would surely have known the poem.
      They do, however, mention the occasion when Eliot was questioned by the young women at Vassar. One asked: ‘Mr Eliot, did you ever do a girl in?’ and he answered apologetically: ‘I am not the type.’
      I’m not sure what Eliot thought of Sassoon’s poetry. Faber published SS from ‘Fox-Hunting Man’ onwards, and there’s a possible SS reference in ‘The Rock’.
      During the war years, TSE was generally dubious about war poetry.

  2. Posted March 21, 2017 at 7:07 pm | Permalink

    We are looking forward to seeing you on the tour, George!

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