Birdsong and The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry

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During the First World War many trench poets portrayed a constant theme throughout their poems. The theme was of the soldier’s detachment to those on the home front. Additionally, the soldiers’ emotions had soon become altered to those at home, as the patriotism at the start of the war started to decline. Once the realities of the war were experienced by the soldiers on the front line, their tragic experiences began to wedge a strong gulf. These experiences created a widening detachment between the soldiers and those on the homefront. The ignorance illustrated among the homefront is what is exposed in Birdsong. The homefront did not seem to appreciate what the soldiers were going through and this resulting in a lack of understanding between the two parties.

Further, this is revealed as Owen mournfully conveys resentment and hatred of the soldiers and against non-combatants in his poem, ‘Apologia Pro Poemate Meo’. Earlier poems of 1914 however, create feelings of patriotism revealing both soldiers and civilians united in emotions of pride and honour. The homefront in both Birdsong and The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry are illustrated as being ignorant by the soldiers. Various poets particularly ‘Sassoon’ showed a degree of compassion at the outset and later retained a more unforgiving view of this matter seeming to bitterly exploit this issue directly throughout his poetry.

Within poetry the homefront is portrayed in a negative light, as there is an apparent indication in a change of relationship between soldiers and loved ones, as both sides have different experiences during this traumatic time. Therefore, there are many reasons to analyse Jon Silkin’s selection of poetry to the various extracts from the novel, which highlight the changing relationship between the soldiers and the homefront. Ultimately, the homefront are exposed as if they carried no concern, though some of them did; and had no interest in the war because they were unaware of the horrors it had inflicted on so many young men on the front lines.

Furthermore, the homefront and the soldiers contrast as they both show a lack of understanding during the war period with specific mention to the battle of the Somme. From here, the widening gulf is at its peak as soldiers went through the trauma and the homefront could not comprehend the change which war brought to their loved one. It is evident that the purpose of the novel was to provide a generation impact of war, but not of the horror which the soldiers had suffered. Nevertheless, in Jon Silkin’s anthology, The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry, this is more personal as Silkin describes this as, “what I thought was excellent”.

The poems that were written during the war era explain the change in attitude between the soldiers at the war to those at home, as soldiers were not killed by “death, but by war” since the shock had both physically and mentally torn the soldiers apart. In Rupert Brooke’s ‘The Soldier’ he highlights the altering relationship between the soldier and the homefront. Here the soldier clearly indicates his love, patriotism and loyalty to his country: “If I die, think only this of me; that there’s some corner of a foreign field That is for ever England”

In addition this sonnet exudes the soldiers’ passion for his country and the civilian love for England. Further, this does not emphasise the traumatising war experience, but is one which captures the patriotic and nationalistic mood in 1914. This was just before the war had even started as people were united together in deep patriotism. In the pre 1916, people’s attitudes were different to post 1916, the detachment grew between the two parties as war had started and the lack of understanding was highlighted. One way which Brooke does this is by making England a maternal figure.

This is evident as the soldier exposes his eternal love for England, and it can be viewed as perhaps the extended metaphor of ‘England’ retaining the human quality of a ‘mother’ as if England ‘gives birth’ to the soldier; ‘shapes’ him and ‘make him aware’. One way of interpreting this personification can be showing how the soldier has detached from his mother, and is now ‘shaped’ and feels the country has given him all the qualities needed hence he now feels he has the position to defend ‘England’ against attack after all it has given him.

He plays out his feeling of ‘guilt’. He has this dire need to ‘give back’ to this country after what his country has given him, thereby defending ‘mother England’ come what may! He writes: ‘A pulse in the eternal mind, no less gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given. ‘ At this point Brooke reflects the soldiers’ instinctive emotions by expressing how the soldier finds its new motherly figure, which is the country as ‘she’ has provided for him and now he feels he has something to give back to ‘her’.

The widening gulf between the homefront and the front line soldiers suffering in the trenches is poignantly expressed in Sassoon’s ‘Does it Matter’. “Do they matter? – those dreams from the pit? You can drink and forget and be glad, And people won’t say that you’re mad; For they’ll know you’ve fought for your country And no one will worry a bit” In comparison, Faulks’s prose is always eloquently graceful and poetic, because he captures the essence of both negative and positive nuances. Faulks’s total fascination with World War One exposes this genre in gusty pangs of raw passion.

