Siegfried Sasson and the Horror of War
An analysis of Siegfried Sassoon's poem 'Attack', focusing on its use of poetic device and imagery to construe the horror of soldiers in war
How does Siegried Sassoon capture the horror of the troops caught in the middle of a brutal war in his poem ‘Attack’? Answer by referring to poetic devices used.
As partly established in its title, Siegfried Sassoon’s poem ‘Attack’ describes the beginning of a mass assault in the trench warfare context of the First World War. The poem devotes particular focus to the experience of the soldiers: both its content and its formal devices make it clear that this experience is one of profound horror.
To begin with, the chaotic and discordant nature of the situation is embodied in the poem’s inconsistent rhyme scheme, following an AABCDBEDEFGGF pattern across its 13 lines – a number also remarkable for creating unevenness in the piece, and further rejecting the popular poetic paradigm of a neat succession of enclosed couplets. All of these lines, with the exception of the last half of the final one, are spent in description of a succession of harsh images, objects and actions: the poem is deprived of any explicit lyrical voice or commentary on these phenomena until the ending expletive of ‘O Jesus, make it stop!’
All of the above creates an inherently horrific subversion of what is perceived to be poetic, and this subversion extends to the description of the physical environment of the trenches and battlegrounds. Succeeding the blunt, unromantic image of the ‘massed and dun’ ridge at the start is one of the sun as ‘wild purple’ and ‘glow’ring’ – suggestive of this familiar object being changed into something unnatural, even being personified as adversarial. The same effect is present in the characterisation of the ‘scarred slope’ as ‘menacing’. Such is the proliferation of mentions of tools and weapons in the following lines – tanks, wire, bombs and shovels – that the place is effectively transformed into a nightmarish machinescape.
Amidst all this, any human presence – the soldiers – is dwarfed, and thus made all the more pitiable: ‘Lines of grey, muttering faces’, bereft of individuality, but united in horror at the situation, which bursts forth in the final outcry.