Compare and contrast the ways in which Wilfred Owen and Ted Hughes write about nature
In this extended piece of writing I am going to compare and contrast ‘Exposure’, a poem written by Wilfred Owen, to a poem written by Ted Hughes, ‘Thistles’.
‘Exposure’ is a poem about the men who are fighting in the First World War and are suffering from the effects of the weather and the formidable conditions in which they have to live. They hallucinate about going back home and dream about what it would be like, but then return to reality, to the cold and dreadful trenches. Towards the end of the poem, there is a shift in tone and atmosphere. The men realise that their being in the trenches is essential for the protection of freedom and domestic security. Moreover it is their destiny.
Ostensibly, ‘Thistles’ is about nature. On a more profound level, the poem is about survival and the pain endured during the growth and rebirth of this plant. There are comparisons and effective phrases using natural imagery as the poem’s focus, showing that the battle for survival in an indifferent world is a brutal one. I will now examine in more detail each poet’s approach to the role of nature in these poems.
Our brains ache, in the merciless iced east winds that knive
This quotation is from the first line of ‘Exposure’. Immediately, we recognise a sense of pain and anguish. This line is particularly effective as the use of assonance, repetition of the [i] sound, reinforces the great power of the chilling wind. It is also very graphic as it personifies the wind as having the ability to stab. Alliteration has also been used; the repetition of the [s] sound emphasises the effect of the wind being indestructible and how much they sting the soldiers. This line is an echo from a poem written by Keats, ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, which begins, My heart aches… This line evokes a sense of pain (physical and emotional) and yearning for something lost. This is also reflected in ‘Exposure’ through both the severe pain the men experience, and their dreaming of home. Not only do the heads of the soldiers’ ache but the core of the head, the brain.
The soldiers are in the trench, cold. There is no noise, an awkward and unusual situation during a war. Generally we would expect shells exploding and artillery being fired. But nothing happens. They are confused as well as being surrounded by evil and suffering:
Watching, we hear the mad gusts tugging on the wire,
Like twitching agonies of men among its brambles.
The theme of nature is introduced here and is compared to the men suffering. The mad gusts that tug on the wire have been used to compare the twitching agonies of men among its brambles. The bramble (being known as a prickly bush) represents the barbed wire in this context. This is how the theme of nature is introduced in the second stanza. The wind being so forceful shows the torment that the men encounter when they’re caught in the deadly sharp wires: the brambles. The sense of the winds howling is replaced by the screams of men. The idea of nature and reality is interlocked to give a dramatic and visual image. As we read on in the poem, we see that natural imagery is being used to compare the events occurring in the war and the effect on the soldiers:
The poignant misery of dawn begin to grow…
We only know was lasts, rain soaks, and clouds sag stormy.
Dawn is the opposition. Traditionally the start of a day is thought to be bright and cheerful but in this context it is the enemy. Dawn is not another day of joy and happiness but another day of war and death. The traditional image of nature, being one of growth, life and beauty, has been twisted around to be an ugly sight. It is a scene of misery and we are told, clouds sag stormy. The alliteration of the [s] sound emphasises the fact that being at war isn’t pleasurable, that the skies aren’t always blue. Every day brings stormy clouds and unstoppable rain. These conditions are intolerable and a torturous. Owen has given nature this unpleasant face to show how the men are suffering and that the war is far from glorious.
The coldness of the air surrounding the soldiers is more deadly than the guns and bombs that go off: the freezing weather is more virulent than the instant death that human opposition can inflict:
Sudden successive flights of bullets streak the silence.
