How is the horror of war, and the poets’criticism of war conveyed in the war poems
Poetry written in the English language has a long and fascinating history. Like other creative arts, poetry began in service to communities. Its function was to aid the memory and enshrine in its rhythmic diction the history of the tribe such as the First World War. Over the centuries it became a way in which people could communicate not only in stories but also Ideas and emotions in an imaginative and expressive way. One characteristic has remained: through out the history of poetry-making, poems have provided a commentary – often critical-on what people, communities and nations do.
More than any other conflict, the Great War inspired writers of all generations and classes. The patriotic ideals and the concept of war were all dismantled when soldiers returned from war and spoke of the horrors of war peoples attitudes began to change. Poets like Wilfred Owen wrote poetry to show his experience of war and also to bring people out of this disillusionment. He also wanted to obliterate the image of war created by war propaganda. What has war brought? Misery, sorrow and problems? It surely brings nothing more than a mood of desolation and emptiness where great sacrifices bring little gain.
Everywhere in the world are heard the sounds of things breaking, the echoes of the world shattering. These echoes are the sounds of change as the conflicting nations are transformed socially, politically, economically and intellectually into a machine of complete destruction. Poets have been writing about war for many years. The experiences of war was so horrifying and so intense that it provoked an intensity event in history. The result was that vast numbers of young men who under normal circumstances would never have become soldiers enlisted in the forces.
The two poets that will be mentioned are Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. Wilfred Owen was born in Oswestry, England on March 18th, 1893 He was a well educated member of the general middle class and in those days he was classified to be reasonably privileged. On 2 May, Owen returned home, diagnosed as suffering from shell-shock and thus ‘unfit to lead troops. ‘ In June, he arrived at Craiglockhart Hospital, just outside Edinburgh, in Scotland, where a small team of doctors treated those suffering from the psychological trauma of modern warfare.
Siegfried Sassoon arrived in July and, within a month, Owen had introduced himself to his already published and well-known fellow patient. Soon Owen was showing his work regularly to Sassoon. Sassoon was the strongest of Owen’s wartime influences. He encouraged Owen to explore the symptoms of shell-shock – flashbacks, recurrent and repetitive nightmares, and his inability to escape an obsessive concern with memories of battle – within his poetry. Seigfried Sassoon was born in Matfield, Kent, to a Jewish father and English mother.
Before the Great War, Siegfried Sassoon lived the life of the typical English sporting gentleman. Born into a wealthy banking family in 1886, Sassoon was educated at Marlborough College before going up to Cambridge, where he studied first Law, then History at Clare College. He did not complete his degree and left University to pursue his interests in foxhunting, golf and cricket. At Craiglockhart, Sassoon met Wilfred Owen, another poet who was eventually to exceed him in fame. It was thanks to Sassoon that Owen persevered in his ambition to write better poetry.
In this essay I will be discussing three poems, Exposure by Wilfred Owen and two poems by Siegfried Sassoon, Base Details, and Suicide in the trenches. The poems mentioned in this essay are restrictive. For the sake of realism, the poet can only be in one place at one time and tell the reader things that would be naturally known to one person. The main discussive point is mainly how the poems come about in conveying the true reality of war. This will include a detailed account on the structure, language and tone of the poems.
A poem written by the World War One poet, Wilfred Owen, is ‘Exposure’. This poem is set out to show the reader what the conditions were really like during the First World War and to make it clear that the events that surrounded him were not pleasant. ‘Exposure’ gives a worldly view of the front line, based on Owen’s experiences A person who experiences war will be changed forever, their outlook on life is forever a special one. These people are the witnesses to a mass slaughter, they couldn’t be anything but disturbed by this.
When soldiers are in battle they need to be aware of one thing, their mental health, without it all hope for them must be given up. In the winter of 1917, and passive suffering is what it is all about. ‘Nothing happens’, as he says four times – nothing except tiny changes in the time of day, the weather and the progress of the war. The men appear trapped in a No Man’s Land between life and death, and the poem’s movement is circular. When it ends, they are exactly where they were in the first stanza. Our brains ache, in the merciless iced winds that knive us Wearied we keep awake because the night is silent
Low, dropping flares confuse our memory of the salient Worried by silence, sentries whisper, curious, nervous, But nothing happens In the first line the word merciless is related to the relentless wind and it is emphasised by the iced east winds. The soldiers are ‘wearied’; this re-emphasises fatigue it gets the reader to create a solid picture of the crucial reality they face. It is silent that causes them not to sleep. The beginning lines introduce the idea that it is indeed the elements that is their true enemy, and not the men on the other side of No Man’s Land.
