If ever proof were needed that the 19th century was truly over, it came in the shape of the First World War. The horrors of that conflagration scarred the English psyche to an extent that marked the end of an era – no more would sentimental Victorian poets talk about death and honour in the same breath. More than anything else, the conflict that decimated a generation of young Europeans opened the public’s eyes to the sheer inhumanity of large-scale trench warfare and the pointlessness of it all.
During the First World War men left their homes to fight against the Germans with the idea of serving England by dying. However, after experiencing war and its horrors, many started doubting this idea and some went as far as completely rejecting it. In the suppressed emotion and anger about the lies that they had been told, men started writing poetry to show how strongly they felt about war. Some directly addressed the idea and their objections towards it, but others simply wrote about the horrors of war and its loathsome effects on people. On the other hand, people who stayed comfortably in their homes in England wrote poems on the noble and honourable chance of serving one’s country.
The common notion of the power of poetry and eloquence, as well as that of words in ordinary conversation, is that they affect the mind by raising in it ideas of those things for which custom has appointed them to stand. It is for this reason that men wrote poetry during the First World War. They wanted to express ideas and ideals that they had been brought up to believe and suppressed emotions and past experiences that had left strong impressions on their minds during the course of the war.
Among the poets who are famous for their poems on different aspects of the First World War were Wilfred Owen and Rupert Brooke who both had very adverse opinions to each other of the war.
Wilfred Owen’s poem, Dulce et Decorum Est, is based upon the horrors of war and the loathsome deaths which completely contradict the ideas put into men’s heads that it is sweet and glorious to die for one’s country. Owen starts off by describing a group of men going back to the trenches after having been at the Front Line. He depicts them as being exhausted, miserable, wounded, indifferent to everything going on behind them and to their own physical appearances. In the second stanza, the men are attacked by a gas bomb. Owen describes one of the men dying horrifically in the gas and, in the third stanza, he goes on to describing the man in more detail and the psychological effects that the whole experience had on him.
The poem contains three stanzas, each demonstrating different techniques of writing and each describing different aspects of war. The stanzas of the poem roll into each other fluently and with ease. For example, the first stanza’s peace and quiet is abruptly interrupted by an exclamation which begins the next stanza. This creates a feeling of continuance in the story being told. The second stanza also rolls nicely into the third by the last two lines of the second and the first two lines of the third rhyming together and also by a repetition of the word ‘drowning’ in both stanzas. The rhyming system throughout the poem is abab cdcd. These rhyming couplets make the poem flow more freely, emphasise what is being said and engrave the content of the poem deeply in the readers mind so as to add to the general impact and message of the poem.
In order to help him describe the different aspects of war, Owen utilises the technique of altering the rhythm of the different stanzas according to what he is trying to make the reader feel. The first stanza, for example, has a slow halting rhythm depicting misery, pain, a certain eeriness and a monotonous life. Owen does this by transforming the story being told into a list. He uses short sentences to plainly state what is happening. His choice of words also creates a lazy feeling. Examples of these are words like ‘sludge’, ‘haunting’, ‘distant rest’, ‘trudge’, ‘asleep’, ‘blind’, ‘drunk with fatigue’, etc. Owen also uses pronouns like ‘we’ and ‘our’ when recounting the story. This impresses the message of the poem more firmly in the minds of the readers because they feel sure of the truth of the story. Thus, the first horrors of war are portrayed by the slow, droning, miserable lives that the men lead. The stanza is lazily finished by the trailing, lazy words, ‘dropped behind’.
Then suddenly, in the second stanza, the slow and steady movement of time is rudely interrupted and the rhythm speeds up as the result of a loud exclamation: ‘Gas! GAS! Quick boys!’ These words are examples of direct speech. Their effect on the reader is that he is suddenly woken up from the quiet and lazy image portrayed in the first stanza to find himself trying to adapt to the new efficacious activity. It seems as if time is one of the men; sullen and weary, then suddenly activated and alert. The exclamation seems to come from one of the soldiers themselves even though it is the persona trying to communicate a message of cautiousness to the soldiers and at the same time reinforce the reality of these events to the reader.
