War Poetry

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Wilfred Owen's "Dulce et decorum est" takes it's title from a Latin phrase meaning "Sweet and fitting it is to die for one's country", and the purpose of the poem is obviously to show this up for the lie which the writer clearly feels it to be. Owen very effectively portrays the general unpleasantness of the battlefield, concentrating on this especially in the first verse.

"Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge." Owen is very keen to put across the idea of what a horrible, desperate slog this is for the men on the battlefield, and great importance is placed on their fatigue. So much so, in fact, that a key part of the poem, the explosion of gas-shells behind the party of men, is almost lost in the last two lines of the verse.

After this, the pace of the poem steps up, and the exhaustion of the first verse is forgotten in the urgent scramble for gas masks.

Owen describes this sudden flurry of activity as "an ecstasy of fumbling", possibly communicating that this excitement comes as some kind of a relief after the long march. He then relates how one of his comrades is caught by the gas, and starts to choke. At this point, there is a break in the, previously fairly regular, structure of the poem.

"In all my dreams before my helpless sight He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning" These two lines stand independent of the rest of the poem, emphasising the effect that this episode has had upon the narrator. The end of the second line is also made more effective by the echoing sounds of the last three words, which puts across the idea of Owen being haunted by this image.

The final verse uses particularly horrible descriptions of the effect that the gas has had upon the soldier. His face is described as hanging like "A devils sick of sin". Owen, as a pacifist and a soldier experiencing the harsh realities of trench warfare, clearly does not feel that war in honourable, or that anyone should glory in it. He plays up the idea of the innocence of the soldiers dying in war, an innocence that runs nicely parallel to that of the children who are being told that it is honourable to do the same. This point is particularly effectively emphasised in the last four lines of the poem, in which Owen shows his contempt for "The old lie" from which the poem takes it's name.

In "At a Calvary near the Ancre", Owen launches another attack on those who try to encourage war as an "honourable" thing to do. In this case, his main target seems to be the church. A calvary is a religious statue, found at a crossroads, normally depicting a Madonna with child or, as seems to be the case here, a crucifix with the figure of Christ on it.

"One ever hangs where shelled roads part In this war He too lost a limb" The capital letters used in this verse for words like "He" and "Him" show us that Owen is referring to Christ, and so the shelling of the area must have damaged the statue. One idea used throughout the whole poem is that Christianity, although it may preach the virtues of dying in battle, is strangely absent when it comes down to the horrors of war. In the next lines, for example, Owen says that Christ's disciples "hide apart", as if they are keeping out of the way now that there is fighting to do.

The poem has a very regular rhyme scheme and line length pattern, giving the impression of simplicity to what is, in content, a fairly difficult and complex poem. Unlike "Dulce et Decorum est", "At a Calvary" does not go into details about the horrors of war itself, the focus of the poem definitely seems to be upon those who encourage people into war, particularly Christianity, and Owen plays with a lot of imagery from the New Testament to bring the reader's attention to this fact. Soldiers, Priests and Scribes all feature strongly in the story of Jesus Christ. The priests appear in the second verse.

"Near Golgotha strolls many a priest" Golgotha was the hill of Calvary, where Jesus was crucified, and the idea of priests "strolling", a fairly casual mode of transport, near so solemn and important a religious site, shows how seriously Owen feels these priests really take their religion, and how seriously he takes them. He speaks of them deriving some kind of pride from their wounds, an attitude which he obviously has no time for whatsoever.

The "Scribes" mentioned in the in the last verse of the poem represent the press, whipping the public up into the kind of fierce nationalism that only makes wars worse. He uses words such as "shove" and "bawl" to describe the way in which they try to influence the public, terms that are more often used to describe the behaviour of spoilt children. He then, in the last two lines, speaks of the soldiers actually fighting the war.

"But they who love the greater love Lay down their life, they do not hate." This "greater love" is probably intended to mean a love for all humanity. As in "Dulce et Decorum est" these soldiers on the battlefields are the only people whom Owen seems to have a real respect and admiration for. In these last two lines he is saying that the actions of the soldiers are not done in hatred for the men on the other side, they are fighting this war because they see it as something that they feel they have to do for the good of their people, even though they know they may very well not survive.

"War Photographer" by Carole Ann Duffy, uses a different technique to bring the reader's attention to the horrors of war. Through the eyes of a bystander to the war, the photographer who takes pictures of the aftermath. Now back in England, the photographer goes to his darkroom to develop his photos, and as the pictures slowly appear, he remembers the atrocities that he has witnessed.

