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The First World War poetry of Wilfred Owen provides an exhaustive and poignant account of the atrocities he witnessed between the Allies and the Germans from 1914 to 1918. Although the style and structure of his poems vary considerably throughout his body of work, the two elements of physical and psychological torment suffered by the soldiers in the war. He is quoted here describing his work:
The physical destruction the Great War had on the soldiers is often described in minute, intricate detail. Owen’s most famous poem ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ paints a stomach-churning image of a victim of a gas attack, describing his ‘white eyes writhing in his face, his hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin’. In poems such as ‘Mental Cases’, Owen shows the profound mental effect of the war on a great deal of soldiers, grotesquely describing their faces as ‘wearing this hilarious, hideous, awful falseness of set-smiling corpses’.
Owen’s ability to write such memorable and poignant poetry with an intellectual depth that goes beyond the simple emotion of sympathy is what makes his work exceptional.
His poems can be read at a number of levels, which means his work appeals to a wider audience. For example in ‘Inspection’ there is a reference to Macbeth when he speaks of the ‘damnèd spot’ of blood on the soldiers uniform. In Lady Macbeth’s case the blood signifies the dirt of guilt, however in the case of the soldier it is clearly not guilt but the wound he has suffered that causes the mark. The officer’s response that ‘blood is dirt’ shows that he either doesn’t care or is unaware of the fact that the mark is due to his injury.
Such references serve to increase the appeal to different groups of readers, as they will not disorientate the reader who is unaware of the connection. Instead, they will enhance the image of the soldier removing the bloodstain; to those familiar with the scene in Macbeth in which he fears that not even ‘all great Neptune’s ocean could wash this blood, clean from his hand’.
Like many of his contemporaries, Owen held a deep disregard towards the futile and sympathetic attitude that many civilians directed at the returning soldiers. Much of the false impressions however were a result of the national press and the fabricated stories of comfort and happiness amongst the soldiers. Indeed the poem ‘Smile, smile, smile’ was written in direct response to an article published in the Daily Mail. Owen speaks of the ‘broad smiles that appear each week’ in photographs of the troops and the misguided readers ‘in whose voice real feeling rings say: how they smile! They’re happy now, poor things’.
In poems such as ‘the Send Off’ Owen describes the soldiers appearance, their ‘breasts stuck all white with wreath and spray, as men’s are, dead’. This makes a mockery of the glorified troops, comparing their decorated appearance with that of a corpse lying in a coffin. In ‘Apologia Pro Poemate Meo’ Owen caustically states ‘these men are worth your tears. You are not worth their merriment’
This apparent feeling of contempt is again echoed in ‘Disabled’ although in this poem the it is directed towards the authorities as ‘smiling’ they ‘wrote his lie’ and allowed the underage civilian to join up. The poem has a tone of bitter cynicism, which is undoubtedly a result of the meeting between himself and Siegfried Sasson in the Craiglockhart War Hospital, Edinburgh in August 1917. The two became firm friends and encouraged by Sassoon’s enthusiasm for his work, Owen became noticeably influenced by his cynical attitude to the war (as illustrated by Sassoon’s poem ‘the March Past’ in which he refers to the Commander as the Corpse-Commander).
This element of cynicism in Owen’s work is likely to have raised awareness of the suffering in the war to a substantially large amount of the population. His ability to convey his sentiments so accurately to such a large audience is what makes his poetry so effective and easily accessible. Although his work was largely unknown to the public during the war, the influence of his poetry in later mainstream culture is of great social importance. It has helped shape the perception of war to its audience for decades.
Owen’s reaction to the misguided youth that were both attracted and persuaded to take part in the war is profusely sympathetic. Youths enlisted for many reasons, either as a result of being brainwashed by government propaganda, the effect of social pressure, or blind patriotism (which, unlike vastly more successful poets such as Rupert Brooke and John Oxenham, Owen so strongly condemns in ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’). Many young adults however felt attracted to the prospects of becoming a soldier simply for banal and petty reasons of vanity, such as the solder in ‘Disabled’.
In this poem Owen highlights the psychological tragedy of the crippled soldier who ‘threw away his knees’ by joining up while underage. It highlights the fact that war is non-selective and can destroy even the most able of people. The tragedy in this case comes from the things that have been taken away from the once successful but naive youth, and his demise from being at the height of popularity to becoming a social misfit, as sitting in the park ‘he noticed how the woman’s eyes passed from him to the strongmen’. Not only is there physical damage sustained by the returning soldier, but underlying mental damage that takes precedence over the pain of losing his legs. This sentiment draws great sympathy from the reader by again creating a scene that is so easily imaginable in their mind. Owen states that his subject is the pity of war, and in ‘Disabled’, in few places is this so directly the case.
