Lesson on 'Everyone Sang' by Siegfried Sassoon
Sassoon's poem was written shortly after the signing of the signing of the Armistice treaty (on 11th November 1918) which ended the First World War. In two short stanzas Sassoon captures the elation and freedom which everyone caught up in the war must have felt to some extent when it finally ended. The poem is not triumphal though and, in its closing lines, pulls away from the joyful moment to make the reader think about the future. Interestingly the poet does not refer to specific people, dates, places or particular events in the poem but instead concentrates on sound to evoke the joy of release from the horror of war. When reading this poem for the first time it should not be necessary to give students too much contextual information. In that way they can concentrate on the words more fully and begin to ask questions about the poem for themselves. In most cases, it would be more appropriate to introduce other material to support in-depth study once students' initial ideas have been explored.
- To explore the way in which poetry can capture the mood of a moment in time.
- To develop an understanding of historical context in literary study.
- Poetry Archive recording of Sassoon's reading of 'Everyone Sang'and accompanying information about Sassoon's life from this website.
- Copies of the poem.
- Photographs of trench warfare and Armistice Day newspaper front pages.
- Mini-whiteboards or paper.
- Data projector, interactive whiteboard or OHP.
Teaching sequence of activities
Begin by listening to Sassoon's reading at least twice. If you have an interactive whiteboard or OHP in your classroom then the text could be projected simultaneously.
Give students a few moments to think about what they have heard and to jot down their immediate questions and other ideas about the poem.
Annotate the projected poem (either yourself or invite students to do so) with ideas - especially questions. Recap on these initial ideas.
Focus on emerging questions. Ideally students should be asking at least the following:
- Who is 'Everyone'?
- Where are they?
- Why are they 'suddenly' singing?
- What has happened?
- Why will the singing 'never be done'?
- What does the song sound like?
- What is the 'beauty' referred to?
- What might the 'horror' be?
- Who is 'I'?
- How does this person react to what happens?
Depending on the number of questions and their degree of difficulty you may need to add further questions of your own at this stage. Number the questions.
Now divide the group preferably into pairs, and issue each pair with a copy of the poem and two questions. (Ensure there is overlap so that several pairs have the same questions.) At this point you could also tell the group that the poem was written in 1918 by a poet who had fought in the First World War. For the next 5 - 7 minutes, each pair should first read the poem aloud to each other and then take one or two questions and explore potential answers to their questions/predictions with close reference to the word choices, images and repetitions in the poem to justify their ideas.
Share emerging ideas either as small groups (with five students each contributing their ideas on two of the questions) or as one large group. Concentrate on the sound of the song, the singers and the impact that it appears to have on the narrator. Annotations could be added to the projected poem.
Now provide further contextual information, such as a brief selection of trench warfare and Armistice day images or documentary film footage or music, together with a brief summary of Sassoon's own war experiences.
Go back to the poem, read or listen to it again and focus further on language and structure, either as a whole class or in the small groups. How does Sassoon capture the sense of elation? Why might Sassoon have chosen to write this poem with this particular rhyme scheme? How does the rhyme contribute to the mood of the poem? What can you say about the rhythm? What is the effect of the final lines of each stanza on the rhythm of the poem and on the listener? What impact particularly does the final sentence of the poem have? Is Sassoon making a wish, a prediction, issuing a warning or could he have some other purpose?
Ask each student to select three or four words from the poem which they think reflect the mood of the poem, and to say what is most memorable or significant about it. Ask them to write these down. Select some students to share their words with the rest of the group and justify their choices.
- Students could research music of the period and create a soundtrack to accompany their own reading of the poem.
- Search the internet for personal accounts and other photographs of 1918 Armistice Day and compile a PowerPoint presentation to accompany Sassoon’s reading of the poem.
- Compare 'Everyone Sang' with other poems which use sound or music as their focus, such as 'First Song' by Galway Kinnell and 'Variation on an Old Rhyme' by John Mole.
Provide a brief structured introduction to the Armistice context and the poet's war experiences (with photographs or cartoons) prior to listening to and reading the poem together. With support, the students could match the pictures with words and phrases which show the narrator's feelings at this moment when war has ended. Ask students to describe who 'everyone' could be and why they think this.
- 'Anthem for Doomed Youth: Twelve Soldier Poets of the First World War' by John Stallworthy (published by Constable). This excellent resource accompanied the Imperial War Museum's exhibition. It includes draft poems, photographs, biographical and contextual material.
- The Wilfred Owen Multimedia Digital Archive: this extensive First World War resource includes links to photographs, documentary film footage, trench songs, poets' draft material and other sources. Schools can create their own pathways through the site to suit their own needs.
- BBC History contains a whole section on the First World War, including six short documentary films and interviews with veterans.
- Nottingham Evening Post: front cover on Armistice Day. The 'Peace' cartoon on the cover could also be a useful resource.