Less deadly than the air that shudders black with snow,
Here, an oxymoron is used, since black contradicts the colour of snow, white. However this image is effective as we can associate the colour black with traditional ideas of evil and suffering as opposed to the associations of purity and innocence connected with white. Natural forces continue to attack in the next stanza:
Dawn massing in the east her melancholy army
Attacks once more in ranks on shivering ranks of grey,
Dawn is massing with her army. It attacks in ranks and so is also fighting a battle, similar to the central theme of ‘Thistles’, which we will later discuss in detail. However in ‘Exposure’ nature doesn’t have a purpose for attacking the men: it is indiscriminate. Note too Owen’s use of the colour grey which could be an allusion to the colour of the enemy uniforms. As the poem continues the images of cold and suffering gradually metamorphose into representations of rural England:
Pale flakes with fingering stealth come feeling for our faces-
We cringe in holes, back on forgotten dreams, and stare, snow-dazed,
Deep into grassier ditches. So we drowse, sun-dozed,
In this stanza there is a shift of tone and atmosphere. The cold fingers of the air grab and sting the faces of the men who are in the small craters created by the bombing, and begin to dream. As they hallucinate, they conjure up pictures of an idyllic world. The scene is,
Littered with blossoms trickling where the blackbird fusses.
Since this dream appears far removed from the suffering endured on this Earth, the men imagine they are in heaven and begin to wonder if they have left their earthly suffering:
Is it that we are dying?
This sudden change in atmosphere and location is particularly effective as it brings about a broader view of what being at war was like:
Slowly our ghosts drag home:
This line may remind us of an idea from Dickens’s Christmas Carol, where Scrooge is taken on a journey whereby he is shown representations of Past, Present, and Future, and is then dragged back to reality. Here the soldiers’ physical body remains in the trenches, while they drowse, but their minds are back home. This image may give the idea that when they return back to the trenches, in the midst of the war, they may be able to change their situation.
The men start to imagine what it is like back home:
With crusted dark-red jewels; crickets jingle there;
Alliteration of the [d] sound is used. It creates a stronger image of the sunk fires. The alliteration is effective as we may picture the jewels as red, hot glowing coals. This gives an atmosphere of cosiness and warmth. However, as critic, Merryn Williams, has pointed our, the metaphor of the coals being dark red jewels, shows that although in the dream the fires are beautiful, like jewels, they offer no warmth. This interpretation is particularly effective as it brings us back to the idea of a lack of love and compassion; in this war the reality is one of cold and suffering: the men do not belong at home:
For hours the innocent mice rejoice; the house is theirs;
Shutters and doors, all closed: on us the doors are closed, –
The house is occupied: the soldiers are seeing the mice playing. The soldiers are not welcome, the house is not theirs; the men belong on the battlefield. Here there is a subtle rhythmic repetition: the [s] sound is repeated on every two beats. This hypnotic sibilance emphasises and reinforces the fact that they are not wanted, that the solders are still at war. Owen has used nature in this stanza to portray these animals, mice and crickets, as equally important as the men; they have invaded the soldiers’ paradise. The repetition of the doors being closed on them is used as a physical barrier (as well as a psychological hurdle). A similar rhetorical device is used in Owen’s graphic poem about physical suffering ‘Dulce et Decorum est’:
Gas! GAS! Quick boys! -An ecstasy of fumbling,
The shock and realisation of the gas only hits the men the second time it is shouted. Owen has used this style of repetition in both poems to maximise the impact. Since the men in ‘Exposure’ realise that they have no home to return to, they in turn back to their dying; they head back to the war to face death.
Owen has linked together the theme of nature and of being at war to create a powerful and profound poem. The poet has given nature the image of tormentor who causes mental and physical suffering.
Ted Hughes’s ‘Thistles’ begins with a description of the location of the plant and what it looks like:
Against the rubber tongues of cows and the hoeing hands of men
Thistles spike the summer air
And crackle open under a blue-black pressure.
The thistles are situated in a field amidst cows and farm workers. Yet they appear to have an aggressive purpose. Alliteration is used: ‘blue black’. The repetition of the [b] sound emphasises the immense pressure that the thistles have within them: they are literally bursting with reproductive energy. It can also give an image of a bruise, caused by a physical action. This perspective on the alliteration may come in useful as we read further on in the poem. The thistles then pollinate and reproduce:
Every one a revengeful burst
This describes that there is a motive for the reproduction other than simply to maintain the species. The motive is to fight a battle. The thistles don’t sprout up, but they burst. Unlike the way that Owen has given nature the image of causing suffering and pain, Hughes has given the thistles human features such as the ability to take revenge. The word revengeful is used for a purpose. It is dramatic and strong, which shows that the thistles aren’t pretty, but fierce. The thistles also show emotion by being revengeful. Like the nature in ‘Exposure’, it is fierce but the effect is that in ‘Thistles’, the nature is not evil and not a torment.
