Poems evoke one or more of the five senses (sight, sound, smell, taste and touch) to make abstract issues tangible. Discuss this statement with reference to the work of one or more of the War Poets.
Expressing oneself through the medium of text may seem limited at times, especially when trying to convey opinion on a matter such as the First World War. Thus many of the more famous war poets, including Wilfred Owen, tried numerous different techniques to pass on their true intentions. One such technique was to evoke one or more of the five senses of the human body; namely sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. With this in mind, Owen managed to craft several of his works in such a way that stimuli for all five senses lay within a single poem. Additionally, he would make a direct reference to the organ that provided that particular sense; for example if evoking the sense of sight the eyeball would be detailed. Two of his poems in which this is evidently demonstrated are “Mental Cases” and “Dulce Et Decorum Est”. After reading each one, it is apparent that by including stimuli for the sense, the issue Owen is trying to express is made more tangible and thus the reader is able to easily identify with it.
Imagery is present throughout “Mental Cases”, and with it Owen attempts to appeal to our sense of sight. A horrifically rich vocabulary details the torments suffered by the victims in the poem, painting in our mind scenes that are gruesome in their splendour. As he describes to us in the second stanza, “Wading sloughs of flesh these helpless wander…carnage incomparable, and human squander rucked too thick for these men’s extrication”. Sickening images of soldiers wading through the bodies of their fallen comrades, eventually getting pulled under by the sheer weight of bodies comes to our mind. As if that is not enough, the tone of blood and gore continues with “Sunlight seems a bloodsmear; night comes blood-black; Dawn breaks open like a wound that bleeds afresh”. Now even the air is stained red, and no matter be it night or day the torment will continue.
This is particularly emphasised with Owen using a simile to tell us that the new day brings no hope, the fresh, clean dawn replaced with an image of a gaping wound. Also, towards the end of the final stanza Owen presents us with another set of images, this time it is the soldiers themselves, “Thus their heads wear this hilarious, hideous, awful falseness of set smiling corpses”. Here, the use of ‘smiling corpses’ is horribly ironic as these are not voluntary smiles but the permanent smile found on skulls that is present unto death. Furthermore, with the number of stimuli for the sense of sight present in “Mental Cases” it comes as no surprise that Owen makes references to the eyeball on two occasions. Firstly, “gouged these chasms round their fretted sockets” contains a hyperbole used to exaggerate the agony of the soldiers. Their suffering is further defined in the second reference, “therefore still their eyeballs shrink tormented”. Although not as frequent as in “Mental Cases”, the evoking of the sense of sight is nonetheless present in Owen’s other poem.
Similarly to “Mental Cases”, “Dulce Et Decorum Est” contains much imagery, as is Owens’s hallmark, thus appealing to our sense of sight. Again as in “Mental Cases” the purpose of the imagery is to impose on us the fear and suffering that the soldiers had to endure. To start off, Owen describes the soldiers who are not the marching, proud men that the media make them out to be, but rather they are “bent double, like old beggars under sacks”.
As the poem progresses to the incident of a gas attack, the suffering of the soldiers reaches its apex and is presented to us through yet more imagery, “flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…in all my dreams, before my helpless sight he plunges at me”. Additionally, Owen attempts to present the poem as if through a first hand eyewitness account, as if the reader is the one watching the soldiers die before him. This is evidenced by the line, “In all my dreams before my helpless sight”. And similarly again to “Mental Cases”, the eyeball is referred to in the poem: “watch the white eyes writhing in his face”. Owen also mentions that the men are “blood-shod”; yet contradicting this he also states that they are “all blind”. Perhaps he is simply emphasising the suffering of the soldiers, firstly indicating their fatigue from the war and secondly how they must continue to their inevitable death yet cannot see their future.
The second sense Owen evokes in “Mental Cases” is that of sound. This is evident by the frequent use of onomatopoeia and also alliteration and repetition. It can be argued that onomatopoeia is the strongest technique available for a poet to appeal to the sense of sound. As Owen writes, “Batter of guns and shatter of flying muscles”, the reader can emphasise with the tormented, hear their pains. In addition to this, alliteration is present twice within the poem, firstly, “Memory fingers in their hair of murders, multitudinous murders they once witnessed” and secondly, “Thus their heads wear this hilarious, hideous awful falseness”. In each case, with the emphasis placed on the beginning consonant, Owen is able to better present to the reader the suffering of the soldiers, through the pronunciation of the details. Finally, repetition is also used, as shown in the line, “stroke on stroke of pain”. By repeating the word “stroke”, Owen is able to draw out the suffering of the men, indicating that it is an ongoing torment with no end in sight. This can be likened to the whipping of a person: as each stroke of the whip brings fresh pain, there is no end in sight.
