In this essay I am going to compare the poems of Alfred Lord Tennyson and Wilfred Owen, which have very different attitudes to war. ” The Charge of the Light Brigade” written by Alfred Lord Tennyson in 1854 has a theme of romantic honourable fighting for the queen and country. This poem was written from a news article by W.H. Russell for The Times about the famous charge on the 25th October 1854.
“Dulce et Decorum est” was written by Captain Wilfred Owen in the worst winter of 1917. From primary evidence Owen questions the title in a sarcastic way to bring out sympathy and the true pity of warfare. One major difference between the poems is that Tennyson is pro war and feels that it is “sweet and fitting to die for ones country”. While Owen reveals the true horror and sorrow of war. However he was neither a coward nor an anti war poet.
The background of the poets can affect their view of warfare. As Tennyson was Poet Laureate of his generation and also a Lord, he wrote poems quickly, often in a day. “The Charge of the Light Brigade” was written on a Sunday, the information mostly coming from Russell’s article.
Owen however was a well-educated Shropshire man; he was a commoner who spent 14 months training to be a captain. In 1917 he was sent to France. Owen started to write his poems after been injured with “shell shock” and sent to Scotland to recuperate. There he met Siegfred Sassoon. They discussed poetry, and, coincidentally Owens favourite poet was Alfred Lord Tennyson.
These backgrounds greatly affected their views of war, as Owen was a captain of the British Army when war wasn’t honourable but pure horror and pure evil. He was also a poet who had seen the horror and wasn’t fed the propaganda and the indoctrination by the government and aristocracy back in England. While Tennyson was a Lord who was miles away from the real battle, he never knew the real danger of an enemy.
The poem “The charge of the Light Brigade” focuses on the memorable charge, which was the worst miscalculation of British military history Cavalry, under the command of Lord Cardigan, charged a heavily armed line of the Russian/Cossack army, who where armed with cannons and artillery designed to destroy the hulls of naval ships.
The Poem “Dulce et Decorum est” however focuses on a gas attack on the Western Front of 1917. At this time gas was a relativly new weapon in the Allied/Axis powers army’s arsenals with gas masks being clumsy and very unreliable. In Owen’s poem a gas attack takes place. Owen sees a young solider dying from the gas as it causes the lungs and other vital organs to collapse internally, causing the victim to drown on there own fluids.
Tennyson however wants to deliver a certain message through his poem, a message of honour and glory to the men who made that charge. Many of these men new that the charge was an utter disaster right from the start but they still made it for the Queen and Country of England. Owen’s message on the other had showed the true and pure horror, evil and pity of warfare. As Owen was a captain in the British Army he saw and fought this horror face to face. By 1915 Tennyson’s idea of warfare was a distant philosophy of warfare. Owen reveals this through the last line of his poem:
“The Old Lie: Dulce et Decorum est pro patria Mori”
Which is translated, as it is “Sweet and fitting” to die for ones country. This idea of warfare was dead and buried in the last years of “The Great War”.
The openings of these poems are very different. Tennyson’s poem opens with the British Cavalry gathering speed and moving towards the heavily armed Cossack line of cannons. Tennyson is trying to create an atmosphere of honour and glory for England, by using a variety of devices: repetition, metaphors, fast pace narrative and orders. For example Tennyson uses various phrases to show orders:
“Forward the Light Brigade”
This adds tension, suspense and excitement of warfare to the poem. This with the use of repetition within the poem:
“Cannon to right of them”
“Cannon to left of them”
“Cannon to front of them”
This is a very effective use of the technique. Which creates a sense of excitement. This, with the use of fast pace narrative is very evident in Tennyson’s poem, giving the reader an idea of the speed of the horses. He then describes the cavalry charging down the valley:
“Half a league, Half a league,
Half a league onward,”
The lines reveal the pace of the cavalry and as their pace quickens, the action in the story quickens. With the Light Brigade metaphorically charging in to the “valley of death” Tennyson uses monosyllabic words too quicken the pace within the poem.
