Wilfred Owen was one of the “soldier poets” of the First World War who practically revolutionised war poetry and views of warfare. As a poet he had an extraordinary talent for drawing the reader into the poem, hooking their attention with a barrage of painfully precise phrases and disgust-inducing images. You cannot help but be affected by Owen’s poetry. His words are intensely provocative; his description of trench warfare permeates your conscience leaving a cloying malaise in your mind. I consider this to be true about many of his poems and is in my opinion what makes his work so admirable.
“Dulce et Decorum est” is an attempt by Owen to alter people’s preconceptions of war. It was, and still is to an extent, indoctrinated that war is synonymous with heroism, and that “there is no fitter end”(In memoriam SCW, Charles Sorley) than sacrificing yourself in battle. It is this indoctrination “Dulce et decorum est pro patria Mori” “Sweet and Honourable it is to die for your country” that Owen tries to destroy through his words, and refers to it as “the old lie”. From the first line he shatters any illusion that there is dignity in warfare. The soldiers returning from the front line are described as being “bent double like old beggars” This is a direct contradiction to the stereotype of proud, upright soldiers.
Similarly they are referred to as “hags” By using images of decrepit old age there is an implication that these young men have been robbed of their youth. The first stanza is saturated with phrases that create a horrific image of the trenches and life within them; “cursed through sludge” “men marched asleep” and “Trudge” all capture the physical difficulty and pain the soldiers were subject to. The soldiers themselves are described as being “lame” “blind” “drunk” and “deaf”; these references to physical impairment present the idea that the war is so damaging that these men have not only been robbed of their youth and dignity but have been stripped of their fundamental humanity. This idea of the damaging effect of the war is driven in further with the line “deaf even to the hoots of gas shells” These soldiers are so fatigued that their exhaustion has rendered them oblivious even to the dropping of devastating bombs. Owen is confronting us with the “truth untold”(strange meeting) of war and we cannot fail to realise that this reality is neither sweet nor honourable.
The second stanza arrives with a sudden change of focus and pace. Owen uses direct speech for the first time “Gas! Gas! Quick boys!” This adds realism to the situation that is being described as well as heightening the impact of what is being said. This second stanza is abrupt in tone and is a shocking contrast from the exhaustion and the laborious sense of the first. This change of pace confronts the reader with the same immediacy and urgency that the soldiers are confronted with when they have to fit their helmets. When Owen describes the soldier who is killed in the gas attack he uses words such as “drowning” “floundering” and “a green sea” Yet parallel to this he describes the man as being “like a man in fire or lime” which is a reference to burning. Owen is desperately trying to convey the horror of gas to people to whom it would be beyond comprehension, however by using two images people can relate to Owen manages to make his audience understand. Similarly the juxtaposing idea of simultaneously burning and drowning is used to illustrate the destruction and agonising death caused by gas to the reader.
At the end of the second stanza the focus has narrowed once more. The sweeping panorama of a troop of soldiers and the account of the dying man has now shifted so we can see from Owen himself’s perspective “I saw him drowning”. The fact that Owen himself fought and died in the first world war is significant in understanding what made his work so radically different from his literary predecessors. Owen’s poetry was written from firsthand experience and what he describes is true. This element of truth does not exist in the poetry that Owen would consider to propagate the “old lie” at least not to the extent that the poet had actually witnessed that which they describe. Owen draws on his experiences in “Dulce et decorum est” to make his point. He says; “If …you too could pace…and watch the white eyes writhing in his face…the blood come gargling forth from the froth-corrupted lungs…You could not tell with such high zest the old lie”. The fact that Owen had seen these sickening things magnifies the increasing horror you feel because of the added emphasis that these are not merely disturbing creations but real events.
In “Dulce et decorum est” Owen also describes to the reader the effect fighting in the first world war has on the soldiers. Owen tells of how he himself is still haunted by “smothering dreams” in which the dying soldier “plunges at him, guttering, choking, drowning.” This theme of incessant torture is echoed in several of Owens other poems. It is particularly prominent in “Mental Cases” in which Owen discusses the consequences the “multitudinous murders” on the “men whose minds the dead have ravished”. He says “Always must they see and hear these things” and cites us as responsible, it is us “who smote them, and dealt them war and madness.”