The words especially in the first line sound harsh, and unpleasant when pronounced. The sibilant ‘s’ sounds create that image, and seems to sound like Owen’s spitting hatred of his situation. The assonance of ‘w’ in the next line are heavy, and create an image the soldiers are all huddled together and are reluctant to move or even stay awake, and Owen goes on to state that the only reason they can stay awake is because of their anxiety due to the ominous silence. The ‘… ‘ at the end of each sentence seems to imply a sense of expectancy. Worried by the silence, sentries whisper, curious, nervous, But nothing happens. ‘
He manages to convey the horror of war by indicating that the soldiers are ‘knived’ by the winds and ‘wearied’ because the night is silent. In the first sentence the clustered ‘s’ sound gives the feeling of a sharp wind. The soldiers are kept ‘awake because the night is silent’ and they are haunted due to the abnormal conditions because they are normally aware of bombardment. This means they become ‘worried by the silence sentries whisper, curious, nervous.
In the second stanza the soldiers hear the gunnery rumbling in the distance The poem ‘Base Details’ by Siegfried Sassoon is a sarcastic attack against the army generals who view the war as a game similar to checkers. It is therefore evidence of why Siegfried Sassoon is known as the “voice of protest”. The first noticeable thing about the text is the title. The word base is a pun for the fact that base means headquarters as well as dishonourable or cowardly, which implies that he will talk about the dishonourable activities at the Army headquarters.
Secondly, Sassoon appeared to have blamed the officers for the purposeless deaths of his fellow men, while they were behind the front line and had no idea what it was like. Sassoon uses many adjectives to describe his generalisation of those at the top “fat and bald and short of breath” which shows the hatred that he has. In this poem, Sassoon writes “poor young chap… I used to know his father well. ” This statement alone is typical of an army general. To show the fact that army generals can not comprehend what war is like he uses the phrase “we lost heavily in this last scrap”.
The army generals are calling this a scrap like it’s a fight between boys at school. Sassoon calls the army generals “Finally, Sassoon rounds the poem of with a phrase by reinforcing that they are unfit and fat. He also shows that those at the front line could die any moment by saying “When the war is done and youth stone dead, Id toddle safely home and die, in bed” which is a good ending because it says that the generals will die in a nice warm peaceful place, while the soldiers will die among the rats. Whereas in Base Details Sassoon presents the generals of the First World War as ‘scarlet’ and fat.
Although the poem is short, he describes the generals so effectively that we have an image of the generals in our mind which does not conform to what we might expect, or certainly not what was generally thought of generals before the war. The title of the poem can be read on different levels – the first being the simple meaning of the word as in headquarters, or on another level, the meanings of ‘in short’ or ‘unworthy’. This emphasises their unworthiness of the elevated positions that they hold.
Sassoon’s first verse seems to sum up all that he is trying to say: If I were fierce, and bald, and short of breath,” Another poem, which also dealt with the reality of war, is called Suicide In the Trench and is by Siegfried Sassoon. This poem talks about a young boy who went to war. This poem deals with how people ought to change their conception of war and stop feeling that every young man has to go and fight for his country. In the opening lines of the poem the poet describes a boy who he knew who smiled at life without any joy. “I knew a simple soldier boy Who grinned at life in empty joy”
This one line immediately gives us a humorous image of a general which is almost like those we see in cartoons today of blustering, half drunk generals sitting in offices wheezing with a pipe in hand. In Base Details Sassoon continues his theme of their unworthiness by describing the generals’ table manners which according to him, are disgusting. He presents them as ‘guzzling and gulping’. These onomatopoeic words give the effect of pigs eating at a trough, especially ‘guzzling’. It also conveys them ‘stuffing their faces’ when the soldiers on the front-line are risking their lives day after day with little to eat.
We associate these words with animal behaviour and this is indeed what Sassoon is trying to present. He also presents the generals as nai?? ve and frivolous, spending the war in the ‘best hotels’ and when their presence was required after a battle they brushed off the importance of war calling it a ‘scrap’. The hardships of war are also described in this poem the lonesome dark and the winter cold but this did not seem to effect this small soldier he is happy and has no problems. This boy did not seem phase with any of the problems. “In winter trenches, cowed and glum. And whistled early with lark”
The poem however does take a sudden and unexpected turn as in the seventh line we find out that this boy shot himself through the head. “He put a bullet through his brain No-one spoke of him again. ” In verse 2, line 1 Owen refers the mad gusts of tugging on the wire. He is referring to the vigorous movement of the barbed wire, describing the barbed wire to brambles. As the wind tugs on the wire it reminds him of the men who got caught on it and are left to die. He uses a simile affectively to generate a feeling to add to the tenseness of things. ‘Like Twitching agonies of men among its brambles.
