Wilfred Owen and his Pity of War
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Through His Poetry Wilfred Owen Wished to Convey, to the General
Public, the Pity of War. In a Detailed Examination of these Poems,
With Reference to Others, Show the Different ways in which He achieved this.
Wilfred Owen fought in the war as an officer in the Battle of the
Somme. He entered the war in January of 1917. However he was
hospitalised for war neurosis and was sent for rehabilitation at
Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh that May. At Craiglockhart he
met Siegfried Sassoon, a poet and novelist whose grim antiwar works
were in harmony with Wilfred Owen's concerns. It was at Craiglockhart
where Wilfred Owen produced the best work of his short career under
the tutelage of Siegfried Sassoon. Siegfried Sassoon had recently made
a public declaration against the continuation of the war by throwing
his Military Cross medal for bravery into the River Mersey in
Liverpool. Wilfred Owen's earlier work ignored the subject of war but
Siegfried Sassoon urged him to write on the war. Wilfred Owen wrote
his poems while at Craiglockhart as a cathartic experience to help him
to forget his experiences in France. He also wrote his poems as an
attempt to stop the war and to make people realise how horrific it
In a thorough examination of the poems "Anthem for Doomed Youth",
"Dulce et Decorum Est" and "Disabled" and also with some reference to
other works by Owen, it can be seen that he uses different poetical
features, styles and methods. Wilfred Owen addresses his readers from
different stances right up to him addressing the reader personally.
This method is very effective in evoking feelings from great anger and
bitterness to terrible sadness and even sarcasm, making the reader
sometimes even feel guilty. Whichever way he chooses to portray the
pity of the war the end result is always the same.
"Dulce Et Decorum Est" is a direct attack at the people in Britain who
had been taken in by the propaganda drive by telling them the truth of
what life is really like at the front and in what conditions their
sons, fathers, brothers etc. are in. "Dulce Et Decorum Est" consists
of four unequal stanzas, the first two in sonnet form, and the last
two in a looser structure. The first stanza sets the scene of soldiers
limping back from the front. The authorial stance is of Owen telling
us of his own personal experiences. The second stanza focuses on one
man who could not get his gas mask on in time. This is a recurring
nightmare that Owen has, where he sees one man "drown" in the gas and
in the third stanza he describes how the man "plunges" at Owen,
"guttering, choking, drowning." This is an image Wilfred Owen will
never forget. The fourth and final stanza, Wilfred Owen again attacks
the people at home who uphold the continuance of the war, unaware of
the reality. He wishes they could experience his own "smothering
dreams" which he then goes on to describe in great detail. At the end
of this poem he appeals to people not to tell children "Dulce et
decorum est pro patria mori." It is sweet and fitting to die for your
country. This particular poem shows the pity of the war in a very
shocking way by great use of poetical devices, which at the end he
makes the reader think about.
"Disabled" is a poem about the life of a young soldier before he
"threw away his knees" in the war and of his present, miserable life.
It is not, however, written chronologically, but instead it is a
stream of consciousness of thoughts wandering between the past and
present. The authorial stance is of Owen standing outside the poem. It
is quite impersonal for the young soldier in it, but it is a personal
experience for the reader because the reader empathises the young
soldier. It is very unusual in that sense. The effect that Owen wishes
to portray is that the man is looking at himself and what he has
become. He wants the reader empathise, and to realise what the war can
do. This is how the pity of the war is shown in this poem.
"Anthem for Doomed Youth" is an elegiac sonnet. It is not an account
of Owen's experience in the war itself, but rather a judgement on it.
The title is correct; "doomed youth" as some soldiers in the war were
very young. The title can either be thought of as ironic, or in actual
respect of the youth who gave their lives. The authorial stance is a
narrative observer. This poem shows Wilfred Owen's anger and
bitterness towards the war and the church. It is written in an
unorthodox way because thorough out the first stanza he ironically
links a catalogue of the sounds of the war, the weapons of
destruction, guns, rifles, shells, with religious imagery. In the
second stanza the focus changes to the mourning people in Britain.
"Dulce Et Decorum Est" uses many poetical devises. The first stanza
creates an appalling image of the soldiers limping back from the
front. In this stanza the condition of the men is such that they can
be compared to "old beggars under sacks," the sack being their once
smart uniform and "coughing like hags,"
"Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs."
This line describes an image Owen will never forget. When the distress
flares go up, it means that there is men dying who need help. They
light up the area where soldiers lay dead or are dying, but Owen and
his men have to "turn their backs." Owen uses colloquial language to
describe the men "trudge." This shows that they are common people like
anyone else. It gives the poem a more personal effect. Towards the end
of the first stanza, the sounds of the words begin to soften, Wilfred
Owen chooses to use feminine endings on the words such as gas and sh
and also the word "softly" which is onomatopoeic. This brings the
stanza to a soft end.