He exercises the totality of the soldier’s experiences on the front line and the stifling claustrophobia they suffered. Reflecting on this theme, Faulks emphasises the scenes in the tunnel where the characters’ fear of confined space and the weight of the earth on top of them forces the soldiers to put their feelings of panic on one side and focus on other things, as Stephen controlled his fear, by concentrating on his hatred of the Germans. Stephen is lonely and brooding initially as seen from other people’s view points. Six years later his character becomes both charismatic and enigmatic.

The narrative reverts to his point of view and we see how he thinks. Stephen found communicating difficult, ‘He found it difficult to think of words of encouragement or inspiration when he himself did not believe there was a purpose to the war or an end to it in sight. ‘ He became biased in his views and was beginning to expose his inability to motivate or encourage the soldiers in his platoon. Faulks points out ‘He felt like a useless and unused link in the chain. The senior officers would not confide in him; the men took direction from the NCOs and comfort from themselves.

Faulks clearly understood that a dispassionate eye is the condition of a passionate intelligence, because the poets who had actually experienced what he talks about, makes one realise the true horrors of war. The genre used in Birdsong and the poetry exuded the poignant, outrageous, mind-blowing realities illuminating the confusion, fear, hope and helplessness experience by every one of those brave young men who gave their lives to their country so we could be free today. ‘Sorley’ poignantly illuminates the aftermath of the horrors of war in; When you see millions of the mouth less dead, across your dreams in pale battalions go”… He reveals the reality the soldiers suffered through the harsh imagery of war.

They were silenced, unable to express their personal view points and suffered in silence which was a torture in itself! “Say not soft things as other men have said, That you’ll remember, For you need not so. Give them not praise. For, deaf, how should They know it is not curses heaped on each Gashed head? Nor tears, their blind eyes see not your tears flow, Nor honour.

It is easy to be dead. ” Here ‘Sorley’ is trying to portray that there is no need to be sentimental about the dead, because the soldiers were aware of the fact that they may be injured or maimed as there were men with ‘gashed heads’, those who lost their sight and hearing and in the end their precious lives. The patriotism is challenged by ‘Sorley’ who exposes ‘Brooke’ to be ‘Far too obsessed with his own sacrifice’ explaining how so many felt his overview of the soldier being comfortable and sacrificial, did not apply to all of them.

This poem could have possibly been a warning to the reader or the outside world alerting them to the ‘mouth less’ soldiers who were unable to reveal their plight during the war as so many soldiers were trapped within the horror of war for years as they were in fact ‘mouth less’ and dare not divulge the horrendous situation they were thrown into. All the agony these soldiers experience separated them from the home front. It was the soldiers who were left dumb, blind, deaf, mutilated, crippled, maimed and psychologically damaged by the horrors inflicted on them while those on the home front romanticised about the war.

The home front were not aware of the torture the soldiers had gone through and thus are shown as being ignorant and blindly patriotic as ‘they’ being ‘deaf’ and ‘blind’ to the outside world , the world outside war. While Faulks portrays the widening gap upon the arrival of Weir to his home. Weirs visit shows the lack of understanding parents have about war and horror hence, ‘Worse than what? ‘ His parents’ attitude comments reflect those of a country as a whole so we are subjected to great differing opinions arousing resentment towards civilians.

When he goes home, we identify how he tries to bond with his father, however cannot gain that comforting emotion despite what he has been through as the closest he comes into contact with his father is by a ‘pat on the back’. The word ‘pat’ suggests very little emotion, as it is a movement without much emotion attached. It can perhaps be suggested how the homefront as well as not offering verbal support and did not even comfort their loved ones through physical comfort by bonding with the showing some emotional love.

Weir also comments on how he ‘would like to bomb his street’ and how he ‘would like death to be brought to those people who went on strike’. This resentment and animosity was aroused by Ellis’s remark ‘We are fighting for our country’, this shows Weir’s sense of alienation of soldiers and experience compared to those at home. Weir displays a man who is infuriated, angered, disillusioned and annoyed with those at home who fail to recognise the plight of the soldiers in the trenches. Despite the expectation Weir contained that he will be restored to his ‘old self’, he does not receive any affection or sympathy.

Faulks seems to show how war had affected them taking away each individuals quality to communicate along with their bright future. The widening gap is further supported by the reaction of those at home to returning soldiers being ‘frightened’ by the almost spiritual ‘passive beings’. Linking this to ‘Letters from a lost generation. ‘ The letters are quite self-contained, and he only shows feeling at the end of every letter, ‘Yours always … much love’. This can be compared to Weir’s letter which is very independent and formal, ‘From your son Michael’.

