By comparing and contrasting a selection of war poems consider the ways in which attitudes to war have been explored and expressed. When considering poetry written post 1914 concentrate on a selection of poems written by Wilfred Owen.
The main point in time which has affected the evolution of views expressed through poetry about war was the First World War or the ‘great war’, in 1914, “the war to end all wars”.
One poem written before this time was ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ by Alfred Tennyson. The use of rhythm is particularly noticeable, which is demonstrated by the first two lines, “half a league, half a league, half a league onward”, which has a strong rhythmical sense of repetition. This gives the effect of the rhythm of horses surging forwards, portraying a sense of excitement, energy and drama. This is ironic due to the number of people killed during the act. This strong rhythmical pattern is repeated throughout the poem, which gives the reader a sense of urgency and continuation. Tennyson suggests an incomplete positive opinion about the charge with the line “some one had blundered”, which hints that the mass death incurred was unnecessary; however, it is then used instead to demonstrate the bravery of the soldiers as chivalrous knights.
This depiction of medieval drama is then used again in the line “boldly they rode and well”, which portrays the soldiers as knights from medieval times. This heightens the feeling of glory and honour, nullifying the tragedy of such a large amount of death .The images of drama and excitement are featured throughout the poem, such as in the line, “volleyed and thundered; stormed at with shot and shell”, which provides a dramatic visualization of the charge itself, still conveying an underlying feeling of excitement and action. The use of combined onomatopoeia and alliteration of the aggressive ‘st’ and ‘sh’ syllables gives a cacophony of loud and exciting noises adding to the excitement and drawing the reader’s attention away from the death. These emotions are extended to include the chivalrous ideals of duty and bravery in the lines, “theirs but to do and die”, and, “when can their glory fade”, which denote a sensation of bravery and heroism, which are the key ideas shown in many of the pre-1914 poems.
These ideas are shown also in the speech from ‘Henry V’ by Shakespeare. In this speech the King is urging his soldiers to fight, which he does by instilling a sense of elitism and superiority in them, such as in the first line where he refers to them as “dear friends”. This shows equality between the soldiers and the King and raises their status to a personal level. The speech uses very powerful language in order to persuade his point, such as “but when the blast of war blows in our ears”, which uses the very powerful, plosive ‘b’ sounds to show authority and inspire confidence. This is done again in the repeated comparison to fierce predators, for example “then imitate the action of a tiger, stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood”, which likens them to aggressive tigers.
This simile is effective because the soldiers are encouraged to share the power and success of a hunting tiger, which elates their confidence emotionally and intellectually in preparation to attack. The soldiers are then made stronger and more elite still with the apparent transformation into cold metal weapons, shown in the line “let it pry through the portage of the head like the brass canon”, which suggests the eyes have become cannons. This is effective because cannons have no sense of emotion or loss and used simply for the task of destruction without deviation from their purpose. Another belief encouraged by the King is the feeling of patriotism, as used in the phrase “you noblest English”, which refers back to the sense of elitism but combines it with a feeling of national pride through the use of ‘noblest’ as its superlative form.
This is completely contrasting to the views expressed by Wilfred Owen in his poems, such as ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’. In the first line there is a very powerful use of the word “cattle”, which suggests a mass indiscriminate slaughter, reducing humans to pointless fodder-like material. The cattle is a mass, similar to that spoken to by Henry V. Their death as cattle is the tragic result to King Henry’s inspiration. In contrast to the glory and splendour perceived by ‘charge of the light brigade’ the word “cattle” suggests mundane and dullness. This banal image shows Owen’s extreme anger towards the war.
Owen then uses personification in the line “monstrous anger of the guns”, to portray the guns as if they were living and feeling emotions, thus worsening their appearance to the reader. This personification as a monster is similar to that used by Tennyson in ‘charge of the light brigade’, in the line “into the jaws of death”, which both have the connotations of being unstoppable and terrifying. The use of the alliterated ‘r’ in the line “rifle’s rapid rattle” reflects the speed of the machine gun fire, which builds on the point of massive amounts of indiscriminate death.
