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Form and uses of language
Form and uses of language

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1.4 ‘The General’

Sassoon could be eloquent in both prose and poetry. Looking at examples of his writing, you can see how he uses words differently for different audiences and different occasions. First, consider his poem ‘The General':

Look at the manuscript in Figure 2 and listen to the audio (click on the play button, or listen in separate player below Figure 2). You will notice several variations between what you hear and the manuscript text. Sassoon must have re-worked this handwritten text before the poem was published. The reading is taken from Siegfried Sassoon: Collected Poems 1908–1956 (Sassoon, 1961).

Figure 2
Figure 2 Sassoon's manuscript of ‘The General’, written on stationery from the Reform Club in London and dated May 1917. (Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, The University of Texas at Austin; by permission of George Sassoon)

Click on the play button (or listen in a separate player if you prefer) to hear a reading of 'The General'.

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The General
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Sassoon wrote this poem in May 1917 when he was sent home wounded from the front. The language is noticeably simple: line 2 consists entirely of words of one syllable, and much of the rest of the poem is the same, with only one word of more than two syllables (‘incompetent’) in the whole poem. There are no unusual or unfamiliar words. Its simplicity is almost exaggerated.

Interestingly, though, he did not spell out an explicit message in this poem. If you feel that you have understood the gist of it, even at a distance in time of well over three-quarters of a century, he was probably right that it was not necessary to do so. Not spelling out his meaning allowed him to be brief and concise, and also to add colour and interest by encapsulating it in a little scene, complete with characters (the General, Harry and Jack, the ‘we’ who met the General, the General's ‘staff, the ‘soldiers’ who are ‘most of ‘em dead’ – and perhaps, separately. the speaker of the very last line whose sardonic comment suggests a detachment from the other characters). He also conveys a sense of relationships between the characters, a sense of place (‘slogged up to Arras’), and a sense of time – enough time to have elapsed, since the snapshot of the encounter, for Harry, Jack and their comrades to be ‘done for’.