Georgian poetry was characterized by hazy idealism
The Georgian poets’ early penchant for euphemisms of the war is echoed in each of these poems. Walter De La Mare’s description of the soldiers as “warriors” and Sassoon’s use of “happy legion” are clearly far from the truth but are nonetheless effective in softening the mood and hiding the grim reality of the British army. Death itself is also alluded to euphemistically as “a shining peace”, “sunset”, “part(ing) from life” and “lost in cloudless Paradise”. This positive angle works to encourage potential soldiers to enlist by glorifying death and therefore eradicating fear.
The Georgian style continues to disguise the war through the trademark use of vague imagery. ‘The Dead’, ‘Peace’, ‘Absolution’ and ‘Virtue’ all refer to the army as “we”, “us”, “them”, “these men”, etc. without identifying an individual character. The use of these collective terms distances the reader from the faceless soldiers leaving us with an everyman/mankind figure. ‘Futility’ by Wilfred Owen however depicts a single “him” among the many. Although the soldier remains unnamed, his individuality adds a warmth (ironically, considering the content of the poem) that is lacking in the other pieces.
Owen does nevertheless retreat into surreal imagery as he comments on the futility of life and the beginning of the Earth, “Woke… a cold star”, again serving to distance the reader from the initial soldier. The personification of the “earth” in Sassoon’s, Owen’s and De La Mare’s poems as well as Brooke’s use of “Dawn” and “sunset” as metaphors for birth and death in ‘The Dead’ are just some examples of the dream-like quality present in the Georgian poets’ imagery.
The titles “Futility”, “Peace”, “Absolution” and “Virtue” are all abstract nouns which instantly inform us of what to expect as they themselves are already vague and detached but with religious relevance. While absolution, virtue and peace are all positive words, futility is not. Peace (a state of harmony) and virtue (moral purity) appear to offer the soldiers tranquility as does absolution which, meaning ‘purged of sins’, could have also ensured the men that murder during war was forgiven by God.
Yet futility is derived from a lack of faith, in short, giving up. This theory of no hope is backed up by the broken syntax of the eleventh line of the poem which reflects the broken hopes. The rhetorical questions heighten the emotion as we are led to believe that the narrator is searching for answers. The religious connotations appear throughout these poems either in the form of hope “unrelenting on” and prayer “Grant my son’s ashes lie… ” or through the incarnation of Christ in the everyman figure.
This theme was common in Georgian poetry at the beginning of the First World War as it heralded the run-of-the-mill soldier as a hero who sacrificed himself for the greater good although “Spent, baffled, wildered, hated and despised”. You could also say that in ‘The Dead’ the everyman figure becomes Christ in the twelfth line as “He leaves a white unbroken glory, a gathered radiance, a width, a shining peace”. The brilliance in this surreal imagery could refer to the return to innocence and is further emphasized by the sibilance and the softening of ‘t’s to ‘th’s.
The “unbroken glory” arguably reveals Christ’s state of perfection. Although Brooke’s poem does not use an abstract noun for a title but a harsh reality, ‘The Dead’ makes no actual reference to death itself. The poem is gentle with euphemistic language and detached, yet romantic imagery of “colours”, “music”, “flowers”, “laughter” and “rich skies”. This deliberately tranquil atmosphere, combined with an abundance of caesurae which slow down the pace of the poem create an artificial state of peace easily labelled as ‘hazy idealism’.