The two poems that I have chosen to compare and contrast are Dulce Et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen and War Photographer by Carol Ann Duffy. These two poems were written over fifty years apart and yet still manage to convey a similar message, the unnecessary suffering to those involved in war and the ignorance of those who are not directly affected. I will look at how these two exceptional poets use different devises, including form, language, tone and imagery to take the reader through an emotional and enlightening journey.
Wilfred Owen’s poem was written in 1917 and describes his personal experiences during the First World War. He witnessed and experienced appalling atrocities and the reader is able to gain historical information and distressing images as he reads the poem. By using ‘I’ and ‘we’ to describe what is happening he brings the reader much closer to his thoughts and feelings. Owen’s use of the past tense heightens the reader’s sympathies by highlighting that the events are real.
This made me feel that Owen’s experiences and emotions were being shared directly with me. In contrast Carol Ann Duffy’s poem was written in the 1970’s and was based on conversations that she had with Don McCullin a famous photographer, whose war photographs were widely published and respected. Her poem is fictional and written about a war photographer alone in his darkroom. She uses ‘he’ and ‘his’ which enables the reader to relate to the overwhelming isolation and loneliness that the photographer is feeling. Duffy’s use of the present tense allows the events to gradually emerge and this makes them appear more realistic and shocking. When I read this poem I became aware that the feeling of isolation is essential to understanding the message of human ignorance and neglect.
Dulce Et Decorum Est has four stanza of varying length, this fluctuating form, and the changing lengths of the sentences reflect Owen’s changing mood as his emotions and circumstances alter. In stanza one the pace is very slow as the soldiers ‘trudge’ back in the ‘sludge’ and this is noticeable in the first four lines, the length of this sentence enables the pace of the poem to trudge along with them. In the second stanza, when pandemonium breaks out with the gas attack, the sentences become shorter and the punctuation more expressive, with the use of exclamation marks and a dash, which confirms the panic, confusion and rushing around, that broke out as the ‘boys!’ urgently fumbled with their ‘clumsy helmets’. In War Photographer the structure and length of each stanza remains constant throughout, and this regular form mirrors the environment and emotions of the photographer. It is controlled just like the photographer tries to control his pain and anger. It is containing, as the photographer is contained within his studio with his thoughts and feelings, and it is restricting, ‘He has a job to do’ and this does not allow him to become too emotionally involved.
The journey through Owen’s poem is very sensuous and this encourages the reader to experience the poem in greater depth. He uses onomatopoeic words like ‘gargling’, ‘guttering’ and ‘hoots’ to allow the reader to hear the unfolding events. You can taste the bitterness as he describes the ‘corrupted lungs,’ as ‘ bitter as the cud’ and smell the ‘flares’, ‘fire or lime’, leaving the reader in no doubt of the horror faced by those boys. Although Duffy does highlight some senses, the quietness in the darkroom is compared to ‘A priest preparing to intone a mass’; I felt the language used in her poem was not as sensuous. She was more implicit, using symbolic language with several meanings like ‘dust’, ‘solution’ and ‘ordered rows’, enabling the reader to make up their own mind about the many issues.
Both poems contain clear, powerful and disturbing imagery. Owen uses similes and metaphors to strengthen this imagery: ‘Bent double, like old beggars under sacks’, ‘Knock-kneed, coughing like hags’. These comparisons allow the reader to visualize the physical and mental change in the men, from the healthy young boys that set out for war, to being compared to old men unable to function properly. Duffy uses contrasting images of the horror in the war torn Country, ‘blood stained into foreign dust’, and the pathetic suffering in ‘Rural England’ that ‘simple weather can dispel’. She also uses images of children running through mine fields to bring out the readers protective instincts, making them feel guilty about the injustices being suffered by the innocent. The honesty of her images makes it difficult for the reader to ignore them, they manage to hit a raw nerve, but as she suggests in her poem this ‘prick’ of conscience will be just momentary.
The titles and endings of the two poems are completely different in their purpose and effect. Wilfred Owen’s title is ironic, the translation of it being, ‘It is sweet and right’. Throughout his poem he tells the story of how young men were destroyed and those that did survive would have to live with the ‘incurable sores on innocent tongues’: The memories of the horrendous sights and experiences that they had endured would remain with them for the rest of their lives.
He emphasizes this by ending the poem with the same quote but in an extended version, ‘Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori’, meaning ‘It is sweet and right to die for your country’ and this time he confirms it is a lie. Carol Ann Duffy’s title War Photographer appears to serve the purpose of indicating one of the main considerations in her poem, how could someone continue to visit dangerous places, putting themself at risk, to bring back photographs which have little affect on the rest of the population. The ending of the poem is somewhat ambiguous, it is unclear if she is referring to the war photographer starting out on a new assignment, or reflecting back on the completed one. Either way this makes it a circular poem, a closed ring, where nothing has or will change. The wars continue in foreign countries and people in England carry on with their normal lives. Therefore, the ending could quite easily be the beginning of this continuous cycle.
Both poems contain powerful anti-war messages that bring to light the appalling suffering of those involved in war. In Owen’s poem he focuses on the horror and injustice of war and the impact it had on the young soldiers who were being killed and destroyed by it. His anger is directed at the people in England who believed that there was honour in dying for your country and glamorised and glorified war encouraging innocent children ‘desperate’ for ‘glory’ to become a part of the evil and barbaric war that he so vividly describes in his poem. In Duffy’s poem she focus on the wider social implications of war, as well as the dying men she sympathizes with the suffering wife, and the children that are forced to live in this dangerous environment. She shows her bitterness at the attitude and lack of compassion of those living in England by contrasting the atrocities of war ‘a hundred agonies in black-and-white’ with the fickleness of people in ‘Rural England’; ‘eyeballs prick with tears between the bath and pre-lunch beers’ and then life goes on as normal.
Although these two poems are different in style, language and content, the underlying message contained within them is very similar. They both describe how remoteness of war leads to ignorance and misunderstanding, while the plight and suffering of innocent adults and children is neglected. I found Dulce Et Decorum Est the more disturbing and upsetting poem because it was based on true life experiences; but with modern weapons and propaganda, these are situations and circumstances that should not occur again. The poem War Photographer I could relate more to because it typifies people’s attitude and indifference to war today; out of sight, out of mind. Carol Ann Duffy is probably right in her analysis because although when reading her poem, I had enormous sympathy for those suffering in remote wars today, I will, like those mentioned in her poem, continue with my own life without giving them any further thought.