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Wilfred Owen: War Poetry Essay

“Owen explores the impact of war on society and youth in WW1” When WW1 was declared in August 1914, a huge number of men wanted to enlist, their enthusiasm being shared amongst many others, aged only 15-18. It was a global war centred in Europe, and although devastating, also gave birth to some of the best poets of their time. One of the soldiers who experienced the war first hand was Wilfred Owen and through his poetry, he graphically illustrated both the horrors of warfare, the physical landscapes which surrounded him and the human body in relation to those landscapes. His poetry, “Disabled” and “Anthem for Doomed Youth” stand in blatant contrast to the patriotic poems of war written by earlier poets. His anti-war poetry contrasted the official propaganda about the glories of trench warfare, and the heroism of soldiers and depict the shattering effect that war has on society and youth. Owen’s “Disabled” explores the effects of war on those who live through it by comparing the present life of an injured soldier to his past hopes and accomplishments.

The first stanza opens with the depressing description of a lone man sitting in a wheelchair wearing a “ghastly suit of grey” being unable to indulge in any of the activities around him. Owen does not give the soldier a name but rather uses “He” to allow him to represent all soldiers. The line “legless, sewn short at elbow” allows responders to understand that he has lost limbs. He remembers what life had been like before the war, and through these flashbacks we begin to realise the full impact of his injury. He remembers how the streets used to light up and how the girls would become more inviting and alluring, and then we are brought back to the harsh reality as he will “never feel again how slim girls’ waists are…all of them touch him like some queer disease.” This simile highlights the impact of the war on youth and shows that their wounds were not only physical, but psychological as well.

He again thinks of when he was a renowned football player, and ironically, had been proud of “a blood-smear down his leg” which had resulted from a match, and how the crowd had carried him on their shoulders celebrating his valour and excellence. This is ironic in contrast to his welcome home, as “some cheered him home, but not as crowds cheer Goal.” It was after this match that, drunk on alcohol, pride and success that he has thought of enlisting in the army to appear more manlike to the “giddy jilts.” His reasons to enlist in the army and the “lie” that the officers wrote for him depict impact that the war had on society, it allowed them to feel as though they needed to join, it was the right thing to do, the manly thing to do.

The analogy drawn between playing sports and being a soldier is effective in highlighting the vain motives the man had for joining the army but also acts as a reminder to him that his pride had caused him to lose the exact thing that he had been proud of: he would never again run in a field or score a winning goal, he would never again be praised for being a hero; only pitied infinitely for being a cripple. He was not patriotic, and had only though of the distance lands he would travel to; the honour and glory, the “smart salutes” and the pure exhilaration of joining the army. The sadness in the soldier’s plight is heightened in the line, “Smiling, they wrote his lie; aged nineteen years” as clearly he was under age when he enlisted and therefore is still young. The structure of the poem and the frequent switches between present and past and the juxtaposition of remembrance and realisation casts a harsh light on everything the solider has lost.

Anthem for Doomed Youth is a graphic portrayal of soldiers experience while contrasting funeral services at war as opposed to those at home. Own shows the dehumanising nature of the war through the rhetorical simile, “What passing bells for these who die as cattle?” The simile, likening soldiers to cattle going to the slaughter house, graphically depicts the death, violence and sacrifice of youths while highlighting their lack of a respectful funeral service. The use of the word “cattle” is utilized to indicate that none of the youth possess any identity of their own. Youth are murdered just as cattle as mass slaughtered. The personification in the “monstrous anger of the guns” combined with the alliteration and onomatopoeia in “stuttering rifles rapid rattle” accentuates the battle sounds while creating powerful imagery.

“No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells” shows their lack of funeral rights, and instead of “candles”, “bells” and “choirs”, they only receive the “shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;” personifying the last final sounds the soldiers hear before their death and effectively highlighting their lack of respect they are provided in death. In the second stanza, features and rituals of conventional funerals are substituted by images of suffering and sorrow due to war. “What candles may be held to speed them all?” is a rhetorical question showing Owen’s own questioning of the war efforts and resulting slaughter.

The candles of normal funeral services used to speed souls to heaven are held not by altar boys, instead they are replaced by the faint glimmer of the departure from home still evident in the eyes of the dying young soldiers. They would not have a “pall” placed over their coffin, the only pall is the paleness of their beloved’s faces who are left behind while their “flowers the tenderness of patient minds.” The closing line, “and each slow dusk a drawing down of blinds” is a strong metaphor for death and a lingering reminder of the devastation of WW1 on youth and society.

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