Owen uses the visual and aural images involved in funerals to progress the poem to an emotional stage with the line “save the choirs” which suggests a momentary chance of actual recognition for the soldiers, but this is then replaced by “the shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells”, which have very powerful emotional nuances, such as the act of unstoppable crying at a moment of intense grief for “wailing”. The word “shrill” implies a high pitched and dissonant cacophony of ugly sounds, and “demented” suggests uncontrollable chaos. This collection of imagery is used to very powerful effect in providing the reader with an emotional insight into the reality of the consequences of war.
Further on, Owen uses religious concepts to provide imagery, in the line, “what candles shall be held”, with the images of light, peace and life after death associated with the word “candle”. The idea of associating religion with war was also used in the poem ‘to the others’ by Katherine Tynan, in which she talks about “the Holy War”. However, in comparing the war to crusades she glamorizes and justifies it, which contrasts to Owen’s ideas.
In comparison, Rupert Brooke also used religion in his poem, ‘peace’. He begins the poem with the words “God be thanked”, as a result of them being sent to war. Like Tynan, Brooke justifies war in describing it as a service to God. The rest of this poem shows similarities to other pro-war poems, such as in the line “with hand made sure, clear eye, and sharpened power”, which is similar to the predatory similes used in Henry V. Furthermore, the line “caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping”, is similar to the line “waiting dreams are satisfied”, from ‘the volunteer’ by Herbert Asquith. In both these poems the concept of the war as a vital break and source of relief from the tedium of normal life is used, again contrasting with Owen.
In addition, Owen adds to the funeral imagery with the lines “the pallor of girls brows shall be their pall; their flowers the tenderness of patient minds”, pallor suggesting pale skin as opposed to the rosy skin that was standard. This shows the huge grief that they suffered, which is also demonstrated by the word “patient”. Their grief and thoughts of the soldiers killed are acting symbolically as the cloth over their coffin, which shows that there no other form of recognition for the millions of dead.
Furthermore, Owen again expresses his anger at the war in another of his poems, ‘Dulce et Decorum est’, which means ‘it is sweet and fitting’. This phrase is derived from a longer Latin sentence which means ‘it is sweet and fitting to die for your country’. At first, this appears ironically positive, but as the poem progresses it becomes apparent that it is not. The first line uses the words “bent double, like old beggars”, which suggests that they are struggling to hold their own weight and walking in an unmilitary style as if they had been broken. The use of the word “beggars” suggests unkempt, incapacitated and dependency which evoke sympathy in the reader.
In addition, Owen also compares the soldiers as “coughing like hags”, which signifies unhealthy, unhygienic conditions and an image of further decrepit weakness. The use of continued enjambment throughout the first section gives a feeling of incredibly slow speed and a sense of time dragging on slowly with the men barley even managing to walk. This is particularly effective because it conveys to the reader the torture that the men were suffering. Suddenly, Owen introduces a shouted inchoate exclamation, in the line “Gas! Gas! Quick boys!”, which shows a dramatic recreation for the reader of the events which occurred. This is followed by a temporary pause of relief, which is followed by the line “but someone was still yelling and fumbling”, which portrays the agony of incompetent movement. The use of three ‘s’s shows urgency because of the repetition, which is significant because it depicts the excruciating exigency to fit their helmets in time.
In the final section, Owen directs his criticism towards pro-war poets, specifically Jessie Pope, whom he hated for the excitement she instigated through her ignorance. It ends with the lines from which the title was derived, described as “the old lie”, which refers to nineteenth centaury poetry, e.g. Henry V, because of the word “old”. By referring to it as a “lie”, he is attacking these poems, which not only explains the irony of the poems title, but also reinforces Owen’s position of communicating the realties of trench warfare.
In conclusion, the tradition of war poetry has evolved as the public’s awareness of its realities gas changed. One of the poets who actively developed war poetry after 1914 was Wilfred Owen, who passionately hated the way in which war was glamorised and made to appear exciting and honourable. His poetry was contrasting to the majority of pre-1914 poetry, but is now the most widely recognized and remembered.