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Patriotism In The Poetry Of The Great War English Literature Essay

Patriotic ideals and attitudes towards the Great War changed dramatically when soldiers began returning home; the brutal reality regarding warfare became apparent to civilians. Soldiers too began to question their sacrifices for their country, since thousands of deaths were resulting and there was a sense of lost purpose. Moreover, many men suffered from shell shock, whilst those who had died were not seen as noble, since nothing good was achieved or resolved after the war. Prior to soldiers returning home, civilians were unaware of how vicious the war really was, still continuing to use old patriotic slogans which romanticised warfare. Thus, war poets who had fought on the front saw it as their duty to express the harsh realities, which ultimately affected their imaginations and poetic technique, leaving them traumatised and forever unable to forget.

Siegfried Sassoon’s ‘Glory of Women’ articulates how propaganda enforced a ‘glorious’ portrayal of enlisting to the war. Sassoon illustrates the deception women faced regarding the romantic notions of war juxtaposed to its harsh reality. Men were killed for no purpose, since the original cause of the war had been lost, whilst women held the naive belief that men were nobly pursuing heroic ideals. Sassoon argued that the purpose of war was lost, which is partly why the patriotic ideal dispersed; sacrifice was not dignified, since the fighting was continuing and nothing was changing. Sassoon stated, ‘This war, upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation, has now become a war of aggression and conquest’ [1] , and he saw the war as being prolonged unnecessarily.

‘Glory of Women’ adopts a unique form since Sassoon amalgamates both the English and Italian sonnet; the structure itself is therefore ironic, since the underlying tone is one of bitterness and hostility towards civilians. Sassoon emphasises that the patriotic ideal and romanticised notion of war is a lie solely enforced by propaganda. The conventional abab rhyme scheme, synonymous with a typical English sonnet, runs through the two quatrains, which ultimately express the women’s admiration for heroic soldiers and their fascination with war, ‘You love us when we’re heroes’ [2] and ‘You listen with delight’ (line 5). However, undertones of bitter irony pervade the octave, conveying Sassoon’s aversion towards the deception enforced upon civilians, ‘You believe/That chivalry redeems the war’s disgrace’ (line 4). The ‘You’ is addressing women at home, and its constant repetition segregates the soldiers from society and represents its ignorant lack of awareness towards the reality of warfare.

Moreover, the heavily ironic language used throughout the octave, such as ‘Worship’, ‘Love’ and ‘Laurelled’ (lines 3,1&8) is mocked by the ongoing lethargic rhythm of the poem, ‘And mourn our laurelled memories when we’re killed’ (line 8), which alongside the iambic pentameter, highlights the hypocrisy of patriotism. Thus, the rhythm and form are constructed deliberately in a tight and conventional structure to reflect the artificial composition of lies which the public were led to believe, regarding the war as dignifying and heroic.

Sassoon further attacks the ‘Delight’ and ‘Thrill’ (lines 5&6) which civilians felt when told the ‘Tales of dirt and danger’ (line 6); the alliteration makes these ‘tales’ seem exciting, suggesting a fairytale, which distances the civilians from the bleak reality of the soldiers desperate situation. Moreover, ‘You crown our distant ardours’ and ‘You worship decorations’ (lines 7&3) suggests knighthood and bravery, and the octave also indicates glorified artificiality; the ‘Decorations’, ‘Shells’, ‘Crown’, ‘Laurel[led]’ (lines 3,5,7&8) are false and materialistic, symbolising the misrepresentation of war to civilians. The sestet, conversely, moves from the contrived portrayal of war, to its cruel reality, adopting a Petrarchan cdecde rhyme scheme, which heightens Sassoon’s intensified bitter tone. The octave thus insinuates Sassoon’s anger, but the volta, ‘You can’t believe that British troops ‘retire’’ (line 9) evidently expresses Sassoon’s resentment for the public’s incredulous attitude towards resigned soldiers and their ‘lack of patriotism’. The previous ‘Worship’ (line 3) of the materialistic paraphernalia is juxtaposed to the stark reality of the men who ‘Run’ (line 10) with fear which ultimately ‘Breaks them’ (line 10), indicating that these men will either be broken through shell shock or death; there is no escape from trauma. The image ending the poem, ‘His face is trodden deeper in the mud’ (line 14) further conveys this idea that traumatic memories will never be forgotten. The soldier will be trodden ‘Deeper’ (line 14) as time passes; indicating how he will forever be imprinted on the ground, yet there is also a poignant tone suggesting that he has been left and forgotten about, which dispels all illusions regarding war as a noble pursuit.