In ‘Strange Meeting’ Owen highlights the fact that it is not the soldiers’ fault on either side that they are participating in the war as they are simply following the orders of authority. Here the two enemies find it possible to overlook the hatred and contempt one would expect them each to hold against each other and realise ‘the truth untold’ of the horror of war. Owen aims to proclaim the truth in the face of a world set to ‘trek from progress’. Speaking of his role as a poet, he says that ‘all a poet can do today is warn’ and ‘that is why the true poet must be truthful’. His warning here is the attempt to expose the ‘truth untold’.
In his poetry, Owen exposes the actuality of war in contrast to the fabricated image of glory of propaganda and military officials. Whilst doing this, the reality of being a soldier also becomes apparent. The rapturous, glorified return that the more naive of the enlisted would come to expect, is shown to virtually never be the case, in ‘Disabled’ by the crippled and emotionally ruined soldier, and worse, the death bound soldier in ‘Anthem For Doomed Youth’.
Owen’s ability to record the events he witnessed in such fine detail make his poetry poignant and memorable. The close up realism in poems such as ‘The Sentry’ creates images in the mind of the reader that cannot be easily forgotten. For instance the graphic description of ‘wading sloughs of flesh’ recalls the deep, muddied trenches strewn with corpses and remains, and in ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ the horrific image of the gassed soldier, ‘plunging’ at Owen, ‘guttering, choking, drowning’. Owen achieves such clarity in his poetry often though the use of alliteration and onomatopoeia. In ‘Exposure’ he describes the ‘sudden successive flights of bullets’ and in ‘The Sentry’ the ‘thudding’ and ‘thumping’ of the soldiers falling to the ground. Such description means both the senses of sight and sound are satisfied, allowing the reader to vividly imagine the scene. His use of alliteration adds dramatic emphasis in poems such as ‘Mental Cases’, describing the ‘multitudinous murders’ and the ‘hilarious, hideous’ expression on the soldiers’ faces.
Such techniques consistently emphasise Owen’s poetry. For example his frequent use of the present tense (in poems such as ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ and ‘Exposure’) adds a sense of realism and urgency. Owen bombards the senses of the reader with his descriptions of sight, sound and touch, giving an overwhelming quality to his work.
The rhyme scheme in Owen’s poetry often underlines the sentiments in his work. For example in ‘The Show’ the constant half-rhyme method (rhyming words such as ‘Death’ and ‘dearth’, and ‘why’ and ‘woe’) gives the poem a harsh, sinister tone, underlining the terror of battle.
The eloquent rhyme structure in poems such as ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’, particularly the final four lines from which the title is taken, makes the piece more memorable and far more poignant and effective.
When combined together, the above features replicate the immense, overwhelming emotional and physical strain of the war, conveying it to the reader in a way that they are unlikely to have seen before.
Owen is quoted from a letter sent to his mother in 1918 as saying that he ‘did not want to write anything to which a soldier would say ‘No Compris”. Although this is not present in much of his poetry, it is definitely reflected in his use of onomatopoeia in ‘The Sentry’. This again helps to allow the reader recognise clearly the point that Owen is trying to get across, and therefore relate to it more easily.
Owen was a devout Christian, and the theme of religion appears frequently in his poems. In the first line of ‘Apologia Pro Poemate Meo’ he compares soldiers to God saying that ‘he too saw God through mud… that cracked on cheeks when wretches smiled’. Being such a spiritual person, this is statement illustrates the depth of emotion that Owen felt as a reaction to the war. In the majority of his poems in which religion is mentioned, he questions the teachings of Christ, which the soldiers were so blatantly ignoring. In a letter to his mother written in May 1917, he describes himself as a ‘conscientious objector with a seared conscience’ although in ‘Exposure’, written in February of the same year, he directly questions the very existence of God, ‘for love of God seems dying’. In ‘Anthem For Doomed Youth’ the practice of the Church is mocked, for the soldiers ‘no mockeries for them now; no prayers, no bells; nor any voice of warning save the choirs’.
After suffering from shell shock and spending much of mid 1917 in the Craiglockhart War Hospital, Owen’s desertion of Christian values had peaked. Shortly after his return to action in September, he describes how he ‘lost all his earthly faculties, and fought like an angel’ in battle with the Germans.
Wilfred Owen’s poetry vividly captures the images, the experiences, and the pathos of the First World War and by using such familiar material to the everyday human being, adds a tremendous power to reach out to its audience. Although today Owen is regarded as one of the greatest British poets of all time, it took many years until after his death for his stature as a poet to be recognised. William Yeats opinion was that Owen was ‘all blood, dirt and sucked sugar stick’, claiming that ‘passive suffering is not a theme for poetry’. Owen’s poetry however has stood its ground over time with its clarity, and poignant realism sharing the experience of suffering with an audience who may never have had any contact with the war whatsoever.
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