W.B. Yeats described Owen’s poetry as “all blood and dirt and sucked sugar stick.” With reference to at least two of Owen’s poems, discuss the validity of Yeat’s judgement.
He was born in 1893 in Oswestry, Shropshire as the oldest child in his family. In 1911 he left school and he had a passion for poetry and poets. When he left Dunsden early in 1913 he had lost his Christian faith. He went to Bordeaux and found himself busy, independent and happy before the war broke out in 1914.
It was not until October 1915 that he was enlisted as a cadet with the Artists Rifles in London, and later in the Manchester Regiment. After a long experience of trench warfare he was sent to Edinburgh for convalescence in a local military hospital. It was here that he met Seigfried Sassoon who had an important influence on the young poet, encouraging him to write about the war. Some plans were made to publish his work, but he was redrafted to France and was tragically killed on November 4th 1918 ironically because a week later the war ended and the armistice was signed.
A change in style occurred when Owen met Sassoon an already established poet who wrote anti-war poetry after serving in the war him self. Through his poetry Owen commented on the savage nature of war and on his personal experiences of the trenches. His work varied in a short space of time: mournful and delicate in The Send-Off, but strong and robust in Dulce Et Decorum Est.
Owen’s planned book of poetry was to be prefaced with a reflection on his work. In his preface he stated that
“Above all I am not concerned with poetry. My subject is war, and the pity of war… All a poet can do today is warn. That is why the true poets must be truthful.”
Owens cause was not in fact a describe war through poetry, but to create poetry through an accurate depiction of the horrors of the front line.
Owen produced a range of poetry during the war. He was capable of writing satirical work as in The Inspection, in which a soldier is punished for parading with blood on his uniform, and is imagined making his defence. The Inspection is an unusual poem as it is written in dialogue. On first reading the poem it is difficult to isolate the voice of the poet that we know from some of Owen’s previous work. When first written the poem was called Dirt, an idea that may support Yeats’ opinion that Owen’s poetry is “all blood and dirt”, though the poem is more complex.
Dulce Et Decorum Est is a later poem that tells of exhausted troops leaving the front line and encountering an enemy gas attack. The gas used at this time was phosgene, popularly known as ‘mustard gas’ which drowns it’s victims in the fluid of their own lungs. The title is also the line that concludes the poem taken from the Odes of Horace, a Latin poet that translates as: “it is a sweet and seemly thing to die for one’s country.” This line is written ironically in contrast to the main body of the piece.
The poem is a persuasive piece of anti-war poetry, using graphic imagery and strong language. Owen’s use of words such as “plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning” not only shows the suffering of the soldier, but also his inhumane pain. “The blood come[s] gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs” adds to this feeling by detailing how the man is being tormented. The soldiers’ agony is accurately described “many had lost their boots, but limped on blood-shod” the soldiers have not been allowed to rest and have been on their feet for an untold amount of time.
The opening line uses simile to describe the soldiers: “bent double, like old beggars under sacks” not only tired, but reduced to the level of tramps on the street, starved of food and sleep. Most powerfully the men’s faces are “hanging… like a devil’s sick of sin” strongly contrasting against the innocent “children ardent for some desperate glory.”
The dropping of the gas brings ” an ecstasy of fumbling” creating a nightmareish image of soldiers desperate to leave the mist. How naively they fit ” the clumsy helmets” and in nervous panic begin “yelling… stumbling and floundering like a man in fire or lime.” Such images of terror have haunted numerous readers and stand out as more than “blood and dirt.”
The Send-Off describes soldiers who are leaving for the front line from their hometown for the first time. Their departure is almost a secret as “wrongs hushed-up” as guilt seems to dominate the onlookers, unaware to “which front these were sent.” The image of “their breasts… stuck all white with wreath and spray as men’s are, dead” is significant, as many will not return, only “a few, a few, too few for drums and yells.” Owen uses the oxymoron “grimly gay” to describe the mixed emotions at the train station as local people show both acceptance and indifference at their departure, “dull porters watched them, and a casual tramp stood staring hard, sorry to miss them at the upland camp.”
A rhetorical question is asked: “shall they return to beating of great bells in wild train-loads?” All too clearly these men will return, and “creep back, silent” with the sin of war on their shoulders, absent for such a long time that the “close, darkening lanes” are now “half-known roads.”
In conclusion, close reading of Owen’s poems reveals well-structured poetry, using strong imagery and a precise lexicon in order to show the horror of war to those generations without experience of conflict. I think that Yeats’ description of “all blood and dirt and sucked sugar stick” is wrong because eighty years from the first world war Owen’s work is still some of the most shocking and horrific writing produced about conflict. The poems discuss the nature of war; though remain accessible to a large number of people as originally intended.