S Siegfried Sassoon

A Subaltern by Siegfried Sassoon

In ‘A Subaltern’ the speaker catches a glimpse of the innocence and hope he thought the war had erased in a conversation with a junior military officer.

A Subaltern by Siegfried Sasson Visual Representation

Nostalgia, youth, and the haziness of summer days clash with the unrelenting grimness of war in this portrait of a young subaltern. The subject of ‘A Subaltern’ is thought to be based on David Cuthbert Williams, a friend of Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves and inspiration for some of their poems and memoirs. Williams was shot by a German sniper just one week after this poem was published.

A Subaltern by Siegfried Sassoon


Summary

Written in the first person, there is clearly a close relationship between the two men in ‘A Subaltern.’ In the first stanza, the subaltern confides in the speaker about the “bloody time” he is having in the war. The speaker observes him almost lovingly, detailing his beauty which appears in sharp contrast to the undeniable horror and bleakness around them. In the second stanza, the moment of genuine connection shared by the two men is broken by the speaker’s “stale philosophies” and the subaltern dismisses his words and feelings as “tripe.”

Detailed Analysis

Like a Petrarchan sonnet, ‘A Subaltern’ is divided into two parts, the octet (eight lines) and sestet (six lines). However, its rhyme scheme belongs to the Shakespearian sonnet.

Title – ‘A Subaltern’

The title makes it clear that this is a war poem. A subaltern is an officer in the British army below the rank of captain. The word can also be used as an old-fashioned synonym for “subordinate.” The title is anonymous and appears impersonal, but the poem that follows is a very human portrait of one person who temporarily lights up the darkness of wartime.

Octet

Lines 1-4

He turned to me with his kind, sleepy gaze
And fresh face slowly brightening to the grin
That sets my memory back to summer days,
With twenty runs to make, and last man in.

In the first four lines, or quatrain, the subaltern has a “fresh face” and smiles at the speaker. His inherent goodness, represented by his “kind, sleepy gaze” and “brightening” smile is a contrast to the experienced, jaded speaker. The subaltern’s expression transports the speaker back to better times before the war, of “summer days // With twenty runs to make, and the last one in.” The cricket references in the second half are unmistakably English and remind us of the speaker’s senior rank as well as the world beyond the fighting.

Lines 5-8

He told me he’d been having a bloody time
(…)
And the grey palsied weather did its worst.

The second quatrain of ‘A Subaltern’ is the subaltern’s confession that despite his happy appearance, he’s having a “bloody time // In trenches.” He describes crouching down while waiting for “crumps” or shells to explode while “squeaking rats scampered across the slime.” Even the weather appears diseased or “palsied” and is out to get them, “did its worst.” This section of the poem is similar in subject matter to Wilfred Owen’s poem “Exposure,” where the harshness of the conditions faced by soldiers is as bad as the threat from the enemy.

Sestet

But as he stamped and shivered in the rain,
My stale philosophies had served him well;
(…)
‘Good God!’ he laughed, and slowly filled his pipe,
Wondering ‘why he always talked such tripe’.

The “but” at the start of the second stanza indicates that deeper understanding initiated in the beginning will go no further while the weather continues its assault, “as he stamped and shivered in the rain.”  The genuine feelings of both characters in the poem are at odds with what appears in this stanza, where the senior officer offers useless advice or words of wisdom, what Sassoon calls “stale philosophies,” in return for the honesty and openness of his subaltern.

The subaltern knows that the connection established was fleeting. He dismisses his words as “such tripe” and “laughed” at himself. He blames “dreaming about his girl” for the unsoldierly vulnerability he has just displayed.

The reference to a “girl” also disrupts the sensual overtones of the speaker’s description of the subaltern and returns the barriers of rank and relationship that separate the two men. The subaltern attempts to distract from his lapse by “slowly filling his pipe.”

Themes

The main theme of ‘A Subaltern’ is the connections that exist between soldiers and the things that seek to separate them. Soldiers are categorized in the army by rank and regiment and as individuals by experience and background. However, genuine connections exist and happiness, however fleeting, can be found even in the hellishness of war.

Structure and Form

Sassoon’s use of the sonnet form, a love poem, shows us that despite his inability and reserve about connecting with the subaltern, the bond and affection for him are real.

Other war poets, such as Rupert Brooke, also used the sonnet to convey their love for their country and to praise the bravery of other soldiers.

The poem follows all the conventions of a sonnet with its octet and sestet and iambic pentameter.

Literary Devices

Sassoon uses several literary devices in “The Subaltern.” These include but are not limited to:

  • Colloquial language: informal or chatty language, for example, “bloody time” and “tripe”. Here, it adds immediacy and contributes to the sense of intimacy between the people in the poem. It also provides contrast to the sophistication of the sonnet form.
  • Iambic pentameter: These are pairs of unstressed/stressed syllables. Here, the even tone they generate conveys a sense of rapport between the two men, for example, “’Good God!’ he laughed
  • Alliteration: occurs when words near each other have similar sounds, for example, “crouching for the crumps.” This emphasises the noise and chaos of the environment described in the poem.


Siegfried Sassoon Background

Born in 1886, Siegfried Sassoon CBE MC was decorated for bravery in WW1 with the highest military honors, and was known as “Mad Jack” as a result of his death-defying actions in the army. In 1917, despairing at the countless deaths and destruction of human life as a result of the mismanagement of the British Army, he wrote A Soldier’s Declaration, a protest against the war and what it stood for. As a result, he was declared unfit for service and sent to Craiglockhart Military Hospital, where he was treated for shell-shock. While convalescing, he met fellow WW1 poet Wilfred Owen and became an enormous influence on him and helping to bring Owen’s work to a wider audience.

After WW1, Sassoon continued to support and patronize other writers and became an acclaimed novelist.

FAQs

Who was David Cuthbert Thomas?

David Cuthbert Thomas fought alongside Siegfried Sassoon and they become friends during training. Like Sassoon, he was a keen sportsman. After his death at the Somme at just 20 years old, Sassoon described him in his writings as “a gentle soldier, perfect and without stain.”

Robert Graves also wrote about Thomas in his famous WW1 novel Goodbye To All That. Movingly, he wrote that “I felt David’s death worse than any other since I had been in France, but it did not anger me as it did Siegfried.”

“He was acting transport-officer and every evening now, when he came up with the rations, went out on patrol looking for Germans to kill. I just felt empty and lost.”

To what extent does the poem reflect Siegfried Sassoon’s own life?

Apart from his friendship with Thomas, Sassoon was a decorated soldier in WW1 and was known for being a brave and inspirational leader. He also loved sports and the English countryside.

He was also horrified by the war and wrote many poems that set out to destroy any illusions people still had about it being glorious or heroic.

Was the poem published during Sassoon’s lifetime?

This poem was written in March 1916, but does not appear in either of Sassoon’s two collections of war poetry, The War Poems of Siegfried Sassoon and Counter-Attack and Other Poems.

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A Subaltern by Siegfried Sasson Visual Representation
About
Nadia is an English teacher, tutor, and freelance educational content writer. She studied English and French at the University of Liverpool and specialized in poetry during her final year. She is never more than 3 feet away from a book.
  • How the poem can be in the first person narration? Even the very first word is “HE”. This is in the third person narration.

    • Lee-James Bovey says:

      Because it says “He turned to ME”. A third-person narrator rarely uses the pronoun “me”. This is very definitely told in the first person.

  • >

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