The change from patriotic fervour to angry disillusionment as reflected in the poetry of the First World War
In 1914 Britain entered the First World War. It also became known as ‘The Great War’ and was believed to be the war to end all wars. The nation was under the impression that the war would be over by the Christmas of 1914. However it continued for four long and harrowing years. It witnessed the passing of thousands of young soldiers, pinning for glory. The coming of the war brought about the revival for writing war poetry. Initially writers wrote patriotic poetry which portrayed courage and heroism. It was often written as propaganda, to encourage men to enlist in the war effort.
Examples of propaganda writers are Jessie Pope and Herbert Asquith, who were both published poets. The people at home were unaware of the horror experienced at the front line. All letters home from the soldiers were censored – all the feelings, the cold and the constant reminders of death were removed. However when shell-shocked soldiers returned and injured soldiers returned , the news of the true brutality of war spread through the nation. Poets such as Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon revealed the truth through their beautiful and moving poetry. Early in the war, war poets were enthusiastic and patriotic.
No-body had really experienced the war and each held their own image of what it was like. Many viewed the war as just a big “game” and as Jessie Pope called it ‘the biggest that’s played’. Early poetry promoted war as glory and the honour associated with fighting for your country. In this way the people at the home front were convinced that he war was “just” and that they were right. The enemy were regarded with effervescent loathing and the war was presented as a crusade for good. In ‘The Volunteer’ by Herbert Asquith he tells of a clerk with a mundane existence who enlists in the war effort in search of fulfilment.
Asquith suggests he had ‘no lance broken in life’s tournament’. We find the clerk feels his life is empty and void because he has had no impact on the world around him. In this way Asquith makes the reader feel as if their ordinary lives are unimportant and that they should enlist. When joining the effort and dying for his country he ‘lies in content’ and his’ waiting dreams are satisfied. So in death he is ‘content’ because he felt by joining the war effort and dying for his country he was fulfilled and was needed. Roger McGough describes patriots as ‘a bit nuts in the head’.
After the war many people agreed and war poetry became more truthful and realistic as soldiers returned from war with their terrifying stories. People became angry and disillusioned as they felt the government had been lying to them. They had been encouraged to join the war effort when all it would bring them was pain. They were told it was great to fight for your country even if you lost your life. The war poetry followed suit. It too became angry and forceful, depicting details of torture which the men endured and the brutal deaths they had been forced to witness. It proved to be anything but glorious.
People were shocked and horrified when they heard of the carnage of some battles such as the Somme in 1916. Wilfred Owen’s poem ‘Exposure’ describes a cold night in the war. The title itself tells us how the men felt during the war, vulnerable, exposed and frightened. ‘ The poem is trying to tell us that it isn’t only the war that killed people. It was the freezing cold and the waiting, not just the bullets. Nothing happens’, as he says four times – nothing except tiny changes in the time of day, the weather and the progress of the war, this is how Owen demonstrates the waiting.
They feel that time and the terrible winter weather is far more dangerous to them. It is their enemy. The poem explains ‘We only know war lasts, rain soaks and clouds sag stormy’. Owen also uses alliteration and assonance to emphasise the bitter cold. He explains ‘Our brains ache, in the iced east winds that knive us… ‘ this use of assonance uses intense imagery which describes the cold and we can almost feel the crisp air when reading the sentence out loud. This id due to the repeated ‘s’ sound. He also uses alliteration to change the tempo of the poem.
Sudden successive flights of bullets streak the silence’. Once again using the ‘s’ sound Owen attempts to accelerate the speed of the poem to reinforce the impact and surprise of the bullets. Another example of alliteration is when Owen creates a whispery and quiet sound using the line ‘Worried by silence, sentries whisper curious, nervous’. When reads aloud the sound emerges whisper-like and soft. Owen uses full rhyme for all the stanza’s apart from the sixth where he uses half or para rhyme. This id to show the sixth stanza is different from the others.
It does not describe the cold field in which Owen waits, instead the men see their spirits at home it also emphasises the day dreams and the contrast of home and life at war. He describes the ‘sunk fires’ which to him are more and more distant and the mice who now seem to own the house. ‘Shutters and doors, all closed: on us the doors are closed, – We turn back to our dying’ Owen feels the house no longer belongs to him and he will never again be accepted into the world he left behind. He also describes his waning faith in god.