Sassoon deliberately replaces the conventional rhyming couplet featured in the English sonnet by grouping three lines together to illustrate his final message, ‘O German mother dreaming by the fire’ (line 12), indenting the ‘O’ to draw attention to these final thoughts. Sassoon is illustrating how he has torn down the hatred barrier between the two countries and treated them as one; indenting the margin separates the German mother from the English civilians he is referring to in the poem, yet his message conveys that the German mother would be just as devastated by her son’s death as an English mother would. Similarly, both countries are pressurised by untruthful propaganda, and false ideas of patriotism. Sassoon thus saw all humans equally, which contradicts the notion of war in itself.

Wilfred Owen’s, ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’, similarly conveys the morbid realities of war, juxtaposing civilians’ patriotic ideals. Owen vividly depicts a soldier dying from a gas attack, emphasising how sacrifice was not glamorous and heroic as propaganda conveyed it to be, but instead, it was pointless and brutal. Nerve gas causes the individual to feel a drowning sensation, and Owen thus makes constant references to water associated with this dying man, ‘Sea’, ‘Drowning’, ‘Gargling’ and ‘Guttering’ [3] . These sounds are reflective of the man ‘Choking’ (line 16), and as we read the poem aloud, we can literally hear him dying. Moreover, these verbs are distinguished from the other men ‘Flound’ring, ‘Fumbling’, ‘Stumbling’ (lines 12,9&11) which are all actions performed on land. The dying man in the ‘Green sea’ (line 14) is thus fully detached from his fellow soldiers in his dying moments, and the poignant statement from the speaker, ‘He plunges at me’ (line 16), further conveys the dying man’s desperate attempt to reach out. However, he is isolated and alone; death and sacrifice are therefore not honourable qualities or patriotic, but lonely and terrifying.

Owen challenges the conventional poetic form, which signifies the breakdown of society's principles and its established system. Initially, the poem looks as though it is written in iambic pentameter, but Owen breaks up the iambic rhythm with punctuation, ‘But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind’ (line 6), assigning the poem with a conversational tone. However, this disjointed rhythm is effective, since Owen did not want his poem to flow smoothly; it is deliberately full of ‘Stumbling’ and ‘Fatigue’ (lines 11&7), symbolising a realistic tone of desolation and conveying that patriotism, and the romanticised image of war, no longer existed.

The soldiers in the poem are portrayed pitifully, desperately trying to persevere; this notion is highlighted through the actions of the men who are ‘Bent double’, ‘Marched asleep’, ‘Trudge’ and ‘Limped on’ (lines 1,5,4&6), and the slow rhythm adds to their sluggish movement. The pace of the rhythm then rapidly speeds up in the following stanza, when someone shouts, ‘Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! - An ecstasy of fumbling’ (line 9). Two forces are therefore working against each other, since the words ‘Fumbling’ and ‘Clumsy’ (lines 9&10) suggest the men are still trapped in this slow movement, but the use of exclamation marks and the capitalisation of ‘Gas!’ implies a sense of urgency and pressure. Thus, the men are not portrayed as ‘racing’ for their gas masks, highlighting a feeling of imminent defeat and futility, and their apathetic nature towards putting their masks on reveals the atrocities of warfare.

The use of similes in the poem are extremely effective; at the beginning of the poem, the soldiers are compared to old cripples ‘Bent double, like old beggars under sacks, / Knock-kneed, coughing like hags’ (lines 1-2). The men ironically juxtapose the handsome image of a soldier enforced by propaganda. Moreover, these opening lines are compared to the ending of the poem which portrays ‘Innocent tongues’ and ‘Children’ (lines 24&26), which serve as a reminder that these men are not elderly and crippled, but youthful, and there is nothing glorious about the death of children. Owen is angry with the misrepresentation of warfare to boys whose lives have only just begun and are inevitably being wasted for nothing.

A further simile which Owen uses to convey his anger towards the notion of patriotism is, ‘His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin’ (line 20). This image suggests that if the devil is sick of sin, which is the main characteristic he is associated with, he is effectively questioning his values and way of life. The ‘hanging face’ further reflects his disappointment with his realisation that his existence has been for no purpose. Owen is thus implying that similarly, the dying soldier is questioning patriotism and ‘glory’ in dying, realising his death will have no positive outcome, and his life has been wasted unnecessarily. Furthermore, Owen could be seen as equating the lies of patriotism and war with sin itself.

To conclude, Sassoon and Owen provided civilians with the true depiction of warfare because the promotion of dying for one’s country was unjust, since thousands of men were sacrificing their lives for a lost cause. There was a necessity therefore to obliterate the exploited image of patriotism created by propaganda, and expose the ruthless reality of devoting oneself to warfare.

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