The word ‘GAS!’, which is in capital letters, creates a visual impact on the page and sharpens the reader’s awareness. This quick rhythm is kept up throughout the stanza with a variety of energetic words, exclamation marks, a dash (expressing movement and flexibility) and long sentences in the midst of short ones (the long sentences will show the short sentences up more acutely, thus creating a general feeling of chaos and disorder). Words like ‘quick’, ‘ecstasy’, ‘fumbling’, ‘just in time’, ‘yelling’, ‘stumbling’, ‘floundering’, etc. all go towards making a feeling of a chaotic rush. It seems as if time is one of the men; sullen and weary, then suddenly activated and alert. Then, in the same stanza, the rhythm is slowed by the ellipse at the end of the twelfth line which trails off, producing an eerie sense of realisation. Owen also uses heavy words like ‘misty’, ‘thick’ and ‘drowning’ and the image of calm created by the words, ‘under a green sea’, to enforce calm and misery once again.
Owen, contrary to the traditional English picture of a glorified death, shows the man who could not fit his gas mask on in time as being just another soldier, a ‘someone’. He was nothing special in that he died for his country, he did not die fighting the evil enemy in hand to hand combat, or saving the lives of his fellow soldiers, rather he died because he was too slow to put a gas mask on. He died from a gas canister fired from an enemy that he probably never saw. He was just one of many thousands who had given their lives for their country. Also, later on in the third stanza, Owens writes on how the dying men were ‘flung’ onto a cart and dragged home, in contrast to the glorified view of death and sacrifice. There was no nobility in the way that they treated him, he was in no way treated like a hero as the ‘old Lie’ indicates.
The third stanza has neither rhythm nor chronology. Owen uses the present tense for this stanza, unlike the first and second. This results in the reader being conscious of the timelessness of dreams, feeling, ideas and death. It is almost like being under the quiet, calm, green sea that Owen compares the mist of gas that engulfs his friend in the last line of the second stanza. The reader is suddenly let into Owen’s mind and is held there on a very personal level. Owen talks about the psychological effects that the experience, described in the first and second stanzas, had on him. He tells the reader that his dreams are haunted by the shockingly horrific images that he witnessed. In this stanza, Owen addresses himself directly to the reader and uses pronouns such as ‘you’, ‘me’ and ‘my’ and intimate statements like ‘my friend’ to kindle the readers’ thoughts at a more personal level in order to make them think of humanity instead of the lofty ideas of honour and glory.
Owen’s reference to his dreams plainly avers that even those who escaped the gas attacks and the bombing and were able to survive, suffered through the knowledge of the monstrosities that occurred during the war. The image of the young man will be forever engraved on Owen’s mind.
He finally rounds up the poem by channelling his own experiences described in the poem to draw up the conclusion: that war is not sweet or glorious; it is just a pointless and horrific loss of many lives.
The last words of the poem, ‘Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori’ were originally said by Horace. It means that ‘It is sweet and glorious to die for one’s country.’ Owen’s uses this line throughout the poem because it is an ideology used by leaders in times of war to excite the troops and get them ready for battle. Owen is trying to show everybody that the saying is a lie and if one is to fight, it should not be for glory of one’s country.
The language of the poem is simple yet vivid. This choice of frank and plain diction awakens the emotions of the reader, bringing home meaning to the minds of all people and overcoming the social barriers of class and education existing distinctly at that particular time. Thus he allows the message to reach and be understood by a large cross section of the public. The directness of the words and the simplicity of the sentence structures throughout the poem impress the points and various messages that Owen is trying to make, more forcibly and effectively on the reader’s mind. It also portrays to the reader a feeling of the soldiers’ innocent artlessness thrust into the horrific confines of war.
Owen uses strong images and figurative language (such as metaphor, simile, personification and connotation) in his poem in order to help the reader visualise the situation described. It also gives a chance for unaccustomed analysers of poetry and uneducated readers to identify the central anti-war theme and the horrors and pointlessness of war. This was especially relevant for the British society of the time who generally viewed war as a patriotic and heroic forum to display national unity and pride.
The graphic horror of war is presented through a series of images which are intended to demolish the notion of war being a patriotic and meaningful adventure. Two particularly vivid images are illustrated in the description of the lone soldier who does not fasten his mask fast enough and suffers from the effects of the deadly gas:
‘In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin,
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs
Obscene as cancer, bitter as cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues…’
The images sketched in the extract above powerfully discourage the mere thought of war by terrifying the reader through emotionally distressing and frightening descriptions. Owen moves the images from a general concept to personal illustration by addressing the reader directly through saying, ‘If you could hear’. This indicates to the reader that he must place himself in this situation, and evoke the setting and all associated emotions in their mind that a person witnessing this event would feel, perhaps like Owen himself.
