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“Select two of the poems you have studied. Compare and contrast the different attitudes to war expressed by the poets and the techniques used to convey them.”
The two poems, which I have chosen, are, “In Flanders Fields” by John McCrae, and “Suicide in the Trenches” by Siegfried Sassoon.
The poems take opposing views to the war. “In Flanders Fields” we find McCrae taking a positive, almost religious and very sensitive view about the outcome of war. Whilst in comparison, in “Suicide in the Trenches”, Sassoon portrays a negative, harsh, cynical and angry view.
“In Flanders Fields” McCrae writes about his views on what happens after dying in war. It is a very personal poem, emphasised by being written using the personal pronouns; “we and our”, rather than impersonal; “them and their”. This involves the reader by in a way, including them in the poem.
The poem also imparts a strong feeling of patriotism.
McCrae uses controlled, everyday language in the poem. The rhyme is steady, and flows smoothly, which draws you into the poem, and that’s what makes me like it.
“Between the crosses, row on row” McCrae uses a lot of repetition. He talks of the crosses on the graves, making sure you realise that there are lots of graves, and how the poppies grow in between. He uses the poppies and the lark as a way of reminding us that we are just like a passing season, born, growing, dying, and then being replaced as nature carries on, even if we don’t!
In the first stanza McCrae mainly describes the scene of the poem.
In the second stanza, there isn’t enjambement like the first. McCrae uses a caesura in the first line. “We are the dead.” This forms a definite break. McCrae is making sure that you stop and take in what he is trying to tell you. It is strongly emphasised, abrupt, and it gets to the point. He continues with no complicated words. The language continues to be plain and simple.
Again by using “we” McCrae includes the reader in the feeling of dawn, seeing the sunset glow, a reference to the start and end of the day , a parody of life.
McCrae then goes onto writing about how the soldiers loved, and were loved. The keywords in the sentence being “were”, telling us that they are no more. They can no longer go on loving, or fighting, and are laid to rest in Flanders Fields.
In the third and final stanza, McCrae tells us they have “failing hands”, means that they are losing strength. The soldiers grow weaker and weaker, then when they die they pass on the torch, symbolising responsibility, to the soldiers who are stronger. The torch of unity and hope, like the torch at the Olympic games, it’s symbolic. All the soldiers are being linked together, fighting for something they believe in. McCrae wants new soldiers to carry on fighting for something that they believe in, so that men, who have fought before him, haven’t fought in vain. They need to keep the flame in the torch alive.
Then McCrae writes, “The torch, be yours to hold it high.” Telling us to be proud of the torch, hold it up high, be determined. The torch gives an impression of right, along with pride. Yet he almost invents this with what is almost a threat, contrasting life and death, right and wrong. For example, “If ye break faith with us who die We shall not sleep”,
I think that McCrae’s attitude towards war is brave. He has hope, and thinks that you should fight for your country as your comrades have done before you. Agree with your country, and keep going till it’s over. It’s a soldier’s duty to die for his country. It should be worthwhile.
The poem is patriotic, and has a strong sense of purpose, but it’s sad, and yet dignified.
“Suicide in the Trenches” is a totally different poem. Its verses are simple, they have a strong beat, the lines are rhythmical, and have regular rhyming. The poem was written in 1918, in the First World War, so Sassoon is writing about his experiences.
It starts off with the phrase “simple solider”, using alliteration. The soldier is young, innocent, too young to be fighting, but it seems a pleasant poem. “Who grinned at life in empty joy, means that the soldier is easily pleased, undemanding, glad with life. When it was dark, and lonesome, the soldier slept through it, happily, he was untroubled, and had nothing to worry about. He got up at the crack of dawn, as the lark does. He was cheerful. This is like a child’s impression of war. That a soldier is brave, and not afraid of anything.
The second stanza says that in winter, the trenches are full of rain, snow, and conditions are bad. The young soldier feels cowed and glum, to be “cowed down”, means subdued. This tells us that he has no spirit left, his spirit has all gone. All the joy in his life has been taken away. “With crumps and lice” crumps are bursting bombs, warfare, the trenches are lice infested. There is a lack of rum. The soldiers are issued with rum for courage, before they go out and fight, they have some, it’s a way of keeping their spirits up, but there is even a lack of rum too!
The poem is getting more and more angry. In the same stanza, Sassoon writes, “He put a bullet through his brain.” This has a harsh simplicity. We are shocked by what Sassoon is writing. This once so pleasant, and untroubled boy, has now found this so hard, that he has taken his own life. It is very abrupt, and comes out of the blue.
“No one spoke of him again.” All his fellow soldiers are ashamed of what he did to himself. He left them, and didn’t have to courage to go on. It was a shameful, and easy way out. But it was out of shock and horror that he killed himself. I think that also people were ashamed of themselves for not helping him, and that he had to do it as a way out. He felt he had no other option.
The third stanza becomes more general. It stops being so personal. We begin to feel what the writer feels, very bitter and angry towards war. All the people at home, were thinking they knew everything about the war, when they didn’t have to go through what the soldiers were going through. They didn’t have any experience of the reality of war. They dress up the war and the truth is hidden.
They are “Smug”, self-satisfied people, who will send other people off to war, but wouldn’t go themselves. “Kindling eye” is a way of pointing out their excitement, getting a fire going, that they are lit up with enthusiasm for war, which they wont fight. The people are hiding away from what the soldiers have to do.
War is hell. War has taken away all the soldier’s youth and laughter goes. There is no laughter in war. The men don’t get to live their youth, and have to fight, and kill.
The two poems are therefore totally different, but they have the same structure. The both have three stanzas, and have generally got a steady beat throughout. They have opposite meanings. They both start off pleasant, and “Flanders Fields” stays that way, it is sad but with a positive outlook on the way. But Sassoon’s “Suicide in the trenches” changes abruptly and becomes very negative.
They both talk about death, but in totally opposite ways, “In Flanders Fields” says it is worth dying for your country, and what you believe in. But on the other hand, “Suicide in the Trenches” says it isn’t worth going through the hell of war, and losing your life for nothing.
They are both very personal poems, even though Sassoon’s becomes less personal towards the end. Both the poets have lived through war, and both the poems were written in the same year, during WW1. Both the poems have simple, easy to understand, everyday language.
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