Northward, incessantly, the flickering gunnery rumbles, The poet mentions the continuous artillery pieces firing. This is a typical war scene. It conveys the horror of war, exposing the harshness and crucial-ness. He literally means when some one is injured and falls the soldiers suffer. It is a significance, referring towards soldiers fighting. It is all a collective suffering; suffering from injuries and dealing with the atmosphere of the trenches. Owen most probably uses ‘brambles’ for a pleasant country image. Brambles are thorns or barbs on wire which were used to prevent soldiers from entering designated areas.
Far off, like a dull rumour of some other war, What are we doing here? The fourth line is forming a likeness of them being removed from the war but in reality they are not. It is just their vivid imagination leading them to elaborate with their thoughts and illusions. ‘What are we doing here? ‘ the poet asks in the last line of verse 2. The real cause of their suffering is that they are lying in the open under freezing conditions, with some psychological force forbidding them to get up and walk away. It is a short and sharp question, one would stress that it is a rhetorical question.
What are they doing here? Why are they fighting this war? This is a distinctive question which would most certainly be asked by any combatant fighting in a war. Sudden Successive flights of bullets streak the silence. Les deathly than air that shudders black with snow. These two lines are very affectionate when relating to convenes. The flights of bullets break the silence. The tension of monotony is broken. Sounds of words are linked to what is happening, the tension is building emphasising boredom but then the tension is undercut and the attention goes back to snow.
As snow is normally white, this is an oxymoron. The snow will be black because the trenches were extremely muddy and the snow will be restricting the men’s views. The oxymoron also creates the imagery of the sky being dark and gloomy. The poet will have used the snow to represent the men. White snow is associated with purity and innocence. The snow turns black, suggesting an atmosphere of evil with the men feeling scared, depressed and sorrowful.
Continuing with the snow, Owen creates the idea that the snow is alive, as if the weather is a person and he or she is attacking the soldiers: Pale flakes with fingering stealth come feeling for our faces” The poet uses deliberate alliteration when saying ‘feeling for our faces. ‘ Its described as dangerous, having a mind of their own. We cringe in holes, back on forgotten dreams; and stare, snow-dazed, Deep into grassier ditches. So we drowse, sun-dozed, Owen uses ‘we’ consistently as a group in the second line. He then talks about them ‘cringing’ as if they are not physically human. It is like they are trapped in a deep hole and seeking for freedom and prosperity. They keep bringing back memories on what life was like before the war.
They are dazed by the snow as it is difficult to visualise anything in any direction. The third line in this stanza is still collaborating with the previous line as they are still keeping in track of memories. The soldiers remember how the ditches were before the war begun. The ‘drowse, sun-dozed, imagining themselves bathing in the sun. The sixth stanza is made of a dream or a hallucination. They confuse reality with dreams It is like the poem is revolved around an imagery as the soldiers are depressed. ‘Slowly our ghosts drag home: glimpsing the sunk fires, glozed
With crusted dark-red jewels: crickets jingle there; For hours the innocent mice rejoice: the house is theirs; Shutters and doors, all closed: on us the doors are closed We turn back to our dying. The first line in this stanza is most probably referring to the sunk fires as the embers. The sunk fires are glowing; the crusted dark-red jewels add to the glow. However, ‘cricket jingles there. ‘ The home has been occupied by crickets and by mice The heart has gone out of home because they are not their. When reaching the first fourth line, the poem seems to be going out of tension.
Shutters and doors are all closed, they have no option but war. There is also a strong sense of imagery imposed on the reader. This is the turning point not only in the poem but in the war as well. The soldiers have reached such mental fatigue that they have simply given up, they don’t even care about their aching brains at this point, it is now just a matter of getting as far away from there as possible. With the doors and shutters being closed, though, you can see soldiers walking out of a smoke filled abyss of a battlefield with each soldier lost and confused as to what they’ve been through.
The last line in the stanza represents the boredom and tension; they turn back dying and return to the war facing no option but to proceed. In the seventh stanza, the poet reveals the lack of hope inside them. They do not believe that ‘kind fires burn. ‘ The things that should sustain them are not believed by them anymore. For God’s invincible spring our love is made afraid: Therefore, not loath, we lie out here; therefore were born. For love of God seems dying. These last three lines of the stanza indicate that they have lost hope, spring is invincible.
