‘Dulce et decorum est’ by Wilfred Owen and ‘The charge of the Light Brigade’ are two poems based on war but with very different themes and messages. ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ is about the Crimean war and the battle that took place at Balaklava, where as ‘Dulce et Decorum est’ is written from first hand experience about the horrors of World War One.
Wilfred Owen’s ‘Dulce et decorum est’, which is structured in three verses with an ABAB rhyme scheme. The poet begins by describing the soldiers marching back from war. They are described as being, ‘Bent double, like old beggars under sacks.’ The poem was written for a dual purpose. It may be said that it is a direct attack upon propagandists, whilst at the same time it is a realistic response to Owens own experiences of war, which do not include any glorious moments. Owen describes a moment in time:
‘Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge.’
This line illustrates a very realistic experience of war. In fact at no time does Owen ever describe the more glamorous aspects of war, which would encourage people to join the war effort. Contrastingly he describes the harsher elements of war, ‘Men marched asleep.’ Consequently deterring people who may have been tempted to join up:
‘Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;’
By doing this he paints a vivid picture in the minds of the reader. In the third stanza Owen describes his vivid memories of a soldier who is caught in a gas attack ‘Obscene as cancer,’ the reader is likely to feel that like cancer, war can lead to death. ‘I saw him drowning.’ Furthermore he portrays the men’s expressions to evil extremes, ‘His hanging face, like a devil sick of sin;’ The reader is meant to feel the harsh realities of war:
‘If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs’
The poem slows down and becomes more savage close to the end as Owens words begin to be directed at other poets who are trying to glorify the war and use their poems as positive war propaganda. The final line mentions:
‘The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.’
Leaving the reader with the question in mind, is it sweet and right to die for your country?
‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ is written by Tennyson who wrote this poem to commemorate and honour all the soldiers who died during this particular battle during the Crimean War. Tennyson was the poet Laureate of Great Britain during the Victorian age, his job was to write poems to celebrate and commemorate special events. The poem is about a battle that took place at the British Base at Balaklava when the British were fighting the Russians. The poem is a ballad, which uses different techniques eg. onomatopoeia and personification like ‘jaws of death’ to deliver the message of the glory and how brave the soldiers were but also of the stupidity of war just as Owen does in his poem.
The first stanza of poem the poet repeats the line ‘forty leagues’ he repeats it in a way that gives the poem a good rhythm which is like the galloping of horses which is unlike Wilfred Owens poem because there was no definite rhythm in that but it also gives us the comparison of the horses in the Crimean war and men ‘bent double’ in WW1. The ‘six hundred’ are the six hundred soldiers who are going to battle in the ‘valley of death’ This metaphor emphasises the fact that the men were bound to die because they were fighting with swords and the Russians had guns and cannons. Tennyson uses the speech that the officer gives for the army to charge forward into battle.
The command to go forward is repeated at the beginning of the second verse to emphasise the urgency of the situation just as the second stanza of Owens poem gave the urgency of the gas attack. The poet asks the question ‘Was there a man dismayed?’ To show the bravery of the men in the face of death. This line shows that the men were brave enough even though ‘someone had blundered’. This means someone had made a mistake in giving the order for the soldiers to charge, so it emphasises the fact that many of the soldiers were bound to die in the battle. ‘Theirs not to make reply, Theirs not to reason why’ shows that it wasn’t their position to ask questions they just followed orders. It shows that the soldiers were willing to die for their commander and country just as the men in Owens poem had been.
At the beginning of the third stanza we are hit with ‘cannon to the left, cannon to the right, cannon in front of them’ this immediately gives the idea that they are trapped and gives the reader the impression that there is no way out. The next line uses harsh sounds, which represent harsh cannon like sounds. There is also personification when Tennyson uses ‘jaws of death’ and ‘mouth of hell’ this is graphic and a rather frightening concept and gives the reader a very good visual image just as Owen used the visual image of the man ‘floundering like a man in fire or lime.’ At the end of the stanza ‘rode the six hundred’ is repeated as if the emphasis that there are still six hundred men and they have not yet hit the battle.
The fourth stanza is about the battle itself throughout the stanza there is a repeat of the word ‘sabre’ used in the context of ‘flashed all the sabres bare’ this word is used because by repeating the poet is again creating a kind of rhythm but it also describes the viciousness of the battle very well. Both of the poems emphasise the isolation the troops had from the outside world while they were fighting for example Tennyson uses the phrase ‘all the world wonders.’ At the end of every stanza there has been the phrase ‘rode the six hundred’ but at the end of this stanza when Tennyson is describing the troops leaving the battle he changes that phrase a little bit to ‘then they rode back, but not, not the six hundred’ this puts everything into perspective that in fact a lot of men died in this battle due to the stupidity of war. Tennyson is touching on this very sombre subject carefully because he has to keep morale up at home and let people know that their loved ones died as heroes. Whereas in his poem Owen was perfectly happy to let people know how barbaric and horrific the war actually was.
The fifth stanza is very similar to the third stanza and uses the exact same phrase about the cannons ‘cannons to the left….etc’ this is used for effect. The end of the stanza is there to create a positive effect and keep up morale. It says ‘came through the jaws of death, back from the mouth of hell’ this is very good at creating the effect that the men had fought well and they were heroes but it fails to mention how many men actually died so this keeps up morale.
The final stanza is in complete contrast to Owens. Owens final stanza left the reader with a very realistic vision of war and thinking about whether your country really was worth dying for and Tennysons poem left us with images of heroic men who died for their country and that all the death was worth it. The final stanza would probably be very comforting to the men’s families as it says
‘Honour the charge they made, honour the light brigade’
This phrase shows that Britain thought of the men as heroes, which they were, but Tennyson didn’t paint a very realistic picture and therefore Owens poem had a longer lasting effect as it is very graphic and doesn’t try to dilute the horrific reality of war.
The last line of each poem sums up the objective of the poem and what its author was trying to get across to the public. Owen was a pacifist and his last line of ‘the old lie: Dulce et decorum est’ sums up his view on war and how horrible it is and that he is using his poem as negative propaganda. Whereas Tennysons last line of ‘Noble six hundred!’ shows that he is going for the approach of honour and bravery rather and realism. His job was keep up morale and inform people at the same time but what he neglected was the harsh reality that in fact hundreds of men did die through one persons mistake ‘someone had blundered’ and as Owen is trying to emphasise the stupidity of war, Tennyson neglects it!