Of resurrection, a grasped fistful
Of splintered weapons and Icelandic frost thrust up
Here we sense that the thistles are ready and prepared with their weapons for a battle. This battle is for the land, their field of reproduction. Hughes has used the idea of fighting a battle, a war, to connect with nature whereas Owen has used the theme of nature as a background to suffering.
Hughes has used a sense of time and history in ‘Thistles’ to describe how long they have existed:
…Icelandic frost thrust up
From the underground stain of a decayed Viking.
The fight for the land is a repetitive cycle, trailing back to ancient history. The battle seems like a cycle because they are resurrected, being raised from the dead, giving the image of a never-ending life. Humanity almost dictates the battle of the thistles in the sense that mankind too strives to reproduce. The thistles thrust up with a stain of a decayed Viking, which shows how long they have existed. Because the Vikings descended from the cold north, the thistles are described with an icelandic frost. This description also gives us a sense of no compassion; they are cold. This perspective is similar to ‘Exposure’ where nature is portrayed as iced.
Hughes has chosen to show us that nature has a similar motive to mankind, striving to reproduce and fighting battles. He has given the thistles emotions and motives, just like humans.
The way in which Owen has personified nature in ‘Exposure’ seems to portray it as being pernicious:
However if compared to the poem ‘Thistles’, we come back to nature itself being in a battle, we never leave the battle site.
They are like pale hair and the gutturals of dialects.
Every one manages a plume of blood.
Nature is personified in Thistles and in Exposure. The thistles look and behave in a similar way to the Vikings. The Vikings and the thistles have pale hairs and are very rough. Because the Vikings seemed to speak from their guts, the idea of this cragginess is used to describe the thistles. This is a sign of aggression giving the thistles an image of having a robust will. The battle for the land is so fierce that every one sacrifices a part of itself, before it dies, in order to maintain the ongoing cycle of life. It is only what they deserve. They all manage a plume of blood.
Nature is used in this phrase in a subtle context; plume can signify a fountain but also has the meaning of a feather or a shape similar to a feather. Reading back to the third line, we are reminded of the alliteration of the [b] sound as it gets interpreted as a bruise. This perspective links in with the battle. While fighting the battle, they will get bruises. However because they are bursting under a blue-black pressure it can mean that the thistles are born with these bruises. We can link the idea of fate and destiny in ‘Exposure’ to ‘Thistles’.
The theme of every one giving their part in the battle is also echoed in ‘Exposure’. The last two stanzas, in ‘Exposure’, take a different approach to war compared to the other stanzas:
Since we believe not otherwise can kind fires burn;
Owen has changed the tone, from one of suffering to a more resigned atmosphere, giving us a sense that being at war is for patriotic duty. He communicates to us that these men have to be there in the war for these fires to burn. They have to be fighting to preserve them. The soldiers must also remove themselves from God’s blessings and love to fight the battle:
For God’s invincible spring our love is made afraid;
Therefore, not loath, we lie out here; therefore were born,
The message is that in order to love God fully, they must sacrifice themselves. We can interpret this line as them being like Jesus, that they have to strip themselves of God’s gifts and that it is their destiny to fight in the war. Like Jesus, they are not forced to sacrifice what they have, but they do it for other people:
Therefore, not loath…
It is not their choice to fight in the war – it is their fate. This idea is echoed in ‘Thistles’:
Then they grow old like men.
Mown down, it is a feud…
The thistles are fighting a never-ending battle but they too also grow old, again they are being compared to mankind. They are mown down, so therefore they have no choice of whether to fight the feud or not.
…Their sons appear
Stiff with weapons, fighting back over the same ground.
The thistles reproduce and their sons appear. Hughes has used sons and not ‘children’ or ‘daughters’ because it is only the males who fight in the war; the sons are thought to be the more dominant and strong member of the family hence the thistles symbol is phallic. Furthermore the comparisons of the Vikings and the roughness of them that the thistles have been given is more suitable when targeted at the male members. Similar to ‘Exposure’ there is no choice in fighting in the war; it is inevitable.
