Referring in detail to at least two poems: What Makes Wilfred Owen a Great War Poet?

Commencing the First World War in 1914, conscription had not yet been established, but the government were leaning heavily on the media to endeavour and recruit volunteers into the army. This was done by propaganda. Poetry and posters were the two most prominent in persuading men to fight for their country. But it was poetry which encouraged the “war fever”; poetry in which war was described as valiant and noble, and how it was an honourable thing to be able to fight for your country.
An example was Jessie Pope who wrote Who’s for the Game: a writer whom Owen was predominantly against. His poems he wrote partially in retaliation against propaganda, and with the intention of exposing “the old lie”. By this, he recapitulated his own experiences in the war, which were ghastly and did not show men in war as gallant and heroic. His poems also seemed therapeutic; a way of release, but the main intention it seems was to expose the truth about war.
Owen illustrates his poetry with such vivid descriptions and realism, particularly in Dulce et Decorum est, so as to paint a realistic image of World War I in the reader’s mind, especially in the fourth and final verse, where Owen vividly describes the horrific image of a soldier dead from gas, and he brings the reader right up close to the face of the dead soldier. By doing this, he makes it very personal for the reader. The face of a human is what shows their emotions, and what shows identity.

In the poem The Charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred Tennyson, which describes the charge of British cavalry against Russian soldiers, the whole six hundred British were slaughtered, yet not once does Tennyson pick out one soldier, or individualises this. This is what Owen does in “Dulce et Decorum est”: he individualises the soldier who has died. Another feature of this last verse is that it shows people that the war they thought would be glorious and noble is not at all that. At the end, it seems as if he is trying to make the reader feel guilty (especially after reading about the gassed soldier) by ever believing that war is an honourable thing:
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory
The old lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori
With this, Owen asks that after knowing what war is really like (as opposed to glorious and noble), would you still tell your children if they asked that war is a wonderful and honourable thing? He therefore intends to make the reader feel guilty for this.
In a war, when many people die, their deaths are recorded mostly as a statistic. Here in the last verse of Dulce et Decorum est, Owen picks out one dead individual to the reader. The dead one’s face is described so vividly, so as to stand out most to the reader. One’s face is what gives one identity, what shows emotion and other human characteristics. Owen purposely focuses in particularly on the face, as to give maximum emotional impact; especially a face so mutilated by the gas which would be a huge shock to one’s morals. With “Obscene as cancer”, Owen is comparing this image, something he knows, to something readers at home know of well. By doing this, Owen also shows how horrifically real the war was, by comparing it to something equally horrifically real, and much closer to home.
At the beginning of the second line in Dulce et Decorum est, Owen uses an interesting phrase: “knock-kneed”. In this phrase can be extracted quite a few different meanings, mostly centred on Owen’s excellent use of language which brings such strong realism into his poems. It could possibly be a simple phrase in soldiers’ slang, which ties in with the realism. Poetically speaking, he uses alliteration and onomatopoeia to give the idea of knees buckling and knocking together. Knocking together with what? It could have merely been the weather, as the soldiers were cold, muddy and wet, but it also gives the impression that they were shaking with fear, which ties in with the idea that soldiers were ideally viewed as strong, heroic and fearless, yet here they are scared, and defeated by this fear and the effects of the weather. This phrase also gives one the idea of violence, which is certainly and undoubtedly expected in a war.
“Haunting flares” in the next line automatically gives the reader the idea of a horror story. Owen writes Dulce et Decorum est certainly in such a way which could relate it to a horror story, particularly in the last verse where he describes the soldier who died from the gas attack, for here one reads about something which is so horrific, alien and obscene that it could not possibly be real, just as the ghost or other such supernatural beings in a horror story. This ties in with when in the last verse Owen relates it to the Devil, and the Devil is not something most people would like to believe in, just as the nasty image Owen puts into the reader’s head of the dead soldier is not something one would like to believe. However, unlike horror stories and the Devil, Owen’s description and vivid realism make this something one must accept as real.
