Experience Of War In The Selection English Literature Essay
Wilfred Owen, an English poet and soldier during the First World War, presents in his poems the appalling and brutal realities of war, and opposed the common public perception of war, full of heroism and nobility. Owen, born March 18th 1883, enlisted to the Artists’ Rifles Officers’ Training Corps on 21 October 1915. Owen suffered traumatic experiences in fighting, eventually being diagnosed with neurasthenia or ‘Shell Shock’, and met fellow poet Siegfried Sassoon, having been transported to Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh. This was to influence Owen’s style of poetry significantly. Owen’s doctor, Arthur Brock, encouraged Owen to portray his experiences into poetry. Sassoon aided him in this, influencing Owen with his more realistic style of writing; and these helped to make Owen’s style more unique. As seen in poems such as ‘Anthem for doomed youth’, Owen also shows how he was influenced by religion.
Throughout Owen’s poems, he presents the devastation caused to many soldiers in the outcome of war. The two poems that contrast two different ideas of human devastation are ‘Disabled’, which focuses on the physical devastations of war, in contrast to ‘Mental Cases’, which presents the psychological devastation of war. In ‘Disabled’, Owen presents the helplessness of a wounded soldier, and the pain and suffering that is caused to youth, not just physical suffering, but mental suffering as well. The title ‘Disabled’ brutally sums up the wounded man as just disabled. Set in a hospital, Owen’s first person perspective of this ‘elderly’ man, who has had ‘half his lifetime lapsed in the hot race’, shows what physical, emotional and spiritual damage can be caused by fighting, and the mental destruction of youth. The poem itself is structured in a way that compares the soldier’s current state, "waiting for dark... in his ghastly suit of grey", to what he was like before his experiences of war in his juvenile mind, "when the town used to swing so gay". Owen’s tone as the narrator is one of disgust and mercilessness, by blaming the soldier for his present state, when he "threw away his knees" and "poured it [a metaphor for his vibrancy and health] down shell-holes till the veins ran dry". In the poem, Owen uses fear as a further description of the protagonist’s current existence. Personified, as though a character he will meet on the battlefield, is overlooked by his juvenile and innocent mind, whilst he seeks for "giddy jilts" for joining a war against "Germans he scarcely thought of; all their guilt", showing that he has no knowledge of the causes of the war. Owen, to show further discrepancy between the soldier’s past and present state, uses the metaphor of age. Before "there was an artist silly for his face", showing his youth and eagerness, but this was "younger than his youth, last year, Now he is old", though only one year on, it contrasts from last year when he was okay, to now when he is lost and ‘old’.
Mental Cases’, the title showing a lack of sympathy and a sign of insanity, focuses in contrast to ‘Disabled’ on the psychological suffering caused in the outcome of war. This time set in a psychiatric hospital, as opposed to a medical hospital, Owen describes the unspecified ‘hellish’ creatures as animalistic, also relating how bad it is to hell. The ‘purgatorial shadows’ mentioned, symbolising how they are waiting and incomplete, are talked about in parts, ‘ drooping tongues from jaws’ and ‘fretted sockets’, which represents how they are broken, both physically and mentally, and the destruction of their youth. ‘Mental Cases’ is structured in three stanzas, showing initially confusion, but eventually a stage of realisation. In the first stanza, Owen poses rhetorical questions to the reader, such as ‘Who are these? Why sit they here in twilight?", involving the reader more, but also giving a sense of doubt and uncertainty. In the second stanza, these questions are answered for the reader, "these are men whose minds the Dead [ given significance with a capital ‘D’] have ravished", giving light to the fact that these are not dead men that Owen is describing, but rather men whose mental state has been ‘ravished’, emphasising the impact, by the loss of comrades. Owen describes this mental devastation, by showing that the "batter of guns" and the "shatter of flying muscles", with the use of rhyming onomatopoeia to emphasise the terror, is something that these ‘helpless’ sufferers "must see these things and hear them", therefore "memory fingers in their hair of murders" and "human squander rucked too thick for these men’s extrication", showing that this waste of life is appalling, but these memory’s are something that they can never escape from. Owen also uses the metaphor of sunlight and breaking dawn, usually a sign of relief, but as in ‘Exposure’, day only brings more horror.
Fighting on the battlefield is often only portrayed by the literal combat that takes place between men versus man, as portrayed in ‘Dolce et decorum est’. ‘Dolce et decorum est’, ironic as these experiences are far from sweet and noble, focuses on the visible aspects of fighting in war. It portrays the graphic images of the realities of war, ‘guttering, choking and drowning’ in ‘froth-corrupted lungs’, of which the patriotically hypnotised public at home have no idea that this is what is actually happening. In this poem, Owen contrasts between the public illustration of the image of an archetypal soldier, smart and disciplined, to the realities of what war can do to a man. This is shown in the first line of the poem using the simile "bent doubler, like old beggars under sacks", to portray young men who appear to be old, and smart soldiers who come across like beggars. In the first stanza, Owen describes the "trudging" soldiers "cursing", not walking, "through sludge", showing with onomatopoeia a more realistic approach to the realities of war. Contrasting also to the stereotypical ideological soldier at the time, Owen describes the marching soldiers, from personal experience, as "blood-shod", "All went lame, all blind; Drunk with fatigue". As Owen depicts "men marched asleep", he gives the stanza a soporific tone, which symbolises the exhaustion of the soldiers and their lack of care towards the "hoots of gas-shells dropping softly behind", and this gentle picture leads on to the comparatively frantic nature of the next stanza. This point is also emphasised by the rhythmic style of the stanza. Written in an iambic pentameter, it represents the tedious regularity of marching and of war. Owen also gives a sense of the impersonality of war as "we flung him" into just another wagon, and referring to the casualty as "someone" and "a man". Owen depicts the brutality of the images of war, being so shocking that to "watch the white eyes writhing" in "his hanging face" is "like a devil’s sick of sin". Owen also uses the senses to emphasise the reality, "hear at every jolt the blood come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs, obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud...", first sight, hearing, feeling, smelling, then tasting. And this repetition of ‘drowning’ emphasises the severity of the agony he must have been in. At the end of the last stanza, Owen addresses the audience, personalising it, and using more uplifting language, "ardent, "zest" and "glory", to juxtapose the real brutality.