In “Dulce Et Decorum Est”, Owen does not directly utilise the sense of sound by incorporating similar poetic techniques as found in “Mental Cases”. Instead, he evokes the sense by structuring the poem in such a way to position the perspective of the reader as if they were hearing firsthand the events the poem dictates. He directly addresses the reader, “If you could hear at every jolt…”as if they were present in person. This is a critical part of Owen’s construction; here he is setting up for the conclusion of the poem where he points the finger of blame partly towards the reader. Preceding this, Owen gives a direct mention to the men’s sense of sound, in the line, “deaf even to the hoots of gas shells dropping softly behind”. Here the onomatopoeia seems to be contradicting the remainder of the sentence, with the word “hoots” seemingly inappropriate for representing a sound too soft for the men to hear. It may be the case that Owen is simply emphasising the effect of war on the soldiers, and their lost of control over their own sense of hearing.
With the main incident in “Dulce Et Decorum Est” being a gas attack, it makes it necessary for Owen to attempt to appeal strongly to the reader’s sense of smell. For the soldiers, this sense becomes their enemy, as the gas threatens to overwhelm their circulatory systems. In order to save themselves they must quickly “(fit) the clumsy helmets just in time”. Owen thus mentions the affected organs of the body, “blood come gargling from the froth corrupted lungs”. In this line, he simultaneously evokes both the senses of sight and smell, with imagery presenting the death of the vital breathing organs. He makes a similar reference in “Mental Cases”, “treading blood from lungs that had loved laughter”, but otherwise does not utilise the sense of smell in any other way.
Together with the sense of smell, the sense of taste is integral for Owen to more successfully present to the reader the effects of the gas attack in “Dulce Et Decorum Est”. Firstly, when describing to us the poor description of the soldiers, Owen explains to us that they are “coughing like hags” and also “drunk with fatigue”. Notice that both connotations are extremely negative, implying the only tastes the soldiers have in their mouths are bitter or sour. This is further emphasised later in the poem with the simile, “(the blood) bitter as the cud”. Moreover, Owen highlights the suffering of the soldiers utilising the sense of taste, “he plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning”. Together, the soldiers’ senses of smell and taste are slowly killing him. As is the trend, the dying organs are directly noted, “vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues”, and is used to further convey guilt and shock to the reader. Similarly to the sense of smell, “Mental Cases” has a brief reference to the organ in a similar fashion with “drooping tongues from jaws that slob their relish”. And again, it does not evoke the sense further.
Appealing to the sense of touch is probably the hardest of the five senses to evoke within the limited medium of text. Yet Owen successfully does just that in “Mental Cases” and to a lesser extent also in “Dulce Et Decorum Est”. For the sense of touch to be evoked, the reader must feel as if they are involved firsthand in the events of the poem, that they are actually touching what is occurring. Owen can be said to have achieved this at the end of “Mental Cases”, through the use of repetition, addressing the reader directly and an excellent choice of verbs. As he writes, “Thus their hands plucking at each other, picking at the rope-knouts of their scourging; snatching after us who smote them, brother, pawing us who dealt the war and madness”.
Repetition is evident as Owen addresses the reader three times in these few lines, with the words “us” and more comradely, “brother”. Thus, as Owen ultimately intended, he ends the poem with the note that we are responsible for all their suffering that has been described to us through he length of the poem. Furthermore, repetition is again utilised to deliver the “touch” of the tormented, with no fewer than six verbs used. As Owen writes, the victims are “plucking”, “picking”, “pawing” and “snatching” at both themselves and at us, who are responsible for their state as we “smote” and “dealt” them what they receive now. Owen uses the same style of strong verbs and repetitions in “Dulce”, however there are fewer and are more spaced out. The point where the sense is best evoked is the line, “He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning”. Here, the similarities to the ending of “Mental Cases” are obvious, with the direct address and the repetition of strong verbs. And as is Owen’s style, he points the blame again at us, the readers.
Altogether, the successful evocation of any one of the five senses vastly improves the ability for the reader to identify with the poem and thus the poet. This is clearly evidenced by Wilfred Owen’s two poems, “Mental Cases” and “Dulce Et Decorum Est”, where without appealing to the senses of the human body, the issues presented would have remained largely intangible and abstract. It is interesting to note that if all five senses were to be evoked together within the same poem, the result would complete the immersion experience for the reader, basically reaching the limits of conveyance through text.