“The General” is a short poem about the destructive power of incompetent commanders, even – or especially – those who seem personable and “nice”. The General met the soldiers last week, as they were heading for the frontline and greeted them with cheerful “Good-morning, good-morning!”, but now most of the soldiers he greeted in this way are dead, and the surviving are “cursing his staff for incompetent swine”. A soldier named Harry calls him “a cheery old card” [wag] and (though there are different readings of this poem) it seems to me that it’s meant to be a conversation from the previous week, before the failed attack, because the last verse is “But he did for them both with his plan of attack”. The word “but” implies, in my opinion, that the soldiers took his cheerfulness at face value and were cruelly undeceived when he turned out to be incompetent.
The sonnet “Glory of Women” is somewhat tinged with misogyny, as some of Sassoon’s poems are. It’s an attack on naively patriotic women supporting the war effort at home, but clinging to the outdated idea of chivalry, which has no relevance for modern warfare. Women love to hear the stories of war heroes, home on leave, when they are “wounded in a mentionable place”, make shells, praise their fight and mourn their memory. The sestet switches to the more negative side of women’s engagement, when they can’t believe “when British troops ‘retire'”, because they don’t know what that means – being completely broken by horrors and running “trampling the terrible corpses”. Then in the last three lines the poet imaginatively sees the other side of the home front: a German mother knitting socks for her son who is already dead and is one of those trampled in the mud.
The next two poems could be called “post-war poems”, dealing with the experience of the end of the war and its commemoration. “Everyone Sang” doesn’t refer explicitly to the end of the war: it begins with “everyone suddenly burst out singing” and it’s never explained why, although it’s not difficult to make the connection. The poet felt at that moment like a caged bird set free and flying above meadows and out of sight. The second stanza begins with the similar “everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted”, building a parallel with the first verse of the previous stanza. The poet feels moved – though he doesn’t show it – to tears and realizes that his experience is shared by everybody – “everyone/was a bird” and the wordless song started back then shall never be done. I sense an echo of George Herbert here and I can’t quite put my finger on why; maybe it’s the bird metaphor.
The New Menin Gate is a monument in Ypres in memory of those who fought in the Ypres Salient and whose bodies were never recovered. The sonnet “On Passing the New Menin Gate” is a savage attack on the monument, which Sassoon considered to be, paradoxically, an obliteration of the dead rather than their commemoration. This is an English sonnet (unlike “Glory of Women”, which was an Italian one). The first stanza is made up of rhetorical questions: who is going to remember the soldiers who were the canon fodder in the battle, not by choice but because they were conscripted? He considers the monument an exercise in hypocrisy, an attempt to pay “with peace-complacent stone” for the loss of their lives. The inscription on the gate says “Their name liveth for ever”, but the poet considers it to be a denial of their deaths, because become a part of the long list of “nameless names”. In the final couplet he imagines the dead rising and deriding “this sepulchre of crime”.