Another poem I admire of Owen’s is “Anthem for doomed youth”. It is a much more sensitive poem than “Dulce et decorum est” and is a homage to the generation condemned by the “carnage incomparable” of the first world war. It is mournful, stately and dignified in tone and pace; it is Owens use of Iambic Pentameter that reflects this. The theme of the poem is captured in the paradoxical title, “Doomed Youth” is a morbid reflection of the hopeless fate of an entire generation and this sombre sentiment is contradicted by the jubilation we associate with the word “anthem”. This disturbing juxtaposition is unsettling and thought provoking for the reader.
In the poem Owen conveys the idea that the soldiers in the war will receive no dignity following their supposedly honourable end. He does this by listing images we associate with a traditional funeral and informs the reader how these men “who die as cattle” will not receive these “prayers or bells” and that their “hasty orisons” will be recited only by the “stuttering rifle’s rapid rattle”. Throughout the poem Owen promotes that not only will these men’s deaths not be recognised with the traditional fare but that in fact the formality of a funeral would be a mockery to them. For Owen gives the distinct impression that these men were sent to a certain slaughter and mourning them would be an insult to the truth, it would belie the pre-ordained nature of their death.
The poem expands however from simply examining the fate of the soldiers of the generation. “The pallor of girls brows shall be their pall” tells of the effect these “multitudinous murders”(mental cases) will have on those people remaining. Owens words provoke in our mind the grief that the mothers, wives and girlfriends are obliged to endure, we cannot fail to realise this lamentable loss of loved ones and empathise with those left “calling for them from sad shires”. This is indeed tribute to the “Doomed youth” and their tragic fate.
“Anthem for Doomed youth” ends tenderly and respectfully with an underlying manifestation of bidding goodbye not only to the dead soldiers but to this condemned generation. The “holy glimmers of goodbyes” give you as a reader a haunting impression of the hopelessness. Owen’s language is highly evocative towards the end of the third stanza, he is subtly attacking the establishment as is the nature of much of his work. With the last line “And each slow dusk a drawing down of blinds” the ideas of life ending, lament and mourning are firmly embedded. The reader is then left with the torturous question lingering on their conscience; Supposedly we are a civilised society so why do we let our men “die as cattle” under the thin veneer of patriotism and dignity? This thought provoking quality, prevalent in all Owen’s poetry, is why I consider it so estimable.
A poem that pervaded my mind in particular was “Strange Meeting”. Once again this poem is demonstrative of Owen’s zeal to inform us of the “truth untold”. However “Strange meeting” is less specific than the others I have mentioned and the almost archaic references to “vain citadels”, “chariot wheels” and “titanic wars” emote that Owen is not merely commenting on the first world war alone but on all the wars in our history. My interpretation of “Strange meeting” is that it is not a literal meeting or event. There is a surreal interchange between two opposing soldiers in hell after they are dead. There is a nightmarish quality to the poem that is thoroughly disturbing to read.
In archetypal Owen style the poem is confrontational in tone, particularly deliberating over the futility and “human squander” of warfare. Owen contemplates through the poem how seemingly unnecessary and foolish the enmity between any two sides in a war is. The soldier declares himself to be the “enemy you killed, my friend.” Owen is forcing you to consider the morbid irony that these two men identical in their death were supposed enemies while they both were alive. It is clear that Owen believes men have died needlessly and that “foreheads of men have bled where no wounds were.”
Owen continues this idea of wasting life, furthering it by implying that it wont even be noticed. The two soldiers in “Strange meeting” discuss how “the truth untold…must die now” they believe no one will realise what they realise now being dead, “men will go content with what we spoiled”. To me it seems that this notion that “none will break ranks” from this blindness to the “pity of war” is designed to inspire the reader to prove the soldiers wrong.
Personally I found “Strange meeting” perturbing to read, it appeared to me that there was an element of resignation to the “hopelessness” of “the march of this retreating world”.