In this scathing poem, Siegfried Sassoon confronts what he sees as the damaging attitudes of women who encourage men to fight and be heroes. He accuses women of promising men of fighting age heroism and honor and failing to see or engage with the true violence and horror of war. He sees the actions of women as at best useless, and at worse, dangerous.
Explore Glory of Women
In ‘Glory of Women,’ Sassoon lists the many actions taken by women in the name of patriotism and victory and finds them both toxic and hollow. He sees no point in the “laurelled memories” that women will cherish when soldiers are dying horrifically, without any of the honor, “glory” or “chivalry” women dream about while “knitting socks” and making “shells.”
Octet (Lines 1-8)
You love us when we’re heroes, home on leave,?
Or wounded in a mentionable place.?
You crown our distant ardours while we fight,?
And mourn our laurelled memories when we’re killed.?
In any sonnet, the octet presents a problem to be solved. The problem here is women, failing to understand war and romanticizing it. For the women in the poem, soldiers are there to have fun with “home on leave” and are only worthy of “love” and “worship” if they have “decorations” or medals, or are “wounded in a mentionable place,” completely ignoring the grim possibilities of serious and disfiguring injuries.
Women are guilty of “making shells” and reveling in tales of heroism and bravery which they listen to “in delight.” Worst of all, they think that “chivalry redeems the war’s disgrace.” The next part of the poem destroys any suggestion that this might be true.
Sestet (Lines 9-14)
You can’t believe that British troops “retire”?
When hell’s last horror breaks them, and they run,?
While you are knitting socks to send your son?
His face is trodden deeper in the mud.
In the second part of ‘Glory of Women,’ Sassoon presents the reality of war and emphasizes the failure of women to understand or acknowledge it. The women in the poem are incredulous that their adored soldiers “retire” or retreat in battle when it “breaks them”, expecting them to die as heroes. He depicts a vision of visceral violence and misery of soldiers running away, “trampling the terrible corpses – blind with blood.” It is the exact opposite of the glorious bravery the women imagine for their “heroes” while they stay safely at home.
In the final three lines, Sassoon turns his attention to women in Germany whose sons are also victims of enforced brutality. His call to the “German mother dreaming by the fire” is at once sympathetic and full of bitter truth. While she “knits socks to send your son,” thinking she is helping and playing her part, her son is just another casualty of a cruel and degrading war, “his face is trodden deeper in the mud.” The adverb “deeper” underlines the ongoing waste of human life and the continued erosion of heroism, bravery, and courage that the women in the poem find so glorious.
The main theme of ‘Glory of Women‘ is the patriotic jingoism popularised by writers such as Jessie Pope in news articles and poems such as “Who’s For The Game?” that encouraged countless young men to lose their lives in a horrifying and ultimately useless war. As a soldier himself, Sassoon knew only too well how lofty ideals like heroism and glory meant nothing on the battlefield and were not worth fighting for.
Despite not being soldiers, women played an integral role in WW1 by persuading men to join the war and more insidiously, demonizing men who were reluctant to fight. Sassoon also highlights the lack of compassion shown to men who survived and exposes the hypocrisy of women who goaded men into war and failed to care for them when they returned.
Structure and Form
Sassoon uses two forms of structure, the sonnet form, and direct address, to challenge us. Sonnets are usually love poems addressed to the object of the speaker’s affection. 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.
Sassoon’s sonnet speaks directly to women, too, but not to declare love. Instead, he subverts the sonnet form to demonstrate that what women might see as love for soldiers and their country is actually deeply destructive and damages the people it is supposed to help.
The direct address is vicious at first, but at the end of the poem, it resembles pity for women who have no idea what harm they are doing or how out of touch their actions are with reality, who “knit socks” while the men they love die.
Sassoon uses several literary devices in ‘Glory of Women.’ These include but are not limited to:
- Irony: occurs when the language used is intended to have the opposite effect. For example, the “glory” in the poem is nothing of the sort.
- Alliteration: occurs when a sound is repeated, for example, “blind with blood” or “Hell’s last horror.” Here, Sassoon mimics the jingoistic slogans and writing that encouraged men to enlist despite the unimaginable experiences that awaited them.
- Iambic pentameter: These are pairs of unstressed/stressed syllables. Here, they convey a sense of violence and relentless brutality to the poem, particularly in the devastating final lines: “His face is trodden deeper in the mud.”
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.
Sassoon’s contemporary poet and fellow soldier Robert Graves described him as a “happy warrior and embittered pacifist.” He was known as a brave and skilled soldier, but his poems were angry about the representation of war as heroic, and frequently took aim at those he felt are responsible for deluding young men into battle.
Sassoon faced criticism for his relentless condemnation of WW1 and the way it was handled by the press and those in superior positions. In A Soldier’s Declaration, read to the British House of Commons and published in a national newspaper the next day, he stated that “the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it.” In the same document, he shows clear solidarity with soldiers in statements like, “I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers” and “I have seen and endured the suffering of the troops.”
The poem treats “women” as a single group and assumes that they are immune to the realities of war. In truth, while women were forbidden to serve in active combat, many took jobs in manufacturing (referenced in the poem) and farming and provided vital medical aid on the battlefield. Some even worked as translators and ambulance drivers.
However, it is fair to say that propaganda and mass media encouraged women to glorify those who fought in the war and persuaded them to engage in activities that were portrayed as helpful and patriotic, even though they were not.
Despite his obvious bitterness towards how women treated men at war, he has some clear sympathy for some like the “German mother” who were ignorant of what soldiers faced and genuinely believed their actions were useful.