The poem begins with a harsh line about the weather which the men feel like knives cutting through them. Even though they are tired they stay awake because the silence is threatening and frightens them. An attack could strike at any time and so they stay alert and whisper so as not to miss any ominous noises. They watch the wind pulling the wire as if they were men in bushes hurt and twitching ‘Watching, we hear the mad gusts tugging on the wire, Like twitching agonies of men among its brambles’. They hear ongoing gunfire. They only hear the war it seems far away not like the one they are fighting.
The men begin to question themselves and their minds begin to wander ‘What are we doing here? ‘. To them, dawn breaking is miserable and monotonous. Owen personifies dawn as ‘massing in the east’ her ‘melancholy army’ emphasising the black storm clouds gathering. He describes the rain as soldiers attacking in their grey uniforms ‘But nothing happens’. The soldiers feel the cold air is more deadly than the war and that their real fight is with the weather. In a letter to his mother dated 14th February 1917 Owen writes “The marvel is that we did not die of cold”.
At the opening of the fourth stanza the silence is broken and here Owen uses ‘s’ sounds to represent the bullets which ‘streak the silence’. Then the poem slows down when Owen describes the snow using words beginning with ‘fl’ to slow the pace of the poem ‘With sidelong flowing flakes that flock, pause, and renew;’. He describes the ‘nonchalance’ of the snow picked up and taken away by the wind. Laid back and care-free just as the men used to be. The men feel as though the snowflakes are long fingers clawing at their faces ‘Pale flakes with fingering stealth come feeling for our faces’.
They try to keep warm by crouching in holes and day-dreaming. They feel half asleep as if in a trance and they begin to hallucinate and believe that the snow is blossom. They question whether they are dying. The sixth stanza is the soldiers recollection of home. Of warm fires, crickets and ‘innocent mice’. The full rhyme emphasises that the dreams are idealistic and out of reach. They feel of they do not fight that kind fires will not burn, the sun will not shine and peace may never come for their loved ones if they do not continue to fight.
Because of this they fight, it is what they were born to do, their duty. ‘Since we believe not otherwise can kind fires burn; Nor ever suns smile true on child, or field, or fruit’. The men think that no matter who you are the cold will get you. It killed their friends ‘The burying-party, picks and shovels in shaking grasp, Pause over half-known faces’ of their friends and colleagues. 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 verse. Exposure is a poem of protest and tells us that war is pointless and that more people die the cold rather than while trying to make a difference. Owen’s style of writing is different to that of Jessie Pope . She wrote light hearted, encouraging and almost nai?? ve poetry, whereas Owen writes more descriptive moving and personal poetry. In Owen’s poem ‘Dulce et Decorum est’ he mentions Jessie Pope when he says ‘ My friend, you would not tell with such high zest’. He implies sarcastically that Pope is a liar and she tells people that they should go out and fight when she herself has not known the horrors of war.
Siegfried Sassoon’s poem “Suicide in the Trenches” tells the tale of a young boy who in desperation commits suicide in the trenches. The young soldier was ‘simple’ and he ‘grinned at life in empty joy because he had no worries and he was inexperienced and didn’t understand the world around him so he smiled and nodded. This may also be why he was able to sleep soundly. While the boy was in the trenches he was lonely and cold. There was no alcohol to keep him warm and he was plagued with lice. So to end his suffering the boy shot himself. ‘No-one spoke of him again’ because he died without honour .
They were ashamed of him. He was just another dead soldier. After the second stanza there is a deliberate pause to separate the two stanza’s of pity from those of anger. Sassoon targets the people who stayed at home and did no fight, but still felt they had the right to cheer for the soldiers who made it back. He says they should ‘sneak’ home and that instead of being ashamed of him they should be ashamed of themselves and how they did nothing to help. He also accuses them of sending youth and laughter (by which he means the young soldiers) to the trenches which he called ‘hell’.
Sassoon is angry because he knew the war could be ended but was prolonged by politicians and war officials as stated in a protest statement he sent to his commanding officer and the press dated June 1917 ” I believe that the War is being prolonged by those who have the power to end it”. When news of the brutality of war broke out people became angry and disillusioned. They were made to believe that was a simple affair and it would be over soon when they found this to be a lie they felt betrayed.
War poetry changed forever and poets like Jessie Pope and Herbert Asquith were deemed liars. Their form of patriotic poetry was rarely ever published after people learned the truth. Through poetry by Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon the nation learnt about the true viciousness of war. This by far was the most effective and moving poetry. Unlike Pope, Owen and Sassoon’s poetry was beautifully written and descriptive, despite it’s harsh content. It also included a perspective Jessie Pope would never have: experience.