"Gas! GAS! Quick boys! -An ecstasy of fumbling"
This is a very sudden start to the next stanza. The word "gas" is
onomatopoeic and the sound of the word brings alarm. It is also a real
word that would have been used in that situation. The word "ecstasy"
means the men are in an extreme state of delusion. They do not know
what to do. The latter half of the second stanza creates a powerful
underwater extended metaphor, where succumbing to poison gas is
compared to drowning. Owen is telling us of one of an experience where
he saw a man "As under a green sea, drowning". This is a recurring
dream that Owen has, where he sees the man drowning "before my
helpless sight." Owen was helpless to this man. He could do nothing to
save him. This was very hard for Owen to face. Wilfred Owen often woke
up in the night after this dream to see the man even after he has
woken up. The forth stanza is an appeal to the reader to empathise
with him. He wishes he reader to imagine the dreams and to realise
what the war can do. "You too could pace" is an imitation of the
famous war poster "Your country needs you".
"And watch the white eyes writhing in his face"
This sentence uses assonance on the words "watch", "white", and
"writhing" to create an effect of great pain.
"His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin"
This is a metaphor to describe that the men are as sick of fighting in
the war as the devil, the most evil of all, would be if he was sick of
sin. It must be awful! He describes how "blood comes gargling from
froth-corrupted lungs" at every "jolt" of the wagon. "Jolt" is a very
violent word that is used to shock the reader. Gargling is
onomatopoeic; it describes that when the poison gas is inhaled, it
rots away the lungs. The man is physically expelling his rotten lungs
through his mouth. It is not a very pleasant thing to think about, yet
Owen is forcing this image upon his reader.
"Bitter as the cud"
This is a simile describing the taste of the man's blood and froth.
Cud is partly regurgitated food, which animals, especially cows,
return to their mouths to chew on. This is also an echo from "Anthem
for Doomed Youth" where it says "those who die as cattle".
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues"
The man's mouth would be filled with blisters, and his mouth also
rotting. The word "tongue" can also be linked to the lies told by the
government, in the propaganda machine.
At the end of this poem he pleas to the reader, not to tell "children
ardent for some desperate glory" that it is sweet and fitting to die
for ones country. In this poem, nothing is hyperbolic; Wilfred Owen is
simply describing his experiences of the war. This poem is different
from "Disabled", because this poem uses greatly metaphors, simile,
onomatopoeia etc. to create graphic imagery of the war, whereas
"Disables" uses leitmotif to describe the past and present.
"Anthem for Doomed Youth" ironically juxtaposes sounds of the war and
funeral imagery in the octet of this sonnet. This poem is a sonnet,
and therefore starts with a strong statement or a question. In this
case it is a question.
"What passing bells for those who die as cattle?"
This is a very angry and bitter question. Owen is emphasising the fact
that the British government were sending young men out to France to be
put through hell, yet they did not care. In this line, the funeral
imagery is "passing bells" which are bells rung at a funeral to pass
the body into heaven. The imagery of the war is "die as cattle".
"Only the monstrous anger of the guns"
This line personifies the guns, giving them the human emotion of
anger, just as Owen is. The sestet of this sonnet changes its focus to
Britain's "sad shires". These are the mourning women in Britain. It is
dominated by religious images and allusions.
"Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes"
This line is telling us of the young boys at the front, crying and
wanting to go home. Owen is telling the reader to look into the eyes
of the soldiers or the pale faces of their women to learn the truth
about the war. The last two lines of this poem use very quiet sounds,
ch, s, sk, which evoke the silent inner thought of the individuals. It
is a total contrast to the first two lines.
"And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds"
For the rest of their lives, whenever the families of those who were
killed in the war draw their blinds, they will be reminded of the time
when the news came because whenever news came of a death, the blinds
would be half closed.
"Disabled" describes the life of a once perfectly normal, happy boy.
Wilfred Owen uses colloquial language to show this, "It was after
football, when he'd drunk a peg". Wilfred Owen's use of colloquial
portrays the pity of the war, because it shows that the men dying in
the war were normal. He also uses colloquial language in "Dulce et
Decorum Est" with the word "trudge" to describe how the men were
marching. Throughout the poem, the man's past and present are compared
and contrasted. There is a great use of leitmotif. Wilfred Owen uses
bright colours to describe the man's past "When glow lamps budded in
their blue trees" and uses the colour grey to describe the man's
present being "And shivered in his ghastly suit of grey". The word
"ghastly" could mean that the man is like a ghost, no one notices him.
