"You make us shells."

NOTES

This poem accuses British women of gaining vicarious pleasure from the war, and glorying in the fighting of soldiers abroad.

Glory of Women: ‘Glory’ is a religious word; a divine light that shines from the sacred. Something glorious is something worthy of honour, or praise— here, this poem purports to write about the honour or praiseworthiness of women. In this poem, therefore, the ‘Glory of Women’ is considered ironically.

STRUCTURE: ‘Glory of Women’ is a sonnet. The choice of a sonnet is again ironic— sonnets, of course, being traditionally associated with love. The poem is not necessarily a traditionally structured sonnet, however. The ‘volta’, or ‘turn’ of meaning or focus in the poem occurs before the sextet, as is traditional. There is a turn from detailing what Sassoon takes to be British women’s attitudes towards soldiering and war to a more savage imagery that shows the women to be deluded. There is also, unconventionally, an even more pronounced turn that occurs in the final three lines, as the shocking ending turns from British women to the German mother.

“You love us when we’re heroes…”: from the first, this poem has a confrontational,  accusatory tone, with the direct address of ‘you’ from a notional ‘us’; the voice of a male soldier. The idea of conditional love here— “when we’re heroes”— is the first sign of an accusation of hypocrisy leveled at women.

“Or wounded in a mentionable place”: the suggestion is that female loyalty depends on the wound that a soldier sustains, and that it must not be socially embarrassing for women to relate.

“You worship decorations”: the essential superficiality of the feminine viewpoint is suggested by the idea of worshipping “decorations”— another name for medals.

“you believe / That chivalry redeems the war’s disgrace.”: Sassoon suggests that women romanticise the war, focusing on “chivalry” and honour. The war, meanwhile, is described as being precisely dishonorable: it is a “disgrace”.

“You make us shells.”: women, Sassoon suggests, are complicit in the violence, because they are involved in the manufacture of weapons.

“You listen with delight, / By tales of dirt and danger fondly thrilled.”: the strong rhythm imparted by the alliteration here— “delight”, “dirt”, “danger”— gives a sense of a compelling parlour narrative.

“You crown our distant ardours…And mourn our laurelled memories…”: the most sarcastic lines in the poem, employing commonplace, romantic phrases and suggesting this is the limit of women’s understanding of war. To “crown… distant ardours” means to be the focus of the men’s desires; the “laurelled memories” talked of are the thoughts of the men killed and victorious (thus presented with laurel wreaths) in battle. Note the repetition of ‘our’ here; the opposition of men and women is particularly strongly sustained in these lines.

“You can’t believe that British troops ‘retire’”: The beginning of the ‘sextet’ or final six lines of a sonnet. The poem turns from romantic images of men prevalent at home to the true actions of men in war. To ‘retire’, here, is a euphemism for retreat.

“Hell’s last horror… Trampling the terrible corpses— blind with blood”: The alliteration here accentuates the vicious and desperate retreat of the men. The aspirate ‘h’ sounds recall the heavy breath of the running men, the harsher ‘t’ sounds the crushing of bones underfoot, while the plosive ‘b’s almost mimics the projection of blood itself.

“O German mother dreaming by the fire…”: the sudden turn to the presentation of a German mother at home is surprising for the reader, after the focus on the insensitivities and moral complicity of British women in the war. In some ways she is presented more sympathetically than British women: her “dreaming”, because not elaborated on, doesn’t seem as immediately corrupt as that of British women.

“While you are knitting socks… His face is trodden deeper in the mud.”: The final couplet is deliberately shocking. The contrast between the thoughtful domestic scene and the utter savagery of a human head being stood on is horrifying, and meant as a corrective to the illusion that dominates the poem. The brutal truth, Sassoon insists, is a factual corrective to delusion.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: This is a poem that always prompts massive debate in my classes and its misogynistic tone well justifies it. ‘Glory of Women’ needs, however, to be fairly considered with those other poems that Sassoon writes at this time, in which he seeks to angrily identify those who hold some responsibility for the war. Outside of the anthology, ‘Glory of War’ contrasts interestingly with Jessie Pope’s upbeat ‘War Girls’, of course; within the anthology WWI selection, where women’s voices are massively unrepresented, it is interesting to compare this poem with Elizabeth Daryush’s ‘Subalterns’ (p.219) and May Wedderburn Cannan’s ‘Rouen’ (p.220).]

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