War has always been described as horrific, but you had a chance to prove yourself in warfare. This is the impression we get from Chaucer’s General Prologue to the “Canterbury Tales “. Chaucer (the pilgrim) describes the Knight, as a worthy man who had certain knightly qualities. He was a brave man and he behaved like a knight in shining armour should. He set an example to all the people around him and he had great respect for his King and Country. “He loved chivalrie…” in other words this noble man was well experienced in battle and he had fought in fifteen wars. Chaucer the pilgrim believed that he was a noble, generous and liberal Knight with good manners:
“He was a verray, parfit gentil Knight”.
Chaucer’s Knight is respected because he has proven himself in battle.
Earlier poets recognised the violence of war but saw it as an honourable struggle, and that death was a worthy sacrifice. In pre-World War One poems, Alfred Tennyson among other poets describes war; the emphasis on honour and glory:
“When can their glory fade? O the wild charge they made!”
The charge is the best-known example of the heroism and stupidity of war, but Tennyson focuses on the glory.
Henry Newbolt was the most patriotic poet of Britain’s Empire. He wrote the poem, “Vitai Lampada”: the torch of life. His code of behaviour towards war was that it was all a game of Cricket. And setting the scene of schoolboys playing a game of cricket, he then sees them as men defending some outpost of Empire:
“Play up! Play up! And play the game!”
Rupert Brooke wrote one of his poems, “The Soldier”, to say that through any man dying, he still gains success, where he’s been buried in a foreign field: “If I should die, think only this of me: that there’s some corner of a foreign field…”
After 1915 Jessie Pope wrote in her poem ‘The Call’ about how when that call came through you knew that you were going to be doing your bit to get fit and to show your grit, to “earn the Empire’s thanks”.
With real experience, however, Wilfred Owen soon saw, and described, the true horror of war. His descriptions of the front line were unstintingly graphic as he invented a new style of poetry. Owen couldn’t write poems about beautiful flowers anymore because it didn’t seem appropriate.
The details of life and death in the front line are horrific:
‘The Sentry’ is a poem, which has total focus on an abandoned dugout. Soldiers were herded from the blast, and a man was blinded from a flare of the explosion. He cried:
“O sir, my eyes-I’m blind-I’m blind, I’m blind!”
A man persuaded the wounded soldier that if he could see the light held up against his lids that he would get better:
“I see your lights!” But ours had long died out.” This blind man was persuading himself that he could see the light, to cheer him self-up.
Nevertheless, there was a slight sense of guilt when the poet watches his dreams because he could still see him, and as much as this man is trying to forget, there is no escape from the memory.
In “Dulce Et Decorum Est”: (It’s sweet and honourable to die for ones country), Owen concentrates on the horror of the front line and how it couldn’t be less glorious. Soldiers were going to their deaths without any argument in the front line. Death is being described in all its true horror as the soldiers are gassed and the cries for help couldn’t be less glorious. There is a vivid description of a man dying, and the poisonous gas filling the air chokes him:
“If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs”.
Worse still, death seems inevitable from the moment of ‘The Send Off’:
“Shall they return to beatings of great bells in wild train-loads?”
The soldiers are treated like animals in ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’:
“What passing-bells (funeral bells) for these who die as cattle?”
And even religion seems powerless in ‘Exposure’ as God has lost faith in mankind and vice-versa:
“For love of God seems dying.”
Owen’s poetic style, too, is very different from the elegant gentle verse of the Georgians before him. The use of words like “bled and spewed” and images such as “blood/come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs” revolutionised poetry. In poems like ‘The Sentry’, too, the sounds of battle are captured terrifyingly through alliteration:
“O sir, my eyes-I’m blind-I’m blind, I’m blind!”.
The sounds of battle are captured terrifyingly through assonance: “And thud! flump! Thud! Down the steep steps came thumping and splashing in the flood, deluging muck”,
And onomatopoeia: “Kept slush waist-high that, rising hour by hour, choked up the steps too thick with clay to climb”.
Owen throws the reader directly into the front line of battle, but even more horrifying are his descriptions of those who survive. Death is a blessing when one looks at the alternatives described in ‘Mental Cases’ and ‘Disabled’.
‘Mental Cases’, is a poem written after battle describing the after effects of war on the soldiers (shell shock). Death has already taken over their minds:
“These are men those minds the dead have ravished.”
These soldiers witnessed the deaths of so many of there once friends:
“The batter of guns and shatter of flying muscles, carnage incomparable…”
These men might as well be dead because the pain they are going through and the memories that just don’t go away.
‘Disabled’, is an account of a Scottish man giving his description of life in a wheel chair. This man was once a sportsman and he would have a drunk a peg after the football match, reminding us of Newbolt’s:
“Play up, play up and play the game”.
This man signed up for the army and the men that allowed him to enter the army said he was nineteen, which was a lie because they needed as many soldiers as possible for ‘The Send-off’:
“Smiling they wrote his lie; aged nineteen years.”
Just like a game of football the man thought team spirit would carry him through the war.
Even those not obviously injured have to live with the guilt of survival, we can recognise this in the ‘Send-off’: “A few, a few, too few for drums and yells, may creep back, silent, to village wells up half-known roads.”
At the end of ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’: “In all my dreams before my helpless sight he plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.” –
And near to the end of ‘The Sentry’: “Eyeballs, huge-bulged like squids, watch my dreams still.”
Owen understood that War was no longer glorious or honourable for the ordinary soldier-there was no longer any hand-to-hand fighting anymore but mechanical weaponry e.g. Artillery, guns, bombs etc.
He experienced it first hand and saw that the war was merely destructive.
“Shall life renew these bodies?” he asks in ‘The End’, and the only answer he can find is that “it is death.” There is no purpose in fighting such a terrible war and now it is up to the poets to tell the truth about it:
“All a poet can do today is warn. That is why the true poets must be truthful.”