Poetry can evoke a wide spectrum of emotions ranging from sadness to exultation through the poet’s manipulation of the 5 primal senses; sight, sound, taste, smell and touch. This essay shall explore the emotive language used by Great War poets in order to evoke the senses in the reader, so that the more abstract issues in war can become tangible in those who are lucky enough to have never experienced battle.
“All forms of imaginative literature, including drama and film, follow the same principle, which can be summed up in the slogan, “Show, don’t tell.”” This quote definitely also applies to poetry, for it is often said that to directly tell the reader the tone or the imagery in poetry is heavy-handed. Wilfred Owen, in his poem “Dulce Et Decorum Est”, uses imagery to brutal effect. “Bent double like old beggars under sacks” this simile brings to mind the poor, crippled, dirty beggar that has been through hardship after hardship. “Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light, as under a green sea, I saw him drowning” This image of a man drowning under the horrific mustard gas employed in World War One is a powerful one, and makes the reader, who likely doesn’t know of mustard gas, understand the horror Owen went through.
Siegfried Sassoon also used the Great War’s terrible imagery in his poetry. In his poem “Prelude: The Troops” he uses short, simple descriptive words spread throughout a stanza to constantly reinforce the drudgery of the image he is trying to instill in the reader. “Shapeless gloom” “drizzling daybreak” “stamp their sodden boots” “dulled, sunken” these. Dispersed throughout a stanza, these words are certainly effective while not being obvious. Sight is the most useful and oft-manipulated sense that poetry uses to construct mental and tangible images that “speak” to the reader from abstract ideas, situations or feelings.
Sound is often referred to as the secondary sense, after sight, though it has just as much power and influence when described correctly. Sound specifically in war poetry has a very prominent place. Anthem for Doomed Youth fully utilizes sound, though the language Owen uses is simple and poignant. “stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle” “shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells” these quotes, when read, immediately evoke the sounds of artillery and gunfire, common sounds in the Great War. Owen utilizes this to give the sense of overbearing, foundation shaking explosions and to give the reader an auditory feeling of being in the trenches. Arbitrary and abstract ideas expressed in this way become very real when reading them out loud to yourself.
Smell is perhaps the most primal of all the five senses. Though imagery and sound are used most often in film and other media, smell is forgotten. However, smell is one of the most powerful of all the senses in its ability to affect the reader. Who has ever forgotten the stench of rotting meat, or of gunpowder. Siegfried Sassoon’s “the rank stench of those bodies haunts me still” is indicative of this.
By using the primal sense of smell poets can access the deeper parts of the human psyche, and instill deep emotions in the reader without the reader even realizing it. Owen and Sassoon knew this and both utilize it often in their poetry. Relating to the topic, tangible means to be perceptible by the senses; Earlier on in the evolutionary sense we evolved from animals whose primary sense was smell, and to become tangible, an abstract issue must affect the primary or base emotions. Smell is the most effective in this.
Taste is lesser known in poetry because it is so difficult to adequately describe, though Owen tries in Dulce Et. “Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues” Taste is perhaps the most difficult of the senses to accurately describe, thus is also harder to use to make abstract ideas less so.
Touch is one of the most effective senses a poet can manipulate to make abstract ideas more tangible. Through invoking the sense of touch, a poet can stir the reader to easily imagine what the poet wants. Most of all in war poetry, touch is embodied in the sense of pain, for war is the cause of more pain than anything else. Wilfred Owen’s poetry almost always speaks of pain, death and suffering, and indeed this is true in almost all war poetry. Everyone has experienced physical pain at some stage in their life thus the usage of pain in poetry is always going to affect the reader, for every reader understands pain. Pain is perhaps the primary feeling during wartime. Emotional or physical, none leave the trenches without experiencing it and by using it in poetry, the reader understands with perfect clarity what the poet is describing, just by imagining their own pain.
The five senses are the most important things in poetry, for while an abstract idea may be perfect in it’s conception and tone, it cannot truly speak to a reader without allowing the reader to feel the poetic message in a more primal way. Wilfred Owen and Sigfreid Sassoon surely understood this as the senses are strong components of their respective works. This allows their poetry to speak to any reader, and explains their huge popularity among the poetic world. The five senses are difficult to describe and harder to use, but without them abstract issues such as in “Dulce Et Decorum Est’ would be difficult indeed to appreciate.