Owen also uses monosyllabic words to create the opposite effect of depression and tiredness. He also used a excellent metaphoric description of exhaustion:
“Drunk with Fatigue”
This gives us the vision of the men as being exhausted, some of them staggering as they leave the trench. He also shocks the reader, using this metaphoric description. Owen sees and describes the “Great” war as:
“Of Obscene as cancer bitter as the cud”
This simile creates the imagery for the reader of horror, terror and pure evil of warfare, as cancer was and still, is a feared disease which struck at people with consequences. He compares cancer to the war of which he is fighting. This imagery implies I believe that most of the men fighting in the war didn’t want to fight really but were made to. Whereas in Tennyson’s poem the men of the Light Brigade were desperate to fight:
“Charge for the guns”
This gives an image of soldiers ready, eager and even desperate to fight the Russian/Cossack enemy. Where as Owen in his poem describes the men as:
“Bent double like old beggars”
This metaphor creates an image of men bent over with tiredness and fatigue. We as readers believe that soldiers are suppose to be fit, healthy and smartly dressed. Iinstead we find them bent over with tiredness. In Tennyson’s poem we read of how the brave soldiers of the Light Brigade charge forward into wrong valley. He shows this by a brilliant use of personification:
“Jaws of death”
To refer to the valley and the Russian/Cossack enemy within. He refers to the valley itself as:
“Valley of Death”
This tells the reader, I think Tennyson’s true feelings for the Russians. He makes the Russians sound like a monstrous enemy. At this point he also reinforces his message of honour and glory.
At the end of the first stanza of Owens poem the men are leaving the trench and are going to rest when suddenly the gas shells drop softly behind them causing an outbreak of an:
“An ecstasy of fumbling”
As men fitted their clumsy helmets just in time to stop the green sea from engulfing them. The gas masks issued to the British forces where unreliable and quite dangerous the glass used in the masks tinted the gas from yellow to green. As this poem is thought to be based on a true event.
So as he is under this sea of gas:
“Someone…. Was yelling out and stumbling”
This was a horrible way to die. The gas caused the vital organs in the body to melt and become a thick froth Owen shows this:
“Froth corrupted lungs”
This vivid description I think sums up the use of gas in war this piece of description shows what the gas did to the thousands of men it killed and scarred for life. In Tennyson’s poem the soldiers are moving forward without hesitation. This sense of urgency creates an even more patriotic image. An image that the men don’t care if they are going to die as long as they die for Queen and country. This makes us think about and honour the men of the Light Brigade Tennyson shows this in his poem:
“Honour the Light Brigade”
These men where very patriotic and brave it would be wrong to compare their bravery to the men described in “Dulce et Decorum est”.
In Owens poem “Dulce et Decorum est” the soldiers are occupying the trench were:
“Coughing like hags”
This gives us the sense that the men in the trenches of the first world war where not lead by the commanding officers and the leaders back home but by each other. They watched each others backs. This shows the use of creative similes. It creates very vivid imagery for the reader of the poem an image of destruction, horror and pure evil. It is not at all like the romantic imagery shown in Tennyson’s poem of honour, courage and glory for the ultimate sacrifice.
So as you can see there is a vivid contrast of warfare. From basic evil in “Dulce et Decorum est” to the romance in “The Charge Of The Light Brigade”, which in my opinion, is the better time of warfare for the conditions of the men. So both poets have different views of warfare.
In this essay I have looked at both types of philosophy, one is of pity the other of honour. However through the conclusion of this essay I want to make my point that, no type of warfare is good for anyone. However, I am not saying that all war is pointless because it is not. There comes a point when diplomacy and peaceful negotiation has failed, that there is no choice but to take up arms in the protection of today’s freedoms and peace. Through reading this essay I hope you can remember and honour the people who have fought in all wars everywhere and died for the sides they have fought for. In this new millennium let us bring world peace, disarm our nuclear arsenals and solve all world problems. Let us join together as one family of mankind and explore our world and ultimately the universe.