‘How are war and Nature depicted as the antithesis of each other in the poem ‘Spring Offensive?’
Wilfred Owen was one of the many soldiers who fought for our country during WW1 in 1917. Owen left for the western front early in January 1917. Whilst at war he was diagnosed with shell shock one of the most well known effects of war for soldiers. Wilfred Owen was evacuated to the Craig Lockhart War hospital in June but despite his horrendous injury he returned to fight for his country till his very last breath on the 4th November 1918 when Owen was killed whilst attempting to lead his men across Sambre Canal at Ors.
Each year of the First World War was marked by massive spring attacks by one side or the other. All were unsuccessful until the Germans finally obliterated the western front in March 1918. Many writers noted the contrast between new life and the energy of spring, as well as the death and demolition of battle. Spring offensive was Wilfred Owens last poem. Owen distanced himself so he could have a wider perspective of war. The irony is that he himself took part in the war. Also, he writes the poem in third person as if he were an anonymous speaker.
The soldiers experienced a huge change from living in the Edwardian times (1901-1914), which was known as the ‘Golden Age’ to going off to war. This time in history was one, which was superior to any other as the British Empire was at its peak. People were very patriotic which explains the maximum enlistment numbers. The soldiers experienced a complete contrast in terms of what situations they were found in at war. Their lives completely changed.
In ‘Spring Offensive’ there are juxtapositions between silence and noise, action and inaction, life and death, and most importantly peace and war. Owen makes use of a broken rhyme scheme which suggests that Owen has been broken by war itself, his rhyme scheme consists of iambic pentameter with rhyming couplets which provides the poem with necessary tension for the reader. It has ironically been written in the form of iambic pentameter, which is usually associated with romantic poems. Although it is ambiguous to why he used this specific writing technique. It suggests a slight tone of sarcasm and that he believes that love for is futile and malicious. ‘Spring Offensive’ is an oxymoronic title due to the fact that ‘spring’ is a time of re-birth and rejuvenation whereas, ‘offensive’ is a negative connotation meaning battle and aggression.
Unlike Dulce et Decorum Est when Owen is personally involved, in ‘Spring Offensive’ he distances himself to achieve objectivity. Furthermore, the third person point of view is a very adjustable narrative device used so that the writer can express his true feelings without having to be exposed. This was extremely useful during this time as censorship was a sensitive topic. In addition to this, third person narrator was omniscient so Wilfred Owen had autonomy over the events he chose to describe. On the other hand, there were other poets besides Owen who wrote what the government would want. It was if they were doing the government’s job for them by persuading the people at home that war was glorious. For example, Jessie Pope wrote the poem ‘Whos for the Game?’ – encouraging citizens that war was all grand and heroic and there was nothing dreadful about it. Similarly, Jessie Popes ‘Whos for the Game?’ was a form of propaganda in itself.
The poem starts in a quiet mood and uses imagery to show some soldiers laying back and resting while some soldiers stand still, all of them at ease on this ‘last hill’ which provides ‘shade’ The shade could interpret the calm before the storm Also, the repetition of the word ‘ease’ signifies the relief of relaxation. In addition to this, there is a sense of calmness and tranquility before the disturbance. The tranquil feeling is supported by the caesura, which helps slow down the pace of the poem. Also, the overabundance of pauses could be to reflect the pauses the soldiers are taking to analyse their beatific surroundings. In this stanza Nature is kind and gentle as the reader can interpret from the swirling grass and the May breeze with the sun relieving them of pain.
During the poem ‘Spring Offensive’ fond memories of the soldiers homes are inspired by the weather. For example; ‘Marvelling they stood, and watched the long grass swirled’. ‘marvelling’ implies they can hardly believe such beauty exists among this pain and suffering. This suggests that war and the natural surrounding of the soldiers are the compete antithesis. It is almost as if Nature is trying to distract them from going to war by showing its beauty. On the other hand, Nature tries to remind the soldiers of what they’re getting themselves into. ‘murmurous with wasp and midge’, these are insects which bite and sting which could suggest that Nature is trying to point out to the soldiers that the threat is always present. From this we can depict that Nature is still hoping that the soldiers will change their minds and turn away from war.
Owen uses similes to depict the soldier’s feelings by describing the natural surroundings; ‘like an injected drug’. This suggests the pain for the soldiers is physical and overwhelming. Also, this could mean that they are under such great pressure that they require anesthetic. Throughout this poem Wilfred Owen portrays Nature as a barrier for the soldiers to go to war. For example; ‘Sharp on their souls hung the imminent ridge of grass’, the grass acts as a boundary itself because if the soldiers are behind it then they are most likely to be safe and away from the battle.
Also, the sibilance in this line creates sly and sinister tension. However, as soon as a soldier goes over the top they are not protected by the grass which was holding them back before. Owen uses the natural areas in life to create images of the soldiers being held back from going to war. This suggests that war is unnatural and that Nature is on the opposing side to war. Although the soldiers were mesmerized by the rapturous surroundings they still felt afraid; the alliteration of ‘fearfully flashed’ demonstrates the terror the soldiers felt as they contemplate their inevitable fate.