Tied within the idea of a horror story, “Haunting flares” also has a rather psychological meaning to it. The use of the word “haunting” shows that this has been on the soldiers’ minds constantly. But as a horror story, in which the purpose is to be scary, but not real, and it seems that the soldiers are treating it as such. The way Owen writes it makes it seem as if it is something that they have been constantly worrying about constantly which has made them paranoid, and so they dismiss it merely as though they are seeing things. This could be a cause of their delayed reactions when they are hit by the gas attack, for they dismissed the flares as though they were not there.
In the next verse where Owen describes the gas attack, he uses language which links and relates to the idea of water. “Floundering” shows this first, as for example one who cannot swim will flounder in the water. Another possible meaning is that a flounder is a fish; a fish out of water will flap and struggle and will not survive because it cannot breathe oxygen. It seems Owen is using this to compare with the soldier who could not get his mask on in time, and he is as the fish out of water, struggling and fighting for the oxygen he cannot breathe, and in the end he will not survive. “As under a green sea, I saw him drowning” also relates quite clearly to water; the green sea being the gas, and the soldier is dying – drowning – in this green sea.
In the next small verse, Owen briefly changes from the past to the present tense with,
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, chocking, drowning.
This shows the traumatic and psychological effects this one event had on him. This could be because Owen saw this so close and it was so shocking to him. However, although there is no hint to it in the poem save for “An ecstasy of fumbling”, there could be a chance that the gas mask Owen ‘won’ might have been fought over by Owen and the dying soldier. The sight of watching the soldier die so horrifically could leave a sharp imprint of guilt upon Owen, such as that he would relive the moment when he sleeps, in his dreams. It also shows that Owen had been forced to buy such a nasty moment to be able to function, to do his job, during the day.
However, when something has such an effect on someone, it cannot be buried, and it will come back to haunt the person, as it did with Owen when he slept. However, in order for one to be able to get over such an event, it must be remembered, and part of the reason Owen wrote this poem was as a method of self-therapy, to help him recover from the moment. Owen also uses an interesting order of words in these two lines, leaving the point where he speaks about the soldier actually dying, the most important bit, till last. Because of the such traumatic effect it has on him, such a thing to say would be very hard for Owen.
In Exposure, Owen focuses in particular on describing most vividly the weather and psychological effects on them during this particular time. It shows also his experience in the war, as weather was a strong enemy to both sides and both sides were badly affected. In the second verse of Exposure, Owen uses poetic technique tied in with realism to describe the weather as an army to be fought.
…melancholy army attacks once
More in ranks on shivering
Ranks of grey…
Throughout Exposure, Owen uses vivid description to relate to the reader the weather. Here, Owen uses personification as he describes the weather as at the time a more challenging enemy to be fought than the Germans – the main enemy at the time. Also, with “a dull rumour of some other war”, he is showing that during that time the soldiers were far more concerned about surviving from the extreme weather conditions than they were about the war they were in France originally to fight. It also shows that they were not alert completely, perhaps effected by the weather and fatigue, and they are not entirely aware of how vulnerable they are to the Nazis.
Exposure focuses particularly on not only the weather, but also on the psychological effects. Owen describes how the soldiers were so wrecked by fatigue and by the effects of the weather that they forgot about fighting the Nazis and merely withdrew into themselves. Within this, they seem to wonder about what they had been told about war. This is shown particularly when the phrase “Forgotten dreams”. This may be dreams of the glory after the war, things they had wished to do, dreams and plans after the war, which they have given up on, because they have realised that war is not a glorious thing at all. In this also there appears to be a loss of morale, and of hope, as if they have realised there is no hope in this war at all, be it against the Germans or the weather.
There is also a religious element, in which they seem to question their faith and belief in God, and a sense of homesickness. “Glimpsing the sunk fires” shows this particularly. A fire that is not tended to dies down, and the soldiers had not been home in so long. The fire could also refer to their sunken spirits, and a drastic diminishing of hope and faith, or the diminishing of life as more soldiers die.