The soldiers are afraid and have no hope, they are worried that spring will not come again. In the second to last line, the poet conveys the determination of the soldiers despite the emptiness they feel inside them. They realise that they have to accept what is going to happen. Religion is a recurring theme in Owens war poetry. Most poems seem to question God. ‘For love of God seems dying. ‘ The Christian idea of God is ignored and a more pagan view of nature and life is turned to. These men are sick, some are dead, but all of them are emotionally tired. Their hopes are down and when a persons hope falls, their physical health falls with it.
These men of war are so worried about their next return to what they’re used to that they forget to think about themselves on a personal level, and they fail because of it. The particular techniques adopted by Owen in his poetry underline his messages. His use of speech and present tense give his poems urgency and directness. All the senses are utilised by Owen, a constant input of sound, smell, touch as well as sight increase the dimensions of his images and overwhelm us as he must have been. Owen’s appliance of half-rhyme gives his poetry a dissonant, disturbing quality that amplifies his themes.
His stanzas get exceedingly tense, as war does. It could be said that all of war poet Wilfred Owen ‘s work has a reasonable purpose; this being the destructive capacity of war, and its ultimate futility. However, by examining a range of Owen ‘s poetry it also becomes clear that over time, this purpose has matured and developed, Owen still maintaining an emphasis on the injustice of war but incorporating individual and universal significance into his verse. What remained constant throughout Owen ‘s career as a war poet was his ability to communicate his purpose successfully to the reader, through his style and technique.
Within Owen ‘s early poetry his purpose can be found easily, as much of the intended meaning lies on a surface level. Anger and disgust were the fundamental sentiments in exposure. Exposure is all about revealing the true reality his intent; to reprimand those at home who ignorantly urged the doomed soldiers on to war. The mood of the poem is dispassionate as Owen conveys the soldiers dilemma without emotion, but severe and unfeeling clarity. Ultimately the action of the poem progresses to a point where Owen emphasises the soldiers and himself. ‘ Wearied we keep awake.
Whereas Sassoon afore mentioned pressures culminate causing the boy to commit suicide . Owen’s plain bitterness towards the soldiers predicament can be detected in the last two lines of the last Stanza: The burying-party, picks and shovels in their shaking grasp. Pause over half-known faces. All their eyes are ice But nothing happens. In these lines one of Owen ‘s strongest criticisms is detailed. The poem is divided into eight parts, the prologue, the action, the poem and the epilogue, each division explaining a stage the soldiers progress; from home to battle, to his final demise.
The Rhyme is variable, is some sections there is evidence of pararhyme however in others there appears to be no Rhythm. These variations in the rhyme scheme really help to augment the final dramatic impact of the poem. Within the first Stanza, Owen captures the soldiers feeling of despair through an observation based Simile: In the poem ‘Exposure’ it consists of eight equal stanzas, the first two are in form and the second looser in structure. Rhyme is also employed however much like the structure slackens, and in some areas rhyme relaxes to introduce a dramatic moment.
The para rhyme is fairly constant, and the steady rhythmic quality it brings to the poem enhances the heavy, ponderous image of the war which Owen tries to convey . Simile and Metaphor are also devices which are used to adequately communicate Owen ‘s concept of war, within the fifth stanza the powerful phrase. Base details demonstrates a shift in Sassoon’s purpose in a similar way to. In this instance Owen makes the point that to survive in battle, one has to be inhuman, therefore directly goes against their own nature.
This is where Owen ‘s real purpose reveals itself, as he makes the point that the enemy is not the ‘other-side’, nor the machines or the civilians at home, but rather humanity. His purpose being to show the reader that war is wrong, because it forces soldiers to renounce their humanity in order to survive. Unlike Sassoon, Owen avoided a bitter or sarcastic approach and never wrote in a cynical tone. He was not interested in the momentary feelings of shock at the war, which was the usual response of the often quite brilliant satirical or ironic pieces of his contemporaries. Owen strove for something more permanent.
The Owen’s work leaves one with an enduring sense of the tragedy of war. He used his strong sense of resentment to create a feeling of compassion. He would attempt to fix the scenery of the war firmly in the mind of the reader and in this way more poignantly stress the tremendous suffering that constitutes “the pity of war”. When describing incidents in the war Owen often used half- or para-rhyme to create a dissonant effect as the reader expects the rhyme to be completed but it is not–and by making the second word lower in pitch than the first, feelings of melancholy, failure and despair are conveyed.