The poet helps the reader to picture the scene by precisely describing the surroundings and encouraging particularly dark feelings to arise. He utilises onomatopoeia in the second and eighth lines of the stanza where he uses the words ‘guttering’ and ‘gargling’. The vivid similes: ‘obscene as cancer, bitter as cud,’ encourage a sickening reaction to the notion of actively engaging in battle. The idea of cancer represents the ‘terminal’ results or the finality of war. Owen suggests that men who are sent to fight are being sent to their death; something as inevitable as death from cancer. The slow and painful death associated with cancer is likened to dying on the battlefield where those who aren’t killed instantly are left to suffer horribly and bitterly, like the gassed soldier. Owen characterises the gruesome and drawn out death that was caused by the gas attacks where he describes what he heard in the seventh and eighth lines of the stanza: ‘…the blood come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs…’
Despite his continual and steadfast contravertion of traditional English views, Owen comes to agree on one point where he writes about ‘vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues’. He shows the dead man as an innocent sufferer who did nothing to start the war, but just fought in it because that was what he had to do. The statement could also signify that the men watching their dying comrade will have ‘incurable sores’ on their ‘innocent tongues’ for ever more which indicates that they will never be without pain when recounting or remembering what they witnessed during the war. This is also what the English believed and in addition, it is what made them more passionate, as the war went on, for fighting against the enemy, or as Churchill once put it, ‘a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime.’
Owen uses metaphor at various times in the poem. An example of metaphor can be found in the fifth line of the first stanza where Owen writes that the ‘Men marched asleep’ and that they were ‘Drunk with fatigue’. These metaphors were intended to help the reader of the poem to understand the reality of war and its horrors. If Owen had only said that the men were very tired, the effect would not have been the same and readers would not be able to picture the full extent and intensity of the soldiers’ exhaustion. However, by linking the difficult idea of the soldiers’ extreme debilitation with a familiar notion, the reader will begin to be able to understand the reality of the shocking horrors of war more amelioratedly.
Owen uses personification at the end of the poem where he mentions the ‘old Lie’. He starts the word ‘lie’ with a capital letter which indicates to the reader that the ‘old Lie’ has become such an important part of people’s lives and the cause of so much evil and horror in the world that it has become a person itself and has its own deceptive personality.
Wilfred Owen’s poem, Dulce et Decorum Est, thoroughly criticises and challenges the ideology of war being ‘a sweet and glorious way to die for one’s country’. The combination of vivid imagery and poetic devices work to evoke a horrible anti-war feeling in the reader and encourage them to act and cease the on-going violence in the world. With powerful imagery and simple language, Owen allows the poem to be understood by the public at large so as to influence as many people as possible. The power of ideology is revealed and skilfully condemned by Owen’s masterful writing of poetry and war is appropriately presented as the hideous thing it is.
On the other side of the spectrum lies Rupert Brooke’s poem, The Soldier. The Soldier is a highly patriotic poem that encourages the traditional English idea that it is sweet and glorious to die for one’s country. The poem invokes the ideas of spiritual cleansing, inviolable memories of the dead and a hero’s immortal legacy, but Brooke combines all these specifically under the overarching framework of English heritage and personal loyalty to it.
The Soldier is a sonnet; it has 14 lines of iambic pentameter. The first stanza is an octave with a traditional Shakespearean/Elizabethan rhyming scheme of abab cdcd. The second stanza is a sestet with a traditional Petrarchan/Italian rhyming scheme of efg efg.
In The Soldier, Brooke enjoins the reader to imagine the blissful state of a fallen soldier. The poem in many ways sums up the mood of the first months of the First World War. Rupert Brooke is happy to die for his country, but is ignorant of what comes before death on the Western Front: exposure, mud, the constant dangers of snipers of barrage and the regular loss of friends and comrades.
Unlike Dulce et Decorum Est, The Soldier has no chronology or rhythm. It is purely based on ideas, ideals, beliefs and hopes just as Dulce et Decorum Est is based on events and experiences. The poem is written as if it is Rupert Brooke’s own epigraph, thus making it one of his best-known and most loved poem.