Thus, this supports the soldiers feeling unease when addressing their respective families. During the war, women were not viewed as playing a vital role in society and soldiers often mocked them for not understanding the horrifying experience they had endured. ‘Sassoon’ seems to bitterly express his emotions towards the homefront in a very harsh manner as shown in; ‘Glory of Women’: “You love us when we’re heroes, home on leave, or wounded in a mentionable place, you worship decorations, you believe that chivalry redeems the war’s disgrace” –

These poignant lines show raw passion and brilliantly expose in perfect prose how most women envision soldiers as ‘brave men in uniform’. This poem is extremely powerful and was written while Sassoon was involved in the war as he felt he wanted to articulate his feeling by highlighting his disgust towards women as they simply have a lack of understanding about what war was like for the soldiers. Similarly, this is explored through the ruthless language, which Sassoon embeds within this poem as he begins the poem by segregating the mend and women through ‘You’ and ‘we’.

Furthermore, the word ‘You’ is used in the upper case ‘Y’ – consequently presenting the extreme bitter tone which ‘Sassoon’ feels towards women as he expresses his ‘biased’ argument within fourteen lines. The immense hatred towards women is illustrated through the sardonic tone of the poem, as women are attacked due to their lack of understanding the war. Silkin too believed that women are ignorant, as they do ‘not kill, do no get slaughtered. ‘ The idea of spite demonstrated through iron in ‘Glory of Women’ towards the women who do not understand the war in reality and seem to ‘make us shells’.

The disorderly structure of the poem is exposed through the last three lines, which exemplify ‘the German mother dreaming by the fire’, showing how the mother has not come out of her ‘dream’ and in the reality where her sons face ‘is trodden deeper in the mud’. The fact that this poem was written in 1917, highlights soldiers’ real feelings towards a women’s role during the war. These illustrate the patriotic view of 1914, illustrating the change in attitude as war progressed. Thus, the varying relationship with women at home is apparent in war, however another interpretation could be that they did not want to face up to the reality of war.

Owen on the other hand, unlike ‘Sassoon’ uses less austere imagery as he focuses on compassionate poetry. ‘Owen’ is a typical contrast to ‘Sassoon’ as ‘Sassoon’ seems to reveal his emotions in a crude open way. ‘Owen’ says; ‘all a poet can do is warn’ and ‘convey the pity of war’. ‘Owen’ successfully describes the opinions and emotions of the soldiers who suffered and his anger is shown towards the homefront in ‘The Send Off. ‘ ‘Down the close darkening lanes they sang their way To the siding-shed, And lined the train with faces grimly gay. Their breasts were stuck all white with wreath And spray As men’s are, dead. ‘

These lines portray the theme of a private conscience in a public area showing the boundaries of human behaviour and the role of the soldiers played then and allows the reader to feel the ambience the men encountered on their ‘send off’. Faulks’ interpretation showing the lack of understanding between the two parties is highlighted in ‘Birdsong’ and ‘Regeneration’ by the psychological horrors of war and how the homefront had seen this.

This is explored by ‘Faulks’ in ‘Birdsong’ at the point were Isabelle meets Stephen after the gap period on the front line, and she realises that he has ‘changed almost beyond recognition. While ‘Owen’ in his poem ‘Apologia Pro Poemate Meo’- ‘I, too, saw God through mud – the mud that cracked on cheeks when wretches smiled. War brought more glory to their Eyes than blood’. ‘Owen’ portrays the blind belief of patriotism of some soldiers and the legacy they believed in, despite the misery and utter hopelessness they endured. This poem exudes the masochistic attitudes of some of the soldiers on the battlefield as they felt the futility of war and thought ‘War brought more glory to their eyes than blood’!

Further, In ‘Owen’s’ ‘Mental Cases’ “Who are these? Why sit they here in twilight? Wherefore rock they, purgatorial shadows, Drooping tongues from jaw that slob their relish, Baring teeth that leer like skulls’ teeth wicked? Stroke on stroke of pain, – but what slow panic! ‘Owen’ handles the narrative in this section of this poem to show the reader the ‘futility’ of war and the irreparable psychological damage suffered by the unfortunate soldiers who were inflicted by the traumas at hand, during the war.

In conclusion, the poems illustrated by the poets mentioned above portrayed the mixed emotions of the many disillusioned young men who gave their lives to ‘King and Country’. The soldiers left to rot in hospital beds were ignored by many, as Elizabeth discovered when she visited the hospital in ‘Birdsong’. Rupert Brooke’s poems in the very early stages of war were written in sentimental and patriotic verse when he covers his attitude in fine words, but took the romanticized view of the war, as compared to the realities other poets portrayed at that point in time.

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