From the selected poems which you have studied on the theme of war, select at least two, one of which must be from a different culture, and/or tradition. Contrast how the poets portray the horror of war, making reference to how poets express their intentions through thoughts and feelings and their love of language.
The two poems I have decided to contrast and compare are “Dulce Et Decorum Est” by Wilfred Owen; and “Vultures” by Chinua Achebe. Both these poems are about the horror of war and the effect it has on man.
Dulce et Decorum Est (written in 1917 and published posthumously in 1921) is a poem written by the English poet and World War I soldier Wilfred Owen. The work’s horrifying imagery has made it one of the most popular condemnations of war ever written. The 28-line poem, written loosely in iambic pentameter, is told from the first-person.
It begins with a description of war-weary soldiers marching “through sludge,” “blood-shod” and “drunk with fatigue”. As gas shells begin to fall, the soldiers scramble to put their gas masks on. In the rush, one man clumsily drops his mask, and the narrator sees the man “yelling out and stumbling / and flound’ring like a man in fire or lime”.
The image of the man “guttering, choking, drowning” permeates Owen’s thoughts and dreams, forcing him to relive the nightmare again and again.
In the final stanza, Owen writes that if readers could see the body-the “eyes writhing”, the “face hanging”, the “vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues”-they would cease to send young men to war while instilling visions of glory in their heads. No longer would they tell their children the “Old lie,” so long ago told by the Roman poet Horace: “Dulce et decorum est / Pro patria mori” (“Sweet and honourable it is, to die for the fatherland”).
In Vultures, Chinua Achebe also describes in vivid language the horror of death with the vulture and his mate as they “picked out the eyes of a swollen corpse in a water-logged trench and ate the things in its bowel”. The description is bringing the reader the wretched image of a final insult to the poor dead soldier.
Achebe witnessed the horrors of war when he worked for the Biafran government in the late 1960s. Both men witnessed the real impact of war.
While Owen tells the graphic images of actual human events Achebe uses Vultures to tell the same story in a more removed, detached way. Almost matter of fact.
The vultures are a pair. He talks of them “perching high on broken bone of a dead tree”. A metaphor of the broken body to come? They arrive upon their “corpse” together and after their initial gorging of the eyes and bowel, they keep their meal “in easy range of cold telescopic eyes”. He descries the vulture’s head as a “pebble on a stem rooted in a dump of gross feathers”. Clearly showing us the ugliness of the bird adds to the portent of evil and in some way he challenges us when he describes the heads of the birds “inclined affectionately”.
Owen shows no such affection in his lines. Everything is descriptive of the pain and anguish suffered by the men. Owen seeks to influence the friend and the reader. Perhaps by knowing the pains and images of war we will stop glorifying it.
There is more of a natural flow to Vultures than Dolce…until Achebe talks of “Strange indeed how love …will pick a corner of that charnel-house tidy it and coil up there.
The poets are of course from different times and cultures. Even in the titles we see contrasts. Owen uses the classical language of Latin. Achebe uses an everyday word that conjures up a fear and loathing. Both successfully bring their subject to the reader. Achebe sets the scene in terms of nature, “the greyness and drizzle” of the morning, while Owen stays focussed on the men.
I found both poems to be very gritty. Dolce… was literal and showed the horror of war and the effect on men. It highlights the numbing that the terror and fear causes to each man. They “trudge” back from the lines to their rest, undoubtedly after losing men and when the gas attack comes they deal with the body by flinging him onto an uncovered wagon, his “hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin”.
Achebe achieves the same effect by telling a story of a meal. The vultures just doing what comes naturally to them. They are not to be criticised for their actions, this is their world. This is how they live.
Perhaps that is what links both poems for me. In Dolce… Owen describes how the men of the trenches had almost become immune as a result of being exposed to the harsh reality of war. In his writings he continues the theme of other “war poets” of his generation.