On the other hand, there is an underlying battle that takes place, the metaphorical struggle between man and the elements, portrayed in ‘Exposure’. ‘Exposure’, ambiguously titled to mean possibility of dying of exposure to the cold, or exposing the realities of war to the public, focuses of the hidden conflicts between man, the elements and the boredom and anxiety of war, that are also responsible for a number of lives. The power that the natural world can have is so great that where ‘flights of bullets’ would strike fear, are now ‘less deadly than air’, undermining the reader’s expectations. So strong are the effects that ‘winds that knife’ have, and the "pale flakes with lingering stealth come feeling for our [the soldiers’] faces", that all life has been drained from them and they are constricted to concentrating on dying, as though it is an impending fate. At the end of each stanza, Owen poses a repetitive question or statement, which symbolises the deflation of tension after a building sense of anxiety of an attack created by the soldiers. Dawn is seen in ‘Exposure’ as a mortal enemy. ‘The poignant misery of dawn’, ironic as dawn is usually a sign of relief and comfort, is personified into an attack ‘massing in the east’ by ‘her melancholy army’, but the soldiers are only attacked by another cold and miserable day. As time moves on in ‘Exposure’, ‘God’s invincible spring’ is evermore questioned by the suffering of the soldiers. They start to feel as though God is not as strong as they once thought, ‘For love of God’s faith seems dying’. The idea of a lack of love by God was most likely brought on by Owen’s own dying belief in God. Eventually, God becomes a figure of distrust and dislike. To the solders, God begins to attack them, "To-night [bringing time and light to a deadline, giving a sense of brutal immediacy], His frost will fasten on this mud and us’, these objects being interchangeable. Though the anticipation is so great that "Wearied we [the soldiers] keep awake because the night is silent", not even their death happens.
The destruction of youth throughout Owen’s poems is a significant aspect. For instance, the portrayal destruction of physical capabilities in ‘Disabled’, and the depiction of psychological side effects of war in ‘Mental Cases’. The poems ‘Exposure’ and ‘Dolce et Decorum est’ explore the experience of the violence of war and the mental torment of anticipation and anxiety; All having a profound effect on a soldier’s youth and for the rest of their lives. ‘Anthem For Doomed Youth’, however, focuses on the destruction of innocence, much like in ‘Disabled’. The title ‘Anthem For Doomed Youth’, is ironic as anthems are usually patriotic, but all sense of patriotism is lost at war, similar to ‘Dolce et Decorum est’; The youth will always be doomed, and the youth shows that these men aren’t soldiers but young men. The destruction of youth is not only applicable to the young men at war, but also the young women at home, wives, sisters, mothers etc. Whose youth is destroyed by the loss of relatives at war. The poem takes on the ceremony of a funeral, as if they are doomed to die. In the first part of the poem, Owen describes the sounds of war of how the youth are remembered. In the first line of the poem, "What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?", depicts the young men’s deaths as animalistic, impersonally dehumanising them. Owen personifies the weapons on battlefield and uses alliteration to reflect the rapid fire of a gun, "the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle", as though implanting the memory and emotions of the soldiers into them. Furthermore to the idea of religion and a funeral, Owen writes "no prayers nor bells; Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, the shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells". This shows the loss of religion by the soldiers, in that there is nothing prayerful about these young men’s experiences. Personifying the shells, Owen also expresses the emotions of the men through the shells, sad and crazy, just like the "monstrous anger of the guns". In the poem, Owen places a Volta to signify the switch from how the soldiers are remembered on the battlefield, to how they are remembered in their "sad shires". Owen depicts the women "with pallor" and "of patient minds", to show how they are waiting, but are constantly provoked by sadness. In the last line of the poem, Owen slows and draws out the words to represent he waiting and melancholy of those at home. The melancholy is also emphasised by the "slow" depressing "dusk", and the "drawing-down of blinds", both symbolising the end of a day and the end of a life.
In conclusion, Owen presents the experience of war through mental and physical devastation, the battle between men and the struggle of man against the elements, and ultimately the destruction of youth as a result of war. In my opinion, the poem that moved me the most was ‘Dolce et Decorum est’. This poem to me depicted the realities of war the most brutally and crudely, which would change anyone’s perception of warfare as it did me. ‘Dolce et Decorum est’ exposes the lies at the heart of fighting for one’s country, and the harsh truth about the devastation that warfare can bring on human beings. Ending with powerful line "Dolce et Decorum est pro patria mori", summarising the false mindset that along with weaponry brings about the destruction of youth.