Hughes has used nature to show that it is similar to mankind. Nature too also has to endure many tackles in life; it too has to strive to reproduce.
The idea of this repetitive cycle is also echoed in another poem written by Hughes, ‘Relic’. ‘Relic’ is about nature, concerning the sea and its many inhabitants. The poem concentrates on the life and survival of nature, that each procedure is repeated and continuous:
Time in the sea eats its tail, thrives, casts these.
The assonance of the [e] sound reinforces the image of an everlasting cycle, somewhat similar to ‘Thistles’, as ‘Thistles’ finishes with the thought of resurrection and reproduction,
The ending of ‘Exposure’ closes with the idea of death, or, as Merryn Williams states: ‘one more night in the open will finish them off’. Some critics may pinpoint the use of the word His in the last stanza:
To-night, His frost will fasten on this mud and us,
In Owen’s penultimate version of ‘Exposure’, his existed as this. Many feel that the chosen word, his, is inconsistent with this poem. Being interpreted as God himself and ‘his frost’ that fastens upon the men, means that God has chosen the time for them to leave. This is slightly unusual, as the poem is about fighting the war because of fate and destiny. This is an inconsistency to the main theme of ‘Exposure’. The men cannot be in the war due to fate and having God and ‘his frost’ taking away their lives. Interpreted, as ‘this frost will fasten’ on the men, we approach the thought of nature being an individual again, and having its own characteristic, which, I personally feel, is more effective. In this last stanza we are able to return back to the first, where nature is personified as having coldness and ice:
…All their eyes are ice,
But nothing happens
Towards the end of ‘Exposure’ the soldiers bury the men, partly because of the rotten smell from the dead corpses and partly as a mark of respect so that the men may receive a decent burial. During the burials, they notice that the men didn’t die just because of gunshots and severe wounds, but they died because of the cold. They are so frozen that even their eyes have solidified to ice. This is effective because it shows how prevailing nature is. Nature has given been the capability to kill. The last line is very dramatic as ‘nothing happens’. The men are suffering torture yet ‘nothing happens’. The tone is breathtaking and emotional. This last line can also be compared to another poem written by Wilfred Owen, ‘Futility’.
‘Futility’ is a sonnet that has two verses, each one being different to the other. It is about a soldier who dies in the war because of, again, the cold. Owen has also personified nature by giving it human-like features:
The kind old sun will know.
The sun is given the image of being a friend, being kind. However, the strength of the sun, which is thought to be able to create life, cannot wake this man from his death. In the second stanza, there is a very questioning tone. Owen starts to question why the sun exists when it can’t bring back life; it can create it but cannot bring it back:
-O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth’s sleep at all?
This is where there is relevance of the last line from ‘Exposure’. The sun in many ways is useful, ‘but nothing happens’. The pointless sunbeams aren’t at all useful if it cannot save this man’s life, is the message that is given from this poem; that nature is useless. Nature causes death and suffering, but is unable to bring back life.
Wilfred Owen and Ted Hughes have used the theme of nature in different styles of poetic language. Wilfred Owen, being a war poet, has created the image of what it was like to be in the war. He, being a soldier who fought in World War I, has first hand accounts of the many tortures he had to face. By using personifications and metaphors in ways that create powerful and graphic description gives us an idea of how deadly nature can be. Owen has also used half-rhyme to give this effect, which Ted Hughes hasn’t. For example:
…streak the silence.
…black with snow,
…pause, and renew,
The effect of this is that it links together ideas so that each image is almost subconsciously linked to the next.
Ted Hughes has personified nature in a way that it is similar to mankind. We see this in ‘Thistles’ as nature also striving to reproduce and how much they to endure to fight a battle. As well as us humans having a complex world, ‘Relic’ shows that life under the sea has far more complexity of survival; how each organism also aims to live the best quality of life.
Wilfred Owen has used the theme of nature to portray it as evil and causing torment, whereas Ted Hughes has used the theme of nature to show how they too have obstacles to overcome in the fight for survival.