The Soldier is a moving poem which carries a beautifully serene and blissful feeling; totally unlike the horrific reality of Dulce et Decorum Est. Brooke starts the poem off by making a very direct, frank and simple statement. The statement is communicated like an innocent child pondering a possibility. This effect is achieved by the earnest and plain introduction of the poem: ‘If I should die, think only this of me…’ The ‘if’ that begins the whole poem shows the reader that Brooke does not think that he will die in war. He makes his death sound much less probable than it really would be in war and attempts to persuade the reader that the people fighting probably won’t die, they’ll just be fighting for a great and noble cause. Also, the ‘if’ attaches no importance whatsoever to the grave opening statement, as if it would never happen. Despite the childish artlessness, the introductory statement is made to sound solemn and thoughtful, setting the feeling intended by Brooke to accompany the reader all throughout the poem.
The first stanza is full of touching and delicate references to England’s rich beauty. Brooke writes that, if he was to die, the place where he falls would be blessed with the heavenliness of England. He depicts any fallen soldier who died for England as someone who is special and not just another ‘someone’ as Owen puts it. He shows each dead man as a carrier of a part of England and he delineates the idea that if an Englishman dies on a foreign field, that ‘corner’ will be ‘for ever England.’ This could also be a political reference to the help that England will receive if soldiers die for her by helping their country to gain land. The references to England and her immortality would of course attract the attention of any Englishman and would please him, motivate him and gratify his pride. In this stanza, Brook also creates a feeling of England’s natural beauty and tamed wilderness, making it sound like an ideal land, a Utopia in other words. This is done by Brooke’s use of words like ‘the English air’, ‘sun’, ‘rivers’, ‘flowers’ and ‘love’.
The second stanza deals with more philosophical and psychological ideas:
‘And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.’
Brooke goes on to talk about the purity of a fallen soldier’s soul which also indicates the purity of England by talking about his ‘heart, all evil shed way’. In the next line, Brooke talks about his pure English heart being ‘…a pulse in the eternal mind, no less…’ This touchingly humble thought brings the fallen soldier back to England and her motherly love when he is dead. It gives the impression that he is only a tiny mortal part of a huge eternity that is England, and all the other fallen soldiers are the other pulses that keep England the beautiful place it is, a ‘heaven’. Each one of them gives back the beautiful ‘sights and sounds’, ‘dreams’, ‘laughter’ and ‘gentleness’ that they were given by England when she brought them up, and at the same time live in peace in that eternal mind, beating its pulse. Each time a soldier falls, he adds to that beat and makes England greater and increases her worth and therefore lies at peace with himself ‘under an English heaven’.
Brooke personifies his country. He refers to England as a ‘she’ or ‘her’. This personification is aimed to make England sound like a living land, a caring mother for all those who grew there and an ‘eternal mind’. He almost talks of England as being the Creator Himself when he writes about himself being
‘A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam…’
This is basically what God did when He created Adam from dust, shaped him and taught him things to make him aware. He also gave Adam heaven; its flowers to love and its ways to roam. Thus, Brooke is likening England to God and heaven at the same time. This could have been criticized as a pagan view but nonetheless gratifying to the thirsty English pride.
Brooke also utilises similes and metaphors in order to heighten the feeling of blissful serenity. For example, Brooke writes, ‘dreams happy as her day’ and ‘eternal mind’. This increases the happy and dreamlike feeling of the poem. Brooke’s reason for using similes and metaphors is completely different to Owen’s. Owen uses all figurative language to help make the reader understand and be more acutely aware of the horrors of war.
The diction utilised in the poem is very simple, even simpler than that of Dulce et Decorum Est. However, the reason for the artless words in this poem is quite different from the reason in Dulce et Decorum Est. Owen uses simple diction in order to get his message across to all social classes, to emphasise each and every point made in the poem and to impress upon the reader the vivid images within the poem more effectively. On the other hand, Brook uses simple sentence structures and innocent words to create a touching and delicate feel to the poem which moves the reader and communicates as much tender love for England as possible. By using a sonnet to put across his point, Brooke is increasing the sense of simplicity and frankness. This is because sonnets themselves are simple and consistently symmetrical throughout, therefore adding to the childish unsophisticatedness.
The Soldier is a poem rich in high and noble feelings that show Brooke’s good intentions, narrow-mindedness and pride, but it fails to appreciate the horrors of war unlike Dulce et Decorum Est which shows the true reality of war. Throughout the poem Brooke refrains from expressing anything about the situation in which the soldier died and the circumstances that environed his death. He mentions nothing of the human being and its worth, its life and its emotions – only England and her Glory.