This poor man is still only a young man, who used to lead a very
normal life. He should not be sat in a wheeled chair waiting to die.
In the days before he "threw away his knees" he was a very popular
boy, who used to play football.
"Someone had said, he'd look a god in kilts"
He was just as any other boy his age; he wanted to please girls. He
even had a girlfriend, but doesn't anymore.
"Now he will never again feel how slim girls waists are"
The use of enjambement gives the effect that the man is dreaming. It
then goes on to say "all of them touch him like some queer disease" at
which point he ends the stanza. He ends the stanza at this point to
make the reader stop and to realise how horrible his reality is
compared to his past.
"For it was younger than his youth, last year"
"Younger than his youth" is describing the man's face. It heightens
the contrast before the caesural pause and then "last year" which
brings the sadness back. This use of oxymoron tells the reader that
just last year, the man was young.
"And half his lifetime lapsed in the hot race
"And leap of purple spurted from his thigh"
These two lines tell us what he really should be doing. He should be
racing girls, and the word "spurted" is like ejaculation of semen
after he has made love to a girl.
The man thought that when he returned home, he would be the local
hero. Only some people "cheered him home, but not as crowd cheer
goal". This was very depressing for him.
"Only a solemn man who brought him fruits"
The man did not want to receive fruits. He wanted girls. This poem
shows the pity of the war, by comparing and contrasting life before
the war, and life after the war.
"Dulce et Decorum Est" uses a sonnet form in the first two stanzas.
"Anthem for Doomed Youth" is a sonnet. The iambic pentameter is used,
but becomes looser towards the end of the first stanza as a
particularly dramatic moment approaches. The last two stanzas of this
poem are written in a much looser sonnet form. The focus at the
beginning of this poem is on a group of men marching back from the
front. The focus changes onto one man who cannot get his gas helmet on
in time. This makes the poem more personal, especially at the end when
he addresses the reader himself, "you too", "you would".
"Anthem for Doomed Youth" is a true sonnet. It is written strictly in
the iambic pentameter. The first quatrain focuses on the sounds of
battle with some funeral images. It has an angry, bitter tone. The
second quatrain uses the word "demented" which is the tone of the
quatrain, which shows the madness of the war. It is bitter to the
point of sarcasm. At the end of this quatrain, the focus changes to
the "sad shires". This is a contrast to the madness of the war,
because it is used in the same line as "bugles", which were played to
jeer the men into the line of machine-gun fire.
The second stanza of "Disabled" starts off written in the iambic
pentameter. Owen gets into this rhythm while describing the past times
of the man until the comparison of the sadness of his present, when
the rhythm becomes broken. This shows the pity of the war, as life
before the war is represented by a good rhythm, but then after the
war, the rhythm becomes broken. The start of the first four stanzas
focuses on the happy life of the man before the war, but at the end of
them, the focus changes to his horrible present, at which point the
stanza changes quickly.
In his poems Wilfred Owen expresses of anger and bitterness especially
but also sarcasm and sadness. "Dulce et Decorum Est" expresses
feelings of anger and bitterness.
"Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
"Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we curses through sludge"
The first two lines are a bitter, scathing attack at the thoughts of
the people in Britain who had been taken in by the propaganda machine.
Throughout the poem Wilfred Owen is describing, in graphic detail, his
own experiences of the war. This is an oxymoron to "Anthem for Doomed
Youth" which is an elegiac sonnet, so it is not an attack on people
but instead Wilfred Owen is feeling sympathy for the families who have
lost loved ones. Wilfred Owen however is also questioning his own
Christian faith, and in this poem he is attacking the church and the
pointlessness of organised religion measured against such a cataclysm
as the war.
"Can patter out their hasty orisons"
This line means the orisons, which are a part of church services, are
irrelevant. "Disabled" is also like "Dulce et Decorum Est" and "Anthem
for Doomed Youth" because it attacks the generals of the war.
"Before he threw away his knees"
The phrase "threw away" is also used to describe throwing away
rubbish. It is as if no one cared that a young man has lost his legs
and arms. It is very quiet, bitter anger. All three of the poems
studied are attacks to someone. It can therefore be seen that Wilfred
Owen despises all people who wish the war to continue and all people
who think the war is a something triumphant
From this essay it can be seen that Wilfred Owen expresses his
feelings of anger, bitterness and sadness towards the war, in his
poetry. In each of the poems studied, in some way or another, Wilfred
Owen attacks someone, whether it be the people at home, taken in by
the propaganda machine, or the government who have the power to stop
the war, but don't. This is why Owen wrote his poetry. He wanted to
put an end to the war.