The poem by Wilfred Owen “Dulce et Decorum Est” was written by the poet after his first hand experience of the trenches during WWI, and gives us a small insight to what life in the trenches, during war, was actually like. It gives us a very negative horrific view of war, and is definitely a very anti-war poem. The poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade” by Alfred Lord Tennyson however, is very pro-war with far more focus being put on the heroism and bravery of the men at war, rather than the death and horror of war, and as a result, gives us an almost romantic view of war. “The soldier” by Rupert Brooke also gives us a similar take on war, but focuses more on the patriotism of the men at war, and even of those at home. In this essay I am going to look at how the three poets present the theme of conflict in their poems.
The poem by Owen can rather easily be divided into three sections: a description of soldiers leaving the battlefield, a mustard gas attack and a challenge thrown out to those who glorify war. It opens however, with a description of trench life and the conditions faced by the soldiers. The opening stanza is characterised by language about ‘fatigue’: the soldiers ‘marched asleep’, they ‘trudge’, and ‘limped on’. They are ‘deaf’, ‘lame’ and ‘blind’; all of which is rather sorry language intended to reveal the reality of war and its effects, and already from the opening stanza we can see Owen’s cynicism with war, giving us the anti-war view of what war does to soldiers.
The opening of the poem also suggests Owen pities the state to which these men have fallen. Instead of youthful, strong fighters they are ‘Bent double’, ‘Knock-kneed, coughing like hags’. Owen’s imagery presents the men as prematurely old and weakened, war has changed these men, and they are described in the most unglamorous, disgraceful manner. Owen’s bitterness with this transformation is clearly obvious from the language he uses.
However, in Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade, the poem focuses on more of the heroism and bravery of the soldiers, and presents the soldiers not as individuals, but as a group, reinforcing the view of how honourable it is to be a part of an army with a common purpose “Honour the Light Brigade, Noble Six Hundred!”, but also taking away some of the intimacy of individualising the soldiers, so driving the focus away from he death and failure of the charge, which is what the poem is mainly about.
In Brooke’s poem, he too he too diverts the attention away from the seriousness of the possible deaths at war, and focuses more on the good points, in the mind of the narrator, of life back home, rather than the deaths and horror at war. The lines “dreams happy as her day” and “under an English heaven” are the best examples of positive imagery in the poem, making the poem more positive on the whole, rather than negative like Owens poem.
In stanza two of Owen’s poem, comes the gas attack, and offers us a rather graphic description of the effects of such an attack. The language used in stanza two and three, depicting the gas attack is strong, representing both the anguish of the victims of the gas attack as well as the effect on those haunted by what they have seen: ‘watch the white eyes writhing in his face, His hanging face’. The repetition of the word ‘face’ makes it clear which element disturbs the speaker most: the transformation in the face of the victim.
Also the speaker then describes a vision in a dream of the gas victim, how he dies ‘guttering, choking, drowning’, all still being very negative and vivid, and how the image of that person dying will stay with him and scar him for the rest of his life, even after the war has ended. The verbs used when describing the dying man, are all associated with a lack of air and a slow, painful death, with much use of similes and metaphors to give us empathy of what it’s like, by giving us lots of things to compare it to that we can all easily associate with, such as “like a man in fire or lime…” as we can all associate with burning.
However once again in Tennyson’s Poem, instead of focusing explicitly on the deaths of the men, he gives us a very vague and distant view of what is happening to the men, with only brief detail being put into the deaths of the soldiers; “All that was left of them, left of the six hundred”, and as a result, once again, makes the deaths less serious, and dispels more negative views towards war.
The final section of the poem by Owen, is written in direct address to the reader who he refers to as “My friend”, giving us a more direct and closer feel to the poem, once again focussing on the seriousness of it all. The first line of this stanza is presented in the future tense; perhaps Owen, although hopeful, realizes that the intended receiver of the poem will never dream of this terrible scene. Owen’s only hope is that the powerful but ugly imagery in this section of the poem will allow them a vivid insight into the horrors of trench warfare, and the use of his language such as “the vile incurable sores” and “froth corrupted lungs” is indeed very reflective of the images associated with trench warfare and war in general, all being very negative, and very, very horrific.
Owen’s cynicism with war is also clear from the closing lines of the poem. After describing the horrifying effects of the gas attack he addresses the reader: ‘My friend, you would not tell with such high zest To children ardent for some desperate glory, The old Lie’ showing he doesn’t believe it and thinks it is wrong somehow, to tell children that war is a “good” thing.
Owen ends the poem with the saying “Dulce et Decorum Est Pro Patria Mori” which he refers to as “the old lie” which was familiar to most during this period, it means that it is sweet and meet to die for one’s country. It was frequently used to urge young men to enlist. Owen makes it very clear that he just thinks that it is just the serving up of spewed out, second hand patriotism from a previous era, when war was considered valiant and heroic.
He is effectively rejecting the accepted attitude back at home that serving your country in war is glorious at the time. He is critical of the ‘high zest’, or great enthusiasm, used to convince men to go to war. He sees war as brutal and wasteful of young lives. His choice of the word ‘children’ is also significant; impressionable young men are almost lured to war by the promise of ‘desperate glory’.
However as a stark contrast, Tennyson’s poem praises the Brigade, for their nobility and heroism for riding into “the valley of death” even though they knew their fate, and knew they were going to die. The line “When can their glory fade? O the wild charge they made!”, while subtly mourning the appalling futility of the charge: “Not tho’ the soldier knew, someone had blunder’d…” he is making their loss of life, as it was in service of their country, a glorious thing, which is indeed the exact opposite of the views put forward by Owen in “Dulce et Decorum Est”
While Tennyson knew of the evils of war yet chose not to express them in his poem so that he could portray a patriotic feeling, the poem conveys not only that war is a natural part of human life, but also that the bravery demonstrated by the unquestioned loyalty of the British soldiers should be celebrated, Whitman’s Drum-Taps portray war as an unnatural, disruptive force that robs human beings of their natural desire to live a peaceful life.
So in conclusion, the three poets offer us some very different interpretations of not only what war was like, but how we should view it, and also focus on two very different ways of presenting the theme of conflict. Owen in his poem mainly presents the theme very much how it is, with much focus on the death and suffering of the men, making the subject very serious and realistic, and seen as Owen did serve time at war as a conscript, his views and the images he puts forward are indeed very realistic and negative. Tennyson’s poem on the contrary gives us a very optimistic, almost romantic view of conflict, presenting the deaths of the men, although brutal and tragic, makes them out to be noble and heroic because their blood was shed in the name of their country, which is also the view shared by Brooke in “the soldier”, seen as the death was in the name of the country, although tragic, is worth, noble, and almost right even.
I personally think this is stupid notion and a life lost at war, is a life wasted, no matter what the reason or how heroically the person died, because in my opinion, war is pointless and achieves nothing other than wasting vast quantities of money and vast numbers of lives.
The poems I have studied have given me much insight to what war was like, and the horrific effects it can have on people, but also of how patriotic as a nation at war we were, and how this affected the people during the war, both at home and fighting.
Overall I cannot exactly say that I am a fan of the poetry, maybe perhaps due to the subject matter of the poems being to serious, but it has shown me how one event can be viewed by different people in many different ways, and then as a result be presented to the rest of the world differently .