“Shutters and doors all closed”: this could mean a few things, such as they believed they would never make it home, they will not survive this horrific war – a drastic loss of morale. Alternatively, perhaps, if they were to return home in the end things would never be the same. There is even the sense (particularly with the next line: “We turn back to our dying”) that they cannot go back until their job is done, so they “turn back to [our] dying”. They retreat from their minds and wake up to reality once more. The theme of religion is brought in with “For God’s invincible spring our love is made afraid”. This could mean many things. One of the Ten Commandments is to love your neighbour as yourself. They may be afraid to love their neighbour – the Germans in this case. Or it may be that, after all that has happened to them in the war, they are afraid to any longer love; to believe in; to have faith in God. As this is what their belief has brought them too.
However, Owen says “invincible spring”. This could mean something completely different; a sudden replenishing of morale, or of faith in God. It is as if they know they are going to die, and there is nothing they can do about it, but they realise suddenly that this is God’s plan for them, and they will not die in vain. They were in the war for a reason: to protect their country and they will die doing their job. “Therefore, not loath…” – this also shows acceptance of the job God has given them.
By “not loath”, it shows that they will not half-heartedly do their job, and they will do it fully and wilfully. It is clearly difficult however, for them to come to terms with what seems their destiny. Despite Owen’s anger about the false propaganda, there does seem to be a sense that heroism has returned to the idea of war. “Therefore were born”… could this mean sacrifice, or resurrection perhaps as with Jesus? With the line “For love of God seems dying”, it seems it could rather mean “For love of God it seems worth dying”. This shows that they would willingly die for the love of God.
The last verse of Exposure is a verse that seems to predict their fate, which is ultimately a whole acceptance of this fate. Again, Owen’s choice of language defines the strong sense of realism and the psychological theme, as with throughout the poem. There are two lines which are most prominent, the first being “This mud and us”; this line refers to clearly the dead bodies in the earth, but there is also a seemingly religious element in it also. A line from the Bible reads “Ashes to ashes, Dust to dust”.
This refers to the dead bodies in the earth returning to dust, so they are at one with the Earth, peaceful and as part of nature. It seems Owen has come to realise it is simply this which is the fate that awaits them, and he has accepted fully this fate. The last line seems slightly strange then in compliance with this, for it states “But nothing happens”. Is this a sudden uncertainty of what is to happen after death, or merely a sudden thought that perhaps there is simply nothing? This contradicts their religious views, as the thought of nothing happening would mean regardless of whether they were good men or not, there would be no eternal paradise nor suffering.
These two poems are relatively similar in that the main purpose for being written was to expose the horrific truth about war, which is that the ideals created by propaganda of the time that it is glorious to fight for your country, that to be a soldier is to be heroic and fearless and honourable, is opposite to the actual reality of a war. The truth of events in a war, for example the soldier who died from the gas attack in Dulce et Decorum est, is very different from this ideal image, for to die in such a way is certainly not glorious to anyone. As Owen vaguely questions throughout his poems, if you are to die in such a horrific and grotesque way, is it truly worth dying for your country?
For as Owen’s retreatment into his mind in Exposure, where the soldiers suffer from severe homesickness, would one not prefer to make certain they shall return to their families to care for them, to ensure their safety, rather than die so nastily and leave their family to suffer under the effects of such a death? From each of Owen’s poems, it is evident that his determination and passion to expose “the old lie” to the public drove him to write his poems to perfection, using poetic devices and languages to fill these poems with layers of meaning, some which only Owen will know of, as a method of self-therapy to help him recover from the psychological effects and traumatic stress of the war. It is very sad, therefore, that he should die at such a young age, just before the ending of the war where he should have (as many soldiers who did not should have) been able to experience peace once more and also the effects his incredible poetry had on people.

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