'They' by Siegfried Sassoon, Summary & Analysis
by Mohamed Zayed, a Linguist
The Bishop tells us: 'When the boys come back
'They will not be the same; for they'll have fought
'In a just cause: they lead the last attack
'On Anti-Christ; their comrades' blood has bought
'New right to breed an honourable race,
'They have challenged Death and dared him face to face.'
'We're none of us the same!' the boys reply.
'For George lost both his legs; and Bill's stone blind;
'Poor Jim's shot through the lungs and like to die;
'And Bert's gone syphilitic: you'll not find
'A chap who's served that hasn't found some change.
' And the Bishop said: 'The ways of God are strange!'
‘They’ is a 1917 poem by the English soldier and poet Siegfried Sassoon. It criticizes the attitude of the official English church to the First World War.
The first verse of the poem revolves around a bishop's speech about the noble sacrifice of the English soldiers, and in particular recites his view that "they [the soldiers and the church] lead the last attack / On Anti-Christ". The second verse compares and contrasts the Bishop’s words with the young soldiers' reply, expressing the woes of four soldiers to which the bishop replies that "The ways of God are strange!" The bishop represents the church and government or politicians, who know nothing about the facts of what will befall the boys yet promise them with glories by sending them to either their inevitable death or--worse--an unbearable life.
Siegfried Sassoon was a British poet known for his writing anti-war poetry of the First World War. This poem is an example of his first-hand experience of the atrocities of war and the lies of the religious leaders and politicians. There are two stanzas, written in iambic pentameter, although with an irregular rhythm, and the rhyme scheme is: (ababcc), (dedeff).
There is religious imagery in the poem in the image of the ‘bishop’. Added to that, the enemy is perceived as "the Anti-Christ" which is a biblical symbol for evil used in this context to justify war. This is a satirical comment indicating that the soldiers or their leaders have depicted or represented the enemy as evil to justify the war. The second stanza continues to list the horrors suffered by the soldiers, to which the Bishop replies: 'The ways of God are strange!' The poet seems to imply that in order to justify war, we have to vilify the enemy, even turning the enemy into "the Anti-Christ" while dressing the church and political leaders saintly robes by implying that they are the embodiment of Jesus Christ since the enemy is the Anti-Christ.
The last line is a common statement used by religious leaders to explain things that cannot be explained and in this poem, is an indictment against war.
The poem is a realistic, rather than idealistic viewpoint of war. In fact, it contrasts the more idealistic, brave and "glorious" parts of war with the harsh, violent and horrific reflections on men. It starts with a bishop trying to give comfort and solace to men who are about to go to war. The Bishop states optimistically that war will "change" men who fight in it, and then lists all of the positive aspects and ways it will change them. He states that--by the end of the War--they will have “challenged Death,” “fought in a just cause” and “lead the last attack on Anti-Christ”. All of these things, naturally, are things that the men should be proud of and even long for. These deeds are expected to change the men for better for the rest of their lives.
The Bishop represents the idealistic approach of war perceiving it as a glorious undertaking; that war shows how brave and noble one is; and that war is the thing that keeps the entire world in order. And, while true on some levels, in the next stanza, Sassoon contrasts that very same "imaginary" war-glory with the intolerable, harsh realities that exist.
Men who have gone to war agree with the Bishop on one thing, that is war does change men, but certainly not for the better as he once promised them. They list all of their war wounds and tragedies: death, amputation, blindness, shot lungs, etc. The poem is made more powerful by implying that in the world of war, there are things worse than death, i.e. living without sight or a part of one's body. The soldiers front and highlight these wounds as definite evidence that the Bishop is right in that change does occurs, but not in the way he was describing it. The bishop's rather inadequate and pale response to this awful reality is an ambiguous, evasive and dismissive one. He merely states, “The ways of God are strange!” This answer is evasive which avoids the truth and nature of suffering. It shows that the Bishop, a symbol for the Church and the British politicians, never admits his faults and his lies that led men to not only their horrible death but also things even worse than death! Even after these decisions were proved to be tragic decisions, still the politicians will not admit their crimes against their citizens whom they promised glory; instead, they found nothing but death and suffering.
As for the form and structure of the poem, it is noticed that the poem consists of two six-lines rhyming parts. The first part is the bishop's inciting to war and his encouraging young soldiers to fight while the second part is the young soldiers' experience of war. Hence, the first part is mean to be examined in comparison and contrast with the second part (illusion and lies vis-à-vis reality and horror). The first line rhymes with the third line of each part while the second line rhymes with the fourth line. Each part ends with a rhyming couplet which serves the function of establishing boundaries between the world of the bishop which is a world of mere claims and lies and the world of the soldiers which is that of reality and suffering. The images of the poem are mainly visual images wherein the audience can actually see the suffering and tragedies of the young soldiers shortly after the war.