As in "At a Calvary", there are references to the church in the first verse, the last line containing a biblical quote "all flesh is grass", to show the idea of there being bodies everywhere in these war zones. There is a lot of contrast throughout the poem between the places where the War Photographer has been and the home, "Rural England" to which he returns.

"Home again, to ordinary pain which simple weather can dispel" In this statement Duffy is commenting on how trivial our worries are in this country compared to the kinds of things that people in other parts of the world have to put up with, something as simple as the sun coming out can cheer us up. There are further contrasts through Duffy's description of: "Fields which don't explode beneath the feet of running children in a nightmare heat" Here she is talking about minefields, and the terrible toll which they can take during, and after battle. Particularly effective is the fact that she does not mention soldiers being killed mines, but children. Once again, the idea of the loss of the lives of innocents during times of war is used.

"War Photographer" is written in four regular verses, with a fairly regular ABBCDD rhyme scheme, these repetitions help to put across the idea of the repetition within the photographers life, the poem starts with him returning from one job and ends with him about to leave for another. It is written in a fairly plain style with very little metaphor or simile, and Duffy uses a lot of simple, stark statements to add to this matter-of-fact tone. This works well in the context of the poem because it parallels one of the main messages of the piece, that we have become desensitised to this kind of human suffering, and are able to look at it in a cold, detached way, just like the Editor in the last verse who will look at the many photographs taken from the war zone and "Pick out five or six For Sunday's supplement." While Duffy concedes later in the last verse that seeing the photographs in the newspaper may cause the reader a small amount of short-term distress, she obviously does not feel that we really care where these wars are taking place, or who is affected because we aren't, and we do nothing about it.

"Naming of Parts", by Henry Reed, is easily the most light-hearted of the four poems. It deals with the everyday life of soldiers in training for war. The poem is much easier to make sense of if you think of each verse as being spoken in two different voices. The first three-and-a-half lines of each verse is the drilling that some sergeant-major type is giving the group of recruits on the names of the different parts of their guns.

"Today we have naming of parts. Yesterday, We had daily cleaning. And tomorrow morning, We shall have what to do after firing." The second part of the verses give us the impression that in reading the poem we are reading the thoughts of one of the recruits, who manages to listen diligently to the lesson for a while, and then starts to drift off into a daydream of the spring in the outside world.

"Japonica glistens like coral in all of the neighbouring gardens, and today we have naming of parts" In the first part of each verse, simple, direct language has been used to show the instruction of the sergeant, the second parts are all far more descriptive, using both simile and metaphor to give a far more dreamy quality. Like in "Dulce et Decorum est", The poem gives us an idea of the weariness of war. Through the list of the lessons that the recruits have done, and will do, we can see how scheduled their lives have become in preparation for battle. The men in the training room are listening to the words of their sergeant and wishing that they were somewhere else. Like in Wilfred Owen's poetry, the writer is sympathising with these ordinary young men who, because of circumstances completely outside their control, have been placed in an extraordinary situation.

"Rapidly backwards and forwards The early bees are assaulting and fumbling the flowers" Emphasised again through the undertones in this particular verse, we can see that this group of red-blooded young males would really rather be somewhere else.

There is a great deal of enjambment in the poem, one line running into another much as one day must be running into another for these bored recruits. The whole poem is in free verse, with no regular patterns of rhyme or syllables. The last line of each verse ties in with it's beginning, suggesting that the wandering mind of the recruit is drifting back to the lesson in hand. The last verse picks up lines from the whole of the rest of the poem, and pulls them together in what seems to be a kind of summation of all of the thoughts going through the head of the recruit. The poem ends, I feel, on rather a sad note, as the thoughts of the young man come full circle, and he wearily returns to the days lesson, the Naming of Parts.

Although the poems are written in different styles, by three different writers, and deal with different wars, there are a number of similarities between them. All three writers are trying to tell it like it really is. The overriding aim of the poems being to make the people who read them think harder about the realities of war for those involved. In both the work of Owen and Duffy there seems to be a certain element of chiding the reader for perhaps not taking war seriously enough. However, Duffy seems to be principally concerned with holding a mirror up to our own reactions to the suffering of others in war, while Owen and Reed empathise with the men who are dragged into conflict, and, in many cases, end up as little more than cannon fodder.