Stanza three is when the tension begins; the soldiers ponder ‘hour after hour’ this is the point at which the tension begins to build up as the long wait is causing not only the soldiers but the reader to be anxious to what is to happen next. The soldiers are now at one with Nature; ’had blessed with gold their slow boots coming up’, ‘blessing’ someone is a holy reverence which is something humans do. However, in this case Nature has human abilities this is called personification. The effect of this line is that it creates a spiritual image for the reader. Even the harshest things in Nature are against war; ‘even the little brambles would not yield. But clutched and clung to them like sorrowing arms’ the brambles have been personified allowing them to have hands to try and hold the soldiers back. Through this we can tell that even Nature is almost about to fight the same battle as the humans but instead it is trying to stop them.
The action begins suddenly as the men “raced together” – showing some sense of comradeship. The fourth stanza is the last before the attack begins. At this point Nature has had a complete reversal. We can realize this as it changes from a ‘may breeze’ to a ‘cold gust’, this suggests that Nature is angry at the fact that the soldiers have decided to go to war and are no longer at one with Nature. Wilfred Owen includes a lot of irony in his poem; ‘…little word’. This is ironic because the soldier’s lives depend on this ‘little word’ and a life is a huge deal but its path is being chosen by one ‘little’ word. The fourth stanza is unique compared to the previous three because it has little mention of Nature. This suggests that Nature can no longer protect the soldiers as they have chosen to fight and not take Natures advice. Owen is against the fact that people celebrate for those who go off to war as they see it as a triumphant event.
We can gather this because of line four in stanza four when Owen rejects the actions that would accompany this event. ‘No alarms of bugles, no high flags, no clamorous haste’, Owen repeats the word ‘No’ to emphasize the fact that he believes that no such thing should exist. Wilfred Owen uses a simile in line six, stanza four; ‘The sun, like a friend with whom their love is done’ suggests that they have accepted their death is at hand; they are resigned as they go over the top. The idea of death is now reinforced into the readers mind due to the fact that the sun represents life and for someone to say their farewells to it is another way of saying death. Owen uses the exclamation ‘O’ on line seven of stanza four. The effect of this is that it changes the tone to a more dramatic one before the battle begins.
The fifth stanza is the beginning of war and there is a dramatic increase of speed. The first line describes the sudden action then the rest of the stanza is the reaction. Owen uses enjambment in line three of stanza five and then has a sudden stop; ‘Exposed.’ The effect is that due to the quick stop after the enjambment it shocks the reader as the bullets cause the soldiers to stop. Usually when a war the opponent is attacking but in ‘Spring Offensive’ instead of having an actual opponent Owen described Nature fighting the soldiers. This stanza has a lot of scenery which is created by war is portrayed through Nature; ‘And instantly the whole sky burned with fury against them’. This depicts the explosions of the bombs but to emphasize the effect, Owen goes to the extent of using the ‘sky’. Although using Nature as an opponent is unusual it has an intriguing effect, it causes the soldiers opponent seem enormous and the battle hopeless.
Also, it creates the feeling that literally everything is against them because Nature is all that is surrounding them. There is an increase of caesura use in stanza five, ‘With fury against them; earth set sudden cups’. The semi-colon depicts the contrast and contradiction of before and after. Owen creates more than one meaning for certain lines, for example; ‘…earth set sudden cups in thousand for their blood’. This could suggest that the whole world wanted their soldiers blood to be shed in puddles on the ground. At this point Wilfred Owen could be trying to explain to the reader that people wanted men to go off to war which could be another way of saying they wanted them to go to their deaths.
On the other hand, ‘earth set sudden cups’ may be the craters in the ground from where the bombs had hit. Towards the end of this stanza the soldier’s surroundings are changing almost as if it is going from heaven to hell, which is equal to Nature to war. These are two binary oppositions. The ‘green slope’ is now a ‘Chasmed and deepened sheer to infinite space’, This creates an image of the earth having a sudden split and all the soldiers falling into it, an effective technique to show the death of many.
Stanza six is cleverly portrayed, as the environment is the enemy. Similarly to the previous stanza the poet informs the reader of Nature being destructive. Owen uses a lot of irony in this stanza; ‘Some say God caught them even before they fell’. The word that creates irony is ‘some’ as it signifies that maybe God didn’t catch them in time and they died and went to hell. It is also an analogy as both the soldiers and Christ sacrificed their lives, the soldiers have given their lives for humanity just like Jesus.
Owen uses Hell to depict the aftermath of the battle. This Hell could be a connotation for the trenches or the figurative Hell of the underworld. The alliteration of ‘fiends and flames’ suggests the soldiers have become devils that are capable of such great evil in the world. Furthermore, an oxymoron is used in line five of the last stanza, ‘superhuman inhumanities’, this portrays that the soldiers exploits are both incredible, however, also heartless. Owen is trying to emphasize the cruelty, which has been carried out by these men.
Wilfred Owen describes this battle as having ‘immemorial shames’, which proposes that war ended with an empty victory and was completely pointless. The poet ends the poem with a rhetorical question; ‘Why speak not they of the comrades that went under?’ This suggests that even the survivors are never able to regain their full humanity after what they have witnessed and taken part in. It implies that it would only bring pain upon the survivors as they realize that war is pointless. It is still ambiguous to whether the poem was complete.
Owens poetry reflected the futility of war and the day-to-day reality for the soldiers. The contrast via Nature is used to help exaggerate wars impact. This is a very effective technique in the poem as it is carried out the whole way through. Also, Owen has successfully expressed his views on the pointlessness of war and peace. This poem is unique as it depicts Nature and war as the antithesis of one another by using many poetic techniques without fail.